A Day to Forget
I went to Hiroshima. I had wanted to go ever since I arrived in Japan. I don't know why I wanted to go there, what I expected to see or feel, but I felt compelled to go.
The city lives in the shadow of that day over 55 years ago when an atomic bomb was dropped on it. To be sure, life had been hard for the people there as it had been for people around the world caught up in a world war. Japan was losing the war. Children as young as 12 years old were forced to work with the army. Food and fuel were rationed. Yet the city, unlike most other major Japanese cities, hadn't been bombed. It was expecting to be bombed any day. Air raid drills were frequent. Because of its natural harbor, Hiroshima was a major port and military base.
Everywhere you go in Hiroshima you see constant reminders of the A-Bomb attack. Outside the train station there is a fountain in the shape of two mushrooms. All over the city there are signs that say things like "Hiroshima, a city dedicated to peace." There are murals and paintings of doves and cranes (a Japanese symbol of life) everywhere.
The bomb was dropped from an altitude of some 9000 meters. It exploded 580 meters above the ground near downtown. They say that instantly, a fireball something like a small sun formed. The heat, shockwaves, and radioactivity from the blast instantly killed 90% of the people in a two kilometer radius, about 140,000 people. Overall it is estimated that 340,000 died as a result of the attack. Not all of the buildings in the area were completely destroyed. One that was very near to the center of the blast was the Industrial Promotion Hall. Although its concrete was blown away, and the steel beams of the dome were twisted and mangled, it stood after the attack. The city leaders decided to keep the dome standing as a reminder of the attack.
Today it's called the Atomic Bomb Dome. It remains there as a ghostly reminder of the past. There is a steady stream of visitors there. They file by respectfully as if in church. Next to the dome is the river and Peace Memorial Park. There are many monuments and reminders of the bombing. There is a peace bell modeled after the huge bells in Buddhist temples. People are encouraged to step up and swing the giant wooden beam and ring the bell for peace. As you walk through the park you can hear the bell ring often.
After the bomb fell there were fires and violent windstorms. Then there was a rain that fell on the city. It was a black rain that stained everything it touched. It was filled with radioactive dust. All the fish in the rivers died. People who didn't die as a result of the blast developed radiation burns and huge tumor-like globs (colloids) on the surface of their bodies. Later on many of them died from cancer.
There was a girl named Sadoko Sasaki who was two years old when the bomb fell. She survived that day, but like many she became sick with leukemia later on. She was hospitalized when she was 10 and the prognosis was bleak. The girl was convinced that if she could make 1000 origami cranes from folded paper, she would regain her health. She had finished her 644th crane when she died. Her classmates finished making the other 356 cranes and all 1000 were buried with her. The story got told around Japan and soon, school children from around the country started bringing and sending paper cranes by the thousands to Hiroshima. A Children's Memorial statue was built in the park. The tradition continues today. Millions of cranes are put there each year by children and adults from around the world. The city of Hiroshima is now draped in paper origami cranes. Everywhere you go you see bunches of them, strung like Hawaiian leis, hanging over monuments, temple entrances, and in the parks.
I stand in front of the Children's Monument and look at the thousands of multicolored cranes heaped on it and something inside me snaps. I have to cry. It's such a sad story, yet there is hope there. The people of Hiroshima have turned a nightmare into a positive thing. They dedicated the city to ending atomic weapons. Each time there has been an atomic bomb test in the past 50 years, the mayor of Hiroshima has written a letter of protest to the country that is doing the testing. He begs them to stop testing so that there will never be another city destroyed by atomic weapons. There is a flame that burns in the park. But it's not an eternal flame. The flame will be put out when the last atomic weapon is destroyed.
The museum is plain but well done. It talks about all aspects of the bombing. It includes Japanese history and aggression that started the war. How was it possible for a gentle people like the Japanese to become a part of the aggressive war machine that it became? Military fanatics became powerful. There was opposition. Yet many of the people who spoke out were killed or put in prison. Even the Emperor, in whose name all of this was supposedly being done, was against the war. The military police terrorized the people. Anyone who seemed to not being doing their duty to the Emperor was punished. They started to brainwash the people. The people were told that the Emperor was divine and that they couldn't lose any war. How could it happen? It happened in Germany. It happened in Africa where the Hutus were slaughtered by the Tutsis. How do people become so deluded? Will it happen again? Could it happen in our country?
In the museum they talk about the science of the bomb. There is a life size replica of the bomb. They pull no punches. Everything is talked about. One panel I found very interesting. It was titled, "Why Hiroshima was bombed." It gave three reasons. The USA wanted to limit American casualties. The military wanted to gauge the effect of an atomic bomb in an actual situation. The U.S. had recently signed agreements with Russia that they would attack Japan from the North. The U.S. wanted to avoid having Russia enter Japan and possibly occupy it and later control parts of it (as happened in Eastern Europe after the war.) In order to quickly end the war before the Soviets could enter Japan, the bomb was used.
In the museum besides explanations, there are many exhibits that try to depict the horrors that went on that day. There has been a movement to get survivors to tell the story of what happened that day. As time goes on there are fewer and fewer of them. You can see their videos at the peace museum. Then there is the horrible part of the museum. There are melted eyeglasses, children's lunchboxes that remain uneaten and are charred and black inside where there used to be food. There are burned clothes of school children and even some of the colloids (globs of skin as large as a squash that formed as a result of radiation) in specimen jars. There is also an exhibit that shows the hair of a woman that fell out all together in one big clump. She died a few days later. It?s horrifying and yet you want to look. You look and close your eyes and try to imagine that day, what it was like right at this same spot where you are. Are there ghosts screaming in ghastly horror as the fireball approaches. Are they still there screaming in another dimension? Will they come back? I stop and listen and feel nothing, only a profound sadness. It seems impossible and yet it really happened.
Perhaps that is why people come here, to reconcile those two points of view. I read somewhere once that it is impossible for the human mind to imagine a number larger than 1000. Ten thousand, million, billion, trillion, its really all the same isn't it? It's a really big big number. The mind reels. It is also impossible to imagine the power and destruction of an atomic weapon and the suffering that it causes. Yet we want to try. Maybe its guilt that it wasn't us, that someone else had to suffer it and not me. We want to say I'm sorry and make it go away, but it never will. Yet it seems so unreal. Deep down I can't believe it really happened, yet...
I spend the night in the youth hostel in Hiroshima, about five kilometers from the epicenter. The nice thing about traveling in Japan for me is that it forces me to speak Japanese. In the youth hostel I practice my small talk.
The next day I go to a place near Hiroshima called Miyajima Island. It is proclaimed to be one of the three most beautiful places in Japan. The Japanese have a way of doing this, rating things and speaking about the whole country as if it's an amusement park. You take a slow train for about 40 minutes along the coast. From there it's a 10-minute ferry ride to the island. On the train there is this old woman sitting across from me. She looks very poor and keeps putting these drops in her eyes. As we ride along I try to think of a way to take her picture without her noticing me, but she is watching me. As I look over, I see that her eye drop bottle has slipped out of her pocket and onto the seat beside her. I walk over and pick it up and give it to her. She smiles and says, "Arigato." (Thanks.)
She is carrying three enormous boxes, each wrapped in a bed sheet-like cloth. One is wrapped around her back, and one for each arm. As we come to Miyajima station, she gets up to get off also. With sign language I ask her if I can carry one of her bags for her and she laughs and refuses. I try to speak to her. I try to say, "You are strong." Amazingly she seems to understand. She makes a muscle with her arms and laughs again. All that practice at the youth hostel seems to have paid off. We walk out of the station together. I am able to understand the woman a little bit. She asks me if I'm alone and I say yes.
She says, "Don't you have any friends?"
I laugh and say, "You are my friend."
She laughs. When she laughs, her big fleshy cheeks part like Moses and the red sea to reveal a few jutting brown islands of teeth. She is a really interesting woman. I ask her what's in the boxes. She says nori
, seaweed. I guess her family collects the seaweed. I ask her where she is from.
"Hiroshima," she answers. I look at her and wonder.
"How old are you?" I ask.
"79," she answers without hesitation. Then it clicks. She is 79.
I blurt out, "The bomb. Where you there? Do you remember?" Throwing up Japanese words like confetti. She looks at me. Does she understand? I make a sign like an atomic bomb going off and make the sound.
She just looks at me for a few seconds and then abruptly turns away and says, "Sayonara."
I feel like an idiot. How could I? Who am I to...I feel real bad about myself. Here I am this American voyeur. Oh God...
I think about the ferry and Miyajima Island. I walk to the ferry building and then I think to myself. Who cares about the stupid island? That woman is much more interesting than any island. I want to follow her around. I want to see what she does with the nori
. I turn away from the ferry building and run after her. But I can't find her. She is gone. Gone forever. I walk back to the ferry building and get on the boat with all of the other tourists going to see the third most beautiful place in all of Japan.
Miyajima is an island that was thought to be holy and was used by the nobility in ancient times. Common people were not even allowed on the island except in a work capacity. It is filled with mountains and most of the old forests are intact. On the shore is a large temple built on stilts so that at high tide it seems to be floating on the water. There are long, covered walkways that take you over the sea, past a five-tiered pagoda, and a stage for traditional Japanese Noh theater. It is truly an elegant place.
If you walk up the mountain for about 15 minutes, you come to a truly marvelous Buddhist temple called Daishoin temple. Some of the Japanese temples seem like they could be a part of Disneyland they are so entertaining. This one was filled with delightful things. There were beautiful and scary larger-than-life statues of temple guard deities. On each side of the 100 or so steps to the temple were small comical statues of men each standing or sitting in a different pose. Many of them had coins balanced on their heads or hands. The railing going up the stairs had little metal cylinders with prayer wheels on it that you could spin around as you ascended. In the temple there were waterfalls and a small octagonal pagoda with a beautiful deep pond and a wooden walkway.
I happily snap my pictures. Traveling can be lonely at times. I find that my camera is a good companion. When I feel lonely I can think about taking pictures. Before I knew it I had reached the end of my 102 pictures that my new digital camera allowed me before I had to unload them into my computer at home. But there was so much to see and remember here. I use the camera as a sort of diary. Whenever I go somewhere I take a picture just so I will remember it. Also of course if I see something beautiful or interesting I will take a picture. I had taken about 50 pictures the day before in Hiroshima. That was the problem with trips. I was limited to about 100 shots. Then I had a great idea.
I always used the middle setting on my camera. I could take some shots at the lowest setting and get many more. So I sat off by a babbling brook and went through the pictures one by one to find a few that I could delete. It was hard. They were like my children. I had taken each picture for a reason. Finally I decided on two that were a bit redundant and I deleted them. Then I went about changing the resolution. I fiddled with the camera and couldn't seem to figure out how to do it. I looked everywhere...twice. Then I saw something that said format. Could that be it? I directed the menu to go there. Format...yes...no. HMMMM. I chose yes and before I knew it, I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Your "disc is being reformatted" my camera said. I couldn't believe it. I had just wiped out all of my pictures. Everything gone.
The camera whirred and chugged and did its job. I was numb. My pictures. Hiroshima. The Children's Memorial. The A-Bomb Dome. The Museum. The paper cranes. All gone. And it was time for me to go home. I was depressed. I walked slowly down the hill towards the ferry. I snapped pictures on the way of the beautiful temple, I had 100 shots now. It was sad. I would forget what I had seen. And then it occurred to me. Maybe this was the better way. Maybe I should forget all that pain, all the horror, not to relive it over and over again. I know it happened, and yes I should do my small part so that it never happens again if possible, but let's not think about the pain today. There were so many beautiful things to see now. Somehow I felt better about it. Somehow I felt a little lighter about everything, even about Hiroshima.
Today, Hiroshima is a beautiful city. It has tree-lined streets and beautiful parks and places to walk by the many rivers. There the children play and lovers stroll. It is said that nothing gave the survivors so much hope and joy as the when they saw that the trees started to bud during the spring.
I caught the ferry to the mainland and then the train to Hiroshima. There was one more thing I had to do before I went home. I wanted to try Hiroshima okonomiaki
. Japanese people love it. They call it Japanese pizza. But its nothing like pizza really. Every city has its own version of it. It's very popular in Hiroshima. Many people say that Hiroshima okonomiaki
is by far the best in Japan. Just next to the station I found a small open-air okonomiaki
restaurant. It was crowded, I had to wait in line for about 10 minutes, a good sign I figured. When I did get a seat, it was right in front at the counter. Directly in front of me was a wide griddle shaped like a giant L that enclosed the work area. I had a front row seat. The radiated heat from the steaming griddle felt good on a chilly winter day. The sounds of sizzling mingled with the din of many people talking at the same time in Japanese. The smells of frying chicken, beef, seafood, and many different vegetables mingled together and filled the air. It was great.
The waitress came and asked me what I wanted on mine. You can choose, meat, eggs, shrimp, whatever. I didn't really understand what she was saying. I just said yes to everything. Hiroshima okonomiaki is made by putting some batter on the griddle and spreading it like a pancake. Then comes sliced cabbage. Then bean sprouts and then whatever. All of it is topped with a thick sweet brown sauce. I had no idea which was mine or how they kept track of what was what at that place. It was a bustling place and the women cooks at the grill were working hard and fast, yet they were having a good time. They were churning out those okonomiaki
and laughing and getting their work done. They were all around 50 years old. Their faces lined by years of hard work. I took pictures as I waited. The women looked at me, the only foreigner in the place and laughed. They were happy. They were born after the bomb, all of them.
When my meal came I ate it and enjoyed it greatly. It was my first Hiroshima okonomiaki
and I had to agree with the conventional wisdom that it was better than in any other city. Then it was time to go. I got on the Shinkansen (bullet train) for a 1½ hour ride home. I thought about my trip. About the Hiroshima I had imagined and heard about, and the one I had seen. I would remember Hiroshima. I wouldn't forget about the A-Bomb of course. But, I would remember the children playing next to the river, the peace bell in the park that rang so often, the old woman who laughed with me, the beautiful temple in nearby Miyajima, and those hardworking women working behind that hot grill making delicious food all day. I would remember the spirit of a people in a city that went through a kind of living hell and from the ashes found a message of peace and hope to give to the world. That's the Hiroshima I would remember.
Published on 1/14/02