Hiroshima is different from other tourist spots in Japan. The temples of Kyoto or the scenery of Mt. Fuji are sightseeing fluff compared to the tangible weight of history that Hiroshima bears. The subject matter of the city's main historical focus is dark, but Hiroshima offers moments of surprising lightness that stand out as a welcome counter. The key is finding this balance when visiting, which can be done conveniently as a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka.
KyoTours Japan doesn't currently offer tours to Hiroshima, but judging from the amount of requests we get, it's a popular destination. I often tell guests that Hiroshima is a pretty straightforward sightseeing experience that they can do on their own with a little bit of preparation and planning, so that's what this blog is all about! Read on for some helpful info and tips for planning your day in Hiroshima.
Give Peace a Chance
It's undeniable that Hiroshima stands as one of the most important locations in 20th century history, if not the history of all mankind. As the first of only two places where nuclear weapons have been used in warfare, the monumental nature of Hiroshima is clear. As uncomfortable as this can be to confront as a tourist, to ignore it is a mistake.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is a must see, regardless of how you feel going into it. This should be the first stop on your visit to the city. It can be both incredibly moving and uncomfortable, so get it over with first. The museum itself goes to great lengths to not point fingers or assign blame. It's not about what led up to the bombing or the political aftermath, but instead focuses on the human toll that nuclear weapons inflicted upon the civilian population with the ultimate message of "Never Again." The burned and melted artifacts are harrowing and timeless. Several pieces of the collection on display have become famous symbols of the bombing. To witness the shadows of people burned into concrete steps and the wristwatch stopped at the moment of the explosion up close after seeing these objects in textbooks and media for decades is a harrowing experience.
Walking around the Peace Park surrounding the museum is a nice way to clear your mind afterwards. Most people taking that stroll seem very quiet and still a bit numb from the museum. Before you cross Motoyasu Bridge towards the famous Genbaku Dome ruins, you'll notice a three-story concrete building to the right that serves as a tourist info center. Originally a modern kimono shop, during the war it was used as a fuel rationing office. A single survivor emerged from this structure after the atomic blast, having been sent down into the basement at just the right moment to retrieve some documents. He became known as the closest survivor to the actual center of the explosion, located only a few block away.
Crossing the river brings you to the Genbaku Dome, one of the few remaining pieces of the original city that was devastated by the blast. It's interesting to think about the different opinions that locals must have had over this. What is an important piece of history worth preserving for us is a dark reminder of the horror that the locals experienced. It's no wonder that a number of Hiroshima citizens wanted it bulldozed with the rest of the ruins in the early postwar years. After years of controversy, it was decided to preserve the skeletal frame of the building in 1966. Taking a close look at the ruins up close reveal the careful engineering that have gone into propping up the precariously balanced concrete ruins. The Genbaku Dome can be appreciated as both a monument of history and a testament to the idea of preservation.
Island in the Bay
After the Peace Museum, you'll really feel the need to lighten the mood. Thankfully, Hiroshima has that covered as well. Itsukushima Island (popularly called Miyajima Island) is just what you need, and it's only a short boat ride away. The view from this island is said to be one of the three best scenic landscapes of Japan, so how can you pass this up?
You can reach the island one of two ways. From Hiroshima Station, take the JR Sanyo Main Line train to Miyajima Guchi Station and board a short ferry ride to the island. (If you have the JR Rail Pass, it covers the train and the ferry)
Alternatively, there is a high speed ferry that departs directly from a dock near the Genbaku Dome. This option costs 2,000 yen for adults or 3,600 round trip and runs about every 30 minutes. Personally I think it's worth the time saved using this boat if you're doing Hiroshima as a day trip. There are a couple of services like this that you'll find online, but we recommend the Aqua Net high speed ferry. Using the high speed boat to get to Miyajima and then taking the regular ferry and JR train back to Hiroshima station to catch the bullet train out is a good compromise between saving money and time.
Once you arrive on Miyajima, there's plenty to see. One of the first thing you might notice is the wildlife. There are usually a few wild deer milling about the ferry area, greedily accepting snacks (and pats on the head) from tourists. (Not as many deer as you'll find in Nara, though!) You're actually not supposed to feed these wild residents, since the locals are trying to bring some natural balance back to the island by forcing the deer to forage for their own food in the mountains. No longer reliant on treats from tourists, the deer are slowly acclimatizing back to their natural grazing ways. You can often see more deer in the forested foothills of the island than in the busy tourist areas nowadays.
You're also going to notice a lot of wooden spoons. Huh? Yes, wooden rice scoops! They're called shamoji and are all over the island as both decoration and souvenirs. You may even pass by the World's Largest Rice Scoop, a 2.5 ton monument to how seriously this utensil is taken on Miyajima. The reason for the island's spoony obsession goes back to the 1790s, when a priest dreamed of Benzaiten, the goddess of music and good fortune who arrived in Japan from India in the 600s. She often plays a lute called a biwa that is shaped similarly to a rice scoop. See where this is going? There are a number of shops on the island where you can get your own wooden shamoji of any size with your name on it in Japanese. This might be one of the most unique - yet traditional - souvenirs you can find in Japan.
The main religious spot on the island is Itsukushima shrine, located above the waters in a small inlet on the Island's northern edge. If you time your visit right, the tide pulls out and leaves wet mudflats that are accessible to visitors. You can walk out to the famous "floating" torii gate and admire its twisted, weathered beams up close. At first glance, the mud is wet and messy, but it's worth braving the slippery surface to go out to the torii gate. The cracked orange surface covered in small seashells and scampering crabs has coins jammed into every crevice as tokens of wishes from pilgrims. Seeing the magnificent gate from a distance and then the rough reality up close is a nice contrast.
There's a ton of other info online about what to see and do on the island, including an aquarium and ropeway up the mountain (don't assume that walking down is going to be easy, trust me) but I want to point out one special spot that you should be sure to visit...
A Hidden Temple
If the line to get into Itsukushima Shrine is too long, go around it and head away from the main street and into the foothills. A short walk through a residential area brings you to the gate of Daisho-in Temple. This is a great secret spot that most tourists don't know about! As you pass through the gate, check out the statues of two Nio kings, fierce guardians of Buddhist temples throughout the land. There are some massive straw sandals hanging on the top of the gate, symbolic of the shoes that pilgrims used to deposit at temples after a successful pilgrimage. Continue in and up a long stairway towards the main temple area.
On the way up, look down to your left at a massive collection of statues of the 500 rakan, the followers of Buddha. Each statue is adorned with a handknit cap, made by locals as offerings to keep them comfortable. A little farther up the staircase is a bell tower where a curious ritual is occurring. Pay a small fee for a pack of small clay dishes and you can attempt to earn some good luck by throwing a dish through a hoop suspended just to the right of the bell tower. I love these strange hands-on rituals that you find sometime at temples and shrines.
At the summit, to your right is the main hall. There are a number of unique items on display here. At the entrance, you'll see a round metal box thing (I don't know how else to describe it, sorry) in the shape of two footprints. These are the feet of Buddha! In the early days of Buddhism, there were no statues of the sage, only symbolic footprints. (Statues of Buddha didn't start emerging in Asia until Alexander the Great brought Hellenic sculpture eastward, but that's a whole other story). Stand on these footprints, let the incense from inside rise up from the small holes on the bottom, and you'll be blessed.
Inside you'll find some relics from the visit of the Dalai Lama to this temple in 2006, including a large sand mandala preserved under glass. The main altar contains a flame lit by the founder of the temple more than 1200 years ago. And the best treasure is in the basement... complete and utter blackness. Descend into this pitch black realm meant to represent the womb of the universe and feel your way through until emerging reborn into the sunlight, a new being purified by your journey through darkness.
There's more to see here, including a hall with thousands of small wooden carvings, a nice hillside walking path, and some impressive stone statues. If you are lucky, you might catch some local artists selling their wares under tents in the courtyard. Enjoy your time exploring this special corner of tranquility before returning back down to the busy madness of the rest of Miyajima Island proper.
Every region of Japan has it's own special food that it thinks is the country's best dish, and Hiroshima is no different. The big cuisine here is Okonomiyaki, or the "Japanese pancake" as it's often called. It's not a pancake like westerners are used to. Made of layers of cabbage, noodles, and batter, it often includes extras like meat, shrimp, onions, scallops, egg, and a variety of other specialty toppings. I'm of a mind that you'll never eat the same okonomiyaki twice, as each place makes it in a slightly different way.
Okonomiyaki is a must-eat in Hiroshima, and the best place to sample this savory dish is at Okonomi Mura. This crowded four story building in downtown Hiroshima is packed with so many small okomoiyaki shops (that all claim to be the best in the city), you won't know where to start eating. Many of them offer English menus nowadays, so just pick a counter and have a seat. You'll be treated to a visual and culinary feast as the pancakes are cooked in front of you teppanyaki-style and served piping hot directly from the grill. If you come here during peak lunch and dinner times, it can be very crowded and you may have to wait, so arriving for a late lunch or early dinner is a wise move. Not every counter will be open, but you'll be able to find a few places beckoning you over (they get very competitive for customers here). Despite the building feeling like a giant firetrap that would violate western fire safety codes, it has a distinct retro charm to it.
For those with a sweet tooth, be sure to try the famous momiji manju snacks on Miyajima Island. Manju are sweets filled with sweet red bean paste, and momiji is the name for maple leaves as they turn red in autumn. The outside of these leaf-shaped sweets are like soft, spongy waffles or pancakes, and inside is a dollop of sweet beans. A variety of these snacks exist with different fillings like chocolate, custard, apples, green tea, etc. Amazingly, I've had a few tour guests tell me they never saw these as they walked through the island's shopping street (which is like saying you didn't see cotton candy and popcorn at a circus), so be sure to keep your eyes open for these great little treats!
Finally, if you enjoy seafood, you'll enjoy Miyajima's well-known oysters. As you take the high speed ferry from the Peace Park, you'll pass by the local oyster farms. They look like floating platforms from the surface, but below the waterline are long ropes extending down holding clutches of oysters. You can try them them grilled and fried at stands along the road near the ferry docks, and you'll find them in the local restaurants as well.
There's plenty more to see in Hiroshima, but the info above should be enough for a day trip. If you want to squeeze in more sightseeing before heading out of the city, check out Hiroshima Castle. The original castle was destroyed in the atomic blast, and the current building is a concrete reconstruction. Still, it's a beautiful site rising above the modern skyline of the city. If you enjoy history, it's worth a visit to see the maps, models, and photos on display. The rest of the castle grounds were left untouched, and it's eerie to walk through empty foundations with weeds growing up where buildings once stood. The main gate and guardhouse has been restored recently using traditional woodworking techniques, so that offers a nice balance to the concrete castle. I think families with kids would enjoy this castle, because the display of samurai artifacts inside is quite impressive.
Just a few blocks south of the castle is a spot marking the hypocenter of the atomic explosion. There's not much to see here except a small plaque, but for lovers of history, this is a significant location and one that conjures up an undeniably monumental feeling. You can visit this spot while checking out the Genbaku Dome, as it's only one street over. If you look carefully at the metal dome on top of the building, you can see how it the blast pushed it inward as the fireball expanded from it's detonation 590 feet above the ground. It was clues like this - melted and bent metal, toppled stones, and shadows burned into objects - that helped investigators determine the hypocenter of the blast.
As you can see, there's a lot to do in Hiroshima, but not so much that you can't do it all in a day trip. We recommend doing things in the order outlined above, with stops for food along the way. (Okonomimura can be visited once you're back in the city before heading out on a bullet train) Be sure to prebook your bullet train tickets to get to Hiroshima, but consider not purchasing your return tickets until you're ready to head out. It might be more enjoyable to see the city without being up against a departure deadline.
KyoTours Japan is happy to offer our guests additional tips and assistance for planning your day in Hiroshima.