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Friday, August 15

Stunning, Sobering… Hiroshima

Making a trip in Japan can be both easy and tricky at the same time. When we moved here, we knew that it was an expensive country, yet still the sticker shock of some trips never fails to surprise us. But in the spirit of living in a foreign country, we would be stupid to not take advantage of all of the amazing places to visit here. We’ve hit most of the major places… like Tokyo which is very close to us, as well as some more distant locations like Sapporo, Kyoto, Takayama (me – not KH), Okinawa (KH – not me) that have required either airfare or bullet train costs. On both of our lists though was Hiroshima, of which we just recently visited. To keep the travel costs as low as possible and still see everything we want, we try to save these trips for times when guests are in town who might like to see the same thing. It’s worked out pretty well for them and for us, because we aren’t revisiting sites we have been to and can therefore use that money on our list of must see places around Asia. With Kimono Hubby’s family in town, it seemed the perfect opportunity to book us to head to the southern part of Japan and take in their mix of modern and ancient history in the Hiroshima area.

Shinkansen tickets were purchased and we were off to Hiroshima on the first of August. Anyone who is big on their history (read: geek like me) will know that this is an exceptionally special time of year to visit Hiroshima. The atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima occurred on August 6th, 1945 at 8:15 in the morning. We were just days away from that date, when the whole town is preparing for the huge Peace Memorial Ceremony, an honorarium to the victims from that horrific day as well as Japan’s continuing attempt to pray for the realization of a lasting world peace, where nuclear weapons are no longer created or needed. I am not going to get into what I think about that day or whose side I am on. Doing so does nothing to help the victims of Hiroshima or to help the world continue with the move forward. But I will forever be altered after my few days in Hiroshima.

After a four hour trip on the shinkansen, we arrived early in the afternoon, checked into the beautiful Righa Royal Hotel where our rooms looked over the Hiroshima Castle and its grounds. It took us only moments to drop our belongings and head out for the first stop on our tour, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. While I am not usually one for touring museums when I am in a foreign country, unless they are full of art work, this was one place that I was absolutely insistent on going to and was willing to go on my own if needed. Fortunately, the family was willing to go along with it, with my husband and mom-in-law even as gung ho as I was. Our hotel was only a few minutes walk, but since we weren’t sure of the area just yet, we snatched a cab that drove us over to it. This wasn’t a bad idea since the temperatures in Hiroshima was even more excruciating than they were in our area.

We paid our entrance fee and also picked up the English headsets that were available and started through the museum. It is actually two separate buildings, connected by a bridgeway. The first part, the Eastern bulding, was filled with the history of Hiroshima, including a bit of feudal times, prewar activities in the area, war time itself as it became a military city and then eventually, that fateful August day. A reconstruction of the domed top of the building, now know as the A-Bomb Dome , dwarfs the three floors in the Eastern hall. On the lower floor next to the dome lies two reconstructions surrounded by televisions showing scenes from that day… central Hiroshima prior to the bomb and Hiroshima directly afterwards. What you see on the first are tiny buildings meandering in every direction around the rivers. On the second, you literally see nothing but flattened earth. The realization that the place you now stand on was once part of this nothing is enough to shake your entire being. When we finished with this building, I honestly wondered what could possibly fill a whole second building. Even though you had seen the destruction in wide view, my mind was still not ready to embrace the fact that the second building would be far worse to view.

Have you ever visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.? I have been there many times in the years that I lived there. I never made it through without silent tears streaking my cheeks. The Holocaust was certainly a horrific blot on our modern history and the museum tells the story well. But they have nothing over the story that Hiroshima had to tell. Perhaps it is because I am an American and know my country’s sole role on Hiroshima’s significant day. I am sure that is part of it. Even maybe a large part of it. But it was sheer, unadulterated emotion from the deepest part of my soul that conveyed to everyone around me as I made my way through the main building.

I couldn’t help but continue to press play on the headset at every stop, even though I was positive at everyone of the over 50 exhibits that I didn’t want to hear what was to be told. At one exhibit, it was all I could do to stand there and hold myself upright while the tears streamed down. If I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders when standing in absolute safety, how can I even begin to imagine the true depth of what the victims felt that day. Shock, horror, unbelieving, not understanding… pain… both mental and physical unstoppable pain. These people didn’t even know the truth about what had happened to them. Even now, almost two weeks later, I am still trying to block out what I saw. And I didn’t live it.

I was the last to emerge from the museum. The entire family was sitting there waiting for me. I couldn’t look at them. I couldn’t speak. And I’m pretty sure that at least my mom-in-law was feeling the same way I was. All she could say to me was how she wanted to tell everyone in there how sorry she was. My God. Aren’t we all?

Heavy hearted, we made our way out to the streets to head back to the hotel. We all needed a mental break after that. It was a quiet trip back, each person lost in their own grief-stricken thoughts. Even rejoining one another for dinner proved to be a quiet affair, with a quick tonkatsu meal in the mall food court just next door. After dinner, I called it a night to rest my weary, swollen feet… and to think. The rest went for a little walk in the slightly cooler night air.

By the time the sun came up, the mood had again lightened. Again, I say we will never forget, but this was a vacation of sorts, not meant for continuing dreary thoughts. After a buffet breakfast, we set off on Hiroshima’s street cars to the island of Miyajima. Surely if you have ever seen pictures of Japan, you have seen this island. It is named as being in the top three scenic places in Japan and the picture of its large red torii gate standing alone in a bay is well known to marketers. At the end of the street car line, we hopped on a ferry to bring us across the short waterway to the island. It was another brutally hot day, broken only slight by an occasional breeze along the water. On the island, deer roam freely, even surprising me by being out on this particular scorcher. They are quite friendly, but signs remind the daily tourists not to feed them. One such lady was apparently not capable of following the rules, because we saw her running away from a huge herd that swarmed her after she apparently fed one or two. I swear she was an American too, which only makes me shake my head harder.

After capturing about a hundred photos of the torii gate, stopping to dip our toes into the ocean (where as I held onto Kimono Hubby to take that dip from a slippery step, his mom came to join me, almost tossing all three of us into the water for an instant) we moved on towards the most popular shrine on the island, Itsukushima Shrine. It is also known to be a ‘floating’ shrine because it looks like it rests on top of the water when the tide is in. We were a bit late for the full high tide, so many water areas were already seeing themselves emptied, but it didn’t take anything away from the beauty. We continued our stroll out of the shrine and into the tight, little roadways surrounded by souvenir shops. One such little shop sold snow cones. With two big shoppers in the group that got a little behind us, KH, his mom and myself plopped ourselves down for this icy treat. That small break was enough to get us through the streets ahead of us, streets that have preserved a feeling of classically Edo-era Japan. And a tiny meal at one restaurant, where I had to go back to my days of pointing at the plastic food in the window, helped too. There is a five story pagoda along the walk too, but the hill that led up to it was just too demanding looking for any of us hot and weary travelers. I would have suffered to do it and see the pavilion and pagoda at the top, but I certainly wasn’t going to bear that misery alone. Instead, we all slowly began the walk back to the ferry and streetcar beyond. We met one very friendly (read: very drunk) Japanese man who told us over and over again with his chu-hi stinking, smoldering breath how he only speaks English remembered from junior high. Smooshed between him and KH, who entertained this man with a long chat, I tried hard not to be rude as I turned my face away from the reek. I might add that not a single person in our family was willing to switch me places on the 50 minute ride back. Rude. I’ll pay you all back for that one. Anyway, a break from the burning afternoon sun was in our immediate future, not to mention an icy cold shower and hopefully some clean underwear, so I endured.

Little did I realize, but the group was not quite ready for that shower. Instead, we got off one stop sooner and took a long walk around the Peace Memorial Park. The museum is located on the southern part of these grounds, but we had not yet actually seen the part with the statues and the A Bomb Dome, which sit at the upper end closest to where we were. As we came upon it, we began to hear beautiful singing from somewhere in the park. Later, we came to realize that they were practicing for the ceremony now only three days away. The sole woman’s voice accompanied by a small orchestra added to the solemn quality of the park. Past the Dome, we made our way past many monuments including the Flame of Peace and the Pond of Peace until we finally stood in front of the Cenotaph that perfectly frames the monuments in its arch. A tour group stood there as silent as if we were inside the museum, everyone lost in their personal reflections, bringing back to me the realities of why we came to visit this particular Japanese city. The message this city is trying to relay is not lost on me. The damage done by the atomic bomb is too terrible for anyone to perpetrate or endure. I can fully understand the Japanese belief now so deeply rooted in their hearts and minds that tells them that nuclear weapons and mankind cannot coexist indefinitely. My study of history allows me to understand why it stands that way today, but at the same time, I still want to hope and pray that the world can find a better way to maintain the balance… for humanity’s sake.

Now, I have mentioned this before in my blogging, but it seems that everywhere in Japan is known for some kind of famous food. Hiroshima was no different. It just happens to be known for one of my favorites… okonomiyaki. Every time our houseguests tried to get us to tell them what it was, we described it as a pancake with stuff in it. This description was definitely not suitable to them, and even had them more than a little wary of trying it. But, like the museum, I didn’t pay all that money to come to Hiroshima to skip on this point. At the front desk, I spoke at length with the concierge to find the place that was right for us… no sitting on the floor (not for our fellow travelers who may not be able to ever get back up from that position), not too far away that we couldn’t walk back with the little energy the sun hadn’t taken from us early and it had to be indicative of the best of Hiroshima. They actually had a map of spots, and the concierge was all to helpful to call and see how busy each place was and if they took reservations. As we hopped into cabs, I know our guests were not looking forward to what lay ahead for them. When we got to the tiny shop hidden away on and even tinier street, we were asked to wait as the place was quite full. We were provided with menus in English, which did absolutely nothing to waylay their fears. Setting aside their anxieties though, two of them did settle on one of the items and the other decided to just skip dinner and pray she would find something Western later. When seats for five became available, we were ushered in to a large table that we shared with many other groups. I did the ordering, hoping to streamline the process for the Japanese waitress who was giving us all kinds of baffled eyes. It took a second waitress to confirm my order, but they went to work on it. The place is called Mitchan. Servers line up in front of a long bar with their orders, while a line of cooks behind the bar prepares the okonomiyaki. Each cook has his own job in the process, passing the pancake on to the next as he goes. Essentially what went into this one (they are all a slightly bit different) was soba noodles, egg, cabbage, special sauce, pork and then additions such as shrimp or squid. Once it is served to you, you can add extra sauce and mayonnaise to it. The Japanese really are big fans of mayo, and are making one out of me too with putting it on so many things. It may not have looked overly appetizing, but our two guests managed to chow theirs down pretty well, leaving little to nothing behind, proving once again that looks shouldn’t influence taste! It was honestly so delicious. And filling. The lengthy walk back to the hotel was necessary to start digesting all that food… well and to find a KFC along the way for our last guest who had still not yet eaten a dinner.

Our last day in Hiroshima, we awoke to another… surprise… hot and sunny day. This time we had planned on making the short walk over to the Hiroshima Castle. This castle is the reason why Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site. The Japanese military had determined that the historical site made a perfect hiding place for their headquarters. Little did they know that the American military couldn’t have cared less for its history, only for its current use. Like with everything, the castle is a 1958 replica, but it is well done and worth the visit. It contains a museum inside about ancient Japan, which moves through decades and facets of live as you move up through the five floors. Did I mention that there was little to no air conditioning inside? Apparently, they were sticking to the original design when this puppy was rebuilt. Man, it was hot. Only once you made it to the very top floor where the windows and doors were wide open did you get a nice cool breeze from outside to bring your body heat back down about twenty degrees. After resting at the top, we realized that it was getting close to the time when we would need to catch our train. One last lunch in Hiroshima, more western after we had tortured them with ‘the new’ the night before, and we were back on the shinkansen heading north and home.

Despite the sweltering time of year to visit a city in the south surrounded by mountains, I really can’t even begin to describe how happy I am that we finally made that trip. Every bit of it was as perfect as it could be. Okay, no… not the heat… but everything else. Most of all, I am grateful to see a place that I had studied so extensively while working on my degree. I am sure I probably bored my fellow travelers with my constant tidbits, but I just couldn’t hide my excitement for being there and for learning more by actually seeing a significant part of shared Japanese and American history. I felt like I was one of Hersey’s characters as I roamed down streets overlooking the waterways. I felt pain. And I felt hope. And isn’t that exactly what they had hoped for.

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