Hiroshima

I don’t need to set the scene here, there are some words in the English language for which a place name has become an event. Nearly always an unhappy, and usually tragic, event, and it cuts through any context. You don’t need to be discussing the Pacific Campaign in the Second World War, you don’t even need to know the first thing about it, if you were to say to somebody “it’s been 73 years since Hiroshima” you’d expect everybody to know exactly what you mean.

Getting to Japan

Hiroshima has an international airport, but handling only a handful of international flights (Seoul, Taiwan, and a few of the larger Chinese cities) so international visitors are probably going to land at either Tokyo or Osaka and then get a bullet train. Osaka is less than half the distance from Hiroshima that Tokyo is, so that’s the one I chose. Qantas flies direct from Sydney, and Jetstar flies direct from Cairns. Given that I live in Melbourne, I decided to go the Jetstar route, so I cashed in some frequent flier points to get to Cairns for free, and then treated myself to 7 1/2 hours of Jetstar Business Class (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) for A$779 one-way. I’ve flown this cabin a couple of times before on the Melbourne-Singapore route and I like it – nice big comfy leather seat, the food’s good (tasty, and not over-elaborate or poncy, click the icon to see the menu), they keep you plied with drink the entire flight, and I didn’t use the in-flight entertainment system as I had downloaded the second series of both Stranger Things and Occupied onto Netflix on my tablet before I left home. Note that the fare doesn’t include access to the Cathay Pacific Lounge airside unless you pay extra.

Took an hour to get through immigration and customs at Osaka-Kansai Airport, no fast track for business class and no self-service biometric passport readers (I know, first world problems). The immigration officer queried a hotel in Hiroshima being my address in Japan as I clearly wasn’t going to be staying there tonight, but he was happy that I was staying at the airport hotel.

The airport hotel was pricey and the room was small, but I didn’t expect anything else. I was well-fed on the flight, but still needed something to eat, and my plan was to dump my bag and then go back over into the airport terminal where I guessed there would be plenty of restaurants. Which there were, and pretty much all of them were Japanese cuisine, and didn’t look appealing to me. This was the first eye-opener, while I know Japan has its own cultures, I had also formed the impression (in my own head) that it embraced American and western culture, and there would be plenty of western-influenced restaurants, especially in an international airport. Apart from McDonalds (in the terminal) and Burger King (in the food court next to my hotel) there weren’t any. I got myself a Whopper (I don’t speak Japanese, and without going all Pulp Fiction here I reckoned it would be the same in any language) and next door to it was a convenience store called Lawson’s where I got some snacks.

Back up to the room to find there were no English language channels except for CNN Japan, which turned out to be regular CNN International over-dubbed in Japanese.

I must have been tired as I fell alseep quite quickly.

Osaka to Hiroshima

There’s a railway station in the airport that takes you to Shin-Osaka, from where you catch the bullet train to Hiroshima. There’s also a ticket office where you can also pick up a Japan Rail West Pass if you’ve pre-ordered one (which I had). Looking back on it, for the journeys I was making the numbers didn’t stack up, this trip was a plain Kansai-Osaka-Hiroshima and then back again a couple of days later, and for those journeys I would have been cheaper buying four singles. I’m still glad I bought the rail pass as it made life so much easier.

Your rail pass is a flimsy bit of cyan paper, and comes in a paper wallet, along with a “helpful” information slip (cut a long story short – don’t use the Kansai Hiroshima pass for travel to any station further east than Shin-Osaka).

Clear as mud

I ordered my rail pass online from the JR West website beforehand, you need to supply the date of travel and your passport number but don’t need to pay for it before you get there – you just print out the email they send you and take it to the ticket office. There is a way of purchasing before you go, which involved paying the Japanese Tourist Board upfront, and they give you a coupon for which you have to queue up at the same ticket office and exchange for your rail pass when you get to Japan. Initially I wanted to do that, until I visited the Japanese Tourist Board in Melbourne and was served by somebody who must have been off sick the day they were taught basic customer service.

“I’d like to by a Kansai Hiroshima rail pass.”

“Fill out this form”, so I fill out the form (needs my name, phone number, email address), “that is $163” and she gets her credit card card machine ready (she’s a bit keen).

“Can I double-check this is the right pass for me?”

“You buy ticket, then I answer question”.

“Do I pick up this pass from Kansai Airport?”

“You buy ticket, then I answer question. You need to look at Hyperdia website before you buy!”

“I just want to check that I pick up this pass from Kansai Airport, and that I can use it to travel from Kansai Airport to Shin-Osaka?” (I’m 99% sure that I can, but just want to put my mind at rest).

“You don’t know what you’re buying! I can’t help you! You need to go to Hyperdia website”.

So I snatched the form off her (don’t want to leave my personal data), got up and left.

Her colleague, who had been watching from the desk next to her with an open-jaw, ran after me and caught me in the lift lobby, and offered to serve me and answer any questions, but it was too late, I wasn’t giving them a cent of my money. I thought the tourist board was meant to be there to help people, and to encourage tourists to visit their country?!

Anyway, got that off my chest, so back to the story. I’ve got my rail pass and it gets me through the ticket barrier at Kansai Airport train station. Down the escalator to platform four where the train’s not there, but there’s no reason for it to be, there’s still half an hour to go. The train comes in, arriving passengers alight, but before we can get on the cleaners run on, block off the doors, and clean the carriages. I should have expected this, Japan has a reputation for it (one thing I noticed last night at the airport was the amount of people wearing facemasks, to keep from spreading their germs).

As this station is the end of the line, all the seats were facing the direction of travel. So you’d expect that when we set off, all seats would have their backs to the direction of travel. But no, once the cleaners have finished, the last thing they do is press a button and the seats pirouette around so that once again they’re facing the direction of travel! I wasn’t expecting this, and I wasn’t on-the-ball enough to get out my phone and start videoing it. Fortunately somebody else has, so I wasn’t imagining it.

Shin-Osaka station is the most manic place I’ve ever been. And I lived in London for 12 years, I’ve been in the middle of New York and Hong Kong at rush hour, but none of them come close to this. People everywhere, all of them purposefully going somewhere, and wanting to get there promptly, but I just can’t get over the sheer number of them and the way they just appear from all over the place, it never stops. And ticket machines, all flashing buttons and screens, hundreds and hundreds of them, like a Vegas casino, with people swarming all round them. I said earlier that I was happy I bought a rail pass even if it cost me a bit more, well this is part of the reason.

The other part of the reason is …. if you’re planning a trip to Japan you’re going to have done a bit of Googling like I did, and find that a rail pass is valid on some trains, but not others. Then you think “well hold on, if there are five different types of trains to pick from, are there five different types of tickets? And how do I make sure I get the right one?” (and this is before you think about first-class/second-class, reserved/unreserved, peak/off-peak, etc.). It’s really hard to find a single source-of-truth, the Japan Rail website would say a different thing to the JR West site, which didn’t exactly tally up with what tourist sites were saying, and bloggers were different again, and so on. Then you start to wonder if a “Japan Rail Pass” is the same as a “JR West Pass”, so to cut a long story short I decided to be conservative and assume worst-case scenario which is that when the timetables on the Japan Rail site say “The Japan Rail Pass is not valid for blah-blah-blah” that includes me.

Click to enlarge

Here’s the timetable. I’m assuming I’m not allowed to use trains starting “M” or “N”, but I can use “H”, “S” & “K”. So I printed it out, highlighted the “good” trains, and noted when they would call at Osaka. As a final check I remembered “High Street Kensington” as a mnemonic for the “good” trains, and made sure that it was a “H”, “S” or “K” train I was getting on.

Can’t get the 11:05, but can get the 11:08. Your interpretation of the validity of a particular rail pass may vary.
Impressive from the outside.

I had 50 minutes to kill before to my train so went to McDonalds for brekkie (healthy eating was a fixture of this trip) and then up to the platform for my train. Japanese railway stations have a cute queuing system (which I first came across watching Top Gear) whereby lines are painted on the platform that form lanes which fold back on themselves and create long S-shaped lanes, it’s not just a free-for-all when the doors open. Once inside the decor is, to be honest, drab. Bullet trains have got a reputation for being world-leading, but inside they just feel like a commuter train, as many rows of seats as possible crammed in (all facing the direction of travel, natch). And it’s noisy, at some points of the journey it’s as loud as an old London Underground train (think Piccadilly or Circle/District lines). But they’re blisteringly fast, which I suppose makes up everything. But if I had a choice of train to get me from A to B I’d prefer a German ICE train or the Eurostar (never travelled on a TGV).

DSC_0679

Hiroshima

The first thing I’m struck by is how normal it is. Okay, I wasn’t expecting smouldering piles of radioactive rubble, but really it does just feel like any other first-world city. The station, while not quite as manic as Shin-Osaka is still busy, the place is heaving with people, outside you have taxis and trams dropping people off and taking them away, you’ve got tour groups gathering round their guide, you’ve got the tourist board doling out advice and free maps, and you’ve got the big city street map where you look for the “you are here” arrow, and once you’ve found that your eyes just have to go looking for the “Atomic Bomb Dome” next. And that’s the only thing to tell you what happened here, there are no plaques or monuments or memorials around.

It’s a very compact city centre. Assuming most people arrive by train, and are definitely going to visit the Peace Park, and probably want to visit Hiroshima Castle, and (say) Hijiyama Park – that forms a square of about a mile on each side, and is easily walkable by anybody who is able-bodied. So I didn’t take any public transport the whole time I was there. My hotel was on the south edge of that square I just imagined, on “Heiwa-0-dori” which in English means “Peace Boulevard”. Continuing west along this road and it eventually forms the south edge of the Peace Park. Just before that, this is the first view you get of the Peace Park.

Peace museum in foreground, almost concealed by cherry blossoms. At the right hand end of the row of cherry blossoms you can just make out the A-Bomb Dome (which is actually on the same side of the river from which this photo was taken). Click for full-size.

The first thing I noticed about the park was how “normal” it is, and how the people of Hiroshima treat it as a place to go to relax and to enjoy themselves (just like any other park in any other city). I think I had formed the impression that it would be a very sombre place, like visiting a graveyard or a war memorial, but it isn’t. I’m not saying for a moment that it’s being treated disrespectfully, it’s not, it was a really nice place to be, being in among parents pushing babies in prams, kids throwing frisbees around, three generations of the same family sitting on the grass having a picnic, and so on.

The best map (in terms of ease-of-use) that I found is at Wikimedia – click the thumbnail below to open the full-size map. And for what follows I’ll start at item 16 on the map, and count down to item 1, as this is more-or-less the order that I would have encountered them on my visits through the park. For each image that follows, click to see it full-size.

Peace Park Map Thumbnail
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons and OpenStreetMap

16. Gates of Peace

A comparatively new addition to the park, the word “peace” written in 50-plus languages. Nice.

15. Statue of Mother and Child in the Storm

14. Fountain of Prayer

Seen here, with the (closed at the time) Peace Memorial Museum behind it.

 

13. International Conference Centre and 12. Peace Memorial Musuem

Both are closed right now for earthquake-proofing works (I guess that the earthquake and tsumani in 2011 – and because the focus has been on the Fukushima nuclear plant, it’s been forgotten just how phenomenally destructive the quake was – has led to a programme of strengthening key buildings across the country. This museum contains irreplaceable artifacts from an event unique in human history, and it’s right that all steps should be taken to preserve them). Just bad luck on my part, as I was really wanting to see round it, a pal that’s visited says it affected him more than Auschwitz (and I’ve been to both as well), and I’ve read similar tales from bloggers online.

There is actually a Peace Museum in a building that’s not numbered – look at building 12 (the big rectangle) and on its west side is building 11. To its east is an identical building, and at the moment that serves as the museum.

It’s over three floors (four if you include the basement, though that really doesn’t have much to see) and I think what they’ve done is take the best bits (and yes, you don’t get “best bits” of a nuclear bomb aftermath, I know that) from the museum that’s shut and exhibit them in here. And sorry to say, it doesn’t really work – there’s just too much crammed in to too small a space, and too many people visiting. Granted I went on Easter Sunday which was probably busier than normal (I know Japan isn’t Christian, but Sunday is still their day of rest, and I think with the Easter holidays they would get an increase in tourist numbers. The cherry blossoms being in season probably added a few more too).

All in all, you lost the ability to really take in what you were seeing and to reflect on it, it was too busy and noisy for any of the installations to have an impact, which is a shame as there were some really horrendous stories being told, and they deserve to be told.

What was clear though was the museum has tried, and I think has succeeded, in getting the tone of the exhibits, and the commentary alongside them, pretty well spot on. They don’t pull their punches about who dropped The Bomb, but at the same time there’s no animosity towards the Americans for doing so. And while there’s no element of forgiveness evident anywhere, far less any vindication of the act in the greater scheme of things, there’s no resentment either. I think it’s really well judged.

Exiting on the cafe on the ground floor (which interestingly is the only place in all of Hiroshima that you can buy souvenirs, or even postcards) there’s an installation whose centrepiece is a tree that survived the bombing, with a soundtrack of a choir of young children singing. No idea what they were singing, but it gave me an earworm, and was actually very touching and haunting at the same time.

 

11. Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims

Another recent installation, mostly underground and photography isn’t allowed. Passing a clock whose hands are stopped at quarter-past-eight, you slowly descend down wide circular walkway, until reaching a large circular hall of remembrance at the foot.

Like I said, no photos, all I have is the information booklet I picked up. Click to see inside.

Front
Back

 

10.Flame of Peace

It is there, honestly! You know how difficult it is to get a lick of flame to come out well in a photo (even when you’re photographing a bonfire there’s never as much orange as in real life). It has been burning for more than fifty years.

 

9. Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims

Seen from one direction with the A-Bomb Dome in the background, and the other with the Museum behind it.

 

8. Rest House

Rest House

The only place in the park I didn’t visit, and no photo either as it always had loads of people milling around outside it. The image above is from the Hiroshima Official Tourism Website, click on it to be taken to a page with more info.

 

7. Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound

Quite moving this, it affected me more than the any of the installations in the museum. “Holy fuck, it was my side that did this”.

 

6. Peace Bell

Recognise this from seeing the anniversary on the news every year, when it’s rung at 8:15am, and which I always thought was a once-a-year exceptional and solemn occasion. I was surprised that anybody can walk up and toll the bell whenever they want.

Click for video

 

5. Monument in Memory of the Korean Victims of the A-Bomb

This from a pal who’s married to a Korean: “It’s one of the animals that symbolises yin & yang. Not sacred more of a traditional symbol from ancient legends. Typically dragon head and tortoise body. Longevity, external being. Associated with tombstones and eternal existence.”

 

4. Memorial Tower to Mobilised Students

I completely missed this, I presume because it’s right next to the A-Bomb Dome and so my attention was always drawn to that. I’ve been through all my photos and it isn’t in any of them, not even lurking in the background anywhere.

Click on the image below to be taken to the site to learn more.

 

3. Children’s Peace Monument

 

2. Hypocenter

The hypocentre describes the point on the ground directly above which the bomb exploded. It’s more commonly used by seismologists to describe the position beneath the ground that is the exact centre of an earthquake (not the epicentre, which is the point on the earth’s surface directly above the earthquake’s centre). Not that semantics really matter here.

 

1. A-Bomb Dome

I took dozens of photos of this, from every side, from up-close and far away, and the best one is still the one at the top of this page. So here are two representations of what the building looked like before the bombing (the model is displayed inside the museum).


Though its dome might make you think it’s a place of worship, it was actually an exhibition centre, known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall up until its destruction. It was only designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996 – this surprised me, as did finding out that the Clinton administration fought very hard against this happening.

 

So, I’ve counted down from 16 to 1, but there are 17 items on the map. Number 17 isn’t in the park, you have to exit the park at its northern end, cross the river on the weird T-shaped Aloi Bridge (the unusual shape made it a good aiming point for the Enola Gay’s crew), and go past a petrol station, then you’ve arrived.

 

17. Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum

From the map it’s clearly seen how close this is to the aiming point, and is only a few hundred metres from the hypocentre. The school was totally destroyed, and has been completely rebuilt.

I am absolutely gutted that I didn’t do my research in advance, because I would have found out that the museum within the school is only open by prior appointment, and only between Mon-Fri 8:30-5. Gutted as well because I arrived in Hiroshima on a Friday, and went round the Peace Park, but didn’t even give the school a thought (“I’ll do it tomorrow or Sunday” … idiot!).

Even without going round it, I read the plaque pictured above, and then sat down and started to read more on my phone, and it really affected me. 400 schoolchildren dead. Just like that. And it was “us” that did it (an American bomber might have dropped the payload, but the course of action was fully supported by the Brits and Aussies).

The month before my visit there was another of the all-too-frequent school shootings in America, and I think everybody agrees that those 17 people didn’t deserve to die that day. Just as everybody agrees that those 16 children and their teacher didn’t deserve to die in Dunblane twenty years ago. And that 144 people didn’t deserve to die in their school in Aberfan fifty years ago. So why did 400 children and their teachers deserve to die seventy years ago? They didn’t, of course they didn’t, so why did they (we) do it?

I’m aware of the way the war in the Pacific was going, that the allies (primarily America) had turned the tide and were going to win in the end, but at an enormous human cost (America took 26,000+ casualties to take the eight square miles of Iwo Jima) while the Japanese would rather die than surrender (20,000 died defending those 8 sq mi, only 200 were taken alive). The Americans knew that an absolutely horrific bloodbath, on both sides, was unavoidable once the invasion of the Japanese mainland started, and that had to happen sooner or later, unless there was a way of ending the war beforehand. (There’s also the wildcard of the Soviets being about to enter the war against Japan as well, not that I think that tipped the decision one way or the other).

I know the rationale behind the decision, I understand the arithmetic, “kill tens of thousands in order to save millions”, I get it. I just can’t rationalise that (entirely logical) position, with standing outside a primary school and imagining it being blown up and all 400 schoolchildren inside being killed. I know that after four years (for America) of total war the decision to drop The Bomb was made against entirely different backdrop than if Trump (or Obama, or Bush, or Clinton) decided to press the button in the (relative) peacetime of today.

As it stands, Harry Truman is the only person who has ever had to make the decision to drop The Bomb, and I hope that never changes.

 

What happened next

Jetstar emailed me to tell me my 7pm flight wasn’t going out till nearly midnight, so I left Hiroshima later in the afternoon of Easter Sunday than I originally planned. Back the way I came on the bullet train to Shin-Osaka and then the normal train to the airport. Still got to the airport way too early for my flight, but apart from a teeny-weeny wee wine bar (that had no free seats) there was nowhere landside that I fancied eating (not in the mood for McDonalds or Subway), so I took the bus to terminal two, to kill some time as much as anything else. Much quieter, and much nicer, I had dinner in a place called Ginza Lion (same name as a bar I’ve been to in Singapore, it must be a chain), then back to T1, what the hell, just go through security now, there’ll be something on the other side. Nope – one place selling beer (called Pronto) so I settled in there and sank a few pissy lagers at 890 yen for a pint.

That was my first time in Japan, and I liked it. I wouldn’t go back to Hiroshima as I’ve seen nearly everything there is to see (unless I was going with somebody and it would be worth filling in the gaps of things I missed). And I wouldn’t fly out through Osaka-Kansai Airport either.

 

One last thing

First night in Hiroshima I got up in the middle of the night to attend to nature (as happens when you get to my age), sat down so I could keep the light off, and the seat was warm. Not burning hot, but definitely artificially heated. And when I stood up, the toilet flushed itself.

Yep, Japan has “smart toilets”, which plug in to the mains.

So next time you’re at the supermarket and can’t get a single-use plastic bag, or are in a bar and the paper straw in your drink is turning to mush, or have to pay 50c more for your coffee because you’ve forgotten your keep-cup, just think on that while you’re doing your bit to save the planet, over in Japan there are 100 million toilet seats being kept permanently warm 24 x 7 x 365.

 

Some Light Reading

Hiroshima by John Hersey. This is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing, and is really worth reading whether you’re going to Hiroshima, or have just been, or have no intention of going near the place. One of the books that you won’t get rid of, and will keep to read again in the future.

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