When you first arrive in Hiroshima, it feels no different to any other major city in Japan. The busy train station is full of people rushing in every direction to catch the next train. The local streetcar operates like clockwork, transporting locals around the different parts of the city. High rise buildings with flashing neon signs line the main streets, international brand departments stores are a hive of activity, well into the night. People cross the roads hurriedly, purposefully – on foot, on their bikes – finishing a long work day, home to their families, or meeting friends for dinner.
It feels… normal.
But just outside of the main city hub, you’ll come across a park. An expanse of green, well manicured, with paths and benches. As you stroll through it, you can feel that the mood is different here. It’s sombre. Quiet, yet peaceful… and that’s when you see it.
The A-Bomb Dome. The shell of a building, with nothing but the steel framework of its domed rooftop and major walls left standing, surrounded by a fence, protected and serving as a reminder of the catastrophic events that happened in Hiroshima at 8.15AM in the morning on August 6th, 1945.
Mike and I had a vague idea of what had happened in Hiroshima all those years ago. The United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the city, resulting in thousands of deaths and World War II ended shortly after. That was essentially the extent of our knowledge. When planning our travels to Japan, we felt we owed it to the people to understand their history better – so we made sure we included a visit to Hiroshima in our itinerary.
The day we spent at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is one that we don’t really know how to describe. There’s no word for it really. It’s somewhere that you really need to experience yourself, to get some sense of the magnitude of what happened on that fateful day.
What started out as a relatively normal day in the busy military city in 1945, changed in just a single second. Never before used in warfare, no one could have predicted the devastation of an atomic bomb. Dropped from an American bomber named Enola Gay, the nuclear bomb detonated 600 metres above and 160 metres to the east of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall – what is now known as the A-Bomb Dome. This caused a fireball that grew to have a diameter of 280 metres to erupt within a second, obliterating everything within a radius of several kilometres. The heat caused by the fireball caused widespread fire, burning everything and everyone. Within a half hour, ‘black rain’ – rain full of ash, soot and radioactive material began to fall, contaminating an even wider area of Hiroshima.
Approximately 80 000 people died in that initial blast and fire. A large number of these casualties were school-children aged 12 – 15. They’d been working in the immediate vicinity of the bomb blast – working in the demolition of buildings to create, ironically, firebreaks in case of raids. There was just one doctor – one – remaining in all of Hiroshima after the blasts, as the majority of the hospitals were within the blast area of the bomb, and those inside perished. The days and weeks following the bombing saw a further 70 000 people die from their injuries – horrific burns and horrendous wounds and internal injuries as a result of the radiation.
Over the months and years that followed, more and more physical side effects resulting from the nuclear bomb radiation came to be discovered. Women who had been pregnant at the time and exposed to the radiation gave birth to babies with severe defects. Sufferers of leukaemia increased, as well as a number of other cancers and blood diseases. Today, the number of deaths that are attributed to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima stands around 240 000.
We knew none of this before visiting Hiroshima. None of it. It seems that history class in school only seemed to cover the basics, washing over the realities of what actually happened on that day. We couldn’t get our heads around it, especially in the day and age we live in now – how was it ever ok to purposefully bomb a city, with the intent to kill – even if there was a war?
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum located within the park tells the story of what happened that day so vividly. The displays shows in a chronological order the devastation of the nuclear bomb blast – its effects on the city, on people, and general health of the citizens over the period that followed. The museum was both horrifically confronting and overwhelmingly sad. A carefully recreated scene of a building damaged by the bomb blast, and people so burnt that their skin was falling off their bodies, their clothing in tatters and bloody, made us gasp – this was the reality of what happened that day. Displays of torn and blackened school uniforms broke our heart. A tiny tricycle, the favourite belonging of a three year old boy who was killed instantly by the blast as he rode around several kilometres away, was on display – charred and blackened and rusted. It bought tears to my eyes.
Nearby the museum, a monument has been constructed dedicated to all those who perished as a result of the atomic bomb – it contains a cenotaph holding all the names of the deceased. Whilst standing in its presence is still saddening, the monument was designed as a symbol of peace and of hope – a plaque at the foot reading:
This monument embodies the hope that Hiroshima, devastated on 6 August 1945 by the worlds first atomic bombing, will stand forever as a city of peace. The stone chamber in the centre contains the Register of Deceased A-bomb Victims. The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of the victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima – enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.
The most astounding part of the whole experience was perhaps the sheer level of forgiveness. One of the overwhelming messages of the museum is one of forgiveness, of not holding grudges and hatred, of letting go of the past but keeping an eye on the future as well. This is something we could all learn from, now more than ever, as grudges and hatred seem to form the backbone of Western attitude and policy these days, from the general attitude towards the many ongoing refugee crises, to denouncing an entire religious faith because of the actions of an immeasurably small percentage, to our media and entertainment seeking to find more and more ways to make us feel seperate from each other.
This is why you should visit Hiroshima. To see and understand first hand, that violence and acts of war and terror solve nothing, and do nothing except devastate the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. We can all learn from what happened in Hiroshima on that day in August 1945, and we can all commit to transcend hatred, pursue harmony and prosperity for all, and yearn for genuine, lasting world peace…
- How to get to Hiroshima?
Hiroshima is easily reachable by both Osaka and Kyoto, as well as Tokyo on a shinkansen bullet train in just a few hours. There are also slower non JR trains if you do not have a pass.
- Where to stay: We stayed at Santiago Guest House – our favourite hostel so far! THIS is how hostels should be done. It was easily reachable by street car from Hiroshima station, and a ten minute walk to the Peace Memorial Park. With comfortable beds, heating, a number of showers and amenities and a cool common area, we loved the vibe here and only wish we’d stayed longer! We booked a private twin room, but dorms are available. Book here.