Hiroshima Peace Memorial

This journey was originally taken in February of 2017. It was part of a trip to Taiwan, Japan and Korea. In Japan, I spent 5 days in Greater Tokyo and 5 days in Kansai with some moments outside those regions perhaps. This section is about super impromptu trip to Hiroshima.

 

“Planning.” So this was definitely one of the more worthwhile portions of my entire trip to Japan. I knew when I planned my trip it was somewhere I wanted to go. I had figured with the incredible access to public transit that this wouldn’t be super hard to get to and that I’d figure out logistics once on the world’s seventh largest island. And then – money.

For all the superlatives and accolades heaped on Japan’s bullet train, cost is generally not one of them. I could’ve gotten from Osaka to Hiroshima in about an hour, but it would’ve cost upwards of $200, something I was somewhat loathe to do, given my strict adherence to budgeting.

Instead I read about an overnight bus which is infinitely cheaper and really is only 6 hours, which isn’t too bad, especially since I seem to become narco once I hop on transit these days, asleep faster than the lights can turn off

(Side note: when I travel I do a ton of research beforehand. I usually don’t adhere completely to the plan, as that’s no fun either and leaves no room for adventure. But I have a very decent sketch of what I want to do, so that if I have time I can always be doing something. I hate traveling and either doing nothing or failing to accomplish goals. For this particular trip to Hiroshima, there was only one night/day I could really swing it and I left planning late. Hence…)

So when I asked for advice on said bus but no one could help me. It was getting a bit late maybe 9pm and I figure the bus station is only a few short stops away on the subways; I’d go there, purchase my ticket, come back to the hostel and get ready to go out later for the bus again.

I get to the station, completely goofed on the timing and had to decide (right then and there) that I was going to a somewhat distant city on an uncharged phone. Yippee!

When I finally got to the city on minimal sleep and a dead phone, I groggily found a convenience store and overpaid for a battery-operated phone charger. Sick. It was to be a random journey indeed.

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Dead snowmen in Hiroshima. I decided to go to the city for obvious reasons: I wanted to see/feel the effects of the American military. And as one of the main goals of this trip, I was satisfied thoroughly (I guess that’s a weird way to frame it).

Immediately upon arriving, I noticed there was a snowman who looked like he’d been blown away in a blast. Carrot broken, coal strewn about, snow balls blasted.

I thought it was maybe that he’d melted from the sun, but as I walked around the city, I noticed there were snowmen everywhere that looked purposeful in their design, indicating the bomb’s influence remained.

After walking by those reminders, I followed Google Maps to find ground zero where the bomb blast hit and the current location of the peace museum.

Museum curation is powerful. Hiroshima thoroughly thought out their museum design: the water, the fire, the direction, the pacing, everything was wonderful.

The bomb dropped in 1945 absolutely devastated the city, as we know. On the spot where it was dropped is a park, a museum and a memorial of the events, which is primarily where I walked around.

The most obvious remnant of the blast is the Atomic Bomb Dome, a building whose facade has remained recognizable though thoroughly shredded. There were fierce attempts at first to rid the world of its memory, so that we might never see something like this again, but people fought to have it remain, to serve as a reminder of the perils of war. To competing views with similar aims.

This is a powerful beginning to the visit, and it became clear to me that this museum was utterly amazing. The design was flawless and it is constructed in a way to lead you on a journey. It truly tugs at you, forces you to think, urges you to shed a tear. Every small detail is planned out on how to deliver a message. It is a heartbreaking reminder, and whoever it was who created this park is an utter genius.

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From the building, you can walk south 100 or so meters to the bridge that is considered more or less the hypocenter of the blast. (It detonated 600m above the surface to maximize damage, hence why it’s called a hypocenter and not epicenter.) Somehow the bridge sort of remained the initial shock. Anything that was wooden instantly vanished. Buildings not reinforced by steel crumbled. Somehow chimneys remained upright as did a few other sound buildings. Hiroshima castle with its wooden supports and paper walls, obviously did not survive. It was the doomsday scenario of comic books actualized.

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From that infamous bridge you head toward the museum, but first see a memorial consisting of a pool, an eternal flame and a structure stretched out wide to either side of the pool. It looked to me to symbolize a warm heart and an open embrace, pulling you in. It serves to remind us of the human toll.

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Museum. As I was leaving to head to the museum, I saw a women arrive, stare down through the memorial at the Atomic Bomb Dome hundreds of yards away, saying a prayer, blessing the shrine and parting with a tear. Powerful, but I’d yet to sense that raw emotion.

So I entered the museum, and the brilliance took hold. Much of the museum is simply fragments, both because materially that’s all that remained and emotionally to show us the ruin. It reassembles a piecemeal history and it’s impactful as vignettes continually remind you of the breadth and severity of the bomb. There were burnt shoes, seared clothing and scorched toys. It basically read under each one something to this effect:

This is Little Johnny’s shoe. It’s all that remains of him. It was carried back to his mother a week after the blast. He left for school that morning at 8am. After the bomb exploded, he headed home covered in blisters. He went to the hospital that night. He struggled the whole next day. Finally on August 8, Little Johnny passed away.

And there were dozens upon dozens upon dozens of these stories. Hundreds of these little stories, reminding us of the horrors of war. There were exhibits showing the awesome power of the bomb: plates fused together from the heat, the radiation scarring the steps of a bank, and before and after pictures.

Sadako Sasaki. But the one that truly gets at you was a story about a little girl named Sadako Sasaki, two-years-old that day and survivor of the atom bomb. Nearly a decade after the war, she suddenly began to show serious symptoms and was taken to the hospital. She was experiencing radiation poison.

She’d been healthy as could be for all her childhood, a happy girl as she was described and suddenly her health was rapidly deteriorating. In Japanese lore, there’s a tale that if you fold 1,000 paper cranes your sickness will go away. And so she began making these little, folded cranes every day.

Laboring over each fold, and the cranes got smaller and smaller and smaller. Then she hit crane number 1,000 and her health did not improve. So she continued to make them. 1,001. 1,002. 1,003. And so on. Until her death. She should be alive today, but she’s not. And that is a gut-wrenching thought

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Obama’s crane!

And it’s here after all these vignettes that it hits you the hardest. After this last one, you don’t want to linger too long, as the emotions are beginning to well up. You carry on and turn the corner as the only way forward, and as you do you realize you’re on the second floor, back around the building with giant windows facing the same memorials you saw before.

It’s the same Atomic Bomb Dome, only a little further away, yet you couldn’t feel closer to the gravity of the situation. It hits you and you see other people tearing up. A son on a bench, back against the wall, motionless, stung, and choking it back. His mother, with massive aviators on to hide the flood of tears underneath. A disparate crowd by blood, yet unified in emotion. It is seriously powerful stuff

So you continue through and see a bunch of smaller exhibits about the present and future of nuclear weapons. Displays about which countries have them and which do not. A description of Obama’s historic visit to the city the previous year. Warnings and perils, and then you quickly head down the steps and out the museum.

To your right is immediately a memorial to the survivors, so of course you enter. Following the arrows you head down the steps into a central room, domed with high-ish ceilings. On the walls are 140,000 tiles, one for each of the deceased. You reflect for a second and head upstairs to find an interactive display for each of them, a searchable database. Then there’s a small, open, inviting theater, playing animated descriptions of the horrors of the bomb, entailing the gruesome details

Then heading out of this memorial, you open the door and see a little waterfall, water coming down a slope, with a continuous rustle of the water. Obvious symbolism of water washing away the pain, the sin, the misery. And you head up a flight of stairs to a part of the park you hadn’t been before. Symbolism that we’ve been taken on a journey, taken somewhere new in this life. We must move on.

Then you see right in front of you, strategically placed is the memorial from before with the burning flame, and you see another person offering a prayer, so you go over to do the same. As you leave, someone else replaces you, continuing the process of educating the people on the horrors.

This was one of the most moving moments in my life. It was/is vivid. It was/is powerful. Easily one of the most impactful, emotional experiences I’ve ever had. I will truly never forget the palpable melancholy I felt over something that occurred over 70 years ago to people I do not know, that I had no part in. Against an enemy at only that time. It matters not when innocent lives are involved. It was, in a word, sad.

Definitely added board for North Korea. One moment that did give me a chuckle, a moment’s reprieve of the overwhelming grief, was an obvious and justified politicization of the museum. It’s actually deserved, but just kinda humorous.

So as the museum detailed the past, present and future situation on nukes, there were seven poster board displays, all of which had clearly been there for years, as they were yellowed and dull. They sat in the sun, so of course they should be. One even had spelling mistakes that they only fixed by taping it over

An internationally acclaimed museum only taped over a glaring spelling error on what could only be a 5 dollar poster. However, when I came time to outlining which countries have nuclear weapons, that poster had clearly just been updated to include North Korea. 6 old posters, next to a shiny, brand-spanking-new poster to remind us that the Hermit Kingdom has this raw power. (To be clear, I don’t think it’s funny NK has that capability. I find it humorous that of the blatantly yellowed posters, they only felt the need to update that one.)

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Life goes on… But mankind is resilient, and this park shows why. After leaving the park, emotions welling up, you see life carry on normally. A man zips by on his bike. People on their phones passing by the memorial like nothing. Stores and restaurants. Normalcy.

And that’s the point I believe. To return to normalcy without forgetting past events. This was truly the most incredible museum I’ve ever been to.

–and anyways, to continue on–

So I had a few hours to kill before I left Hiroshima back for Osaka. A true passion of mine is to just walk. And walk. And keep walking like Forrest himself. I sometimes hate having anything more than a vague destination, and so with one in mind I set off.

Wharfs. So as I’ve repeated, I love seaside places, especially ones with a major port. One of the reasons Hiroshima was selected to be bombed was precisely because of its ports in fact. So I looked on the map and saw these massive wharfs jutting out, so with more than a few hours to kill, I figured the last thing I did here would be to check them out.

Traveling can be hit-or-miss. Sometimes you take a random gamble and enjoy a magnificent hike with breathtaking views. Other times you bite on a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and discover it to be utter crap. The wharfs for me were the latter; a two hour walk gave me sightlines of about 20 tiny sailboats moored up and nothing more. I was a pretty mediocre walk over all unfortunately. You win some, you lose some. Oh well, two hours back I guess to the bus station with heavy legs.

Hiroshima native. So after walking around 10+ miles that day, I figured I could do with a beer before my bus back in an hour. I posted up at a little spot not a stone’s throw from the station (a throw even I could manage with my busted shoulders, so it was quite close). Inside, I met the friendliest bartender on the planet, who upon learning I was from Boston immediately gifted a free Samuel Adams, because that’s all our city is known for apparently.

He introduced me to his friend/client and carried on to chat with others at his bar. The guy I started chatting with turned out to be a businessman in Hiroshima and was endlessly curious with a young, American coming solo to the city – for obvious reasons. We got talking about Japanese soft power in the form of cartoons, because of course we did.

One thing China definitely lacks is a highly marketable cultural export. Other than General Tso’s, can you think of many Chinese products you use daily? Sure, maybe your t-shirts, but that’s American branding still. Perhaps the new movie The Great Wall, but that’s incredibly recent. Random products, but again those are really American. Japan has been at this for years what with Pokemon, manga, video games and trading cards; perhaps one of the most intriguing stories is a cartoon called Kumamon

There’s a region in Japan called Kumamoto, which is way far south. When the bullet train opened up there a few years back, they promoted tourism with a character called Kumamon, a play on words with the place name and the word for “bear,” as I’m told. The cool thing they did however, was not to trademark the character. It’s public domain and can be used by anyone. Because Asians love adorable cartoons (and this bear is adorable to the nth degree) its image is plastered all over the world for free, and they get advertising all over the place.

Anyways, after discussing video games and manga, we got talking about Hiroshima itself as he was born and raised there. He gave me his folks’ account of the immediate post-war. Basically he said that right when the war ended, a lot of the Japanese commoners realized instantly they’d been fighting on the wrong side, and many of them became open to the Americans, whereas they once had hated them.

However, the American soldiers having just viciously fought them weren’t entirely amenable to befriending scores of Japanese. In fact, he said many, many women were scared to even go outside alone in fear of the soldiers. (You can infer.) He said it took a few years, but it eventually became much easier for the two countries to develop amicable relations to the way they are now.

So after that casual bomb of a conversation, I had to tidy up my Sammy Adams and head off for a long-ish bus ride with many emotions flowing and thoughts a-brewing.

Hiroshima was powerful and I’m super glad I went through the effort to go. One experience I was told I absolutely had to have in France was a journey to where the Americans stormed Normandy on D-Day, but for whatever reasons, it just never happened. This was one I also really, really felt I needed to see. Check.

Have you been to Hiroshima before? Let us know in the comments below.

Like what you’re reading on Japan? Check out some other related articles in: The Japan Chronicles!

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