Japanese Pancakes: okonomiyaki in Hiroshima

Although the atomic bombing of Hiroshima may dominate recent history and first-time visitor perceptions, there is much more to Japan’s tenth-largest city than tragedy. As I found when we first arrived in Hiroshima, there is much to like. In fact, we liked it so much that we made a return visit after our hiking trip to Aso.

Hiroshima is a pleasing, intriguing patchwork of contrasts. We walked down a wide boulevard displaying shiny pristine windows of designer clothing only to take a left turn and find ourselves down a more, ahem, gritty alleyway with neon signs advertising dancing ladies. Whilst reminders of one of the world’s greatest atrocities (or the end to a global war, depending on your perspective) are easy to find – a crumbled building or an elegant commemorative statue – there are also beautiful flower displays, wide open rivers and – much to my delight – some great food.

A riverside in Hiroshima
One of the lovely rivers in Hiroshima

Hiroshima – along with Osaka – is famous for a dish called okonomiyaki. Often known as “japanese pancakes”, this is a rather simplistic description for one of the greatest dishes in Japan. One evening, ravenous and hangry (the state of being so hungry you become ill-tempered), we stumbled upon a buzzing okonomiyaki joint and bagged the last two seats in the place. Luckily, these turned out to be at the counter, so we got to see okonomiyaki being prepared close up.

okonomiyaki in Hiroshima
Lining up the okonomiyaki

We took our seats opposite the giant griddle and watched as paper-thin crepes were spread out to cook. We tried not to visibly drool as they were topped with a mix of shredded cabbage, bean sprouts and a filling. Craig opted for bacon, while I went for seafood.

Hiroshima Okonomiyaki on the griddle
Okonomiyaki in progress

Once cooked through, the chef – smiling at our hungry faces which looked rather like hopeful labradors – added spring onions, topped it with cooked noodles, an omelette and some barbecue-style sauce. Even wielding chopsticks – not the easiest tools for the job if you ask me – the okonomiyaki was devoured at impolite speed.

Okonomiyaki Hiroshima
Okonomiyaki, shortly before it was inserted into my face

Once we’d eaten our fill of the local delicacy, we decided to discover what else there was in Hiroshima.

Hiroshima is renowned as an industrial city and is home to one of Japan’s most famous car brands – Mazda. Mazda started life as a cork producer before moving across to motorcycles in the 1930s, followed by trucks and eventually cars in the 1960s. They also offer free tours of their massive production campus to visitors, so we signed ourselves up! The scale of Mazda’s operation alone is tremendous – factories and warehouses spread several kilometres along the waters edge. Buses take employees from one area of the site to another. There is even a large bridge across the river which was built by Mazda purely to cope with the traffic from this campus.

The ninety minute tour began with a walk through the history of Mazda. I was amazed to hear that the atomic bombing had only stopped production for a matter of weeks. We also got to see displays of some of their older vehicles, such as the three wheeled truck trikes and the iconic MX-5 (I honestly don’t work for Mazda, although if the marketing team read this then konnichiwa! I do accept cars as gifts).

An early Mazda trike
An early Mazda trike/truck
Vintage Mazda cars
Examples of Mazda’s range of cars since the 1960s

Also on display was Mazda’s Le Mans winner – the 787B prototype racing car which won the 24-hour race in 1991, and the only Japanese car to win. Slightly less interesting (to me, anyway) were the example rotary engines – the pride and joy of Mazda, apparently. They meant literally nothing to me, but I’m sure would be very interesting to anyone who can actually locate the engine in a car.

Mazda's 787B prototype racing car
Mazda’s 787B prototype racing car

Finally, we arrived at the bit everyone had come for – a walk around the real live production line! Sadly cameras were banned for this section (boo, hiss!) but it was certainly the tour highlight. Rather than batch-producing one model, the sophisticated assembly line can produce multiple models at the same time according to demand. Mazda has employed this technique since 1959 and has got it down to a fine art. Family cars lined up behind sleek sports cars and minivans – all being produced by the same employees one after another. Each team of two workers has just two minutes to complete their job as the conveyor belt glides the cars along at an almost invisible speed.

After twenty minutes watching the incredible focus of the workers alongside the sleek, oddly hypnotic movements of the robots which repeatedly applied perfectly precise glue outlines for the windscreens, it was almost time for the end of the tour. A final walk took us through Mazda’s “concept car” display. The cars of the future look pretty much the same as the cars of today, which is disappointing for those of us hoping for more jet packs. The good news is they will involve more clean technology and even greater safety innovations. Excellent news for anyone who has ever got in a car with me!

As we left, we were given a gift bag. It turns out every visitor gets a free Mazda car! Kind of…

Craig takes his new Mazda for a spin
Craig takes his new Mazda for a spin
If you want to discover okonomiyaki in Hiroshima
  • Definitely, definitely eat some okonomiyaki. Hiroshima takes it very seriously – the tourist office even offers a map of the best joints in town. If you can, get counter seats to see the assembly up close.
  • The Mazda factory tours are free of charge. English tours take place at 10am on weekdays and can be reserved here. It’s a good idea to book a few weeks ahead.
  • The factory is a five minute walk from Mukainada Station (a couple of stops from Hiroshima). The journey takes about half an hour to forty minutes but don’t be late, as the tour leaves bang on time!

One Comment

  1. […] spontaneous and fulfilling affair. From our delicious gourmet lunch in Tokyo to Hiroshima’s okonomiyaki, every meal was a genuine pleasure. Although navigating a menu where we didn’t even recognise the […]

    July 16, 2015
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