On the 21st we woke early to get to Okunishima as soon as possible, which will be known as Bunny Island for the rest of this post. We caught our first bullet train: a spectacular affair with more leg room than UK first class trains, and comfy reclining seats, which can be rotated at the end of the route so the rows always face forward, or you can make your own set of four if preferred. At speeds reaching 269kph, it didn’t take long to get there. Along the way Jay was reading and looked up by sheer fluke as we passed Mt. Fuji, giving us a view of the volcano in all its glory!
Jay had first seen a video of Bunny Island some years ago online, and had always harboured an excited dream of going there, which he never suspected would actually be fulfilled. Yet just after lunch we alighted our final train at a local station and had our first glimpse across the Seto Inland Sea of Japan. In the warm Autumnal sunshine the waters sparkled blue and the greens and reds of the islands peppering the bay shone with the early-afternoon light. Jay could hardly contain his excitement.
We planned to camp on Bunny Island, as it has a campsite which the internet told us was rarely booked up. We knew there was a hotel there and shop, but we planned to buy supplies before we boarded the ferry as we had nothing except a few snacks with us. Unfortunately at the small terminal there was nowhere to buy human food, but we did buy a few packets of bunny food of course.
Bunny Island has a disturbing history despite the excitement it engenders in tourists today. During the Second World War the Japanese army took the island over from the local communities that farmed and fished there, and set up a chemical weapons factory, manfacturing mustard gas, phenylcyan arsen, cyanic acid, chloride aseto phenon and phosgen; all horrific gas weapons. In the middle of the war the Japanese wiped the island off all maps, and when trains on the mainland passed this region of the inland sea, conductors came and drew down the blinds so the island could not be seen. The workers in the gas factories wore only thick rubber suits and gas masks, and for years after suffered horrific illnesses and injuries. A quote we read from a doctor when approached by a factory worker who was suffering from exposure was particularly jarring: “If there was a cure, they wouldn’t be very effective weapons, would they? There is no cure.”
When Japan lost the war the staff carried cyanide pills, fearing how they would be treated when the allies landed, however fortunately they were not needed. Allied forces took the cache of weapons and burned some on the island, then dumped the rest in the sea(!). From such a horrific history, it’s hard to imagine the island now being a place of joy and pleasure for tourists. But when the allies destroyed the factory, they found rabbits used for chemical testing, and they set them free. With no natural predators on the island they have bred prolifically, and now Bunny Island is literally overrun with semi-tame rabbits, who tourists come to visit from all over Japan.
We were not disappointed. From the ferry as we approached, we could make out small multi-coloured furry shapes lolloping around the coast line. As we started to dock we could see hundreds of bunnies of all sizes running around the tourists, up on their hind legs begging for food. We raced down the gantry but held back our excitement because we had to sort out our accommodation first, and then we would indulge ourselves in a sea of rabbits.
We headed for the campsite and found that there was no office. A woman at the national park visitor centre (it’s now a national park, although owned it seems, by the hotel complex on the island) directed us to the hotel nearby who managed the campsite. After a long queue, we were horrified when the hotel staff told us the campsite was full. We’d had a good look at it as we went past, and there were clearly lots of pitches free, and the ones that were there were extremely generous. There were also a whole extra two sites which were empty as it was the end of summer. Despite our pleading, the hotel manager would not budge, and suggested we find somewhere on the mainland to stay overnight.
Before we’d arrived we had looked at accommodation near the island but there was nothing even remotely affordable within a couple of hours train ride, and we were relying on the campsite. The hotel website didn’t work with google translate, so we hadn’t been able to book a pitch. We had asked TI in Tokyo to call the site for us, but they didn’t answer the phone, and the TI staff gently suggested that this might be a campsite that didn’t accept foreigners. Although the hotel staff did not say this to us, we suspect that might have been what was going on, as the campsite was never full during the time we were there.
Back at the visitor centre we practically begged the woman there to help us find somewhere to sleep. She was adamant we couldn’t pitch a tent anywhere on the island but the campsite, but she very kindly called campsites on other nearby islands for us. Unfortunately they were all closed for the season, or closing their offices too early for us to get there on tim. Then Jay asked the question: what would happen if we missed the last ferry, and had to stay on the island? Long pause… Hmm. What if we didn’t pitch a tent but merely were waiting for the morning ferry to arrive? It was a very warm night, with temperatures due to be no lower than 17C, and no rain at all forecast. Well, she thought, it might be possible, but was very much not allowed because it was a national park. But, if there was no tent, and we weren’t sleeping there, we might be in less trouble if caught. She would understandably not be drawn in to saying we could stay, and made it clear that it was not something that anyone would be happy about. We established that it was against the rules, but was not an arrestable offence or one that attracted a fine. So we took our bags and set off on the 4km perimeter walk around the island to find somewhere to wait out the final ferry.
One major issue we had was that we didn’t have any proper food. We had brought with us a pot noodle each, and we had some porridge that needed hot water. When we passed the hotel again, we stopped and Maeve bought crisps and nuts, which became our highly nutritious dinner. We thought it best to hang around the ferry/campsite area so that if we were seen it wouldn’t look too much like we were hiding to wait for the last ferry to go, but we did sit a bit out of the way. We used the time well, getting to know the bunnies whose territory we were going to be sleeping in, and having to fight them for our noodle pots!
The last ferry was after dark which gave us some cover, and we found a large wooden platform on a promontory next to a beach, on which to lay out our sleeping bags and roll mats, to wait out the 11 hours of night time. We couldn’t use mobile devices or head torches because the lights would make us visible, so as the ferry putted away, we curled up and talked for hours as we watched the stars come out and the moon rise over the sparkling sea.
It was a sleepless and magical night. Sleepless, but not restless. The noises of the trees nearby and the sea on the shore were strange but soporific. The sky, with the Milky Way visible was a glittering vault that provided an almost constant display of meteorites, some burning with visible fire for many seconds as they entered our atmosphere. And we realised that after Japan, we wouldn’t see a recognisable sky for some time. From here, we will be heading to the Southern Hemisphere and a new set of stars, strange and unfamiliar to us. We spent the long hours intermittently dozing, and gazing in awe at the stellar display we would not see again for many months ahead.
Around dawn shapes melted out of the darkness, hopping around the bench and silently sniffing the morning air. They largely ignored us, until we started stirring, when they came to see if we had food. The sun began to rise and we were greeted by the most incredible splendour and warmth as the rays reached our sleeping platform. Other people appeared, folks who were staying at the hotel or campsite and had come to get photos of the rabbits in the sunrise. Fortunately they seemed content to pretend we weren’t there, rather than engage us in conversation.
We ate some nuts and packed up, setting off into the scrub to explore and to find more bunnies that weren’t being overfed already by early morning photographers.
The views from some of the higher points nearby were glorious and we stopped, breathless from the incredible sight of the glittering morning sea and emerald islands waking up around us. Eventually we dropped down to the hotel and snuck in to use the facilities and beg some hot water from the cafe. Outside we lounged on benches and ate instant porridge, writing in our diaries, soaking up the island atmosphere and smoothing the many bunnies that came to say hello. It was one of our favourite mornings so far since we’ve been travelling.
The rest of the morning we explored the chemical weapons infrastructure and visited the small poison gas museum. We hadn’t realised the extent of Japan’s use of chemical weapons, and learned about how parts of China are littered with thousands of Japanese chemical bombs, over which there is still contention about how to remove them, and who should do so. They also had displays about the use of chemical weapons in warfare today, which can only be described as an atrocity.
We left Bunny Island with mixed feelings, a combination of thoughtful sadness concerning its troubled history and how that connects with the present, and a strange joyful glee at the time we’d spent surrounded by thousands of rabbits that didn’t mind a cwtch. But it was also a place we felt privileged to have spent one of the most magical nights of our whole trip so far, listening to its myriad sounds and gazing in wonder at the sparkling heavens. It was, entirely, unforgettable.
We took a train to a small town near to Hiroshima, where we were met by our next Servas host. We were staying with a family of two parents and their three teenage children, who all made us feel immediately and incredibly welcome. We ate exceptional food and had an impromptu lesson in cooking tempura, where Jay very gently had the long cooking chopsticks taken from him and was instead handed some tongs after repeatedly losing the veggies in the deep fryer.
We were also treated to a Japanese bath. Now, this is one of the things about travelling in a different culture that can trip you up. The bath was lovely, a huge deep and very very hot affair, where we soaked away the aches of our night on a bench. But we had failed to check on the etiquette of bathtime in a family home. We emptied the bath, and then the next night we were delicately told we should leave it. We did some research (slightly late!) and found out that in Japan, bathing is a very different experience to the UK and we’d gone about it all wrong. In Japan you are expected to shower first, rigorously scrubbing yourself to remove any dirt. Then you get in the bath, so it is essentially a hot tub: a home version of the public onsen fed by hot springs which are found throughout the country and used communally. It is not good etiquette to use soap or wash your hair in the bath, and the water may be used by multiple members of the household. We don’t know if that’s how it would have been in our host’s household, we were a little too embarrassed to ask, but if so, we might have made some errors the first night!
The following day we headed to Miyajima Island, a holy site where Mt Misen rises 535m above sea level. We were excited about our ferry there as it was run by Japanese Railways and so was included in our rail pass! As we approached Miyajima, we looked out for the spectacular O-torri gate, a freestanding and massive shrine gate that emerges from the sea in bright vermillion. Sadly on our trip, the gate was covered in scaffolding, presumably for re-painting. But although we couldn’t see it, it didn’t detract from the stunning natural beauty of the island.
There were three trails to the top of the mountain from the coast and we seperated for a few hours with Maeve taking a sun-dappled walk up one, and Jay running up and down each in turn. On the last ascent after seeing countless signs warning of “Mamushi”, a deadly Japanese viper, he nearly trod on one sunbathing on the path, and was delayed for some time waiting for it to slide languorously away. Reunited at the top of the mountain, we tucked into sandwich bags of fruit which our incredibly generous host had given us that morning for our trip, and which were very welcome after hours up and down the mountain.
Coming down, we stopped at the Daishoin Temple, a Japanese Buddhist temple of the Shingon sect. The sect originates from Gelugpa tradition, whose founding temple we had visited in Tibet and to which Jay almost became ordained ‘clergy’ about 20 years ago.
Our first order of business was lunch, and we enjoyed an incredible vegan Japanese curry, and (joy of all joys) cake! Replete, but with aching legs we set off to explore the temple, thinking we would have a quick look around and then head back because we were feeling weary after the mountain. Unexpectedly however, we found ourselves enthralled by the place, which gave us the most intense sense of spirituality we had felt so far on our travels.
Just inside the entrance gates a path wound up amid hundreds of tiny statues, many of which had been adorned with knitted hats and scarves, and sometimes bibs. They were called Jizu Bosatsu (Bodhisattvas), but they were different to usual Jizu Bosatsu statues, made to resemble monks. We learned at the temple that parents who have lost children look after the statues as if they were those children. Walking among the many thousands of these, all with hats and other adornments placed there presumably by those parents, we couldn’t help but reflect on the sad beauty of it, and on the sadness borne by those people in our lives who have endured this suffering.
Throughout the temple grounds were also statues of Nyorai (Buddhas), Myo-o (envoys from Buddha) and Ten (old Buddhist guardians). There were also Tengu, spirits with long noses that protect holy sites on mountains.
In one temple a monk chanted and banged a drum rhythmically, waving an enormous golden intrument that clattered like a rattle over the heads of worshippers. Unlike Tibet where Chinese tourism is king, we were not allowed to enter while puja was happening, this being reserved for pilgrims alone. We stood outside and witnessed the devotions, surrounded by incence smoke that drifted away through the curated trees and across the brightly shining copper rooftops, aged into silver.
Deeper into the complex we came to a room cut into a cave. The whole room glowed with gold, the ceiling a network of lanterns, and the walls adorned with hundreds of golden statues. The silence was as thick as the incence smoke, and the atmosphere quivered with tense anticipation. A lit candle flickered in a bowl before the altar and we gaped at the twinking reflections of the lanterns overhead.
Inside a larger temple we spent some time gazing at an intricate sand mandala, a large pattern painstakingly crafted from multicouloured sands, an exercise in meditation and devotion. Adjoining this was a more familiar space, a temple room replicating those from Tibetan monestaries, perhaps in tribute to the origins of this particular sect.
Under the temple a flight of stairs led downwards to a closed door where a sign read “Entrance”. We thought we’d have a look to see what was down there. Inside the door a blackout curtain hung and as we pushed through the door closed behind us we were enveloped in complete and utter darkness. It was so dark we couldn’t see each other at all, and we kept a close hold on each other’s hands as we felt our way along a wall. Around a corner something glowed faintly ahead. When we reached it we found a beautifully drawn image of Buddha, about A4 size, set back in the wall and lit from behind with a coloured light bulb. Along the walls these images were spaced, their gentle and subtle radiance a metaphor for the light that Buddha’s teachings are meant to bring to the darkness of ignorance. We followed the tunnel until the dim lights faded behind us, and we pushed through another blackout curtain into broad daylight. We blinked as our eyes adjusted, silenced and slightly awed.
These experiences contributed to the incredible sense of peace and reflection we were left with, but only in combination with the spectacular landscape the temple inhabited. It was bucolic, picture-perfect Japanese architecture in picture-perfect Japanese gardens. The maples beginning to turn red as the Autumn headed toward them were offset against the brilliant green of other trees, and the sloping, faded copper of the temple rooftops. It was a truly beautiful and serene place.
In the small town of Miyajima we found a local craft shop, and saw handmade local goods, including the Shakushi, or rice scoop, crafted first by a Buddhist priest called Seishin. He taught the local people how to make them, and it soon became an item desired by people all over Japan, and now tourists from further afield. Once it became mass produced its shape altered and by the 1900s it was a daily utensil sold in markets across the region. It is a deceptively simple looking wooden spoon that is crafted in such a way that rice doesn’t stick to it once cooked. We also saw incredibly intricate Miyajima-bori wood carvings and turnery, which as a discipline began to be practiced in the mid 1800s. After World War 2 production decreased because there were fewer people who practiced it, however the industry has just started to regenerate.
Exhausted, we returned to our generous hosts for another bath and much needed feast. We spent some time going through English homework with their eldest son, which was no easy feat. We would have struggled with some of the phrasing he was being taught! Later that evening, our host took us to a supermarket and kindly spent time looking at A LOT of different products with us, reading labels and telling us what we could and couldn’t eat. It was incredibly helpful and we were overjoyed to learn the symbol for soya so we could identify dairy-free yoghurt and milk!
The next day after another amazing breakfast we said our sad goodbyes, again feeling very grateful for Servas and another incredible experience of being hosted. Our day was only going to get more emotional from thereon, as we set off to visit Hiroshima. We left our luggage at the train station, somehow fitting both our enormous rucksacks into a medium sized locker, and were excited to find a JR sightseeing bus, which we could use for free with our rail passes, much to Maeve’s delight.
The sky was dull and it began to rain as the bus wound it’s way through Hiroshima. We stopped in the bus shelter to put on waterproofs opposite the Atomic Bomb Dome: the shattered and warped remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now a UNESCO protected site.
On the morning of August 6th, 1945, while people in Hiroshima were going about their daily lives, an American plane droned overhead. It released the first atomic bomb ever to be used against people. The bomb plummeted toward the oblivious city dwellers below, and 600m from the ground, it detonated. It was 160m South East of the A-Bomb Dome, killing everyone inside and devastating the structure, but as it had been nearly overhead, the blast wave went almost vertically through it, pushing it into itself, rather than blasting it outwards. It is only due to its proximity to the blast area that the building survived, even when all those inside were incinerated. Standing with rain pouring from the peaks of our waterproof hoods, looking at the twisted metal of the stairs and the rubble, it was hard to imagine how terrifying it would have been to be in this city, to have called it home, and then seen it reduced to this. We were astonished to overhear an American tourist remark to his Japanese guide “other world heritage sites I’ve been to have been much happier places”.
We walked through the peace garden, where many trees and roses have been donated by various governments, individuals and organisations. There were different areas for honouring and remembering the atrocity and those affected by it. We came to a large green mound where gardeners moved over its surface, gently taking out weeds by hand, in silence. We read the sign below and both caught our breaths as we learned that the mound was a grave for thousands of victims’ burned remains. A mass grave.
Elsewhere in the park stood monuments dedicated to the children lost to the bomb: although many young children had been evacuated from the city, children aged 12 or older were “mobilised” for war work, mostly building demolition, and thousands died when the atomic bomb was dropped.
Inside the Peace Museum the experience was unrelenting. The purpose of the museum is to prevent this from ever happening again, and toward that aim it pulled no punches in conveying the absolute and utter horror of atomic weapons. Both of us, and those all around, moved through in despairing silence, broken only by the occasional gasp or sob that broke out involuntarily.
The journey through the museum emphasised what an ordinary day it had been for the local people, back in 1945. It gave detailed and highly personal accounts of the blast itself, the hours and days after, and the impact on individuals and communities long into the future; how they adjusted and coped. Or didn’t. It showed the injuries, the effects of radiation, blast damage and heat, but it was not and did not need to be gratuitous. The bare facts are horrific enough. It went on, and on, until we were simply overcome with it all. We learned so much. We’d only really ever thought about the impact of a blast and of radiation, but never of the heat and fire. It was this that brought out the nightmarish nature of that day for us: that one minute people were in school learning, sat on the tram going to the shops, cooking at home, and in the blink of an eye they were covered in shattered glass, masonry and surrounded by a raging inferno that must have felt like they had been tipped bodily into Hell. One minute picking flowers, the next, bodies and burning flesh and screaming. People running past on fire with skin hanging down in strips, bodies skeletonised where they stood, the rivers filling with corpses. And children who were there, who survived, are alive today, somehow having made it through such an ordeal.
To our shame we also learned about the role the UK played in the bombing of Hiroshima. We had only been taught in history lessons at school about how the US dropped the bomb. We did not know that this was a joint decision sanctioned by the UK government and Allies, and that if the UK had developed this weapon first, it would have been a UK plane over Hiroshima that day. We also learned about how the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen: the calculated way individuals sat and debated where the bomb would have the greatest physical and psychological impact on Japan. How there was a choice between making a threat to encourage surrender, or just unleashing the weapon. How the UK advised the latter, revealing no hint to Japan that such a devastating weapon existed.
It took a long time to move through the permanent exhibit; along with photos of individuals and the devastation wrought, and personal items on display, there were detailed accounts to read, and the tourists visiting all clearly felt it was important to read everything, so the whole exhibition was a very slow moving queue. We tried to absorb all the names of individuals featured in the exhibit, but know that we missed some. There were just too many. But the volume of people queueing to move through the exhibition at least demonstrates how important this is to so many. There were also several school groups of Japanese children there to learn about this devastating part of their history.
The most emotionally wrenching part of the museum was an exhibition of artwork created by those who had lived through the terror of that day. Their memories drawn on paper to try to exorcise the images, and express to others what was permanently etched into them. To express the utterly inexpressible. The images and the very brief descriptions below them conveyed enough of the ordeal that we, and others moving through the exhibition could not help but cry. Images seen by children of bodies cluttering the river, fire, people with their intestines hanging out, a woman drawn by many of those who saw her, who had been charred trying to protect the body of her child. Images of being unable to help, images of guilt at surviving, images of sheer unadulterated grief.
By the exit of the museum stands a clock with two timers, showing the number of days since the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and the time since the last nuclear test. We were astonished that the second clock read 253. Beside the clock was a letter sent to Donald Trump by the Mayor of Hiroshima condemning the last US nuclear test. How can we even pretend to be serious about nuclear disarmament when tests continue to go on and weapons renewed?
We made our way back to the station emotionally empty, unable to forget the things we’d seen and read, and unwilling to forget them either. We boarded our bullet train and three trains later, still unable to talk about what we’d seen, we arrived at our next destination, Osaka.