Week 1: Culture Shock, Perspective, and Unparalleled Beauty

      After nearly 18 hours of travel including 3 airline transfers, a delayed flight, a bus, and a taxi, I arrived at my hotel in Beppu with my study abroad team. The picture above is the view that I awoke to at 5 AM on May 21st. I sat there quietly for a moment and simply admired the rural beauty that was Beppu. It was a small town filled with hard-working, traditional Japanese men and women who welcomed us as foreigners in their city. I spent the morning exploring the city, popping in and out of the little shops and side paths.

     Beppu is known for their hot springs, so our group had the opportunity to visit the Beppu Hells – a famous hot spring site with many different types of springs. The first three photos above are some examples of the unique springs that this site offered. The vastness and color of them cannot be adequately displayed in a photo; I had never seen anything quite like it in my life and there were many small moments when I felt speechless. The fourth photo is our group taking a break to wash our feet in one of the springs that was a safe temperature, and the one after was the first time I learned how to do a traditional hand washing ceremony before visiting a shrine. I took a moment to cleanse my hands, put some money in the box available at the shrine, said a prayer, rang the bell and bowed. This particular method was taught to our group by our teacher, Nozu-sensei.

     The next major site that we visited was Hiroshima, which was a long and emotional day for all of us. The first image is a panoramic view of the Peace Memorial site, including the A-Bomb Dome that was located near the hypocenter; it was demolished in the explosion but a skeleton of concrete and steel wire frame still stands as a haunting reminder of the devastation that occurred. Several of the memorials and exhibits in the museum conveyed the message “No More Hiroshimas”, spreading the message of peace and anti-atomic weapons in the world. This tragedy took over 140,000 Japanese lives by the end of 1945 due to the impact and lasting effects of radiation. I walked through the memorial and museum with a deep sense of shame and regret that such a thing could have happened in this world. One of the memorials is the Hiroshima Peace Bell, which is a large bell that is rung quietly by tapping it with a peace of wood that hangs by chains to its side. I took a moment to breathe, pray for the lives that were lost and their families, and rang the bell for peace. Although nothing can change history, this moment was very special to me and reminded me of the fragility of life and hope in the future of mankind moving forward.

     As I exited the Hiroshima museum, there was an older Japanese man walking around outside. He had a bag in his hands, and I noticed he was greeting everyone on our team and giving them something small and delicate from the bag. He turned and looked at me, smiled, and approached me. Inside the bag was dozens of paper cranes, a symbol of peace in Japan. He took one out, pulled the tail to show me how it moved, and handed it to me. He bowed slightly before he left, and I bowed lower in response as I thanked him in Japanese. I was so touched by this display of love. This man was probably a young man when the events on Hiroshima occurred, and I was clearly American. Yet, here he was, at the site of the Hiroshima hypocenter, handing out a traditional symbol of peace to people who were strangers in his land.

I will never forget him.

     Miyajima Island was our next destination; it was a land of mystic, age-old beauty. We arrived by ferry, and the first image above depicts our view of the island as we arrived. The orangey-red shrine that slowly came into view is called Itsukushima Shrine, or the “floating shrine”. It rests amidst the sea until the tide goes out, which gives visitors the opportunity to walk out to it and see it up close. The contrast of the lively orange color against the vibrant green of the terrain was a truly unique sight to see, and ended up being one of my favorite shrines on the trip. We proceeded to climb Mount Misen, and although it took me a rather long time, I made it all the way up to the summit. The weather was foggy that day and obstructed the view below, but it added a certain mystery to the mountain that I admired. The last image depicted was taken as a descended the mountain; I discovered a small hut, and there was a Japanese woman there who spoke English and greeted me. She told me that inside was the “Eternal Flame”, a holy fire that had been tended to and burned for over 1,200 years. There was a giant pot filled with tea that the flame was heating, and the water inside was said to have healing powers. The woman invited me in to partake in the tea and bask in the smoke that the flame produced, stating that it would be give me the strength that I needed to finish my trip down the mountain. These moments spend alone, quietly absorbing Japanese history and traditions, were some of the most beautiful and meaningful that I’ve ever experienced in my life.

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