By Lourdes O. Pilar, Researcher

EXPLORING the cities of the island of Kyushu and the western part of Japan in five days was beyond my imagination—but with the help of a detailed itinerary and Japan’s efficient transportation network, my travel buddies and I were able to tick several places off our bucket list.

We prepared for the trip by first securing a Japan Rail (JR) Pass for seven days of unlimited rides on the shinkansen (bullet train) network, express trains, and ferries. The pass covers different geographical regions; we availed of the one covering the northern part of Kyushu island up to Osaka in Kansai region for ¥22,000 or P10,700. Note that only tourists who have “temporary visitor” visas are eligible for the pass. (Tip: It is best to buy the pass outside Japan since you get a ¥1000 discount.)
Rides not covered by the JR Pass were paid in cash or through Pasmo, a smart card (similar to our local Beep card) that can be used in place of a train or bus ticket. A Pasmo card can also be used to purchase goods and services from stores that accept electronic money payments.
We landed in Fukuoka at 7:30 p.m. and headed straight to Hakata, where we stayed for two nights. Our night arrival limited us to only dinner, so we decided to try the ramen Fukuoka is famous for.
On our first day of touring, we traveled to Nagasaki in the northern part of Kyushu Island, which is two hours away from Fukuoka by express train. As the train came to a halt in Nagasaki, I wondered if there were still any vestiges left from the atomic bombing of 1945.
Nagasaki today is a fully functioning city and a busy-yet-attractive port town. After 73 years, it seems to have completely recovered from the bombing. Monuments bear witness to the events that have been called the “greatest acts of terrorism in human history.”
Ten years after the plutonium bomb “Fat Man” detonated, the Nagasaki Peace Park opened to commemorate the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
The park is located in the Zone of Hopes, one of the three symbolic zones in the destroyed area, (the other two being the Zone of Prayers, and the Zone of Study).
The park’s most important feature is the 9.7-meter-tall Peace Statue. Sculpted by Seibo Kitamura, the statue is of a seated blue man with his right arm raised and pointing to the sky, a gesture that symbolizes the threat of nuclear warfare. His left arm is stretched out horizontally, palm down, indicating the desire for peace.
Opposite the Peace Statue, one finds the Fountain of Peace, another meaningful landmark that commemorates the A-bomb victims who suffered from extreme thirst. The jets of water resemble a dove flapping its wings. A black plaque installed in front of the fountain bears the words of survivor Sachiko Yamaguchi, who recounted the desperate need for water during the aftermath of the bombing.
The Zone of Prayers marks where the A-bomb exploded above Nagasaki with the hypocenter cenotaph. The A-bomb was detonated about 500 meters above the point where this monument now stands. The area within a 2.5-kilometer radius of the hypocenter was devastated. All infrastructure in this area was reduced to debris and ashes. Many charred bodies were found. The zone also has other memorials and statues, among them the Nagasaki Korean Atomic Bomb Victims’ Memorial and the Statue of the Praying Child.
The Zone of Study is where you can find the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall, and a statue erected in memory of school children and teachers killed by the bomb.
The museum, which opened in April 1966 as part of the 50th-anniversary project of the Nagasaki bombing, has a number of artifacts on display, along with photographs that give viewers an idea of the extent of the devastation, the history of the development of nuclear arms, and the desire for peace.
We returned to Hakata in time for dinner. We decided to try yatai or open-air food stands that can seat about seven or eight people. Dishes such as grilled chicken skewers (yakitori), hot pot (oden), and Hakata ramen — a local noodle dish featuring thin noodles in a pork-bone based soup (tonkotsu ramen) — are favorites, and go well with alcoholic beverages.
The next day, we proceeded to Hiroshima in the region of Chugoku, also known as San’in-San’yo via the shinkansen or bullet train. The shinkansen, which runs at a maximum speed of 320 km/h, is known for its comfort and efficiency. It is usually expensive to ride bullet trains — without a JR Pass, a shinkansen ride from Hakata to Hiroshima costs ¥12,690.
Hiroshima is in the southwestern part of the Japanese islands. There are two World Heritage Sites in Hiroshima that we wanted to see: the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima island, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (also called the Atomic Bomb Dome).
Itsukushima Shrine is one of the most notable shrines in Japan and the only shrine in the world erected on top of water. It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. The view has long been considered as one of the three finest views in Japan (along with Matsushima Bay and Amanohashidate). Itsukushima island, which has a number of temples, is also recognized for its upper hillside cherry blossoms and autumnal maple-leaf foliage.
Hiroshima was the first of two Japanese cities destroyed by an A-bomb — the world’s first deployed atomic bomb known as “Little Boy” — during World War II. Unlike Nagasaki, which is located in narrow valleys between mountains, Hiroshima is a vast plain. During the war, it was a manufacturing center with a population of around 350,000.
We paid a visit to the most symbolic infrastructure in Hiroshima City, the Atomic Bomb Dome that stands meters away from the hypocenter of the atomic bomb blast. Unfortunately, the Hiroshima Museum was under renovation during our visit.
Then, off to Okayama we went — 35 minutes away from Hiroshima by shinkansen (fare: ¥9,630). It is the largest city in the Chugoku Region after Hiroshima.
Okayama’s most well-known attraction is Korakuen Garden, ranked among the three best landscape gardens in Japan. The famous Okayama Castle is also located just across the garden.
Korakuen is a spacious garden that flaunts the typical features of a Japanese landscape garden, including a large pond, streams, walking paths and a hill that serves as a lookout point. It is quite unique from other Japanese gardens because of its spacious lawns. There are groves of plum, cherry and maple trees; tea and rice fields; an archery range; and a crane aviary.
Okayama Castle, also known as “crow castle” due to its black exterior, was built in 1597. The original castle was destroyed in the last year of World War II but was reconstructed in 1966. The main edifice of Okayama Castle is the six-story castle keep that houses an exhibition explaining the history and development of the castle. There are interactive activities, such calligraphy writing, and photography sessions with ceremonial clothing. (The castle has an entrance fee of ¥300. Pay ¥560 and you get to enter Korakuen Garden as well.)
From Okayama, we traveled to Sakaimoto which is home to manga artist Mizuki Shigeru. The train we rode had Shigeru-san’s yokai (spirit-monster) works painted all over it. The art was visible from every station we stopped at. The 800-meter stretch of Mizuki Shigeru Road with 100 bronze statues is dedicated to all the characters that appear in his work, the series GeGeGe no Kitarō included.
The highlight of our trip in Sakaimoto was experiencing the thrill of crossing one of the most spectacular bridges in the world, the Eshima Ohashi Bridge. The bridge is 1.44 km long and 144 feet high — even the most confident drivers quiver at the sight of it.
We hired a cab for ¥3,500 just to cross the bridge and vice versa. When the cab started to ascend the bridge, we held our breath — just like we do when we ride a real roller coaster —and waited for that feeling of being held up in the air… but it did not really make us feel anything even after we reached the other side of the bridge. At least now we know that the fear is just all in the pictures and videos. It’s been nicknamed the Roller Coaster Bridge because of its steep slope and appearance like a bridge to the sky.
We spent the night in Himeji, Hyogo prefecture which we reached via shinkansen for ¥7,240.
On our fourth day, Himeji Castle was the only thing in our itinerary. It is a hilltop castle complex with advanced defensive systems from the feudal period. The largest and most visited castle in Japan, it is also known as White Heron Castle because of its brilliant white exterior and resemblance to a bird taking flight. It was registered in 1993 as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan. The entrance fee costs ¥1,300.
Afterwards, we were headed to Osaka but dropped by Kobe for lunch. When in Japan, one must have kobe beef, of course, renowned as it is for its superior flavor and tenderness. It is healthier than commercial beef because of its high concentration of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.
It is said that kobe beef owes its quality to three things: First, cows are given beer to induce appetite; second, they are massaged daily, sometimes with sake, as a proxy for exercise and to accentuate marbling; and third, that classical music is played to relax the cows and improve their appetite.
Kobe to Osaka cost us ¥6,350 by shinkansen. We reached Osaka in the afternoon and planned to go to Kyoto to visit Gion, known as Kyoto’s geisha district. We missed the train and while waiting for the next one to arrive, we noticed that there were awfully many people on the opposite platform while there were only the three of us on our side. Something was happening and we had no idea what is was. It turns out, there was a storm coming. People were advised to go home early before Typhoon Cimaron reached Osaka.
The room we booked was a tiny one inside an old house with three tatami mats laid on the floor. The storm made its presence known with heavy rains and strong winds.
On our last day in Japan, we made sure to visit Nara Park in Nara City, which is 30 minutes away from Osaka. The park’s vast green area is home to approximately 1,200 wild deer. The park is also included among the World Heritage Sites of UNESCO. The deer roam around freely and seem tame enough that people can actually approach them. They eat grass, bamboo leaves and buds but Shika Senbei (deer crackers) is their favorite food. Visitors can buy these crackers at several spots in the park.
A little precaution though, since deer are very much attracted to these crackers, they tend to approach visitors if they spot a person feeding any of them. Even if you’ve put away the crackers, the deer will follow you, perhaps bite your shirt and tug at you.
The last destination of the trip was in Dotonbori — a tourist destination in Osaka known for its bright neon lights, extravagant signage, and various restaurants and bars. This where Pablo, the famous cheesecake, is from.
This is our fourth visit to Japan and I think this trip was the most fulfilling. We learned from every place we visited and we saved a lot through the use of the JR Pass, which covered most our transportation. Sugu ni o ai shitai to kangaete imasu.