My life had come full circle. In a few days I would be leaving Japan for a job on the other side of the world. I had come to Hiroshima on one last whirl wind trip of Japan. My life in Japan began with a trip to this city and it seemed fitting it should end here as well. It had been almost three years to the day since I had last stood on this bridge above the swirling brown water of the Ota-gawa river. The weather today was as hot and oppressive now as it was then.
The history of Hiroshima as a town began when Terumoto Mori left Koriyama Castle in Yoshida, Takata County, and built a castle on the shores of Hiroshima Bay. On April 15, 1589, Terumoto appointed Naritoki Ninomiya and Motokiyo Hoita magistrates in charge of construction and ordered them to begin the foundation work with all possible speed. The next year the castle town was laid out, the moat dug, and the castle buildings themselves were under construction. Castle construction proceeded even though during that year Terumoto was on duty protecting Kyoto, while Hideyoshi Toyotomi was attacking Odawara Castle. Terumoto moved into the castle in 1593 when construction was nearly complete. However, the beauty and antiquity of this charming and peaceful town is somewhat lost in what has become known as a pivotal point in human history - a point when the veneer of human decency was exposed, and the world lost its innocence
At 8.13 A.M, on a Monday morning very similar to the day I stood on T shaped Aioi-bashi bridge, ‘Little Boy’ was dropped from the Enola Gay, one of the B-29 bombers that flew over Hiroshima on that day. After being released, it took about a minute for Little Boy to reach the point of explosion when it reached an altitude of 2,000 ft above the building that is today called the A-Bomb Dome (Genbaku Domu). The people who saw the Little Boy often say "We saw another sun in the sky when it exploded." The heat and the light generated by the Little Boy were far stronger than bombs which they had seen before. When the heat wave reached ground level it burnt all before it including people. The strong wind generated by the bomb destroyed most of the houses and buildings within a 1.5 miles radius. When the wind reached the mountains, it was reflected and again hit the people in the city centre.
I stood on the bridge which some claim to be the original target for the bomber crew and looked out at the new modern city, which had sprung phoenix like, from the post apocalyptic ashes - a testament to both the stupidity and the durability of man. We should never forget, and Hiroshima has many buildings which serve as a grim testament to those events over half a life time ago, but as the Major of Hiroshima, who sometimes seems to be the sole voice of reason in a world obsessed with the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, said recently, ‘The real issue is not what happened, but what we should do for the future...". It was for this future that I had come to see Hiroshima.
I began my tour, like most tourists, at the Atomic Bomb Dome, which marks the geographical centre of the town. The A-bomb Dome was originally constructed in 1915 as the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall. It was designed by the Czech architect Jan Letzel. At the time, this bold European-style building with its oval dome and undulating walls as one of Hiroshima's famous sights. Today it is a UNESCO protected building. On this muggy afternoon a crowd of well behaved school children were taking a late lunch in park. I sat and watched them trying to imagine that fateful day. I couldn’t….
From the ashes of destruction by the atomic bombing, Hiroshima rose to successfully host the 12th Asian Games in 1994. Today it is a bustling, if not attractive, modern Japanese town. The streets seem wide and the many parks and public gardens appear well cared for. I wandered into the Shukki-en garden which had been partially damaged by the blast and sat in the shade. The garden was modelled on a famous Chinese garden in Hangzhou and was built in 1620. Today is a well cared for, if seldom visited oasis in the otherwise throbbing city.
I took a street car across town to the Peace Memorial Park (heiwa koen). As most other cities in Japan tore up their street car tracks after World War II, their cars were added to Hiroshima’s collection, and so the city has acquired an eclectic collection of tram cars, many dating back to the 1940s, it seemed an appropriate way to travel. I strolled over to the cenotaph where a flame of peace burns. This is not an eternal flame to commemorate the deaths of so many, but instead will burn until the last of the worlds nuclear weapons are destroyed. Inscribed on the cenotaph was a few simple words ‘Let All the Souls Here Rest in Peace: For We Shall Not Repeat the Evil.’. I crossed the park to the children’s memorial to lay my paper crane with the rest.
Sadako Sasaki was almost two when the bomb exploded a mile from her home in Hiroshima. Seemingly unharmed, she fled with her mother and older brother to the Oto River, where they were drenched by the radioactive black rain that fell throughout the day. Until the age of twelve, Sadako appeared to be a normal, healthy girl. She was the best runner in her sixth grade class when she suddenly developed leukaemia
"Tsuru" the crane, is an ancient Japanese symbol of long-life, hope, good luck and happiness. Sadako told her concerned doctors that ‘I will fold a thousand paper cranes and they will protect me from illness. I will write peace on their wings and they will fly all over the world."
But Sadako did not have the strength to reach a thousand. After having folded nine hundred and sixty four (some versions of the story say less), she died on October 25, 1955. Her friends added the missing paper cranes and placed them in the coffin with her.
Sadako's class began a national campaign to build a monument to her. It was erected in 1958 and it honours all children who suffered from the bomb. On the top of the oval granite pedestal, which symbolises the fabled Mountain of Paradise, Mt. Horai, a young girl stands holding a golden crane in her outstretched arms. Inside the pedestal is a space for the thousands of colourful paper cranes that people from all over Japan and the world send every year.
About a month after the A-bomb was dropped, the temporary first-aid stations established in hospitals and schools around the city, gradually returned to normalcy. People who had escaped to the suburbs began to come back one by one to the city which had become a wide stretch of burnt-out ruins. They built shacks made of tin sheets dug out of the ruins and started life again. However, back in the city, they experienced a state of lethargy since there were no companies or factories to employ them, there was not enough food to eat, and they were worried about developing A-bomb related diseases. At that time, a typhoon hit the city. It raged from the middle of the night on September 17 to the next morning. The burnt city was completely submerged and the air-raid shelters and shacks in which the A-bomb
survivors lived were destroyed. The people were hard hit, losing their place to sleep and what little belongings they had. Quite a few of them gave up living in the city and went back to the countryside again.
The reconstruction of Hiroshima began with relief activities, mainly by the army (the Akatsuki Unit), immediately after the bombing. They removed the countless dead bodies in the first four or five days, cleared the principal roads for truck traffic, and of course helped to house and treat the wounded. Since the war was still going on, it was urgent to restore the functions of the important military bases. Emergency measures were taken to restore communications, electricity, and transportation.
When the army, which had been the main force in the reconstruction work, was disbanded at the end of the war, the work slowed. The city government, almost totally destroyed by the bombing, was not capable of taking over the reconstruction work and was forced to depend heavily on aid from other areas of Hiroshima Prefecture and neighbouring prefectures. Through the relief work of these groups, Hiroshima City gradually began to grope its way back to life. Yoshiro Saeki, a noted religious historian was opposed to the idea of building Hiroshima as a large city. Instead, he preferred a smallscale carefully planned Hiroshima. He went on further to say that ‘the present state of metropolitan Tokyo is a result of the failure of party politics. Such a situation should be avoided. I think that we should allow Hiroshima to grow larger in a natural way.’. It is mainly due to this man’s insight that wandering round Hiroshima today is such a pleasant experience.
My next stop was the ‘A’ Bomb Museum. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum has always represented the wishes of the citizens of Hiroshima for the abolition of nuclear weapons and world peace. The museum comprises of two buildings. The East Building houses a historical display, offering a simple depiction of Hiroshima before and after the devastation of the bombing using photo panels, visual presentations, models and other media. There is also a video theatre running a film of the bombing; an exhibition room of pictures of the atomic bomb drawn by the citizens of Hiroshima; a hall/conference room where students on school trips can hear stories from victims; and an information room where one can find materials about the bomb as well as information about peace activities.
The West Building, which is a more sober affair contains artefacts that vividly convey the tragedy of the bomb, through such exhibits as a charred lunch box and a student’s uniform that was instantly ruined by the heat rays. My head began to spin and the long display cases filled with unimaginable horrors, melted buddhas, a rusted children’s bike and stones burnt with the shadow of a man shocked me. I stumbled out into the late afternoon sun gasping for air.
I wandered the peaceful, and almost deserted streets in search of some food. Hiroshima is famous for its oysters and its local version of okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki restaurants (okonomiyaki-ya) serve large, savory pancakes made with diced seafood, meat and vegetables. "Okonomiyaki" literally means "cook what you like," and customers get to choose their own favourite ingredients and then cook up their pancakes right at the table. Because the customers choose their own ingredients, Japanese sometimes compare okonomiyaki to pizza, although the similarity really ends there. I slowly sipped my cold beer as the world outside went about its business as normal. Hiroshima may certainly have a tragic past, but it wears its scars well, and with dignity.
In search of peace I took the short ferry ride across the bay to Miyajima, an island once considered so sacred that common folk couldn't step onto it, and now home to the famous floating Tori of a thousand picture post card fame. Since ancient times, Miyajima has been regarded as one of the "Three Most Beautiful Spots" of Japan, and as a part of the Seto Inland Sea National Park, it is a place of extraordinary scenic beauty, exceptional history, a scenic zone, and a natural monument. The virgin forests neighbouring Mt. Misen hints at the abundance of nature which still covers the entire island even now. However, it is most famous for its impressive shrine.
From ancient times, people have sensed the spiritual sanctity of Miyajima, and have revered and worshipped the island itself as goddesses. The main shrine is said to have been constructed in 593 by Saeki Kuramoto. The shrine itself stands defiantly in the sea as a manifestation of the faith in the Buddhist belief that when people die, their soul crosses over by boats to the "next world" to go to Gokuraku Jodo (paradise, Buddhist Pure Land). Since the shrine is built in the sea, the foundation posts are submerged in the water and decay rather easily. Furthermore, the shrine becomes weathered and is sometimes battered by the sea breezes and typhoons. Although constant and comprehensive
maintenance is required due to these natural factors, nearly 800 years have passed since Itsukushima Shrine was first built, and we are fortunate to be able to see the same shrine as the Heian Court did.
I sat on outside the shrine and petted the tame deer which stroll business like through the grounds. Crowds of day-trippers were busily photographing the vermilion coloured Otorii which stands in the sea in front of Itsukushima Shrine. As the sun began to set the gate seemed to melt into the choppy brown waters of the bay and the lights of Hiroshima began to come on. Soon the tourists departed, and I was left alone with my thoughts. I could think of nowhere better to spend my last few days in Japan.
Getting from Tokyo to Hiroshima is going to be expensive any way you look at it. The cheapest option is to take the night bus from Tokyo station, which costs JY12,060 one-way or JY22,000 for a return ticket (used within seven days). The bus leaves Tokyo at 8pm every day and arrives in Hiroshima twelve hours later. It's extremely comfortable for a bus - you get slippers, a blanket and a chair which reclines almost flat so you should be able to sleep. It has the added advantage of saving you time and a night's accommodation. The second option is the Shinkansen, which will set you back JY17,700 one-way. The Hikari takes five hours, or you can pay an extra JY2000 and take the Nozomi and arrive in four hours. If money's no object and you want to save time then, obviously, your best bet is to fly from Haneda. A one-way ticket with ANA, JAS or JAL costs around JY21,600 and the flight takes one hour and fifteen minutes. Once there, getting around the city is very easy on the good tram network which costs a flat JY150 to any destination.
Hiroshima Youth Hostel is in the city centre, but it is spacious, relaxed and cheap - there is a special price for gaijin visitors, of JY1940 per night, in peak season, or JY1770, off peak. Dinner is JY750 and a buffet breakfast is JY450. Curfew is 10pm. The hostel has large traditional-style bathrooms for men and women and there is also an outdoor pool for the summer. The quickest way to get to the hostel from downtown is to take the Astram line (from Hondori or Kencho-mae underground stations) to Ushita (JY220). From there, keep walking away from the city until you see the signs - it's a ten-minute walk.
There is also a selection of ryokan and minshuku, near the station and near the Peace Park. Especially recommended is the Minshuku Ikedaya which has friendly English-speaking staff and pleasant rooms in a good location, walking distance from the city centre. There are numerous business and high class hotels in the city; the ANA Hotel Hiroshima is generally accepted to be the best of the lot, with singles from JY10,000, doubles from JY20,000.
From the center of Hiroshima, a 55-minute tram ride and ten minute ferry hop will get you onto Miyajima. Take tram number 2 of the Hiroshima Dentetsu (tel 0829-56-0152) to the Hiroden Miyajima station, and take any ferry (JY340 round trip) across. JR trains will take only 20 to 30
minutes from central Hiroshima to Miyajima-guchi station (JY390) where you may then catch the ferry. The JR ferry heads closest to the torii during the crossing, so it has the best views for your snapshots. Give yourself at least one full day if you want to explore this beautiful World Cultural Heritage site properly.