Hiroshima - An Unexpected Lesson
A fascinating exploration of Japanese culture and a sobering reflection on humanity
Hiroshima may seem like the least likely destination for a short break, but there is much to be gained from a trip to this Japanese city that is home to over a million inhabitants, and forever etched in history.
Meaning ‘Broad Island’ in Japanese, Hiroshima is best known as the first city in history to be targeted by a nuclear weapon when the United States Army Air Forces dropped an atomic bomb on the city at 8:15am on August 6, 1945.
Hiroshima Prefecture lies in the southwest of Japan’s main island, Honshu, and today it is home to two World Heritage Sites. One is the A-Bomb Dome of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, and the other is Itsukushima Shrine. The A-Bomb Dome is the most symbolic building in Hiroshima City, where the first atomic bomb was dropped, and its haunting frame is surreal to behold in person. Itsukushima Shrine is one of the most significant shrines in Japan, and the only one in the world which has a torii-gate and shrine building in the middle of the sea.
When the first atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the city became known worldwide for this unenviable distinction. The destructive power of the bomb was tremendous and obliterated nearly everything within a two kilometer radius.
Estimates vary, but it is believed that approximately 70,000 people were killed and an equal number were injured on that day, and nearly 70 percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed.
The A-Bomb Dome is what remains of the former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. The building served as a location to promote Hiroshima’s industries. Before the bomb, the area of what is now the Peace Park was the political and commercial heart of the city, and the reason it was targeted. When the bomb exploded, it was one of the few buildings to remain standing, and remains to this today. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the A-Bomb Dome is a tangible link to Hiroshima’s unique past.
Four years to the day after the bomb was dropped, it was decided that the area would not be redeveloped, but instead devoted to peace memorial facilities.
The park houses the Peace Memorial Museum. Consisting of two buildings, the museum tells the history of Hiroshima with a focus on the events of August 6: the dropping of the bomb and its outcome in human suffering. The personal details displayed are hard to see, in particualr the wristwatch that will forever read 8:15, the moment time stopped forever in history.
After the war, great efforts were taken to rebuild the city, as predictions that it would be uninhabitable proved false. Destroyed monuments of historical heritage, such as Hiroshima Castle and Shukkeien Garden, were reconstructed.
Hiroshima is notable in Japan, for its light rail system, nicknamed Hiroden, and the Moving Streetcar Museum.The Streetcar service started in 1912, was interrupted by the atomic bomb, and was restored as soon as was practical. (The service between Koi/Nishi Hiroshima and Tenma-cho was started up three days after the bombing).
Streetcars still roll down Hiroshima’s streets, including nuked streetcars 651 and 652, which are among the older streetcars in the system. When Kyoto and Fukuoka discontinued their trolley systems, Hiroshima bought them up at discounted prices, and, by 2011, the city had 298 streetcars, more than any other city in Japan.
Hiroshima is known for okonomiyaki, a savory pancake cooked on an iron-plate, usually in front of the customer. It is prepared with various layered ingredients, typically egg, cabbage, bean sprouts, sliced pork/bacon with optional items (mayonnaise, fried squid, octopus, cheese, mochi, kimchi, etc.), and noodles (soba, udon) topped with another layer of egg and a generous dollop of okonomiyaki sauce. Best enjoyed at one of the counters in the warren-like buildings housing lots of restaurants somewhere downtown, with a beer and a local baseball game playing on a TV screen in the corner.
Miyajima is a small island less than an hour outside the city of Hiroshima. It is most famous for its giant torii gate, which at high tide seems to float on the water, a sight that is ranked as one of Japan’s three best views. Beautiful and grand, the gate has no shortage of admirers, with boats of tourists being ferried right up to the structure, much to the dismay of those on land whose images are photobombed by the sight - even on the water.
While officially named Itsukushima, the island is more commonly referred to as Miyajima, Japanese for ‘shrine island’ and has a long history as a holy site of Shinto. The island’s highest peak, Mount Misen, was worshipped by local people as early as the 6th century.
At 500 metres above sea level, Mount Misen is the highest peak on Miyajima, and on clear days it affords spectacular views of the Seto Inland Sea and as far as Hiroshima City.
The cablecar ride up the mountain takes about 20 minutes, and from the upper station at Shishi-iwa Observatory it is still about a 30-minute walk up to the summit along a rather steep hiking trail. But well worth it, for the pristine nature and the Misen Hondo and Reikado buildings along the walk.
And the vision of Hiroshima City resting peacefully in the distance puts perspective on the landscape, and the crazy things we humans are capable of doing to each other.