22.11.2009 - 29.11.2009 14 °C
On my way to Hiroshima, things didn't start so well at the Osaka train station. I arrived at the platform tired and a little hung over which led to me accidentally hopping on the wrong train. The train was heading to the right destination, Hiroshima, but the type of train was a Nozomi shinkansen. These particular types of bullet trains are the fastest in Japan and tourists using Japan Rail (JR) passes (which is what I have) are not allowed to use them unless they pay for full price tickets. I didn't realize my mistake until the train started moving so I spent the first 15 or so minutes nervously wondering if they would come around checking tickets, which they sometimes do. Luckily for me nobody was checking on that train and I was spared the embarassment and the extra cost. This was officially the fastest I have ever travelled on land, at around 300 km/h. The next fastest trains that visitors with JR passes are actually allowed to use, are the Hikari trains and they go as fast as around 285 km/h, hardly much slower.
A shinkansen train flying past the train station at Himeji doing around between 280 and 300 km/h
At the hostel I met a nice Aussie girl called Nina who had arrived in Hiroshima the same day as me and we decided to team up on our trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park the next day. Hiroshima's best means of transport is trams, it's relatively cheap and they go everywhere a tourist would want to go. Apparently many other cities around Japan who phased out their trams, donated their trams to Hiroshima so you could end up riding on a brand new blue tram or an old ex-Kyoto tram depending on which one happened to arrive next at the station.
There was no time to get used to the idea of what I was walking into because the tram stops directly next to the Peace Park and at the very edge of the park, there stands the ghostly yet iconic Atomic Bomb Dome. Despite knowing full well what had happened in Hiroshima, it doesn't quite hit home until you see the Dome, it was an extremely sobering experience to say the least.
The first look you get of the Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
It was hard to comprehend that I was standing on the spot where a little over 64 years ago a single bomb had almost completely obliterated an entire city, directly killing some 80,000 people and a further 60,000 by the end of 1945 due to burns, trauma and radiation exposure.
Close up of the Dome, you can see the steel beams inside which were added in recent years to prevent it from collapsing
The A-Bomb Dome is actually 160 meters from the actual ground zero, or as they call it the "hypocenter" and the atomic bomb exploded around 580 meters above the hypocenter. Apparently the Dome only survived relatively intact because it was so near the hypocenter so the blast came down on it's roof rather than against the sides of the walls. Even though a large part of it remained standing, the blast caved in the roof and everything inside ignited immediately by the 4000 C fireball. Needless to say, everyone inside was killed instantly.
The T-Shaped Aioi bridge to the left of the A-Bomb Dome. The bridge was the aiming point used by the American B29 bomber, they missed by a couple of hundred meters.
The A-Bomb Dome as seen from the T-Shaped Aioi Bridge
The hypocenter is designated by a single stone monolith on the side of a small back street less than a minute walk from the Dome. It is actually outside of the Peace Park and is surrounded by car parking buildings and offices and seems to be marked rather unceremoniously compared to the rest of the monuments within the park.
This is The Ground Zero at Hiroshima - the 15 kiloton Uranium-235 atomic bomb exploded about 580 meters directly above this very spot.
The sky directly above the Hypocenter
There are many other monuments and memorials in the Peace Park aside from the Atomic Bomb Dome, like the Peace Bell, the Children's Peace Memorial, the Flame of Peace, the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, amongst many others. But before we could go and see any of them it started raining quite heavily so we had to make a hasty retreat to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. The story told along its walls and passages is pretty comprehensive, begining with the history of the city before the bombing, to the actual day and finally the gruesome after effects. There is also lots of information about nuclear weapons in general, how they work, what type was used on Hiroshima, which countries have them, who is suspected of having them and how many they currently have. The museum obviously makes several pleas to the world to ban nuclear weapons and band together in peace. Unfortunately, not everybody seems to be listening.
It probably wouldn't be a bad idea if every child in the world visited Hiroshima's Peace Park. There are displays in the museum, particularly towards the end, that should make an impression on even the most desensitized of minds. For example, they have the actual stone steps where someone was vaporized but only after leaving their shadow scorched into the stone bricks. There are several personal items found at various distances from the hypocenter, such as torn, burned and bloodied clothing, children's metal school lunch boxes with charred food still inside, clocks and watches that stopped at precisely 8:15 and the most disturbing of all, aftermath photos taken of victims and their surroundings.
A wrist watch displayed at the Hiroshima Peace Museum that stopped at precisely 8:15
A photo displayed in the museum. It was taken 2,270 meters from the hypocenter less than three hours after the blast
There are four walls full of protest letters sent from the mayors of Hiroshima to the ambassadors of countries who had tested nuclear weapons, one letter for each test.
The museum also explains, using a completely objective tone, why Hiroshima was chosen as the target and the reasons why the A-bomb had been used. It definitely goes a little deeper than the story you are used to hearing, that is, "The bomb was used to shorten the war and save half a million US soldiers' lives". The museum's narrative goes a little deeper and includes the politics between the US and the Soviet Union as well as justification for spending so much money on building the bomb. Being a New Zealander, I am already a member of a firm anti-nuclear society, it's even written into our legislation, and after visiting this museum the sentiment has merely deepened.
By the time we left the museum several hours later, it was dark, cold and still raining. Despite the best efforts of the security guard at the exit to find us a "lost and found" umbrella, he was unsuccessful and we had to resort to power walking for 10 minutes in the freezing cold rain until we found a covered shopping arcade. I decided right there and then that I needed to buy a warm hat to replace the one I had lost in Tokyo and a pair of gloves too if I could find some. Nina was on a hunt for an umbrella to replace one she had lost.
My nice and warm new hat and gloves along with a puffy jacket I bought a few days later - Now I'm ready for whatever nature throws at me ...except perhaps a tsunami or an avalanche
After a successful shopping expedition, we stopped off for dinner at an Izakaya restaurant, these types of restaurants are more drinking places which offer a variety of different small dishes, sort of like the meals you'd get in a pub, but Japanese styles and more varied. Half of the menu was drinks, including various cocktails - it was a no brainer, I had to have the one called "Secret and Red Bull".
Yum ...our cocktails. To this day the other ingredient in my cocktail remains a secret. The black stirrers in our drinks looked just like straws and we both simultaneously attempted to drink out of them - silly tourists.
The next day the weather was perfect so Nina and I teamed up again for a day trip to Miyajima, an island to the south west of Hiroshima. The island is famous for several things, three of which include a giant shinto O-torii Gate sitting over the water near the shore, the nearby Itsukushima Shrine which appears to float on the water and the wild yet friendly deer that wander around the island. Nina was most interested in the deer and I wanted to check out this famous O-torii gate.
Bambi and I just kickin' it at Miyajima
A couple of deer relaxing by the shore at Miyajima, you can see the very southern part of Hiroshima in the background.
A little girl patting one of the dozing deer, there are a couple of signs telling people not to pat them, but they are just too cute to resist.
The "floating" O-torii Gate at Miyajima
Nina with the "floating" Itsukushima Shrine in the background - We weren't there at high tide when the effect is supposed to be much better
There are lots of stores in Miyajima which make and sell momiji manju, these are flower-shaped pancake buns which consist of a double layer of pancake with various flavoured fillings, such as chocolate and soy paste. Most of these stores have a little factory attached to them and you can see exactly how they are being made and packaged in mini automation lines.
The mini factory at the Momiji Manju store
A small pond full of huge koi behind one of the Momiji Manju stores - I thought the koi were fake because they were so big and appeared lifeless until one of them started moving.
In retrospect, the deer were probably the best part, they were everywhere and they weren't at all scared of people, in fact they seemed to congregate around the biggest crowds, though it wasn't hard to figure out why. If they saw anyone carrying anything that looked like food or food wrappers, even a map, about three or four of the deer would start hounding them trying to snatch whatever the person was holding. They are all quite small deer so they are hardly dangerous, plus they could be shaken off quite easily.
The next day, I made a return to the Peace Park to check out the monuments that I didn't get a chance to see the first time because of the rain. This time I went alone since Nina had left for Kyoto the previous evening. This is where I got tricked for the very first time in Japan. In my previous three weeks in Japan, I had been stopped several times by people of all ages keen to talk to foreigners and practice their English, and I have been quite happy to oblige. So when three sweet looking old ladies walked past me and asked "Could we talk English?" I didn't think anything of it and I gladly stopped and started chatting to them. One of them spoke pretty good English while the other two didn't say much but appeared to understand everything I was saying. After the usual, "Where are you from?", "How long are you in Japan?", etc, etc, one of them started to reach for something in her bag as she asked, "Could you read this for me?". Subconsciously I knew immediately what was happening, but I must have been in denial because as she pulled out a bible and said, "We are Jehovah witnesses", a wave of dread swept over me and I let out a loud laugh, and said "Snap! You got me!", to which they didn't react. Out of all the countries in the world I didn't expect to be bible-bashed in Japan. In New Zealand I would have easily said "No thank you" and walked away without another word being said, but this is Japan, everyone is so polite and it's kind of catchy, so I politely told them it wasn't for me, that it was nice to meet them and I had to go. They didn't resist as much as I expected but they wouldn't let me leave without me taking one of their pamphlets.
A Jehova Witness pamphlet - How ironic I thought, with one more of these off the street, technically I was probably the one that saved somebody that day.
Anyway, I finally got to walk around the park in peace (no pun intended), and I got to see the other monuments more closely.
School children at the Peace Park's children's memorial
Children ringing the Peace Bell at the Peace Park
The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound - contains the ashes of 70,000 unidentified A bomb victims
The Peace Flame, Cenotaph and Museum in the background.
The arch of the Cenotaph, the Peace Flame and the A-Bomb Dome all line up perfectly along the park (the museum is directly behind me in this photo)
A Jizoson statue exposed to the bomb. It was located in a cemetary a few meters away from the hypocenter - you can still see the shadow left by the bomb flash
So I will move on now, the population of Hiroshima definitely appear to have done so. Once you leave the park, it's not too difficult to put the dark history out of your mind and just appreciate this city for what it is today. The Peace Park is really the only visual reminder of what happened, the rest of the city is, not surprisingly, just like any other Japanese city.
One of the guys that works at the hostel has a Chilean wife so he spoke pretty good Spanish, probably better than his English so whenever we had a conversation we ended up talking Jaspanglish, it was strange but quite useful. If anything got lost in translation in one language, we just switched and everything was suddenly clear, either that or even more confused. His name is Masa and since I stayed there for six nights I got to know him and Mayumi, the manager of the hostel. One evening, Masa took me along for a bike ride to his favourite supermarket where you can buy cheap food after 8 pm when prices on sea food and ready-made meals like lunch boxes and sushi are discounted between 30-50%. We got back to the hostel with a few bag fulls of food, he absolutely refused to let me pay for any of it. We ended up having a huge feast at the hostel followed by a couple of rounds of his favourite drink, Souchu, which is a like a spirit fermented from wheat.
A couple of nights later, Masa and I headed to his favourite haunt in Hiroshima, a bar called Mac's. It's out of the way up some stairs in a quiet narrow street but it was actually quite a nice and popular joint, and it sells relatively cheap beer too. Behind the bar there were racks and racks of CDs and anyone could walk up and request a song or two, it was like a live juke-box. The guy that owns it was behind the bar that night and he is obviously an old rocker. He had long grey hair in a pony tail and he just looked plain mellow. He reminded me of the old stoner hippie dude from That 70's Show. If you're ever in Hiroshima I recommend the place if you can find it. We stayed there until quite late speaking Jaspanglish while enjoying a few half pints.
Just when I was just getting settled, it was time to leave Hiroshima. So on the Sunday I hopped on a shinkansen (the right type this time) to Fukuoka City in Kyushu. So that's where I leave this extremely long post, if you made it this far I'm pretty impressed.