Despite being asked many times in my life about what it was like growing up in Japan, I’d never been to the Land of the Rising Sun before.
My reason for visiting Hiroshima, unsurprising to anyone that knows me, was the due to it being the place of denotation of the world’s first Atomic Bomb. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the city itself, but as a place of grave human destruction and tragedy, I felt drawn to it, to learn more, and to pay my respects.
Trying to minimize time off work (I get 8 paid days a year.. compared to 26 back in London) and maximize time there I settled on a flight that left HK at 11:55pm, landed in Toyko 4 hours later, then gave me 2 hours to get through immigration, transfer to the Domestic Terminal, and check in for the next flight, booked separately. I was nervous. I had assurance from the Travel Agent if I missed the flight due to delays they would get me on the next one.. but how this would happen at 5am with no reception I had no idea. So, I studied exactly where I needed to go, walked as fast as I could off the plane and around the terminals.
Immigration was fast, the transfer easy, and I was sat in the Domestic Terminal by my gate with an hour to spare, deliriously tired, but incredibly happy & finally excited. Despite seeing tonnes of toilet pictures from friend’s Japanese travels seeing one in real life still took me by surprise. SO many buttons. I thought it was a bit over the top.. but I came to love, and cherish the warm seats. The fake flushing irritated me, and the cleaning with water was kinda fun/ny… both good for certain situations I guess. Ha.
Waiting to board I was intrigued by the air stewards bowing to something, or someone each time they entered the crew only area at the gate. The plane was pretty much empty, and with a row to myself I moved to the window. As we started to taxi I noticed the ground staff bowing to the plane, and then waving us off. I couldn’t help, but wave back and smile. A few minutes later we were up in the air and in the distance I could see what I thought was Mount Fuji. So damn cool. About 10 minutes later I knelt down to put my phone away in the bag by my feet, ready to power nap again, but out the corner of my eye I saw this:
It was utterly breathtaking. With no one near me I welcomed being able to share my excitement with the enthusiastic air stewardess who was pointing out Mt Fuji to us all. Despite all the nerves about missing my connection, and how tired I would be all day in Hiroshima, this moment was worth it all and I felt so blessed!
Getting to my hostel in Hiroshima was incredibly simple. Airport signs were in English, and I found the Limousine Bus stop easily, first buying a return ticket to the Hiroshima Bus Centre (50 mins, ¥1300 /£9 each way). A 10 minute walk later (using printed google maps) and mainly via the Shareo underground mall-walkway I was at the Santiago Hiroshima Hostel. After a very warm and friendly welcome, I left my wheelie case in reception and headed to the nearest Family Mart for a coffee to accompany me on my stroll down Peace Boulevard.
I was a little dazed; cold, but enjoying the crisp sunshine and clean air, meandering slowly down the promenade past statues and memorial plaques until I came to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It may seem stupid, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’ve been a few highly politicised museums, would this be the same?
The museum was, quite beautifully focused on the actual human tragedy and destruction of the city. Facts, and the background leading up to, and surrounding the detonation were given without embellishment, and the final part of the exhibition spoke more widely of the use and threat of nuclear weapons since WWII.
At 8:15am on 6th August 1945, the American B-29 plane Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, which detonated 600 metres above the city of Hiroshima. No warning or ultimatum was given to the Japanese Government prior to this. Approximately 70,000 people died instantly, and another 70’000 over the next few months due to radiation poisoning and other effects from the bombing. Roughly 70% of Hiroshima’s buildings were destroyed in a an area of approx. 12km. The museum exhibited many survivors testimonies, explaining what they saw and felt from different proximities to the hypocentre. Photos of the aftermath were truly disturbing, many captioned detailing the difficulty the photographers faced, or guilt they felt for taking the pictures, though ultimately realised this needed to be documented. Many of the recounted stories mentioned the welcoming of the rain, the black rain. Open thirsty, dehydrated mouths, desperate for water, when in fact they were swallowing a dangerously radioactive liquid.
The stories of parents looking for, and ultimately losing their children were the hardest to take in. Countless stories of parents waving their children off to school, recounting their last conversations, and then hours, days later, desperately walking around the City hoping to meet someone that had seen them. The reality, in most cases, is that no news was ever heard, and no body recovered. There were no stories of people being ‘vaporised’ and the I could find no credible evidence on the internet stating this as a phenomena either, so believe it to be an urban myth.
Diaries from these young children and teenagers were on display, emphasising the normalcy of their lives, and their undeniably tragic fate. Innocent minds, not clouded by politics, or ‘us’ and ‘them’, concerned with homework and completing their chores. Many others, who seemingly survived the bomb succumbed to radiation poisoning days, weeks, months after, manifesting itself in a variety of disturbing ways, with first symptoms often being nausea, spotting on the skin and bleeding gums. Those that did survive were often left with lifelong disabilities and illnesses. I met a young, (21?) quite drunk American in the hostel that night, and he confessed to me, quietly, ‘I couldn’t help crying.’ Neither could I. two nights later I had a horrific dream with family members dying. It was my Mum that point out the obvious link between my recent trip and my subconscious thoughts.
The young boy on the left was on his tricycle (right) when the bomb detonated. He was killed from the heat, and feeling his son would not want to be far from home, his father buried him, and the tricycle in his backyard, where they remained until 1985. His son’s remains were moved to the family grave, and the tricycle donated.
I headed towards what is known as the A-Bomb Dome. The bomb detonated almost directly above, and it was one of the only buildings whose structure survived the blast. I stayed a moment watching the flame of eternal peace, trying to comprehend what really had happened here.
Walking further on I came to the Children’s Peace Monument. It was built from funds raised by schoolchildren, and depicts a young girl, Sadako Sasaki, who died of leukaemia caused by radiation from the bomb. It was built memorialising her, her wish for no nuclear weapons (wishes to be granted, it is said, when one creates 1000 cranes) and all other children who died and who have suffered from that day. I rang the Peace Bell, and admired the displays made up of paper cranes, wishing I could make one.
I then headed into the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. By this point I was feeling more dazed than before, the tiredness really kicking in, my eyes feeling a little bouncy (I have superior oblique myokymia don’t ch’know…) and full of emotion. I wasn’t sure I could take much more right now, but with a deep breath I wandered in. In fact, it was the perfect place to be. The Hall of Remembrance is a tastefully thought out and planned circular room in which you can’t help but peacefully sit and contemplate. It is filled with sorrow, but there is a warmth to the Hall; a place of shared grief. The 360* panorama presented the bombed city, with the 226 names of the neighbourhoods each inscribed on one of the 140,000 tiles used, each representing one of the victims. In the centre was a fountain; a sculpture of a clock at 8:15am. The tranquility was enhanced by respectfully asking you to take no photos.
Afterwards I wandered across Aioi-bashi bridge, the original planned detonation spot, and around the Dome, and spotted a man making paper cranes, with a sign asking ‘Why don’t you try folding paper cranes?’ I wanted to fold a paper crane. So I made a comment to him about how tiny and intricate the little cranes he was making were, hoping to get an invite, which of course I did. The man had been in his mother’s womb when the bomb went off, meaning he had been issued a survivor card/booklet, which contained details of his health since birth; including two (perhaps three) incidents of Japanese meningitis. I’m not sure if there is a known link. Wikipedia says perhaps…
He laughed, kindly, at my rather rubbish folding, and I was amazed at his almost perfect English, spoken with a Portuguese accent, due to having a Brazilian wife. Nothing like some friendly human interaction to recharge the soul!
Food was desperately needed by this point, and I headed to Nagata-ya, a restaurant that served a vegan version of Okonomiyaki (as well as meat, and other vegetarian options.) In Hiroshima this savoury pancake style dish is made predominately of soba noodles, and was absolutely perfect. Tasty, warm, and very filling, and brought to me by incredibly friendly waiters.
Feeling sightly more human I headed towards Hiroshima castle, passing the Children’s Science Museum and wandered into some sort of family event day, showcasing different regions of Japan, as well as hosting a food and drinks market. I got a photo with a Japanese mascot, and bought some freshly made mochi. Win-win.
Hiroshima Castle was originally built in the 1590’s, but was totally destroyed by the Bomb, and subsequently rebuilt in 1958. After crossing the bridge over the moat I performed the cleansing ritual outside the Gokoku Shrine and had a peek inside. I was pretty exhausted by this point, and just took a small walk around, seeing the Castle only from the outside, but throughly enjoying the serenity of the park, and the incredible large trained trees, which I want to call Bonsais, but really have no idea if they were.
I decided to swing past Shekkei-en Garden (a ‘must see’) and the Memorial Cathedral for World Peace on my way back to the hostel. Not realising that the Garden shut at 5pm, my visit entailed admiring the gates, a few tree tops (by jumping up…) and some flowers, by peering through a hole.
My final stop was just as unsuccessful, with the Cathedral under renovations, and looking pretty closed.
I headed back to the hostel, first getting a little lost detouring though the Entertainment District of Nagarekawa. A few short conversations later, accompanied by Pringles and tea, I was fast asleep in my little capsule like bed space, recharging for my day trip to Miyajama Island the following day.
I just want to note how easy it was to walk around Hiroshima knowing no Japanese. There were many English signs (to the main areas/points of interest) and people were incredibly friendly and helpful, stopping to ask me if I needed directions! I’d been told Japan was very hard to navigate with very little English spoken, so I was very pleasantly surprised!