Monday, November 21, 2011

Encountering Japan: Two Days in Hiroshima

Welcoming band playing for the MV Explorer as we dock in Kobe, Japan

Blog Entry #50: Encountering Japan: Two Days in Hiroshima

11:11 on 11-11-11!
Friday, November 11, 2011

How to come to terms with the two days Pat and I just spent in Hiroshima?
A-Bomb over Hiroshima
The name alone evokes long-repressed fears of nuclear war that haunted my childhood years growing up in the Cold War where some of my earliest memories are of the tensions around the Cuban Missile Crisis, and “duck and cover” drills were a regular part of elementary school routines.  Then Hiroshima meant one thing: the first city every to experience the destruction of an atomic bomb.
A-Bomb Dome & Peace Museum & Park
A-Bomb Dome & Island the day after the bomb
And the reality of that experience pervades Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and Museum unlike any other place I have been.  There is no escaping it, from the silent presence of the familiar “A-Bomb Memorial” skeleton of a former school and Industrial Promotion Hall, to the Buddhist Bell of Peace whose tone resonates across this beautiful island park.
Shinkansen "Bullet Train" in Hiroshima
But Hiroshima is also a vibrant modern city served by Japan’s famous Shinkansen “Bullet” train, on which we arrived after departing our ship two days ago in the rain at Kobe Harbor.  Hiroshima is built in a stunning setting: a series of parallel islands divided by channels of the Ota-gawa delta as it empties into the Inland Sea.  Hence, everywhere, it seems, are river channels lined with trees and walkways.  Our 2-day visit coincided with the onset of fall colors, a particularly rich mix of gingkoes, cottonwoods, and feathery Japanese maples.
Our first challenge was simply reaching Hiroshima, using our newly minted Japan Rail Passes it had taken us half a day criss-crossing Shanghai 3 days before to procure.  Two trips on the Kobe Metro line brought us to the “Shin-Kobe” station where the Shinkansen or “bullet” train stops on the Tokyo to Hiroshima route.  We our non-existent Japanese, we relied on the courtesy of many Japanese officials and citizens who got us to the right train platform in time for our 1:35 pm departure.
Hiroshima city and harbor, showing channels of Ota River
We arrived in Hiroshima 90 minutes later, duly impressed by the speed and smooth ride of our train, as well as the beauty of the Japanese countryside between Kobe and Hiroshima.  With 80% of Japan’s 127 million people (in an area roughly the size of California) living in urban settings, we were surprised still to see so many tree-covered hills and mountains on our trip west to Hiroshima.
Hiroshima & the Motoyasu River channel
Hiroshima streetcar
Hiroshima is a quaint and very efficient streetcar system, and the lovely attendant at the Information booth in the train station showed us exactly on the map how to get to the Comfort Hotel Otemachi – only 2 blocks from the Peace Memorial Park – where we had a reservation.  Twenty minutes and 150 yen ($2) later, we checked into our room and we set off on foot to take advantage of the waning afternoon light to explore the Peace Memorial Park and Museum.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Set on an island between two river channels and at “ground zero” of the August 6, 1945 atomic bomb blast, it is hard to reconcile the beautifully cultivated grounds of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park with the photos of the devastation of the bomb that killed over 140,000 people.  Set at one end is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and International Conference Center, surrounded by flowering gardens, fountains, and sculptures. 
Cenotaph & A-Bomb Dome
From it a long walkway leads to a Cenotaph Arch containing the names of all the known victims of the bomb.  The Cenotaph in turn frames the Flame of Peace – to be extinguished only when the last nuclear weapon has been destroyed – and the whole ensemble frames the so-called “A-Bomb Dome”, the former school and Industrial Promotion Hall that was one of the few buildings in the area not completely leveled by the bomb blast.
Model showing area before the bomb
Peace Park Island after the bomb
Since we planned to return to the Park the following morning, we focused this afternoon on our visit to the Peace Memorial Museum.  The Lonely Planet Guide warns that “a visit to the museum can be an overwhelming experience” which we found to be an understatement.
Model showing where the bomb detonated over Hiroshima
When time stopped: 8:15 am Aug 6, 1945
One begins a visit to the Museum on the ground floor, moving through a circular exhibit that details the history of Hiroshima, and especially how this port city became a growing center of Japanese militarism following the first and second “Sino-Japanese Wars” with China in the late 1890s and 1930s. 
Model of A-Bomb Dome in Museum
Street scene the day after the bomb
There is careful attention paid both to rising Japanese militarism in “the Pacific War” as it is known here, and the U.S. decision first to develop and atomic bomb and then to use it on Japan.  Only as you reach the second level and look back down do you realize you have been circling inside a replica of the A-Bomb Dome, a haunting realization.
Child Survivor's drawing
Survivor drawing
We spent two hours in the museum, trying to absorb the information and exhibits, numbed by the scale of what it tries to convey.  Particularly poignant are the individual stories and testimonies that try to bring an event of such enormous scale down to a human level.  One leaves the exhibit passing by the drawings of child survivors of the blast, and the realization that those still living are only a decade or two older than Pat and me.

One particular section of the museum brought back memories of my childhood and reading books in the Upland Library: the story of Sadako and the Thousand Cranes.  Here is part of the exhibit

Cenotaph & Museum at night
It was a relief to walk out of the museum around 6:00 pm into the serenity of the now-dark park.  We walked past the Cenotaph and the Flame of Peace to see the A-Bomb Dome reflected in the waters of the Motoyasu river channel.  
A-Bomb Dome at night

The weather had improved dramatically from the morning rain, and we stopped to enjoy a lovely dinner at the outdoor Caffe Ponte, looking back across the channel to the Peace Park.  Walking back to the hotel along the Motoyasu parkway in the evening light was soothing after such an emotional immersion into Hiroshima’s atomic past.

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