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Winter Trip (pt 1) - Hiroshima & Miyajima

Written on: Monday January 7th, 2008

A journal entry from: Japan

So, over the Christmas holidays I covered a lot of ground here in Japan, mostly in the south/west part of the country. I spent a lot of time on the trains, especially the Shinkansen - the "bullet trains" that go 200-300 km/hr. By the way, this is the Shink:

There's a lot of pictures and lots to tell, so I'm going to break it up into a few separate posts, starting with my first destintion, Hiroshima.

I only planned to spend a day in Hiroshima, as the one thing I was really interested in visiting was the Peace Museum, marking the terrible event of the first atomic bomb. I was fortunate to have met with a few great people at the hostel who were also planning to visit the museum and the Peace Park, and ended up going with them, which made for a pleasant day, balancing out the gravity of pondering what had happened here sixty years ago. It's hard to not feel very serious talking about this, but the truth is, I had fun enjoying most of the day with the group.

The centre of the area where the bomb had been dropped had once been a lively neighbourhood, predominately an arts and entertainment district from what I read. The whole of that area was rebuilt as a park dedicated to remebering the event and to the hope for peace. The first thing we saw entering the park was the "Peace Dome". This building had been the Industrial Promotional Hall, and was burned out completely, but was left mostly standing because the force of the blast came straight down at it. (The bomb actually exploded some 600m above the ground, and was almost directly above it.) The morning sun was shining behind it and I couldn't help feeling that the morning was the right time to see it. There was something beautiful about it, even though it was sad to think how it got there.

We walked along the river and across to the children's monument, dedicated in part to a young girl named Sadako Sasaki. She developed leukemia in 1954 from the radiation of the bomb, and based on a Japanese legend that anyone who folded 1000 paper cranes would be granted a wish, she began folding cranes. She hoped that if she did fold 1000 of them, she would get well again. I remember in the story that I heard about her when I was young, she only folded about 650 cranes before she died, and her classmates folded the remaining 350 or so in her memory. This is the story that I think most people are familiar with. But according to the information from the museum website, she actually did complete 1000 cranes, and kept on folding more. There were several glass booths displaying bright, colourful paper cranes made by kids from all over the country - and apparently cranes come from all over the world.

After that we headed to the museum. I think the museum did a good job of things. It included information about how and why Hiroshima was selected, including bits of memos from the U.S. governement discussing the selection of targets. Hiroshima was top of the list of potential targets because of information that it was the only target city with no POWs, and it hadn't yet been bombed. (Nagasaki, where the second bomb was dropped, apparently did have a POW camp...and the bomb there just happened to explode directly over a Catholic church. Strange to think, isn't it?) There was also a small section stating that all war, not just the use of atomic weapons, causes terrible suffering. I liked that they included that section, and I was glad to see that they mentioned the Nanking massacre, so they didn't try to completely ignore the actions from the Japanese side of the war. But that was only a brief section. The last section was the most difficult to go through, because it talked about what happened to the people after the blast. The suffering it caused for those who were badly hurt was unbearable. People who came back to dig through the rubble for loved ones got exposed to the radiation. There were several items on display that had belonged to people who had been near the centre of the blast and had either died instantly or within a day or two - a sandal, a school uniform, a pocket watch, a lunchbox. Most of these had belonged to teenage students who had been working that day very close to the centre of the blast. About 8000 students had been out clearing rubble from house demolition, in an effort to create firebreaks in case the city was bombed...by conventional bombs, of course, because no-one even knew what an atomic bomb was back then, not outside the small circle of people developing it, scientists and military leaders and policitcians - and even they didn't fully understand the effects of it. It's strange now to think that when the bomb hit the city, no-one there knew what it was, or understood radiation, or anything. It was all completely baffling and mysterious.

As sobering as the museum visit was, after we got out into the sunshine again, we decided to go for lunch. Whew. Back to the normal present day after all that? Yeah. So, lunch. Every area in Japan is known for some kind of specialty, and Hiroshima is known for its okonomiyaki. It's a kind of pancake or crepe made with various vegatables, and meat, mixed in or piled on top, and sometimes served with soba noodles. There are endless variations on how to make it. So, we headed to a place featuring okonomiyaki. Fantastic grub!

After lunch we headed to Hiroshima castle, not a very big castle, but it's nice, and the view from the top was good. We wandered back to the peace park for a while, and then headed back.

Miyajima

The next morning, I took a train to Miyajima, which is just outside of Hiroshima. Most of you have probably seen pictures of Miyajima. It's famous for the "floating torii", the red shrine gates standing in the water just off the coast of the island, the only one like it in Japan. The day I went was pretty rainy, which was good in that it wasn't too crowded.

First thing off the ferry, I saw the famous deer of Miyajima. Much like the elk in Banff, there is a population of deer here that are completely habituated to humans. Much like Banff, too, you have to be careful of this, as it's actually not the best thing. I saw one woman offer her hand to a deer to pet it; then the deer followed her for a few minutes, as she looked back nervously, hoping that it was going to get some food from her. A little further down the path I saw a man and his friends take a picture standing next to another deer. When he turned away from the deer, it stuck its mouth into his pocket and pulled out a map or brochure and started chomping on it. Clever thing! The hostel actually warned about this, as someone once had their rail pass eaten by a deer there.

Further on down the path was the shrine, which was pretty. I wandered over through some of the little town, and then headed over to the big five-storied pagoda on a hill on the other side of the main shrine. The pagoda was next to a buddhist hall which had been constructed a few centuries ago, but which hadn't been finished as the man who was building it had died before it had been completed.

After that, I headed back to the ferry and Hiroshima to catch a train to Kyushu, another of the four main islands of Japan. Next post, Kyushu!