For many people (myself included), Hiroshima is synonymous with an event that took only a fraction of a second: the detonation of the first atomic bomb used in warfare, on August 6, 1945.
I was eager to see the Hiroshima of today, the one that rarely thinks of August 1945 because it’s too busy getting on with 2011. Walking out of the train station, I immediately noticed the bicycles- they were everywhere. People ride on the sidewalks, which prevents accidents involving cars but encourages close calls with pedestrians. Combine the bikes with the trams (some quite old-fashioned, some new and sleek) and the boxy architecture (presumably because the whole city was rebuilt in the 1950s), and I got the vibe of walking through an Eastern European street during the Cold War… except for the McDonald’s restaurants and the Toshiba billboards.
A river runs through the city, which makes for nice views walking around at night.
Mazda is the biggest game in town, having been headquartered here since 1920. We took the factory tour and Zoom-Zoomed all around the complex, learning that the company has its own hospital, owns its own bridge, and generates 70% of the electricity it uses. Checking out early Mazdas, Karen found the one she wants to drive through New Zealand: the Bongo.
We also met our new mate, John from Melbourne. We’ll be there in a month, and over lunch he drew us an elaborate map labeled with points of interest. We hope to see him Down Under, but first, we were destined to bump into him a few more times in Japan (are we following him, or is he following us?).
One of the most famous sites in Japan lies on an island just outside Hiroshima: Miyajima, home of the floating shrine. At high tide, it appears that the O-torii Gate and the buildings of the shrine are floating in the bay. We arrived as the tide was going out and were treated to the last moments of that illusion.
How picturesque is this place? A bride and groom were having their wedding photos taken at the shrine, and hiking through the hills revealed another visual marvel around each corner.
Daisho-In Temple was particularly impressive, with its colorful entrance. The garden is lined with 500 figures of disciples of Shaka Nyorai (Buddha), each with a unique facial expression. Spinning the Mani Wheel invites blessings.
That’s the new Hiroshima, but of course the awful events of 1945 are not forgotten here. Karen and I spent an afternoon exploring Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which commemorates those events exceptionally well. There are places here to learn the history, ponder what it must have been like, and remember the dead.
The A-Bomb Dome is one focal point. Formerly the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, this building was one of the few to remain standing after the blast. Against some opposition, city leaders decided to preserve the building just as it was, and I’m glad they did. I can hear the voices calling for removing this scar from the landscape, but seeing an actual destroyed building makes the blast real in a way that photos cannot.
At the other end of the park, across a beautiful green space, is the Peace Memorial Museum. Inside, powerful displays tell a balanced version of history, warts and all, for the Japanese (for example, how moving military units and supplies to a city known for its schools made it a good target for the bombing) and the U.S. (American censorship prevented the health effects of radiation from being fully known for years). There are interesting models of the city before and after the blast, with a red ball representing the point overhead where the bomb was triggered. Later, we walked over to the hypocenter, now marked by a plaque. It’s odd to think that you’re standing on the very spot where a wave of death was unleashed on thousands of civilians. An estimated 70,000 people were killed immediately, with perhaps 140,000 dead by the end of the year.
Every time the U.S. conducts a nuclear weapons-related test, the mayor of Hiroshima writes a letter to the President encouraging the pursuit of worldwide nuclear disarmament. It seems a fitting way to give a voice to those who died in Hiroshima on that long-ago day or in the torturous days that followed.
The park is laid out so that the museum, memorials and A-Bomb Dome line up with an elegant symmetry. A bit overwhelmed by the history all around me yet just beyond reach, I stepped out of the museum. Blinking in the sunlight, I appreciated seeing people biking across the bridge, walking with friends, and playing guitar beside the river.
We humans have an impressive ability to recover from tragic events. Hopefully we can learn from this one and create a more peaceful world.