You can’t say the word Hiroshima and not think of the devastation caused by the nuclear bombing of the Second World War. And while paying a visit to the Peace Park, memorials and remnants of that fateful day in August of 1945 is definitely the big pull for tourists, there is much else to see besides.
But let’s start with the obvious first. Upon arrival at Hiroshima station, the first thing that strikes you is just how…boring everything looks. People who are expecting to find a city laced with ruins are going to be either disappointed or delighted, because Hiroshima looks like a normal Japanese city. And that’s because it is. Businessmen rush past schoolchildren on their commutes, souvenir shops sell the local specialities, and taxis wait in the rotary to carry people to where they want to go.
Hiroshima’s a big city but it may look average at first glance, because the city centre and main sights are over two kilometers away. If you’re travelling light and fancy a walk, it’s a good 30 minutes to the Kamiyacho station (the subway/tram station that’s about as centre as Hiroshima gets). Alternatively, you can take the aforementioned tram to Kamiyacho Station, which departs from the rotary outside Hiroshima Station and will get you there in 10 minutes. If you do take the tram, I do recommend avoiding getting off at Kamiyacho instead of Genbaku Dome Mae (原爆ドーム前). In my opinion it’s better to get off that one station before and take the extra 2 minutes to walk slowly up to the edge of the Peace Park and get the full impact of seeing the Atomic Bomb Dome for the first time.
And what an impact it makes. The Atomic Bomb Dome (known to the Japanese as ‘Genbaku Dome’) is an imposing structure that is the biggest and most recognisable remnant of the devastation of that day. The harrowing landmark has been kept in it’s distressed state since it was exposed to the kilometer-wide fireball of the bomb, which consumed all in it’s wake at thousands of degrees centigrade and killed thousands instantly. Such was the power of the atomic bomb that it seared the shadows of victims onto the stones, forever preserving their echo while incinerating their body instantly. The Dome packs a powerful punch whenever it catches your eye, and serves as a strong pull into the rest of the Park, leading the intrepid explorer to search for answers themselves.
The Peace Park is an outdoor museum of sorts, laid out on a peninsula of land that had been flattened by the bomb. So while you will see people doing typical park activities like jogging, walking the dog and generally enjoying themselves, overly boisterous activities should be avoided. Before exploring the Peace Park and the multitude of monuments, head to the Rest House in the middle of the park, just south of the Dome. Quite apart from being a monument unto itself, you can pick up a map from here that details the location and story behind all the features in the Peace Park. And there is a lot to see, each with it’s own story to tell. It is best to discover story behind these moments for yourself, but if you’re short for time, there’s two that you absolutely must see (besides the Dome): the Children’s Monument and the Memorial Cenotaph.
The Children’s Monument was erected in memory of not only the children lost that day, but most of all a young girl called Sasaki Sadako, who fell ill with radiation-induced leukaemia in 1955. She folded paper cranes all day, every day on her sick bed in the hope that if she reached 1000, she could make a wish and be cured. She died before reaching her goal, but her classmates continued to make paper cranes for her, and ultimately built this moment in her memory. Today, cases stand behind the monument, encasing thousands-upon-thousands of paper cranes, made and brought from children all over the world.
The Memorial Cenotaph is a marble arch that heads a rectangular pond. Looking through the arch, it perfectly frames the Dome and the ‘Flames of Peace’ – a fire that seems to dance on the waters of the pond, which will burn until the last nuclear weapon on earth has been dismantled. It here where the victims of the nuclear bomb are entombed. An unknown number of victims, with no body to lay to rest, collectively encasing the souls of the those who died.
These are but two examples, scattered across the The Peace Park. This area the and Memorial Museum can take up a whole day, and I recommend you give it that time. Hiroshima is synonymous with the horrors of the bombing, something the international community knows but few understand. A visit to Hiroshima will make you want to understand, and it tells its story eloquently. But be warned: it will ruin your day. Well, ‘ruin’ is a strong word, but the combination of the unflinching exhibits and reports in the museum (some of them are very graphic and best avoided if you’re travelling with young children, though the first floor is fine) combined with the sight of the peaceful verdant park of today surrounded by modern Hiroshima sprung from from the ashes incurs a potent mix of optimism and distress in people for the strength and cruelty of mankind.
Visiting the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum is a life-changing experience. It is by no means a fun place to visit, but it is the kind of visit that leaves a mark on everyone who passes by. It is the kind of place everybody should visit in their lifetime, especially those in power who make light of the power of nuclear weapons.
For those of you wondering how the populace of Hiroshima feel about outside visitors to the park, especially if they are American – please do not worry at all. Visitors are warmly welcomed regardless of who they are. Since the end of the Second World War, Hiroshima has fashioned itself as a world leader in advocating World Peace, and just the sheer presence of visitors from across the globe is validation that their work is having an effect! If you’re still not sure, let me put it this way: there is a popular chain of Hiroshima-style tsukemen restaurants, with at least five branches in the city itself. The name of these restaurants? ‘Bakudanya’ (Explosion Shop). Hope that helps!
Next time on LET’S SEE JAPAN: Hiroshima has much more to offer beyond the Peace Park! I’ll take you around the rest of the city and it’s environs and share what else this great corner of Japan has to offer.