Location: Hiroshima City, Hiroshima Prefecture
Duration: 2 Days; May 9-10
Impressions of the Trip:
A mention of Hiroshima conjures many images for people around the world, but in terms of agriculture, oysters and lemons are two of the many specialty products that are synonymous with the Prefecture. Hiroshima, like Kagawa Prefecture, which we covered last fall, enjoys some coastline along the Seto Inland Sea, a stupendously beautiful waterway dotted with hundreds of islands. Each island seems to have its own personality, and I started my trip with a quick dip in the Seto Inland Sea en route to Okunoshima, an island with an especially quirky history.
Okunoshima is also called Rabbit Island, as it is home to many, many rabbits. During World War II, it housed a poison gas manufacturing facility, and rumor has it that rabbits were used to test the effectiveness of the chemical weapons. Although the facility was closed decades ago and the island was deemed safe for human visitors, few people actually live there. Nevertheless, due to a lapine population explosion, the place is now home to countless rabbits of all shapes and sizes. Neither cats nor dogs are allowed on Okunoshima, so the rabbits have no natural predators. Immediately upon stepping onto the beach at Okunoshima, I noticed dozens of rabbits running towards me from all directions. Except for one fisherman, there were no other people in sight, just lots of grazing bunnies and the creepy remains of the poison gas facility. I walked the perimeter of the tiny island over the course of the next hour, meeting only two other humans, but thousands of rabbits. One side of the island boasted a poison gas museum, and numerous signs describing the facility’s various buildings and landmarks made the whole place seem all the more bizarre. Every time I rounded a corner, a new gaggle of rabbits approached me, curious and not at all scared. While walking around the ruins on the center of the island, hilly and covered with forrest, I kept hearing the slithering sounds of rabbits sliding down the brush-covered hills to see me. After a few hours alone on Rabbit Island, I was encouraged to see large groups of schoolchildren arriving by ferry just as I was leaving. The place felt less post-apocolyptic.
Returning by ferry and slow train to Hiroshima’s more urban parts, I revisited the images most visitors see: the Atomic Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park, and the numerous reminders of August 6, 1945. Hiroshima was the first place I lived in Japan, at age 15, and one of the vivid memories that stayed with me from that experience was of a shadow imprint on a building’s wall of a man who was killed by the bomb blast. I suspect anyone with a connection to Hiroshima could reflect on the ways in which the bombing, destruction, and unimaginable loss of life experienced by the city continue to affect it today, but I leave that to others.
During the visit, Hiroshima hosted the National Omiyage Fair for the first time in 92 years. Omiyage are individually wrapped food items that typically come in packages of 4, 6, 10, or more pieces so they can be easily shared. From rice candy to crab-flavored crackers to tangerine jelly, omiyage generally use ingredients that the region they are from is famous for. It is customary for individuals to bring back a package of omiyage for their coworkers and friends when they return from a vacation or business trip. Any train station or airport in Japan has stores selling omiyage, and they are an obligatory purchase on any trip.
We had a chance to meet some of the creators and designers of Japan’s most famous omiyage, and to see some of it being made. Hiroshima’s famous omiyage is the momiji manju, a maple-leaf shaped cake filled with red bean paste. Although the obligation to buy omiyage every time one takes a trip might seem burdensome, it is a great way to support local industry. Farmers often team up with packaging designers to take their specialty product and turn it into an omiyage. Hiroshima, for example, produces more lemons than any other prefecture. At the Fair, there were several exhibits on display aiming to promote lemon themed merchandise and gifts.
Omiyage are yet another aspect of regional Japanese culture and agriculture that is embedded in daily life throughout Japan, but virtually unknown outside Japan. The care and attention to detail with which omiyage are packaged and designed is only seen in luxury brands outside Japan. Yet omiyage are local, simple, and generally made by farmers or villagers. Since each piece of omiyage is individually wrapped, buying one box for an entire office allows the traveler to give a gift to each co-worker or friend without having to search endlessly for something that actually reflects the personality of the place he or she has just returned from.
御当地, gotouchi. A word that literally means “where one comes from”, but that is used to describe everything from omiyage to sumo wrestlers that hail from a particular place. There are gotouchi Hello Kitty keychains from Okinawa, for example, that feature Kitty wearing a costume that looks like a bitter gourd, a locally-grown specialty or gotouchi Kit Kat flavors (e.g. edamame) that are only sold in certain areas of Japan. The abundance of gotouchi gifts, toys, and food is again an interesting commentary on how much Japanese people appreciate local color and local flavors.