After our stop in Kyoto we were off to Hiroshima. We felt compelled to visit Hiroshima for its historical significance to see “the other side of history.” What we did not expect was to enjoy the city so much; it really is a beautiful place filled with delicious food! We arrived mid-afternoon and found ourselves a do-all-your-laundry-for-you place for $25 including dropping it off at our hotel the next day. We were amazed at the price because to be perfectly honest Japan was INCREDIBLY expensive compared to any of the other Asian countries we have visited (or even the one we live in #China). So when, for an extra ~$10, they would wash/fold/deliver our laundry it was not even a question of what to do. This is the trade off with backpack travel, you cannot bring as much. At the same time, you will be thankful you did not when you have to haul it around on your back. At any rate, this laundry place we found freed our afternoon up for a trip to Hiroshima-jo (castle) before it closed and a walk through the grounds.
Part of what made Hiroshima a target for the US was the combination of military headquarters, factories supporting the war effort, and a population large enough to make an impact. I later read that Kyoto had also been considered but may have been spared due to one of the people in charge having a personal attachment to the city.
The castle itself was rebuilt after the war and is a stunning display of traditional Japanese architecture. You are able to go in the castle (for a small fee) and learn a bit about the shoguns who previously occupied it and the general history of the region. The castles were built to be quite elaborate and generally had one or two outer walls to better defend them from attack. If I remember correctly part of the reason they were so beautiful was to serve as a place for the shogun to make his final stand before his likely defeat and subsequent death. If an army breached the outer walls and made it to the castle it was presumed that it was likely not going to end well for the defending party.
After our exploration of the castle it was time for dinner and as we were early-ish we were able to get right in to an okonomiyaki restaurant near our hotel. We had never even heard of this type of food, but google said it was good. [sidebar: living in China we have adapted well to not being able to rely on google for directions or food recommendations etc. It was a very delightful surprise to find that google not only worked again, but was full of good suggestions in English!] This was one of my favorite culinary experiences in all of Japan for the sheer unexpectedness/deliciousness of this food I had never even heard of before. We got to sit right at the grill and watch since were only two people which was great because we were able to see how these were made. It starts with a thin pancake like batter being poured out followed by a bunch of noodles (your choice, soba or udon…always pick the soba). Next they add a ton of lettuce, a little meat, some brown delicious sauce, a load of green onions, and an egg (among other things depending on which one you order). It was a large amount of food and we walked away completely stuffed. To make it even better you can add their super sweet Kewpie mayonnaise or another brown sauce to the mix. Overall we would HIGHLY recommend trying this food if you ever make it to Japan. It is not unique to Hiroshima, though they seem to have their own special brand of okonomiyaki.
After dinner we took a quick walk down to the atomic bomb dome to absorb some history and then a quick walk back to our hotel. This entire trip I was very happy with the location of all our hotels particularly the one in Hiroshima. We were a short walk from many different areas which made exploring a lot easier.
The next morning we had planned to go see the peace museum followed by a trip to the nearby island of Miyajima. We had not really planned much outside the peace museum originally, but luckily we ran into an Irish couple in Kyoto who had just traveled from Hiroshima and insisted we make a trip to the island. It was one of the sites I had read about before the trip, but at this point I had completely forgotten and was grateful for the reminder. These two are probably the top two attractions in Hiroshima overall, with other peace memorials spread out through the city.
As you will soon note, I did not take many pictures inside the museum for two reasons: most of the relics they have are small and/or almost unrecognizable, and most importantly I was so absorbed in the commentary from the audio guide it did not even occur to me to try to capture a picture on my camera. I am quite confident most of it will remain permanently etched into my memory.
The peace museum itself is mostly full of relics and personal accounts of what people experienced during this event. Unfortunately the “lead up to the war” section of the building was completely closed for renovation, so we missed out on an alternative view of what lead to the use of the first atomic bomb in the history of the world. Fortunately the majority of the museum remained open to us and we had a chance to learn some terrifying and otherwise quite sobering facts about what ensued over 70 years ago. The bomb that was dropped was named “little boy” and was approximately the size of me (maybe a little shorter and stouter). Only about 1-2% of the uranium actually reacted in the explosion which limited the damage potential of this bomb quite considerably. That was the most terrifying thing I learned that day, the destruction was so severe and it was not even close to what could have happened. Generally anyone within a few hundred meters of the epicenter was killed instantly (60,000-80,000 are the estimates I believe) and the rest suffered considerably more with beyond 3rd degree burns and the after effects of radiation poisoning. A majority of buildings within 3km of the blast site were summarily destroyed and the final death count was estimated anywhere from 90,000 to 140,000. Many of the deaths due to radiation exposure were more difficult to verify, which is why I believe there is such a large range. There were also many Korean and Chinese captives who may have been difficult to account for.
Because of the way Japan had integrated its civilians in the war effort, many non-military personnel were impacted by this event, including children. Several schools age children were no longer attending school and were instead working for the war effort in various factories and construction operations. The feeling I got was this was later a sore spot for the Japanese government and the amount of children’s memorials erected could even be seen as a sort of an apology years later for these decisions. It was certainly not something they were proud looking back.
There is also a Children’s memorial in the park in remembrance of a Japanese girl named Sadako as well as all the other children who lost their lives as a result of the atomic bomb. Sadako was around 2 years old when the nuclear blast rocked Hiroshima, but it was not until about 10 years later that she developed Lukemia (likely from the radiation). While in the hospital someone told her of an old Japanese legend that anyone who could fold 1,000 paper cranes would be granted one wish, so she began this mission and continued until her death at age 12. The more popular account is that she only reached 644 cranes, but her story inspired her friends and family to not only continue making cranes in her honor, they also created a memorial for all the children who fell victim to the atomic bomb. Today people from all over the world continue to donate chains of paper cranes in her memory to honor the victims and as a symbol of peace.
It’s a little more obvious in the daylight, but this building is the only major building/structure left from the disaster. At one time the government wanted to tear it down, but a group of people felt it should be conserved as a reminder of this terrible chapter in modern Japanese and world history. They raised enough money to make necessary repairs to help maintain it in its half destroyed form. It used to be an industrial promotion hall and happened to be at the epicenter of the explosion which somehow spared part of the structure from complete decimation.
After absorbing some of Hiroshima’s historic significance we caught a boat to Miyajima “the island of the gods” which was ~45 minutes away. Here you can see the famous torii gate in the sea as well as the temple it is a part of (Itsukushima). We also got to eat some delicious oysters and maple cakes among other things.
There were deer everywhere when you arrive at the port of this little island. They are very friendly and will eat just about anything within a few inches of their mouth (your sandwich, your icecream, your paper map…). We had fun watching them harass a few tourists and David made a friend while we were visiting too.
These delicious little cakes became a sore spot for David though as we got these to bring back to China and share…but when we went to pay we realized the shelf life meant they would be “bad” the day before we got home! As such, we had to try out best to eat/share them all before we got home. We got pretty close, but should not have gotten so many in the first place. Oops.
Overall Hiroshima exceeded our expectations in a very positive way and I hope I am able to return to this city in the future, not only to catch the first part of the peace museum that we missed, but to eat some more okonomiyaki.