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Monday, March 4, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 18 - Return to Iwakuni

For those of you reading this who are a little older, I have a question. Was there ever a place you lived that you feel helped form the person you became?  If so, was it someplace far from home and family?

If you said yes to both of those questions, then you’ll probably appreciate this post.  There is nowhere I’ve lived that changed me more as a human being than my three years spent in Iwakuni, Japan.  I made friends there I still keep in touch with to this day. I also learned a lot of valuable lessons and made a lot of mistakes.  It was a time that I will never forget but which the years have blurred to the point of romanticizing things a bit.

I’d always told my wife that if given the chance, I’d love to take her to Iwakuni just so she could see where I lived and what life is like there. That said, I never truly thought I’d ever get that chance, so imagine my surprise when we realized that we could make it happen. On our first trip to Japan as a family, we carved out five days for a jaunt via Shinkansen to the Hiroshima area.  

Iwakuni sits about 45 minutes away right up against the inland sea and while we were only in Iwakuni itself for a single day, it was enough. As a family, when we think back on that first trip, every single one of us ranks that day as one of the best we had.

In an earlier post, I mentioned visiting the tea region of Japan.  The day after that trip, we boarded the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. If you’ve never ridden on a bullet train, the best I can describe it is to say it’s like the world’s smoothest flight.  

First, they are ALWAYS on time. In fact, it’s to the minute most days, so don’t dare be late or you will be left. The seats are comfortable and roomy. There is a service that comes through offering beverages and meals.  You can get up and walk around whenever you feel like it and if you have Snapchat, you can take cool photos that use your location tracking on your phone to figure out how fast you’re going.

Yeah, that’s really freakin’ fast.  

The only bad thing is that the further south you go, the more tunnels there are on this route so instead of seeing more of the countryside, many times you only see cement walls or just blackness.  Still, it’s a pleasant ride overall and it’s easy to find yourself lulled to sleep.

Once in Hiroshima, we checked into our hotel and explored a bit.  I’ll go into that and our day trip to Miyajima in a separate post.  The third day there, we took the train down to Iwakuni. Now, when I lived there, it was courtesy of the U.S. Navy.  I was allowed to live off base with my friend Dave Adsit (a Marine) and we got a taste of what life was really like living in Japan.  I would have loved to have visited the base and then wandered outside the gates to find where I’d used to live, however we only had one day.  With time being such a factor, I wanted the girls to see my favorite place to visit in Iwakuni: Kintai Bridge and Iwakuni Castle.

Kintai bridge is a footbridge that crosses the Nishiki River.  It was originally built in 1673 and while parts of it have been washed away from time to time (the last one being 1950), it’s been rebuilt in its original fashion and is a true sight to behold.  

Five arches rise and fall across a line of stone bases. They lead you from a city street into a beautiful park (Kikkou Park) where you can spend an entire day exploring.

We crossed over and wandered through the area where the diving birds are kept.  These birds are used to catch fish and this area was known for this activity back in the days when the bridge was built.  

From there, we took the cable car up to Iwakuni Castle. What sits atop the mountain now is a recreation. The original castle fell centuries ago by an official order in 1615.  

The bridge used to lead to the main gate. The castle recreation houses a museum that shows off artifacts that have been uncovered in the area. You’ll find samurai swords, armor and even bits of the roof from the original castle.  If you go up to the top level, you’ll find telescopes and it was through one of these I was able to see the barracks I used to live in when I first moved to Iwakuni.

I was also able to see the television/radio station I used to work at while I lived there.

I need to give a special shout out to my wife for helping me manipulate the smartphone camera in the telescope lens in order to capture those pictures.

However, the real fun is in wandering the paths around the castle.  On the day we were there, it was windy and you could hear music in the thousands of leaves rustling around you.  

I took the girls to see the old well (which was one of my favorite places to see) and we wandered a little way down the paved mountain path.  It was here that I saw something I didn’t expect to find.

Years ago, I used to ride my bike to Kintai Bridge and then hike a steep path through the woods all the way up the mountain to the castle.  Every map I’d seen recently only showed a wide paved path that one could walk(or drive) up, but there was no sign of the trail I used to take.  

Yet here, right off that paved path, was an obvious trail. There was no sign marking it as the one down to the bottom, but I knew it was the same one.

I bid the girls goodbye and told them I’d meet them at the bottom.  They headed back to the cable car and I started down one of the steepest paths I’ve climbed in years.  However, I was completely alone. There wasn’t any sound around me but the wind in the trees and my own footsteps.  

Only once did I see any wildlife as a snake crossed the path in front of me. I was happy for that rather than catching one hanging from a branch like in this helpful sign tacked to a tree halfway down.

By the time I got to the bottom, I felt more peaceful than I’ve felt in ages.  

The last part of the path leveled out and led through this beautiful tunnel of green before opening up at the entrance to a Shinto Temple.  

I quickly paid my respects and then met the girls in the park. They’d discovered the wading pool and we all sat with our feet in the water and watched the local kids play around us.  

It was a magical day and one I’d love to repeat at some point.  For now, I’ll just feel lucky that I got the chance to do it again this time.

If you find yourself in the Hiroshima area, take a day to visit Iwakuni. Kikkou Park is a treasure and especially so during cherry blossom season.

Next week, we’ll talk a bit more about Hiroshima and how sometimes, my fifty-year-old memory is still sharp as a tack.

See you then!

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