Hiroshima: memorials and free hugs

September 3, 2011

The day I headed from Osaka to Hiroshima, the Kansai region was set to be hit by a typhoon, but despite the pending rain, I woke up to this view in the Morinomiya ward.

Dylan and Ri-chan took me on a tour of Osaka Castle, a (mostly) faithful reconstruction of the original, just minutes from the apartment. (I don’t think the original castle would have had a glass-encased elevator, but maybe that’s just me.)

The castle grounds sported gigantic rocks and fanciful trees in the gloomy light, anticipating the typhoon.

I boarded a Shinkansen down to Hiroshima, expecting the train to be delayed by the typhoon. We ducked through tunnels, hitting some occasional drops of rain, but the only sign that a raging storm was dropping many centimeters of water on the prefectures we passed was a swollen river or two.  (Later I read that almost 70 people were killed and dozens more were missing from this storm.)

The Shinkansen made a brief stop in Hiroshima, I grabbed my backpack and walked eight minutes to a wonderful hostel, K’s House Hiroshima (with free wireless, something you never encounter in Japan), where I dropped the majority of my things and headed west into the sunset with my camera.

Hiroshima, unlike anywhere else I’d been so far in Japan, felt like a real city. I saw art galleries and music shops, establishments that seemed to indicate that people actually lived in the area and did more than just buy food and drink.

The shop displays, even though they were advertising luxury bags, had personality.

Louis Vuition avian bags
Before I realized where I was, I looked over my left shoulder and saw the husk of a building poking through the trees.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial had been restored twice since the bombing of 1945, but the hollow shell of the dome has quite the power over 66 years later.

As the sun set, a waxing gibbous moon rose, offering a second elliptical shape in the twilight.

Dome and moon
Memorials dotted the riverbanks near the dome.

The river flowed on through its tidal banks, smelling of salt and mud.

The sky began to turn peach, almost in defiance of the typhoon forecast to flood the area.

Dark clouds threatened, but passed to the east.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was a few steps away, fading into the dark and reflected in pools.

The sunset flared as I approached.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
A memorial cenotaph stood by the reflecting pool.

Of all the memorials, the most moving was the one to the children affected by the bombing. In third grade, we had to read the story of Sadako and the thousand paper cranes she folded in the hope that she would be cured of her radiation-induced leukemia. I refused to finish the book because I couldn’t bear to find out if she lived or died. Thousands of cranes folded into every shape fill glass boxes at the memorial.

I spent the evening wandering Hiroshima, ducking into stores in a shopping arcade, and talking with fellow travelers at the hostel. We shared photos, advice of where to go, and hopes of where to go next.

The next afternoon I returned to visit the museum. Having seen the Enola Gay, and having visited Los Alamos, the area near the Trinity Site, and Yad Vashem, I figured it was important as a US citizen to see the museum. And for 50円 (less than $1), the largest cost is getting to Hiroshima. Unlike the harsh concrete flooring of Yad Vashem, the memorial museum is carpeted, meaning that your knees and lower back won’t be the factors limiting the length of a visit.

A very interesting part of the museum told of how residents of Hiroshima were set to work in the city demolishing homes to create firebreaks in case of air raids.

Some of the exhibits focused on why the US decided to bomb Hiroshima, how the people in charge of the Manhattan Project could legitimize the two billion dollar cost to taxpayers if the bombs ended the war, and how the bombings were carried out to limit Soviet influence in post-war Asia. Not really what we focused on in high school history class.

A letter from Albert Einstein warned against dropping the bomb.

Letters against dropping the bomb without warning were exhibited.

There were also maps of the locations of dummy atomic bomb (“pumpkins”) drops.

Moving out of the museum, this placard stuck with me. “We must find a way to make our mutual pain a positive gift for the future.”

At the end of the exhibit hall, video interviews of survivors telling their stories played. “Pica-don”, (brilliant light and loud noise), Sayoko’s work, played as well.


Outside in the daylight, the cenotaph looked much different.

The children’s memorial seemed hopeful.

The last bits of the typhoon had blown away, leaving the city’s skies blue and punctuated with clouds.

The memorial dome up close is haunting, showing scars similar to those shown in pica-don.

Hiroshima lived up to its unusualness: as I left the memorials, I encountered a group of people offering free hugs. Were they Japanese, part of a religious group, or simply happy to provide amusement to foreigners and tourists?

Free hugs
The evening concluded with a meal at an outdoor cafe on the banks of one of the rivers.

Riverside cafe view
Of all the cities I’d yet visited in Japan, Hiroshima was by far my favorite. Clean, modern, bright, but with connections to the past and its immensely painful history, Hiroshima managed to be dry, comfortable, and welcoming.

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