I read a guidebook about Hiroshima as we rode the bullet train there. It, like many travel blogs, proclaimed that there is much more to the city than what made it famous: the first atomic bomb attack. And we would find that it was right, Hiroshima is a vibrant city with its own identity. Yet, that fateful day is why we were visiting and would be on our minds often over the next days.
Once again, we arrived in a new city during rush hour. We piled into a packed cable car and tried to sneak peeks of the passing city as we made halting progress into the center. As always, we dropped our bags in our apartment with a grateful sigh. Japan is hot and humid in the summer and we were sticky and thirsty.
Our neighborhood, like parts of other Japanese cities built in the 20th century, seems to have been built with function very much over form. Ugly rectangular structures in dull stone neutral colors rise about ten or twelve stories. Built in a Japan recovering from war and growing into a world-class economy, they hint at the determination of the Japanese mindset.
That’s outside. Inside and tucked into the bottoms of these buildings are cute shops, cute restaurants, and a ton of inviting barbers and hair salons. More than a few times, these barbers tricked us into thinking they were trendy restaurants! Out for a coffee, we stopped into one such creative cafe, which couldn’t have been more different than the block apartment building that rose above.
Eclectic would be the word to describe this stop. Flattering lighting, a mix of hipster décor, and a general cozy feeling had us stopping in. The restaurant was only one true level. We chose a table “upstairs,” to the entertainment of the other patrons. As directed, we took off our shoes and climbed the staircase to the crawlspace catwalk, crawled across and plopped down on some pillows, laughing. It was very comfortable, and we had the “floor” to ourselves.
Outside, it was another grey cloudy day, but inside was golden and lovely. The menu had so many delights we wanted to try that we decided to stay and have the lunch special rather than just a coffee. With a view out to the street and down to the lightly buzzing restaurant below, we wished we had brought our books. It was like being at a well-traveled great aunt’s manor; interesting knick-knacks on the walls and bottles of liqueurs that could just as well be potions. We could have worked our way through the drink menu and Harry Potter all afternoon.
Well, we didn’t have our books, so we moved on with our day. We made the short walk and in just a few blocks arrived at the Peace Park. Hiroshima has transformed the center of the city, where the bomb was dropped, into a Memorial Peace Park. The Park includes a museum, memorials to the victims, the A-Bomb Dome, and a possibly eternal flame which will burn until all nuclear weapons are gone.
We approached the dome first. Visitors surrounded it reading the informative plaques and taking pictures. The A-Bomb Dome is actually a ruin. It was the only structure left standing in the area where the bomb exploded. Every person was immediately killed inside, but the walls and metal dome frame remained, creating a lone skeletal relic.
It’s strange to visit such a place. A few people are staring at the dome silently or talking quietly. Around, people are laughing, they are on their summer holiday. Children are playing tag. A few are smiling in pictures of the river or the fountain and giving the peace sign. A bustling bright café is advertising treats across the street. Traffic is moving steadily. Members of tour groups are yelling to each other, trying to reconvene. Life is going on.
We walked down the river, crossed it, and passed the eternal flame. I asked Zack if he thought it would ever be extinguished. “No.” Me neither.
Entering the museum, I was struck by how bright and airy it was. The museum presents a detailed description of the specific bombs used in Japan and nuclear weapons in general. It explains the development of the nuclear bomb, the reasoning and final decision to use it, the effects of radiation exposure during a drop and testing, and the status of nuclear non-proliferation today. And it goes into the details of the first drop, right down to the jettison procedures if something was to go wrong with the flight.
The museum thoroughly goes into the specifics of each phase of the bomb’s first use. Government memos debating whether to provide a warning (the decision was no) sit under the glass. Some items seem clinical- memos describing procedures for a new technology, military orders, and scientists’ analysis – yet it is also eerie to see in person. I found it surprising to see how little time passed between the tests and the use in war. Much remained unknown about what the long-term effects would be when it was used.
The meat of the museum is, as expected, the massive death toll and devastation the bomb wrought on the day it dropped, August 6, 1945, and in the months, years, and decades afterward. It features stories of the people of Hiroshima, many who had just arrived at work or were headed there, starting their day.
What I found very saddening was what the people in Hiroshima did know and what they didn’t. The city had been spared from the fire-bombing of other cities, and they feared that something special was being saved for them, rightly so. That morning, the air raid signal went off, but they thought it was just the usual weather patrol since the bombing run only involved three planes. So, the all clear sounded, and everyone went about their day.
A watch sits in the museum, stopped at 0806, the minute the bomb fell. The survivors’ accounts report seeing a very bright light, but not hearing anything. Thousands died in that moment, and confused people poured out into the streets looking for loved ones or just other people. Some wondered if the city had been hit by some special type of cluster bomb, others thought only their neighborhood had been hit.
Certain common tenets run through many of the survivors’ stories. The bright light. Confusion. Looking for other people. Trying to pull people out of the rubble. Heat. Fires everywhere. People reported being so hot that when the black rain started to fall they desperately opened their mouths to the “water.” The rain was, in fact, radiation fallout, they were unknowingly opening their mouths to the deadly after-effects of the bomb.
Another bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan surrendered, the US won. The US occupied Japan until 1952. During that time, a propaganda machine attempted to change the commonly held views of Japanese people toward American soldiers. Many Japanese people wouldn’t know about the bombs or the suffering of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and many victims would suffer discrimination for years due to their physical injuries.
The US sent medical teams to research the effects of radiation poisoning. People lined up for the research examinations, but the teams did not provide medical care. Victims would have to fight for medical coverage for decades afterward, even from their own government.
Zack and I met back up at the exit and left, walking into the humid evening. It was another cloudy day, so the sunset was simply a darkening, grey to blue to black. We stopped to look once more at the eternal flame and made our way toward the Children’s Memorial and the Korean Memorial. Japan took tens of thousands of Koreans as slave labor during the war and tens of thousands were in Hiroshima.
The Children’s Memorial has a colorful feature in contrast to the stone of the surrounding monuments. Glass cases filled with paper cranes folded by children around the world stand under the shade of trees. Stemming from the Japanese tradition of origami, the cranes are a symbol of peace. Each year people fold millions and offer them before the memorial, and anyone can send one. I am glad we left the Children’s Memorial last that day. To make things better for our children is a worthy goal that is hard to argue. The bright colors and the universal symbols of peace from people all over the world were a little bit of hope after learning of so much pain. Slowly, we made our way back into the streets of the city.
Hiroshima’s food scene is casual and down-to-earth. Known for plebian fare in large portions, the city has no shortage of pizza shops and okonomiyaki joints (a type of savory pancake). We had tried the okonomiyaki and found it wasn’t our thing, so headed for pizza and a drink. Zack ordered a local special, pizza with tons of tiny fish, only as long as a fingernail and as thick as a matchstick, on top. They were translucent, their tiny black eyes the only noticeable feature – they added crunch and saltiness, but not much more. We also tried shochu (a sweet potato-based spirit), sparkling sake, and another plum flavored cocktail before heading home.
We walked through the Peace Park one more time before we left. The A-Bomb Dome sits lit in the evenings and we walked around it and down the river. As one might imagine, the Dome is haunting at night. Mangled metal and rubble are striking in the spotlights, and you can see right inside of what was a government office building. While we visited, a couple cats made themselves at home on the scattered rocks, likely still warm from the day’s sun. All was quiet. Behind the dome are the modern city lights of Hiroshima.
Hiroshima has a lot to offer as a city, an exciting food scene, many burgeoning industries, and a gateway to many of Japan’s islands, historic villages, and scenic coastlines. No matter what, though, it will always be famous for that bomb, dropped by the US.
Our visit to Hiroshima took the bombing out of history books, it became less academic and more real. It’s not nice to visit places like this, especially as a citizen of the country that used such a weapon. It raises a lot of uncomfortable questions and thoughts, but they are the ones that need the most reflection. Hiroshima created the park, museum, and center not in the name of the bomb, but of Peace. The overarching message wasn’t one of anger, but of preventing such an act again and striving for a more peaceful world.
Check out more views of the Peace Park and Hiroshima in our video!
© Cheers Life Partners 2017