Japan: The Top Combination Between Tradition, Technology And Incredible Nature
This artsy wonderland is mostly funded by Benesse, an educational publishing company with its name on Naoshima’s biggest art institution, Benesse House. Here, I’m admiring a painting of upturned black and yellow rowing boats when, through the window, I notice those exact same boats are lying on a beach in the distance – an exact mirror image of the picture on the wall. It’s at once everything you think you know about Japan – visionary, meticulous, undeniably odd; and the opposite – calm, muted, bucolic. It’s also a more cerebral form of Japanese surrealism titan a goat cafe – but just as much fun.
The heart of Japan – The next point on the triangle, 175km southwest, is Hiroshima. Visiting here might sound about as much fun as a mini-break in Chernobyl, but unlike the Ukrainian disaster site, this is no ghost town left to rot. Far from it: I step off the Shinkansen, or bullet train, into a pleasantly busy city of wide, leafy boulevards, where commuters to and fro on a quaintly trundling street car system. There’s an unexpectedly peaceful, idyllic feel; though just a few hours’ ride from Tokyo, Hiroshima seems a world away from the capital’s frenetic, urban throb.
“People in Hiroshima are the friendliest in all of Japan,” a Tokyo local once told me, and it’s true that there’s an open-heartedness here in stark contrast to the famed Japanese restraint. One afternoon, when blue sky and blazing sunshine turns to driving rain, I find myself caught out in a flimsy T-shirt, clinging miserably to my clammy skin. Suddenly, a car pulls up. The Japanese guy behind the wheel winds down his window and hands me a towel. Nonplussed, I’m still trying to formulate a proper thank you as he nods, smiles and drives off.
More conventionally, Hiroshima, like other Japanese cities, is utterly obsessed with food. It’s most famous for a local take on okonomiyaki – Japanese pancakes – to which it adds noodles and mountains of cabbage, pork and egg. “In Japan, every town is famous for something,” explains a Dutch guy I meet one night, who has been living in Japan for a year. “It could be a type of turnip or style of ramen. And there’s prestige in being seen waiting in line for wherever does it best.” His words prove on point when I spot a pancake joint with a queue snaking down the street before its doors have even nudged open. Obviously, I have to join. Ninety minutes later, I’m the only non-Japanese with a pancake frying on the hot plate in front of me, which I’ll then slather in okonomiyaki sauce (ketchup, soy and, improbably, Worcestershire). When I come out, the queue has tripled in size – some of these folks will wait up to five hours.
Of course you can’t come here and ignore why we’ve all heard of Hiroshima. It’s 70 years since the city tamed to dust in the flash of the world’s first, atomic bomb attack, which unloaded the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT over a built-up civilian area of just five square miles. The numerous images of wrecked buildings and burned children in the Peace Memorial Museum look more like stills from a disaster movie than something that could have ever really happened; a melted lunch box and torn school uniforms mere props over brutal historical fact. I take a stroll around the surrounding Peace Memorial Park, its sculpted gardens soothing queues of people offering quiet prayers at cenotaphs and monuments, and cannot reconcile the present-day serenity to all of the past chaos and horror.