“Please visit Kumamoto Castle,” my colleague urged when I told her we’d be driving through Kumamoto City on the way back from Nagasaki during the Golden Week holidays. The popular tourist attraction is Japan’s third-largest castle, after Osaka Castle and Nagoya Castle. It is especially well known for its expansive grounds, numerous buildings, and more than 500 cherry trees that make it a popular hanami spot in the spring.
Since last year, Kumamoto-jō has become even more iconic after surviving extensive damage during the April 2016 earthquakes that killed 50 people and left thousands injured and trapped under collapsed buildings.
As a result of the tremors, roof tiles fell from the castle, the outer walls collapsed, and the foundation was damaged. Several of the castle’s shachihoko ornaments, an animal from Japanese folklore hung on roofs to protect buildings from fire, were also destroyed.
Of all the things we had planned to do in Nagasaki, I was most curious to see the Peace Park. Established in 1955 to commemorate the atomic bombing on August 9, 1945, it is built on a hill directly north of the hypocenter. The top of the slope offers a commanding view of the city below; looking down at the many trees and rolling hills, it’s hard to imagine this place was every anything but gorgeous and green.
Having already visited the peace park in Hiroshima, where the first bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945, I wondered how Nagasaki’s would fare without its own A-Bomb Dome, which has come to be such an iconic symbol of peace.
Not knowing the exact layout of the park, we followed the route Google Maps had given us and ended up outside the entrance to the Atomic Bomb Museum. The museum was opened in 1996 to mar the 50th anniversary of the atomic blast. I had skipped the museum on my visit to Hiroshima because the line to get in was impossibly long, so I was eager to see inside here.
“Do you see the jellyfish?” Mark pointed excitedly into the water.
I mumbled an acknowledgement, afraid that if I opened my mouth, something other than words would come out.
We had been bobbing up and down on a ferry for the last 15 minutes and it appeared I had left my sea legs back in Osaka.
We had set out early that morning from Nankai, taking a train to Wakayama, and then another to Kada. A short walk from the station, Kada Port was our second-final destination. If I managed to keep my breakfast down, we’d soon be exploring Japan’s real life Laputa.
If any island served as inspiration for ABC’s LOST (a.k.a the best television series of all time) it was surely Ōkunoshima. Featuring a golf course, pylons, old test laboratories and its very own hatch, it is exactly where every fan wants their plane to crash. You can even enjoy polar bears in miniature – the island is overrun with an abundant population of bunnies.
The latter has earned Ōkunoshima the nickname Usagi Jima (Rabbit Island), with tens of thousands of visitors flocking there each summer to enjoy its beaches, soak in its onsen and feed and pet the adorable, fluffy animals. But the island has a much darker past, and the smoke monster becomes more and move evident as you begin to explore.
On the third day of my trip to Hiroshima, I joined up with Mark, his brother, his brother’s partner, and her daughter to do just that. As it turns out, the bunnies are the least interesting thing about the place…
I spent most of my visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park sitting on a bench.
This was partly due to the fact that I was supercalifragilisticexpialidociously hungover from the previous night’s festivities; after gatecrashing the Hiroshima JETs’ welcome party to catch up with two old friends, Fiona and Gavin, I ended up at a bar with a lovely Aussie couple on their way to Kyoto, an ESL teacher fresh off the boat from South Korea, and a bartender far too liberal with her vodka. By the time I slumped into bed it was well past 3 a.m.
The City of Water had been on my travel bucket list forever, so when the summer leave form was being passed around at school and I realised I had a bunch of days left over from the last contract year, it took me all of two seconds to find and book a hotel. It seemed a fitting time to visit too: this August marks the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
“Why are you taking pictures of yourself?” Mark asked with one eyebrow raised as he turned around and saw my lens pointing into the window. “I’m getting bored, there’s nothing else here to photograph,” I replied.
The humidity had produced rivers of sweat on my forehead, which were running down the back of my neck and feeding into the giant prickly pear that was now my ball of hair.
“Don’t be a Negative Nancy, there’s plenty of things to see,” he teased.
“Dude, the bamboo isn’t even real.” I motioned to two plastic stalks lying in the sand.
“Fuck it, let’s get food.”