A few weeks ago, I had a chance to visit Hiroshima, my first trip to that sprawling port city in Western Japan. As I gazed at a cloudbank descending over Mount Fuji from my bullet train seat on the ride down, my thoughts wandered to the darkness of war that culminated in the destruction of that city by an atomic bomb almost eight decades ago. The focus of my trip would, of course, be the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where I would be overwhelmed with the misery and anguish of what transpired in those fateful moments at the end of World War II, and the pain and suffering that persisted in the years that followed.
To my utter shock, I was not overwhelmed. Not even a little bit whelmed. Perhaps I have been numbed by the military conflicts that played out during my own lifetime, including Russia’s current foray into Ukraine. Maybe my feelings were blunted by the hundreds of junior high students bussed in to learn a bit of Japanese history, giggling at the antics of their classmates instead of taking in the horrors of humans being vaporized in an instant. Still, the museum’s permanent display was moving, especially the personal tours given by family members of the victims who would take a half-dozen or so visitors at a time around the grounds, offering nearly first-hand accounts of what the city endured.
My preconceived notions of Hiroshima came from seeing political leaders assembling in front of the memorial’s cenotaph, trying their best to affect a somber tone, vowing nonchalantly never to tread the path of war. I always assumed this sepulcher was the location of the bomb’s impact, but the true hypocenter is found a few blocks beyond the memorial park, marked by a chunk of granite sitting next to a mundane Japanese medical clinic, easily ignored by passersby. I also chanced upon the Fukuromachi Elementary School Peace Museum, a portion of which survived the nearby blast. I had the entire museum to myself during my fifteen-minute visit. Yet another notable edifice that endured that terrible day was the Mitsui-Imperial Bank building, originally built in 1925. Today, it’s a bakery and restaurant, filled with bright pastry displays and happy eaters.
I expected Hiroshima to turn me into a sobbing mess, weighed down by the atrocity of war, reminded at every turn that humans are capable of unspeakable destruction. But that’s not what I found there. Hiroshima is a massive tourist attraction that draws people from around the globe, all of us there to see what the Manhattan Project had wrought. And we did see that, at least on the grounds of the Peace Park. But once you exit the memorial proper, you find a Hiroshima that has moved on.
The city has embraced its role as a tourist destination. The old-time streetcars may not be as efficient as subways, but they make for great photos. Practically every street has a restaurant selling okonomiyaki pancakes and anago-meshi (freshwater eel on rice), all of them sporting English-language menus and staff ready to take your order in English, a rarity in Japan. When I visited Kyoto last year, I could feel the local distaste for the hordes of tourists. But Hiroshima has none of that resistance. I even overheard workers at one restaurant chuckle in Japanese at how “there are so many foreigners here, it’s like we aren’t even in Japan.” That restaurant, by the way, sold tacos, Caesar salads, and imported beers on tap.
Hiroshima is doing it right. No city wants to be remembered as a place of tragedy. Who wants to live with that kind of baggage? Instead, it’s a thriving harbor town with world-class shipyards. It’s a car town, home to the Mazda Motor Corporation. It’s a gateway to Japanese history, just a short train ride from the famous shrine at Miyajima, one of Japan’s three most revered scenic spots. It’s a sports destination, although I’m sorry to say that the Toyo Carp baseball team hasn’t won the national title in forty years.
Before my trip, I had made a conscious decision not to take any photographs at the Peace Museum. But it turns out, my key memories of Hiroshima are unattached to that one, sad anecdote of history.
[Image Credits: もと1436/photo-ac.com and pen_ash/pixabay.com]