HIROSHIMA is not a word. It is unspeakable.
It is about the injustice and horrors of war, but also redemption and the quest for peace.
In 1945, the United States’ atomic bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki within days of each other subdued Japan and ended World War 2. Decades on, the image of mushroom clouds and the stories of the suffering of their victims still shock, drawing hordes of visitors to Hiroshima seeking to reconcile what was and ought never to be again.
But as we learned from our trip there last November, Hiroshima is also about cuisine, comedy and romance. Or perhaps it was only us, bumbling as we did in the maze of nature and the concrete jungle in this perfect blend of history and the here and now.
When visiting Hiroshima without a guide, it is best to select a hotel near the Shinkansen (bullet train) entrance of the Hiroshima train station, one of the stops of the hop-on, hop-off Hiroshima Sightseeing Loop Bus that brings tourists to the city’s most important tourist spots.
The bus stops in front of the Hotel Granvia Hiroshima. But if you can’t book a room there, there’s always the luxurious Sheraton Hiroshima Hotel right across.
The bus goes to the Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima Castle, art galleries and Shukkeien, begun in 1620 as the garden of Hiroshima feudal lord Asano Nagaakira’s villa. This lord resided in Hiroshima Castle.
Both the Castle and the Shukkeien were destroyed by the Aug. 6, 1945 atomic bombing and reconstructed.
The A-bomb Dome is the ruins of the former Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall, 600 meters above which the atomic bomb was detonated, destroying everything within a two-kilometer radius and killing 140,000 people through injury and radiation by year’s end.
Before the bombing, the hall had been used for the sale of prefectural products, as well as for art exhibits, fairs and cultural events. Hiroshima City is the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture.
The A-Bomb Dome joined the World Heritage List in 1996 as a witness of the horror of the first use of a nuclear weapon and a peace monument seeking the abolition of such weapons.
From the dome, we walked to the Peace Memorial Park built to comfort the souls of the A-Bomb victims and pray for lasting world peace. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is close by.
Among the many victims of the bombing were children, so also in the area is the Children’s Peace Monument dedicated to them. This monument was inspired by the story of 12-year-old Sadako Sasaki who, exposed to the bomb’s radiation at age two with no apparent injury, developed the leukemia 10 years later that killed her.
The nine-meter monument features a bronze statue of a young girl lifting “a golden crane entrusted with dreams for a peaceful future,” a marker there says.
Hoping to recover from her illness, Sadako had folded 1,000 paper cranes in the vain hope that doing so would make her wish come true, as an old adage had claimed.
The park also features the Memorial Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims containing the names of all the deceased A-bomb victims and “a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war,” something we all need reminding of just about now.
Garden and art
The other stops on the hop-on, hop-off bus were less depressing.
At the Shukkeien garden, my sisters, cousin and I admired the tranquil scenery set by the trees trimmed in traditional Japanese style and reflected in pools of water that radiated with the colors of autumn.
We quickly positioned ourselves in front of a miniature bridge with koi swimming beneath. But without our more technologically advanced and better sighted niece on hand, our attempts to take selfies with a selfie stick met with limited success, our faces and the backdrop not quite fitting into the frame despite several tries.
At the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, we felt like we were being punished for some sin when we found that after getting off the bus, we still had to climb some 60 steps of a stairway just to get to the museum’s entrance.
But the “sacrifice” was well worth it, especially for my art-loving niece Tracy, who admired the sculptures and other works in the museum, including the endurance of a performance artist who lay motionless in bed “with a cold” the whole time we were there. There was also an open-air exhibition area (read: more hiking required).
Our fumbling continued with our search for okonomiyaki, a flour, cabbage, bean sprout, pork, egg and noodle concoction the chef cooks in front of patrons that they can pick right off the hot surface and eat.
Getting off at the Okonomimura stop of the sightseeing bus, we set off in search of the “Okonomiyaki village” we had been told was there.
But though we were not particularly religious, we found ourselves fasting after people we asked gave us different directions, resulting in our group going around in circles and not finding anything in the area that looked remotely like a village serving the dish.
Famished and with the last bus trip of the day nearing, we retraced our steps and stopped by a building just around the corner from our bus stop. It had a stand showing pictures of food, and we were prepared to eat anything at that point.
Inside the building, the sign by the elevator read, “Welcome Okonomimura.” Then the elevator opened to three floors of food concessionaires offering okonomiyaki in oyster, shrimp, squid and cheese variants.
It turned out the bus had dropped us off at the back of this building, where there was no sign in English on the nondescript structure to indicate that it was the “village” we had come for.
The delights of Hiroshima Prefecture extend offshore—to Miyajima, a picturesque island you can get to by 10-minute ferry ride from a pier close to the Miyajimaguchi station.
If you ever need a girl to say ‘yes’ to you, I suggest you take her to Miyajima in autumn, as there could be no more romantic setting than this postcard-perfect rural escape of sand and sea with cherry blossoms and maple trees flaunting their foliage, deer roaming free, and small shops where you can get her treats to melt her heart and resistance.
Miyajima in Hatsukaichi City hosts the seventh century Itsukushima Shrine famed for its Torii gate that appears to float on the water. The Shinto shrine itself also appears to float, an illusion created by building it on a pier-like structure so it would appear separate from the island, which was off-limits to commoners since it was deemed sacred for most of its history. With the shrine “separate” from the island, it could now be approached by pilgrims.
The architecture on Miyajima is straight out of the Edo era (1600s-1800s). And the island’s grilled oysters, octopus, asparagus, squid and other local fare add to the charm.
But Miyajima is also so 21st century with its souvenirs; Momiji Manju custard, a jam-filled pastry in chocolate and cheese variants; and photo opportunity with the world’s largest rice scoop.
Carved from a 270-year-old tree, the rice scoop, which is 7.7 meters long and weighs 2.5 tons, has been on the main shopping street since 1996 to commemorate Itsukushima Shrine’s designation as a World Heritage Site. The giant scoop is a symbol of Miyajima, birthplace of the rice scoop, and a reminder of its wood carving tradition.
On Miyajima, it always looks like Christmas with deer all around. But the deer can get chummy, and one snatched the sheet of paper containing the Hiroshima Station platform guide from my sister Melanie’s bag, chewing and swallowing it, multi-colored ink and all, as we watched in horror.
The Orange and Green Routes of the Hiroshima sightseeing bus would have been the deer’s breakfast too had Melanie not snatched the sheets from the animal, which managed to look blameless the whole time.
Hiroshima is old world and contemporary. It is history lingering, yet quick to bequeath its lessons. It is innocent, yet knowing—like the deer.