Hiroshima has a longer history than we give it credit for. In the Western world, sometimes it seems like Hiroshima’s entire history started when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on the city. But there is so much more to the city than that. The fact that it has such an old, old, rich history makes its destruction perhaps even more devastating.
Even though I live in a rural area near the ocean, there isn’t much… nature to speak of in my tiny town. Everything seems paved, and all of the buildings are quite close together. It’s jarring after graduating from UC Santa Cruz, with its beautiful campus and the trees, oh the trees, to come to Tomiura and realize there are no trees here.
So when I can go to gardens, I go.
Shukkeien means “shrunken scenery garden.” I think the name pretty much speaks for itself: Everything in the garden is a miniature landscape. It was cool to go through a bunch of different scenes as my friend and I walked through the garden.
There were also tea houses, and my friend studies Japanese tea ceremony, so we talked about that a bit as we walked around the garden that was created in 1620, destroyed in the atomic blast in 1945, and reconstructed in 1951.
Itsukushima, a.k.a. Miyajima
On our second day, we went to Itsukushima, an island in Hiroshima Bay famous for its shrine. The island is also known as “Miyajima,” which means “shrine island.”
You have to take a 10-minute ferry out to the island, and it’s very convenient. There’s no reason not to go! Except…
“Oh man, Megan,” my friend said, looking at her phone. “I’m looking at the roundtrip ferry prices, and it’s totally gonna break the bank.”
“Uh oh,” I said, wincing internally. I was hoping to save as much money as possible on this trip. “Lay it on me.”
She looked at me, straight in my eyes, and revealed the horrifying truth to me, dead-pan: “180 yen.”
…So yeah, there really is no reason not to go.
We decided to spend the whole day there, because you can see the shrine at both high tide and low tide. Our hostel even posted what time the tides were! When we arrived, it was high tide, and there were a lot of people taking pictures of the torii (Shinto shrine archway) floating in the bay. We snapped a few, flirted with some deer, and then headed up to the mountain.
On Miyajima, you can take the ropeway up the mountain to a spot with a great view, and then you can hike 30 minutes to the very top. We had all day, so we figured, why not? The ropeway costs 1800 yen for a roundtrip, and you take two cars up to the top, with a short stop at a station in the middle.
Once you reach the last stop, there’s a rest stop and some rocks from which you can take gorgeous pictures and admire the scenery.
And then you can choose to hike to the very top. It’s not a difficult hike, and it’s worth it.
We started to climb back down the mountain to the ropeway station, meaning to take a slightly different path so as to see everything. Unfortunately, at some point, we went the wrong way and started to hike down the mountain path. If it weren’t for a Japanese couple looking at their map in confusion too, we would have probably been hopelessly lost and walked down the entire mountain.
But with the help of the Japanese couple, we found the fork where we went wrong and eventually made it back to the ropeway station. Word to the wise: Pay attention to the signs. Do not just walk on autopilot. Yikes.
On our way down the ropeway, we ran into an American family that made us so mad. We couldn’t stop thinking of them for the rest of the trip because they were so damn stupid.
We took the first car down the ropeway and got off to switch cars, and this tourist family looked really confused. They argued about what to do next, and my friend jumped in and told them that they had to take the second car up the mountain to get to the top. The young girl and the older man in the group seemed to understand and argued a bit longer with the mom and the grandmother. My friend and I got in line for the car down the mountain, and at some point we turned around—and the family was standing behind us in line.
They wasted 1800 yen to take the ropeway halfway up the mountain. So. Dumb.
We told them what to do. What was so hard to understand about it? For the rest of the trip, we complained about that family to each other. “Remember that stupid American family?” “I can’t believe they wasted 1800 yen to see nothing!” “They missed it! They missed everything!” “Oh my God!”
We made it back to the beach just in time for low tide. Now everyone was walking around the beach and taking pictures of the torii up close.
There are a few special foods that you should get when you go to Miyajima. First is the momiji manju. Manju are pastries, usually with anko (red bean) filling, but they come in many flavors. Momiji are a type of maple leaf famous in Japan, so momiji manju are just pastries shaped like maple leaves. There are a lot of places to get manju on Miyajima. My friend and I chose a place that sold fried momiji manju and had a sign saying Travel Advisor recommends it.
Before I left, my coworkers kept telling me that I had to eat oysters while I was in Hiroshima, because apparently oysters are a big deal there. My friend and I aren’t big fans of oysters (or seafood in general), so we didn’t really go out of our way to look for them. We did find a place that did kakidon, though, meaning oysters over rice, and we figured that was as good a way to eat them as any.
So there you go, coworkers—I ate oysters. And actually, it was quite good.
We left our hostel early in the morning to trek across the city for our last day in Hiroshima. It was surely going to be the saddest day ever, judging by our itinerary.
We started at Hiroshima Castle, built in 1589 and reconstructed after the atomic bombing in 1958. The grounds were huge but completely demolished. There were only foundations left for many of the buildings, somewhat reminiscent of the house foundations I saw in Fukushima.
Hiroshima was a candidate for the bombing in the first place because it was a large military center in Japan during WWII. Hiroshima Castle actually served as HQ for a lot of military projects. It’s too bad a place of such rich history had to be obliterated for a supposed “greater good.”
The (reconstructed) castle itself was pretty cool, but then, I love Japanese castles. The architecture is fantastic.
A-Bomb Dome & Hiroshima Peace Museum
From the castle, it was just a short jaunt (okay, a 20-minute walk) to the epicenter of the bombing: the A-Bomb Dome.
Now called Genbaku Dome in Japanese, this building used to be an exhibition hall for art and education. Sounds like my kind of place! Too bad America has to ruin everything I love.
The bomb detonated over Shima Hospital (a hospital; you monsters), and took down pretty much everything within 1.6 kilometers, and then some.
The A-Bomb Dome was the only building left standing, so it became a memorial and a symbol of peace (with some controversy). I think it is also possibly a symbol of resilience: You can bomb our cities all you like, but we’re still standing.
Preservation is ongoing, and unfortunately, my friend and I arrived in Hiroshima during the period when they were checking the site for damage. So the A-Bomb Dome looked like this:
Despite the construction blocking the real view, it was actually pretty cool to see how they preserve it. They were checking for structural damage (from earthquakes and the like), but more impressive was the debris scattered inside the fence surrounding the memorial. They just left rocks and bricks and everything exactly where it was in 1945, so you could see exactly what it looked like after the bombing. That is some intense, sobering stuff.
Down the walk in the Peace Memorial Park, we found a few other memorials. The first was to students that were forced to work during war time. Many of these students were pulled out of school to help with the war effort, and because they were in the city at the time of the bombing, instead of at home or in school, a huge number of junior high and high school students died.
Next was a memorial to Sadako, a junior high school girl who died from the after effects of the bomb. Like many children, she suffered from “atomic bomb disease” (原爆症) and was diagnosed with leukemia. There is an old Japanese legend that if you fold one thousand paper cranes, you get a wish. Sadako made one thousand, and according to the museum kept going after that, but she died anyway. Her memorial stands in honor of all the children who died during and because of the bombing.
At the end of Peace Memorial Park was the actual museum, which my friend and I approached feeling really sober already. By the end of it, I was just angry and upset. I already knew a lot of what we read about and saw inside the museum, because I watched some documentaries by Steven Okazaki a few years ago. It was still a sobering experience, and I did learn a lot. The images of the effects were the most educational part, I think, because you can read all you want, but you can never see. Unfortunately, cameras were not permitted in the museum, so I can’t share any of the gruesome images with you.
Or maybe that’s actually fortunate. If you’re really curious, check out White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After we left the museum, some high school girls approached us and told us about a school project they were doing. They were asking people to write messages of peace for a video project. They had a large sketchpad and big black pens, and they asked us to write a message and allow our picture to be included in the video. We agreed, but we didn’t know what to write, so I browsed for peace quotes on my phone. What a phony. (Heh. Get it? Don’t laugh, it’s not funny.) I found one I liked, wrote it in cursive in the sketchbook (got it wrong and my friend had to correct me), and doodled some flowers around the edge. They gave us the web address for their high school and said they would post the video on the home page.
It was late afternoon when we were done with our Hiroshima tour, so we stopped in a Starbucks to chill before checking out the local illuminations. So worth the trip.
As a proper farewell to Hiroshima, on our last night, my friend and I ate Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Similar to Ramen Yokocho in Sapporo, there was Okonomi-Mura in Hiroshima.
Okonomi-Mura is a building holding several okonomiyaki restaurants. There were so many to choose from that we just picked one at random—one on the second or third floor, I think. You really can’t go wrong with any of the places, but we were lucky with ours. The people were very nice and patient, and they were old pros at making Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki right in front of your face.
You walk in and sit down at the bar surrounding the teppan. There isn’t a lot of room, so try not to bring a huge party (though there was a group of about six high school students seated at one point). The cooks will bring you water and a menu, or else just tell them what you want. Before we went, the guidebook we had said that you might have to ask for a plate, but this place just gave us some automatically. Then they make your food in front of you, and you can eat it right off the teppan or transfer it to your small plate.
And then you can enjoy this magically delicious piece of work:
Thoughts From Places: Hiroshima
Everywhere we went in Hiroshima, we were reminded of the atomic bombing, but more importantly, I think, we were also reminded of human resilience. Hiroshima came out of that tragedy and rebuilt itself—and is still rebuilding itself—and that is what’s amazing about this place. And really, humanity in general.
At the end of the Peace Museum walkthrough, there were several books laid out for visitors to sign and read. A lot of politicians from all over the world had left their comments and you could read translated version of what they said. So many of them said that they were amazed and inspired by Hiroshima’s courage. “Never give up, Hiroshima,” someone wrote. That phrase, out of everything the international leaders wrote, has stuck with me.
Here is the quote I chose for the high schoolers’ project:
“Peace cannot be kept by force;
it can only be achieved by understanding.”