A city renewed: Hiroshima

The town’s name, I knew. Everybody knows. But I wasn’t sure what to expect of Hiroshima – perhaps a town clouded by sadness and trauma, or a town that had given up. But it’s neither of those things – it’s a thriving city which has completely rebuilt and reinvented itself after the devastation of World War Two, and is committed to spreading messages of peace and anti-nuclear weaponry around the world.

I’ve written articles about the Hiroshima atomic bomb attack for work before, and you’ve no idea how harrowing it is to read about it for days on end. The endless stories and images of crying children, decimated families, and lives ruined by a most evil act of war are utterly heartbreaking. So this time, if you don’t mind, I’ll keep my history brief.

Japan and the USA had been at war since Japan’s attack on the US military base in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, in 1941. As the war wore on, and the seeds of the Cold War began to sprout, nuclear bombs were explored as a way to cause mass destruction – both of buildings and of people. The USA had been inventing and testing weapons in the Nevada desert for years, but in 1945, they finally decided to use the atomic bomb on Japan to see just how much damage it could do. Besides, they wanted to avoid spending a lot of money conducting a troop-based invasion of the country.

The USA chose four possible cities to use their two working atomic bombs on. These were Hiroshima, Yokohama, Niigata, and Kyoto. Kyoto (my previous destination – see post #1 and #2) was eliminated because one guy went on his honeymoon there and enjoyed it. Yes, really. So, they swapped it out for Nagasaki, which like Hiroshima was a port city.

Meanwhile, the government in Tokyo was preparing to surrender. While Japan had started out on the offensive, the war was taking its toll on the island nation, and most people just wanted out. Naturally, the government insisted on fighting on, but by mid-1945 an honourable surrender was definitely on the table.

On the morning of August 6, 1945, an American pilot flew to Hiroshima from the US base on the Pacific island of Tinian. The bomb was released. As it fell, the bomb was blown off course by a few hundred metres, and it ended up detonating just a few hundred feet above a hospital.

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There’s an information plaque marking the hospital’s location nowadays. The text speaks for itself.

The force of the blast and the heat it produced was so powerful, any person within a few hundred metres of the bomb was incinerated on the spot. Thousands of others died instantly from the shockwave as it ripped through the city. But that’s not the worst of it – radiation burns caused slow and agonising deaths for a great deal of Hiroshima’s population, and radiation sicknesses related to the atomic bomb continue to affect city life even today.

Japan had committed its fair share of atrocities in the war, that’s for sure. But the innocent civilians of Hiroshima did not deserve this. Because of this single attack, up to 150,000 people died. That’s almost three times as many British civilians killed in the whole of World War Two. Japan surrendered just a few days after a second nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Today, this is what most of us know Hiroshima for. But all that’s left standing is an eerie ruin of an exhibition centre, the dome of which somehow managed to survive the attack and the 70 years that have elapsed since that terrible time. We walked to the so-called ‘A-bomb dome’ first, which is the centrepiece of Memorial Park.

Having read about the Hiroshima bomb at work, I never imagined I’d come here. But visiting the city and walking the streets, seeing the sheer scale of the damage, was really upsetting. By the time we reached the dome, tears were in my eyes. What a stark reminder of such an awful event.

Tears quickly turned to anger when I saw people (who were old enough to know better) taking selfies by the dome, as if it was just any other tourist attraction. It reminded me of my visit to Sachsenhausen, where someone else on my school trip had captioned a picture “Concentration camp :)”, and then been genuinely confused when I mentioned it was inappropriate to affix a smiley face to a centre of such horror. I’m constantly astounded by the insensitivity of some people – admittedly, they’re a small minority, but still.

My silent rage was soon punctuated by the sound of young Japanese schoolchildren, laughing and waving at us. Machi and I had moved to a different memorial, commemorating some children who were killed in the attack just as they were trying to build shelter. Machi was welling up at this point, too. It can’t be easy for her, to have to revisit the same spot time and time again, retelling the same, gut-wrenching story. We looked over at the schoolkids. “It’s okay – they’re too young to know what happened here”, Machi sighed. “But one day, they will”.

We crossed the river.

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It’s wonderful how nature can rejuvenate even the most desolate surroundings.

You come to the Children’s Memorial after crossing the bridge, which reinstates the city’s commitment to peace. Incredibly, it was built thanks to the touching story of a young girl, whose only wish was a world without nuclear weapons. Sadako Sasaki, an 11 -year-old girl, was suffering from leukaemia, which was caused by the atomic bomb attack. Before she died, she set herself a target. Japanese lore tells that if a person makes a thousand origami cranes, they are granted a wish. So she did, and Sadako wished for a world without nuclear weapons. But her wish has never been realised, and she died in October 1955, aged just 12.

Her classmates, inspired by her warmth and generous spirit, started a fundraising campaign to build this memorial to her. There’s a statue of Sadako holding a crane above her head, but around the statue, thousands and thousands more origami cranes have appeared. Visitors who also desire a world without nuclear weapons make one crane each, and put it in a case for it to be displayed like a rainbow garland.

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I did try to make a crane, but I’m really bad at origami, so Machi made mine for me.

Feeling a little buoyed by this example of human goodness and light, we braced ourselves for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. I’d stopped taking photos at this point, and you weren’t allowed to take any inside anyway, so words will have to convey what I learned from the museum.

You enter, and are given a quick history of Hiroshima. It was a thriving port, and in World War Two, a military base was located just out of town. The museum then explains why the city was targeted and earmarked for nuclear devastation. In one room, there’s an interactive map you crowd around, and watch a projection of the city being wiped out – and burning for days afterwards.

Then, you walk across a long, dark hallway to the museum’s most upsetting section – the personal stories of people affected by the bomb. There are remnants of singed, unfinished letters, clothing with holes burned into it that were worn when the bomb hit, and so many photographs of men, women and children indiscriminately killed by it. For those who survived the immediate attack, there are frantic letters written to relatives just before a person died, and descriptions of unbearable pain from burns that covered much of their body. Mothers mourning children who died from radiation sickness, before succumbing to it themselves. My eyes stung as I stopped myself from crying – it’s not my place to draw attention to myself, it’s my place to learn.

I emerged from the dark hallway and sat in the projection room, where videos showing Hiroshima survivors being interviewed played on a loop. I sat for a while and watched. It really gives you pause for thought – seeing how people still mourn for a city they lost decades ago, for the lives that didn’t have the chance to be lived. These people may have survived, but the personal cost was too great. Even today, there are elderly people living with medical conditions caused by the radiation.

The last part of the museum takes you through the end of the Second World War, and how the use of nuclear weapons ramped up during the Cold War. Seeing its ‘success’ in Japan, the USA authorised yet more tests of more powerful weapons, while the USSR detonated the most powerful thermonuclear weapon ever in 1961. In what essentially became a dick-measuring contest between the USA and the USSR, the international community managed to ignore what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and cheer on the USA as it kept ahead of the Russians in the race to build an even more deadly bomb.

Of course, there were and are activists trying to rid the world of the nuclear monster, but they’ve always been drowned out by governments and businesses supportive of nuclear weapons. Today, 8 (possibly 9) countries have nuclear weapons – the USA, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and probably Israel. And for what? Allegedly, to act as a deterrent – if the other guy’s got one, we’d better have one too so they don’t attack us. But if only 9 countries out of nearly 200 on this Earth have nuclear weapons, are they really necessary?

As you exit the museum, there’s a clock by the door, which counts down the days since the Hiroshima attack, as well as the last test of a nuclear bomb.

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4 months. That’s all it had been since the USA last detonated a nuclear bomb.

If you don’t leave this museum angry, and you still think nuclear weapons are a good idea, you aren’t looking hard enough.

We walked through town in shock at what we’d just seen. But as we walked away from the atomic bomb’s epicentre, and into the downtown districts, the shadow of the atomic bomb lifted. We began to see Hiroshima in a new light – as a thriving, modern place, filled with skyscrapers and glass office blocks like literally every other Japanese city. The shops were full of customers, and the bright lights shone through the rain.

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I’d say your average British high street looks more dismal than Hiroshima, what with all the shop closures and Brexit-related fights breaking out.

The shopping streets in Hondori were lined with a whole host of interesting shops, restaurants and karaoke bars. We even found a place that did vegan ramen, which was a real treat. And, on top of that, I saw a Lush – which reminded me of my hometown, and of all the blogging I used to do about their products. I should probably get on that again, actually.

For dinner, I was thinking another trip to Coco Curry would be in order. Can’t go wrong with a solid vegetable curry and rice, for the bargain price of £6.50. But Machi wanted us to try a Hiroshima specialty, Okonomiyaki, which she described as “Japanese pancake”.

Don’t be fooled, there’s no lemon or maple syrup in sight. If you want that, get a Japanese crepe. Okonomiyaki a sort of mishmash of foodstuffs. In Hiroshima, it’s noodles, cabbage and egg, layered up onto a griddle and fried. There’s a ton of cabbage, but it shrinks to a manageable size as the chef cooks it. Now, ‘Okonomiyaki’ means ‘Cooked as you like’, so you can add a bunch of toppings to it. Sadly, there was nothing vegetarian, so I just went with some sort of cheese.

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Couldn’t tell you what the green stuff is, but it’s probably the healthiest thing in the dish.

I don’t usually like egg. I think it tastes as (I imagine) a fart would taste. But I took my first slice of Okonomiyaki, dipped it in a sauce, and chomped it with an open mind. I’m not sure what it is about Japanese/Chinese/Korean cooking that makes egg actually taste nice, but it was damn good. A protein-packed, crunchy savoury treat, topped with delicious melted cheese. Also, I’m not sure what the sauce was, but its tangy flavour perfectly complements the Okonomiyaki. It’s described as a mix of ketchup, Worcester sauce (which means it’s not vegetarian, but I didn’t know that until I started writing this paragraph, to be fair), sugar and soy sauce.

Hiroshima had surprised me. Not in a million years did I imagine that this traumatised city had such a proud regional identity, and standout local food to match. And while I may have anticipated the sadness that comes with visiting a place like this, I didn’t expect the anger that arose in my blood, making it boil. Least of all did I think Hiroshima would, at least on the surface, look like every other Japanese city, with its skyscrapers and entertainment arcades. But the normality is a relief, because it shows the city is healing from the wounds of its past. Hiroshima’s local government has really shown its dedication to peace, too – it campaigns harder than anywhere else in the world for the abolition of nuclear weapons. After 70 years, Hiroshima is moving onwards and upwards.

Oh, and I visited a Coco Curry the next day, so that was another bonus.

 


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