Experience Hiroshima: Past and Present
Living in Japan has many perks, and hopping on a shinkansen to travel for a holiday weekend is one of them. So for a 3-day weekend in the fall, I planned a trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima (planned being a strong word, I booked a hostel and left it at that). This is what I learned:
I’ve come to the conclusion that Hiroshima Station both confuses and exhausts me. There is no Tourist Info Office near the shinkansen exit. Instead, after a coffee to pull myself together and some random wanderings, I found it in an underground passage leading to a streetcar I’d luckily found a sign for while on the hunt for coin lockers.
The streetcar is a rather convenient means of transport around the city, and you can get a day pass plus a ferry ticket to Miyajima all in one for ~¥ 850. However I found the obnoxiously red tourist bus to be the most convenient, and if I was smarter I would have bought a day pass instead of continuously depleting my valuable stock of ¥100 coins (¥400 for a day pass or ¥200 per ride). The tourist bus stops at the shinkansen exit (I found out too late) while the street car is on the other side of the underground passage I was lost in earlier. Unlike the streetcar, the bus actually takes you to Hiroshima Castle and if you take the green route you can be dropped off at the back door of Okonomi-mura, a magical place where I discovered the heavenly manna that is okonomiyaki! Who wants to walk off that scrumptious meal when you could catch a ride?!
Once armed with a map of the city I arrived at the Atomic Dome on the edge of the Peace Memorial Park. With the reconstruction and cementing to preserve it the way it looked just after the bomb went off it struck me more as a prop or a set instead of an actual war-torn building. Being surrounded by grass and trees blazing with fall colors wasn’t helping my imagination at all but the essays and guides around the Dome certainly did the trick.
Reading about that day and how it all went down was sobering and I didn’t hesitate in signing a petition calling on world leaders to eliminate nuclear weapons. It just seems like an obvious thing to me to rid the world of something that causes so much suffering and death. There are people congregated in certain areas of the park gathering support for this movement, and let me tell you, it’s a very effective place for it!
I strongly recommend making the Dome, the Park with its various memorials (especially the Children’s Peace Monument and the Peace Memorial Hall for the Victims), and the Peace Memorial Museum your first stop in Hiroshima. It’s probably the first thing anyone thinks about when they come to this city and for good reason. It’s a huge part of the history of this region and I think you can appreciate the rest of the city so much more if you know how much suffering it’s overcome and what it took to recover.
The museum was without a doubt one of the most sobering places I’ve ever visited. I’d imagine it’s similar to visiting the Death Camps in Europe. There are descriptions of how the bomb worked, the timeline of the day, the city before and after, radiation poisoning and its effects on the human body, and the effects of the heat of the bomb on stone and wood. But the things that stand out to me most were the many personal effects that victims had on them when they were hit and that were donated by the families to the museum.
A pocket watch that was a gift from a son stopped at exactly 8:15 (the time of the bomb), a tricycle that a toddler was riding outside when the bomb exploded and killed him, and school uniforms. So very many school uniforms. Torn and burned and bloodied. Most from Junior high school children who were working to tear down buildings for fire lanes in the city center. Their stories were heartbreaking--especially when I thought of my students, all the same ages, and imagined them here.
I can probably count on less than one hand how many people have ever seen me cry in my lifetime, but I was perilously close to losing it by those uniforms. While photography was allowed inside the museum, I couldn’t bring myself to take any pictures and I didn’t need to. Those images will stay with me forever.
Walking outside it felt a little strange to see people smiling and laughing with their families. But looking around I saw beauty where there had once been destruction and life where there had been so much death. The sunshine and the bright fall colors surrounding me helped lift my spirits and after a sit by the river with a wonderful chocolate gelato and a sorry excuse for a lemonade (take a hard pass people) from the corner café in the park, I was ready to explore again!
Outside of the park Hiroshima has so many wonderful sights. I enjoyed Hiroshima Castle and watching a celebration of shichi-go-san (7-5-3) still going on at a shrine, shopping on streets lit up for Christmas, eating a ridiculous amount of okonomiyaki, and walking down the streets people watching and talking to shop owners surrounded by the bustle of a thriving city. While I think everyone should visit the park and the museum when coming to Hiroshima, don’t let it overshadow the Hiroshima of today.
I talked to a few fellow travelers and I was surprised how many were just focusing on the bomb sites before moving on. That just seems to me like you’re missing the last half of an important story--the recovery and the forgiveness and the life that goes on. Hiroshima today is a seriously beautiful city full of incredibly friendly people and it’d be a shame to miss out on that!
I recommend visiting the museum first because I believe that once you’ve seen everything in that museum being in Hiroshima now will inspire you. Many world leaders have visited the memorials and I think everyone who visits is better for it. As an American, I was humbled by the graciousness and the welcome shown to me by even the few elderly people I met who were children here at the time of the bombing. If you’re ever in Hiroshima talk to people, admire the shops that actually have sizes that fit non-Japanese (a win for me!), pray at a shrine, eat your heart out, walk along the dozens of malls, admire and envy the fashion sense of the people around you, make friends, ride the obnoxiously red bus to the art museums and parks, and never forget the suffering war can cause and the strength of the community you are lucky enough to get to know.