We couldn’t go to Japan without seeing Hiroshima.
Located on the southern ‘island’ of Kyushu, Hiroshima is a coastal home to approximately 1.1 million people. That’s the basic summary, but unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know the sad way it was put on the map, or more appropriately, wiped off of it – the atomic bomb of World War Two. Within seconds, 70,000 people were incinerated and whatever stood within 2km of the blast radius was destroyed. Those that survived the initial explosion were exposed to significant radiation that effectively guaranteed injury or disease.
The justification for dropping the bomb is generally accepted as a means of forcing Japan’s surrender without a mainland invasion that would have significantly increased the casualty rate on both sides. However, other historians argue that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were part of a political strategy to show the nuclear might of the US to Russia, the Cold War having already begun. And this is the kicker: It wasn’t just the Japanese who suffered. Whilst much fewer in number, the death toll included American prisoners of war, Korean slave labourers and international students. Bombs are indiscriminate. And I believe this message is even more relevant, given the tragic conflicts going on around the world (I’m looking at you Syria).
As a graduate of history and strong proponent of peace, I had to go to Hiroshima.
Our bullet train glided into Hiroshima station at around 8pm and this was far from ideal – it takes longer to get accustomed to a new place at night. We’d booked an Airbnb in a residential district that even I struggled to pronounce, and from what I could make out from the host’s directions, the buses and trams had stopped. This meant we needed to get a taxi, and taxis in Japan are expensive.
Given that I had no idea where to go, it made sense to find a tech-savvy driver who spoke a bit of English and use their GPS to search for our destination. Instead I found a very old man who didn’t speak a word of Ei-go (English). The doors of his boxy cab automatically opened and we bundled in. Having taken a screenshot of the map and address, the driver poked his white-gloved fingers (Japanese taxi drivers are immaculately uniformed) at my phone screen with a bemused expression, as if he’d never seen such a device before. Concern growing, we sped away and I was convinced that he didn’t have a destination in mind.
Eyes transfixed on the meter and chest tightening with every numerical increase, I was delighted to find that the driver, who’d clearly been in this game a long time, knew the way after all and was simply concerned with the exact building name. Such is the perfectionism of the Japanese. We unloaded our bags, gave him a “domo arigatou” (thank you very much) and made our way into our accommodation which was essentially a box with a mattress compressed by the walls. Such is the accommodation preference of the Japanese. For the next day, we made plans to visit the Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Park, an absolute must do when visiting the city.
Hiroshima is a relatively ‘quiet’ city that lacks the bustle of Tokyo and tourist cattle of Kyoto. It’s grey tower blocks are punctuated by the odd park or river, and with the exception of its excellent tram system and Hondori street, it looks and feels like a non-descript Japanese working city. Head dead centre though, where the two main rivers run parallel, and you’ll find the iconic remains of the Atomic Bomb Dome. Destruction perfectly preserved with rubble, twisted steel girders and a glass-less sphere of a roof resembling the eye of a dead insect, this is where you pay homage to the lost souls of the past, sigh at your melancholic thoughts of the present and hope for a peaceful future.
I don’t want to write much about the Peace Park and the museum other than I cannot recommend it enough as I would be spoiling the insights you’ll glean and effectively be plagiarising the research and exhibition of the museum’s curators. Harrowing is the word, but the exhibit does a wonderful job of remaining unbiased and non-political, which meant that I left optimistic rather than depressed, unlike say, the War Remnant Museum in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. But in terms of themes that I felt and learned, one word encompasses all and that is, ‘Peace’. Despite the violent destruction of the past, Hiroshima feels completely like a city striving for a harmonious future. Every time a nuclear weapon is tested, the mayor of Hiroshima is obligated to write a letter of protest to that country’s government, urging that they adhere to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
This feeling was reinforced when we were interviewed by several groups of yellow-capped children who, as part of a school field trip, wanted to test their language skills by discussing what peace meant to us and them. They would then gift us with a sample of their culture, some porcelain in my case for the kids were from the renowned pottery town of Hamami.
Feeling an odd mood that was at once sombre and heartened, I needed a drink. We found ourselves in an atmospheric izakaya (Japanese pub) where the courteous staff grilled us yakitori skewers and on our life stories. Most young Japanese, if they’re not shy, want to practice their English and in exchange for this opportunity, a bandana-toting man offered me free sake. I had no idea what type I was drinking, but rice wine has a smooth finish that leaves you wanting more. I had more and pleasantly reflected on the positive exchanges we’d had with the local population. Just before our meal I’d attempted to exercise in a playground, and whilst dangling from a soft rock climbing wall, I entered conversation with an older man walking his French Bulldog. I must’ve made an impression as he offered me a discount on his go kart track (random…) while we watched park-goers practice stagefighting for some type of Power Ranger show.
It’s highly likely that you’ve seen a photo of a floating red tori gate when researching Japan. It’s highly likely that this photo was taken on Miyajima island. We needed to take a photo of our own.
Riding the tram system from the city centre directly to the port, we were pleased to find that our JR passes also covered the ferry. Miyajima, ‘Island of the Gods’, was immediately visible from across the bay, it being a mountainous green island typical of Japan. As soon as we disembarked, the horrifying rumours were confirmed for there were deer roaming freely among the town. In reality they were wonderful to see but my post on Nara explains my trepidation. Like in Nara, the deer are revered as the gods’ messengers, and so they descend from the mountain to steal snacks from tourists. Seizing the opportunity to try and capture the best selfie with one, a humourless German expressed his disdain as we lured over a group he’d tried to keep away from his world that was weighing, clearly, on his shoulders.
Miyajima is a peaceful place, well worth a visit for its viewpoint, the aforementioned tori gate which was typically being repaired during our visit and for its famous oysters. But not being fans of oysters, and not willing to pay the exorbitant cost for a ryokan (Japanese inn), we left the island in search of Hiroshima’s other gastro treasure: okonomiyaki.
Similar to a pancake, layers of noodles, cabbage, egg, cheese and your choice of meat or seafood form this wonderful foodstuff that is griddled right in front of you. Although found elsewhere, most notably in Osaka, Hiroshima cuts a swathe of its own by adding noodles. To try this we headed to the Okonomiyaki-mura, essentially a mall with floor after floor of individual restaurants dedicated solely to this food item. Paralysed by choice, we settled into a sociable bench of salarymen and spent the entire meal talking to a gregarious salesman who insisted on being called the anglicised nickname, ‘Sushi No Sake’. At odds with our new friend was his wife who was so cripplingly shy that she literally didn’t look us in the eye. But the odd attempt at Japanese thawed that ice.
All in all, Hiroshima gave insight into not just its history via the Peace Park and reconstructed castle, but also how typical city dwellers go about their lives. Despite its sad history, the city has become a beacon of peace which was only reinforced by the hospitality of its residents.
However, the harmonious ambience was to be violently rumbled.
Prior to leaving Hiroshima at the main train station, either travel exhaustion or coffee withdrawal had me feeling dizzy. I left Elise to grab us snacks and went for a short walk by a parade of shops. Beginning to feel unsteady on my feet, I propped up against a wall wondering what the hell was wrong with me, but as I looked around my immediate thought was, “Why are those shop shutters swaying?” I then noticed the concerned expressions of the people around me, eyes surveying the skyscrapers above us. Suddenly, a wailing siren slowly droned through the city and I immediately uttered, “Earthquake!”
I had but one thought on my mind, ‘Oh my god. Where is Elise!?’
The sensation of the earth beneath your feet vibrating and the optical illusion of an entire cityscape oscillating is an unnerving, completely disorientating experience the first time it happens. To be separated from someone who needs you makes it helplessly terrifying.
Thankfully we were lucky as what we felt were minor tremors that foreshadowed potential devastation. Elise and I safely caught the Shinkansen towards Fukuoka but the next day on the very same line, trains were derailed by the coming earthquake.
Japanese infrastructure is designed to withstand these events. But regardless of whether it’s an aftershock or tidal-induced nuclear catastrophe, the world has seen how easily human beings are humbled when the forces of nature are beyond our control.