Saturday, June 07, 2008 Japan Japan

An infamous past

A-dome, Hiroshima [Enlarge]

Hiroshima has the 'ewww' factor as a tourist destination. Even now, 62 years after the fateful atomic blast, tourists are often reluctant to come here because they worry about the reception they will get. There is no need to worry. Hiroshima is not a depressing mausoleum. It's an attractive, modern city full of friendly, polite, welcoming people. In fact, it is probably the most welcoming place we have visited on our whole trip so far.

Our hotel was centrally located and all the tourist sights were a short walk away. To make the most of our seven-day rail pass, we can't stay for long in each place we visit. So we headed straight out for an early evening walk along the riverside path to the A-Bomb Dome, the preserved remains of Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. It was only 150 metres from the hypocentre (the point directly underneath the atomic explosion), and although all the buildings around it were flattened, its reinforced concrete walls and dome remained upright and semi-intact.

Over the years, the few buildings which were not completely destroyed in the blast were pulled down and new buildings were built in their places, but the Promotional Hall was left alone as a monument and reminder to the world. In 1996, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. At night the building is floodlit and bats swoop around the skeletal remains.

Bride in Shukkei Garden [Enlarge]

The centre of Hiroshima is full of monuments to peace and reminders of the past. The Shukkei-en, a seventeenth century garden modelled on West Lake at Hangzhou, China, was decimated by the bomb. Now the garden has been replanted and is beautiful again. The trees and plants have grown back and the tea house and other buildings have been rebuilt. As we arrived in the garden a young woman in an elaborate white kimono came down the path, followed by a photographer. She was having her wedding photos taken. She paused and smiled for Glenn's camera, then continued with what she was doing. After a minute watching her, we were approached by a man who introduced himself very politely and asked where we were from and if we would like a free guided tour of the garden. He was from a local society and happily talked to us about the garden, it's history, destruction and reconstruction. He turned out to be a retired automotive engineer from Fukuoka, who had once visited the Longbridge Rover plant in Birmingham. In his past life Glenn briefly worked on a Japanese automotive engineering project, so the two of them talked about that for a while ("Boring stuff"—Isla).

After lunch we visited the city's main "attraction": Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It is an excellent and thought provoking place. It makes no attempt to be political or to justify the actions of either side, it just explains things from a humanitarian perspective. On the ground floor there is a detailed explanation of why the bombing happened, the time-line leading up to it, and photos and models of the city before and after the explosion. Upstairs, items such as articles of clothing are displayed along with the stories of the people they belonged to. Every story is uniquely tragic. Many of them concern children who were in the area around the hypocentre, working to demolish rows of wooden buildings to create fire-breaks against conventional air raids which were feared by the city. Of course most of these people died instantly, but the less fortunate ones survived the initial blast. With horrific burns and injuries many of them managed to find their way home, or were found by their parents and taken home. They almost all died, days later, in unbelievable agony. We will never forget the pictures of people with their skin hanging off.

Before the atomic bombing. [IMG_4099]
Before... [Enlarge]
After the atomic bombing. [IMG_4098]
...and after [Enlarge]

Over the following years and decades the bomb continued to take its toll in the form of radiation-induced cancers. Again, children were worst hit. Possibly the most famous is Sadako Sasaki. She was only two years old at the time of the bomb. Ten years later, in 1955, she was diagnosed with leukemia. A Japanese proverb states that a person who folds 1,000 paper cranes will be granted a wish. So Sadako began folding cranes, believing that if she could complete 1,000 she would be able to recover. She died in October 1955, having completed only 644 cranes. Her schoolmates decided to complete her unfinished task. This symbolic action captured the hearts and minds of the people of Hiroshima and eventually all over the world, and now thousands of paper cranes are hung from monuments throughout the city.

Hypocentre of the A-bomb explosion [Enlarge]

Sixty-two years later people are still dying from the effects of that moment in history.

One of the most telling displays in the museum is walls covered with letters to world leaders, written by successive Mayors of Hiroshima. Every time a country carries out a nuclear test, Hiroshima's Mayor issues a formal letter of protest to that country in the name of humanity. The letters began in 1968 with letters to France and China. The following year, the Mayor wrote to the USA. In the 1970s he also wrote to Russia and the UK. In the 1990s India and Pakistan joined the list. The most recent letter was dated October 2006. It was sent to Kim Jong-il.

Hiroshima is a beautiful, quiet, dignified, friendly place. It has rebuilt itself after the tragedy of 1945 to become a modern city, but its history is everywhere. At the hypocentre, an apartment block now stands, ivy and begonias trailing from the balconies, a small plaque by the side of the road marking the place. But there is no fanfare and no looking back in self-pity. It seems a little weird to say that we enjoyed our visit, but we really loved Hiroshima.