Of Japan’s literally hundreds (or thousands) of different destinations, catering to everything from skiing, to wildlife, to urban adventure, or sandy islands and beaches, Hiroshima stands out as unique for its quirky mix of ancient history and modern culture – made all the more intriguing for first-time visitors, given the city’s long association with the destruction of WWII.
Situated on the tranquil Seto Inland Sea, Hiroshima also boasts a diverse range of offshore attractions which includes a chain of islands (the Geiyo islands) set within the Inland Sea, as well as the famous Miyajima, home to the red torii gates of Itsukushima shrine.
One of the city’s most iconic landmarks, the original Hiroshima Castle dated from the 1590s, and before being destroyed in WWII, was one of Japan’s most famous. Known locally as “Ri-jo” (Carp Castle), the current replica dates from 1958. It’s still regarded as one of Japan’s most outstanding examples of the hirajiro-style (ie. flatland castle), with its 5-storey tower.
The castle is also one of the city’s most popular sites for seasonal sakura (cherry blossom) viewing. Set within the castle grounds, the traditional Shukkei- en garden is a classic Japanese-style garden, with its koi pond and numerous sakura trees, making it a picturesque site. For a small additional fee, in April you can join in a kanou chakai, an event that combines cherry blossom viewing with cha-do (tea ceremony), held in a traditional tea house.
Peace Memorial Park
Hiroshima’s largest tourist site is the world-famous Peace Memorial Park. Situated on the site of what used to be Hiroshima’s packed downtown CBD (which was levelled by the Atomic Bomb), the vast site was redeveloped to both memorialise the city’s dead.
The most famous site within the park is the Peace Bell. Set on a manmade island, in a lotus pond (itself symbolic of the beauty which can arise even from the murkiest water), the massive bell can be heard tolling throughout the day, as visitors ring it. Donated in 1964 by local survivors, the bell is engraved with a borderless world map, symbolising Hiroshima’s hope for unity and peace.
The city’s most iconic building is, in fact, the skeletal remains of its former Industrial Promotion Hall. Better known as genbaku domu (“A-Bomb Dome”), the building is the site where the atomic bomb actually struck and has been kept in its exact, crumbling condition, as a lasting reminder of that day. Local high school students often volunteer as free guides for foreign tourists during weekends.
Hiroshima’s Trams: Hiroshima is home to Japan’s largest urban tram network, covering more than 35km, making it a fast and affordable way to get around the downtown area. Dating from the early 1900s, like everything in Hiroshima, it was almost completely destroyed in 1945, with the exception of a few now historic, street cars.
These include the famous No. 653, which many older locals have a strong emotional attachment to, and along with dozens of other street cars donated by cities around the world, have filled out Hiroshima’s historic tram fleet, returning it to its former glory.
While many of Hiroshima’s historic districts have been lost due to fires, earthquakes, wars and city redevelopment over the centuries, some have managed to preserve much of their traditional atmosphere.
Situated on Osaki Shimojima island within the Seto Inland Sea, the Edo-period town of Mitarai is a well- preserved gem of an anchorage port that once served commercial boats during the ‘sakoku’ period when Japan was isolated from the world for over 200 years (1639 to 1853). The ruling Tokugawa shogunate forced Japanese merchants to trade only along the coastline, making Mitarai’s protected harbour a favoured place to drop anchor.
While it seems like small peaceful town today, it was once a bustling hub for trade, entertainment and pleasure during its heyday. Most of its traditional buildings are preserved to this day, including the geisha house, a working clock-maker shop, and traditional teahouses.
The picturesque port town of Tomonoura – in Fukuyama district north of Onomichi – faces the Seto Inland Sea, featuring an endearing old- fashioned fishing townscape. It prospered in the Edo era when merchant ships would dock at its port, leading to thriving industries such as the production of homeishu which is a medicinal liquor made with shochu and 16 herbs.
The old town centre has a warren of photogenic alleys lined with rustic wooden houses, some selling homeishu, like the Ota Residence which is well-preserved to this day. A wealth of temples and shrines surround the town centre, while the bayfront is still littered with small boats. One of the best views of the Seto Inland Sea can be appreciated from the Edo-period guesthouse, Taicho-ro.
Toukasan Yukata Festival
Held in early June, the Toukasan Yukata Festival marks the start of summer, when Japanese traditionally begin wearing the summer kimono, the yukata. Running over 3 days between the city’s Peace Boulevard and Enryu-ji Temple, the festival attracts nearly half a million people.
During the day, it’s marked by food stalls, feeding flocks of attendees who stroll the area in their yukata, while at night it erupts into taiko drumming and ancient bon-style dance performances.
Within Japan, Hiroshima is famous for its oysters, and hosts a series of annual oyster events.
Running roughly from mid-January to late-February, these are generally free-to-enter, run as street food fairs with discount prices on everything from raw, to deep-fried, grilled and hot pot oysters. The biggest of these is the Miyajima Oyster Festival, held annually in mid-February, which is accompanied by traditional drumming and kagura performances.
Lying just offshore in Hiroshima Bay, the historic island of Miyajima is one of the prefecture’s most famous sites. Also known as Itsukushima, both names refer its most iconic spot, the Itsukushima Shrine.
The island has many charming walking paths that surround the town, some leading through the Momijidani (Maple Valley) which is the island’s prime fall foliage spot in autumn. In spring, the paths also lead through clusters of cherry trees which bloom in early April.
Miyajima is actually part of the neigh- bouring Hatsukaichi City, but easily accessible from downtown Hiroshima. It’s less than 30 minutes by train (or tram), to Miyajimaguchi Station fol- lowed by a 10-minute ferry ride. There are also direct boats from the Peace Memorial Park (1 hour), or Hiroshima Port (25 minutes).
The island’s most important site is the namesake shrine with its famous floating red torii gate – Hiroshima’s most popular icon. The torii itself is one of Japan’s official Top 3 Sights, while the entire shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Founded over 1,400 years ago, and rebuilt numerous times, the Shinto shrine seemingly “floats” on the water at high tide (at low tide, it’s part of the beach). As the island was considered sacred, the shrine was originally built over water to detach it from the land, keeping the island “pure” while allowing “impure” commoners to still visit the temple. Traditionally, boats had to arrive at high tide, floating through the red torii gate.
The shrine houses the renowned Heike Nokyo, an ancient set of 32 lavishly decorated sutra scrolls gifted by its patrons, the Heike Clan in 1164; the scrolls are now considered one of Japan’s national treasures.
The shrine is open year-round, and if you’re lucky you can even attend a traditional Noh performance in the main prayer hall overlooking Hiroshima Bay. The shrine is also lit up nightly, making it even more photogenic.
While the island is home to 2,000 people, its most famous residents are the local sika (Japanese spotted deer). Once seen as messengers of the Shinto gods, it was forbidden to hunt them – a crime that used to be punishable by death. Since then, they’ve flourished, with a population of over 1,000 today which can be found wandering everywhere, and are known to be extremely curious and always on the lookout for a snack (it’s forbidden to feed them).
One of the best ways to see Miyajima is from the 500m summit of Mt. Misen. There’s a convenient ropeway up to the
Shishiiwa Observatory, as well as three designated trails leading to the top (2 hours, one-way).
At the foot of the mountain is Daisho- in, one of the most important temples of Shingon Buddhism. In addition to religious buildings, there’s also a tea room and a cave filled with 88 icons representing the Shikoku Pilgrimage. You can perform the Buddhist ritual of spinning metal sutra wheels when walking up the temple’s steps.
Hiroshima is situated along the Seto Inland Sea, which is dotted with islands, each with its own attraction. The islands – known as Geiyo Islands – are associated with the legend of the Murakami Pirates, watchmen of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea in the 16th century. Today, the area is renowned throughout Japan for its citrus groves.
While many of the smaller islands are only accessible via ferries, six are connected via a series of bridges called the Shimanami Kaido, which is accessible from the port town of Onomichi. Characterised by its many slopes, Onomichi is famous for its 2.5km-long Temple Walk, which takes visitors up and down the slopes passing the route’s 25 temples, with spectacular views of the bay.
The Islands Innoshima
The main draw on Innoshima is the Innoshima Suigun Castle (Innoshima Navy Castle), which was built on the site of what was believed to be a watchtower, surrounded by fortifications around the perimeter of the island.
There are commanding views from the tower.
Another draw is Mt. Shirataki with its gohyaku-rakan, a trail which is lined with 500 rock statues of the disciples of Buddha. Carved at the end of the Edo era (1603-1868), each rakan features a different face. The island is also birthplace of citruses like anseikan and hassaku, and a popular souvenir is the Hassaku Daifuku, which consists of the fruit wrapped in glutinous rice cake.
The biggest attraction is the Kosanji Temple, a temple complex comprising replicas of famous traditional Japanese religious buildings. Built in 1935, some of these replicas may be kitschy, but there are also some gems, like the 5-storey pagoda based on Nara’s Muroji Temple and the Koyomon Gate, based on the Yomeimon Gate of the Toshogu Shrine at Nikko. The complex is also a cherry blossom site.
The largest of the Geiyo Islands, this “Island of the Spirits” is home to Oyamazumi Shrine which has the greatest collection of samurai weaponry and armour in the whole of Japan. It’s also the site of several unique museums, including the modern Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture and Tokoro Museum of Art.
GETTING AROUND THE ISLANDS
Island hopping is a popular activity, and can be done as a cycle tour – via the Shimanami Kaido road with its dedicated cycle lane – or on a ferry- hopping trip.
The 60km-long Shimanami Kaido is an expressway with a separate cycling lane that connects six islands – Mukaishima, Innoshima, Ikuchijima, Omishima, Hakatajima, and Oshima – via a series of bridges, connecting Onomichi on the mainland to Imabari on Shikoku Island.
This gentle cycling route offers superb views over the sea, and bike rentals are available on each of the islands (¥1,000 deposit, ¥1,000/ day). The cycling route actually starts from Mukaishima, accessible via a 5-minute ferry ride from Onomichi.
The Geiyo islands are also accessible by ferry, which you can take from Onomichi and Mihara. These ferries also offer inter-island services which you can utilise to break from cycling between islands.
For a unique perspective of the islands, you can hop onboard one the Setouchi Seaplane for an aerial view of the Seto Inland Sea. The flight takes you on a loop over islands like Innoshima and Ikuchijima; a scenic 50-minute sightseeing course starts from ¥32,000.
Numerous airlines including SQ and SilkAir now offer direct flights to Hiroshima. The city’s also easily accessible from nearby Osaka, via the Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen (80 minutes), allowing visitors to optionally combine both cities, flying into Hiroshima and returning via Osaka (or vice versa).