Actually, not even a day in Hiroshima. We spent about eight hours in Hiroshima, but it was a worthwhile visit.
Most people have a particular vision of Hiroshima in their head. That vision is undoubtedly based on the horrific destruction that resulted from the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima in August 1945. Despite that bomb being dropped over 70 years ago, our collective – and historical – memory has formed around that event. This is both a good thing – it brings people to Hiroshima – and a slightly bad thing, given there is more to the area than just the bomb.
We visited Hiroshima in June 2016, catching the bullet train from Kyoto to the city. There are a number of trains a day, but only some are direct. We each had Japan Rail Passes, which makes travel in Japan super easy. The trains are clean, efficient and easy to use. Japan Railways staff are very friendly, and in the larger cities, will help you in English to make a booking. We left early in the morning. Our train took about two and a half hours to get to Hiroshima.
When we arrived in Hiroshima, we hopped straight on a small tram outside the main railway station. This took us straight into the city. Hiroshima really looks like any other industrial area. Given most of the city centre was rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s, this is not surprising. Lots of concrete tower blocks and nondescript buildings. Once you get closer to the centre, however, you will start to see some familiar sites. The A-Bomb dome, Memorial Park and the Peace Memorial Museum.
THE A-BOMB DOME
We hopped off the tram and started our visit with the A-Bomb dome (Genbaku Dōmu), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site used to be the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. When Little Boy was detonated, its blast exerted 35 tons of pressure per square meter and created a fierce wind speed of 440 meters per second. The building absorbed the powerful explosion and heat, and burst into flames. Because the impact of the blast came almost directly overhead, the thick outer walls and the steel dome escaped complete destruction. Everyone inside, however, died, and the building was gutted by fire. The residents of Hiroshima decided to keep this tragic reminder of war intact.
It is a harrowing sight. The steel frame was one of the only standing structures in downtown Hiroshima to survive the blast. We wandered around the site for some time, and visited the various memorials around it. I remember one in particular, to the mobilised Japanese students who died in WW2. This is where I first saw the colorful origami cranes for which Hiroshima is famous.
CHILDREN’S PEACE MONUMENT
We then walked across the bridge to the Memorial park proper. This is a very popular tourist attraction, but it was not too busy on the day we visited. The park itself was very peaceful. We visited the famous Children’s Peace Monument, where thousands of schoolchildren come each year to lay origami crane chains. While erected in memory of all children who died in Hiroshima, the monument was developed after the death of Sadako Sasaki. Sadako was two years old when the atomic bomb hit. Despite not showing any initial after-effects, she developed leukemia when she was older. She died in 1955, aged 12, having started folding many paper cranes.
After her death, Sadako’s friends raised funds to build a memorial to her and all the children who had died from the effects of the atomic bomb. In 1958, the statue we visited was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. At the foot of the statue is a plaque that reads: “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.” When we visited, there were so many strings of cranes from all over the world. When the boxes surrounding the monument are full of cranes, they recycle them into postcards featuring Hiroshima, which you can buy to support the park.
FLAME OF PEACE AND CENOTAPH
We then wandered past the rest house – the only building to stay completely standing in the area – to the eternal flame (flame of peace). The monument is designed to look like two hands pressed together at the wrist, bent back so that the palms point up to the sky. Lit in 1964, the theory is that it will never be extinguished until all nuclear weaponry is eradicated.
From the flame of peace, we visited the Cenotaph, a semi-circle shaped memorial that protect the souls of all those who perished in the bomb. It has the inscription ‘”安らかに眠って下さい 過ちは 繰返しませぬから“, which means “please rest in peace, for [we/they] shall not repeat the error.” You can read more about it on the Wikipedia page, but basically, this inscription is a little controversial, as some Japanese believe it is an admission of guilt over the cause of the bomb. More likely, it is just that the Japanese use polite language, which doesn’t necessarily imply ownership.
HIROSHIMA PEACE MEMORIAL MUSEUM
Established in 1955, more than 55 million people have visited this museum. I understand that one wing of the museum is now closed, but I would still recommend you visit. It is a very worthwhile, if not slightly harrowing, experience. It may not be suitable for young children.
The brochure for the museum states that “The Peace Memorial Museum collects and displays belongings left by the victims, photos, and other materials that convey the horror of that event, supplemented by exhibits that describe Hiroshima before and after the bombings and others that present the current status of the nuclear age. Each of the items displayed embodies the grief, anger, or pain of real people. Having now recovered from the A-bomb calamity, Hiroshima’s deepest wish is the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the realization of a genuinely peaceful international community.“
This is a pretty apt description. Seeing a set of stone stairs, where a person was instantly eradicated from the earth, is pretty freaky. So is seeing a metal bicycle that had a child sitting on it, the body of the child completely obliterated by the bomb. The museum is not for everyone, and I did not read every plaque. I found the parts on the effects of nuclear fallout on the human body particularly sad. But again, it is well worth a visit. I would recommend spending at least a few hours in the museum, although it may take less seeing part of it is shut.
HIROSHIMA NATIONAL PEACE MEMORIAL HALL
We then wandered to the Memorial Hall. Outside the hall is an monument to 8:15 − the moment the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The monument is surrounded by water, an offering for victims who died craving water. Inside the hall is a circular monument, where you can contemplate the destruction of Hiroshima and the victims of the bombs. Around the room is a frieze showing what Hiroshima looked like straight after the detonation.
After we visited the park, we wandered over to find some lunch. By some stroke of luck, we came across a restaurant serving Okonomiyaki. Unknown to us, it is the second highest rated restaurant in Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki is a popular Japanese dish, with Hiroshima being famed for its own version of the cabbage, noodle, meat and egg dish. We managed to get a table within 10 minutes. The staff were speedy to serve us, and we could choose the ingredients for each pancake. Made in front of us, they were delicious and fresh. The staff showed great skill in preparing the dishes! Best of all, our meals were well priced. If you visit one restaurant in Hiroshima, make sure you visit Okonomiyaki Nagata-Ya.
After lunch, we visited Hiroshima Castle. We walked up past the Hiroshima Museum of Art and through Ninomaru, the front gate. Though you wouldn’t know by looking at the outside, the castle was progressively rebuilt 1954-1989, with the interiors being the last area to be completed. To be honest, you expect the inside to be a beautiful castle, but it’s really a museum. However, you can get a very nice view from the top, and if you have some spare time, it’s well worth making the climb. The grounds are quite pretty and, on a nice day, you can see for miles.
We then head back to the train station, for our leisurely train ride back to Kyoto (via Osaka). One thing I would have loved to have done is to visit Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima. It was too difficult to fit in with our timetable, as it would have involved an overnight stay. However, it looks very beautiful – and if you visit at high tide, you can see the Tori gate floating over the water.
Eat: Okonomiyaki Nagata-Ya. Shigeishi bldg 1F, 1-7-19, Otemachi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima. Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 11AM-9PM, Saturday 11AM – 9.30AM and Sunday 10.30AM-9PM. Closed on Tuesdays.
Tips: If you have a Japan Rail Pass, do not book to Nozomi tickets (the fastest trains). You are not eligible to travel on that class. Instead, opt for Hikari or Sakura trains, with a transfer at Osaka – which only adds about 15 minutes to the journey.
And someone should definitely check out this cat museum, which I didn’t know about when I visited!