The former Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall, designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel, and completed in April 1915. The shell of the building is now known as “The Atomic Dome.”
I don’t remember a lot of classes from high school, but one that left a strong impression was a Social Studies class taught by a man who insisted that we learn to debate ideas properly. We were studying modern world history that semester, and for one of our units, our teacher assigned us research on Truman’s decision to drop Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He told us we would be participating in a mock trial, with half the class assigned to defend the decision (to drop the bomb), and the other half arguing that we never should have dropped the bomb. I was assigned to group supposed to defend the decision, and I did my research. So whatever my personal feelings about what had happened, I was familiar with the history.
A few years later, as part of my radical youth, I would join a group protesting nuclear power plants. In an orchestrated coincidence, I was part of the group that arranged to get arrested and hauled off to jail on the anniversary of the day the first Atomic bomb was used. I spent six days locked up in the Clackamas County jail, but that, alas, is a story for another time.
I don’t know if these events explain why I was so keen to visit the city, 330 Km to the Southwest of Kyoto, or whether I simply looked at a map, chose the one city that I recognized that lay in that direction, and decided to go there. Whatever the reason, I hadn’t planned the trip in any great detail, and other than board the train and find my hotel, I wasn’t really sure how I would spend my time there.
There are thousands of videos on YouTube of the Shinkansen trains. This one is a good example.
This trip was my first opportunity to ride the bullet trains, or Shinkansen. The word Shinkansen means “new trunk line,” and refers to the fact that the trains run on their own special tracks, and do not share tracks with slower trains. While the word makes them sound new, the first ones began operating in the 1960’s, and have transformed transportation in Japan.
In my opinion, Shinkansen are the most civilized form of high-speed transportation known to man. To begin with, the trains are quiet and comfortable. They hurtle along at up to 300KM per hour, but one is not conscious of the speed because the ride is so smooth. (The only time I really appreciated the speeds of the Shinkansen was when we were stopped at a station, and one of the express trains went by on a neighboring track. That sounded like a sonic boom). During the ride, from time to time, an attendant brings a cart of various snacks down the aisle. There is plenty of leg room, and trays that you can put down, for example, to rest a computer. In fact, I wrote a lot of this post on a Shinkansen.
And the Shinkansen are fast. Even making multiple intermediate stops along the way, my train made the trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima 205 miles away in about 85 minutes.
The one drawback is that the trains are expensive. However, as a foreign tourist, I was able to purchase a Japan Rail Pass that allowed me unlimited access to the Shinkansen and other local trains for a fixed fee. I could ride all over Japan for the next seven days, if I so chose, and I was tempted to do exactly that.
On the train, I fell into conversation with a young man who had just finished high school and was on his way back from taking college entrance exams. I was told later that the Japanese school year begins in April and ends at the beginning of March. Over the next few days, I actually saw quite a few students on their way to graduation ceremonies. Anyway, from our somewhat impeded conversation – half in broken Japanese, half in broken English – I gathered that this young man wanted to become a doctor, wanted to travel to the U.S., and was looking forward to finding out where he would be going to college in a month.
I arrived at Hiroshima main station at about 6:00 p.m. The hotel where I would be staying was in a different part of town, about a mile and a half away, and It occurred to me that maybe I should splurge and take a taxi, or at least figure out how to take the local streetcars. But the evening was pleasant, and I didn’t want to spend the money, so I decided to walk.
After about ten minutes, I realized that the version of Google maps on my phone wasn’t updating, also, that I wasn’t sure where I was. Not for the first time, I wondered about my tendency to make things harder for myself when traveling.
Notwithstanding the fact that I was once again lost in a strange city where I spoke only a few words of the local language, and the sun was going down, I was aware enough to form an impression of the city. I found Hiroshima to be beautiful in both the day and night. On my somewhat accidental evening stroll, I crossed two lovely rivers, and might have crossed a third had I not stopped to ask directions. The city felt clean and modern, but also vibrant. As I neared my hotel, I entered a relatively small but brightly lit district with pedestrian shopping malls, an open air performance of some sort, and countless bars and restaurants with every conceivable theme. It felt like a small slice of a much bigger city,
Eventually I did find my hotel, sitting quiet and aloof amidst the acres of neon. I checked in to my room and spent the last two hours of the day catching up on email and writing notes about all that I had seen the last few days.
The Peace Museum
Monday turned out to be a beautiful, warm sunny day, and after breakfast at the hotel, I set off to walk the mile or so to the Heiwa (Peace) Park and Museum.
The Peace Museum is dedicated to preserving the memory of those who perished or were otherwise affected by the bomb that exploded over Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. The museum curates artifacts from that day, and presents information about the immediate and longer-lasting effects of the bombing matter-of-factly. It is a somber place, as you can imagine, and — i my opinion — derives its power by focusing on the human scale, on individuals, rather than on statistics.
So there are exhibits of clothing bleached by the blast, school lunch boxes with carbonized remains of meals that were never eaten, roof tiles that melted and bubbled with the heat. There are photographs of buildings and steps where something — sometimes a human being — absorbed the heat of the blast and cast a shadow left permanently on the hard surface behind.
I don’t want to sound trite or simplistic, so I’m not going to write any more about the museum and its exhibits, except to mention one more thing. I found that my strongest emotion came near the end of the rooms, as I looked at a chart showing the number of survivors of the bombing still living in different cities in Japan. In Hiroshima alone, there are 30,000 human beings alive today who were there in the city when the bomb was dropped. And I passed them on the street? For some reason, this affected me more than anything else I saw that day.
After touring the museum, I wondered the park, looking at the various memorials there, of which there many.
Arch and eternal flame at the Peace Memorial Park
Children’s Peace Memorial
After an hour or so, I decided to wander more widely. I followed the river (one of the rivers) North, stopping for a while at a Shinto shrine, got lost again, found my way again, and eventually ended up back at the train station at about 1:30 in the afternoon.
Feeling quite hungry, I had a quick lunch at a bakery in the station, before boarding another Shinkansen that would take me back to Kyoto.
On the trip back, I was befriended again, this time by a man who told me he was a retired marketing professor who was still doing some teaching — an omen, perhaps? In spite of our language difficulties, he was delightful company, although he had a habit of speaking way too fast for me to understand much of what he was saying. He shared some of his lunch with me, too, including a mysterious treat made of sweet bean paste that was delicious.
I got off the Shinkansen in Kyoto, and took the local train back to Hamaotsu. As evening fell, and thirty hours and 680 kilometers after walking out of the apartment the previous day, I found myself trudging up the now familiar street that led to the apartment building where we were staying. I walked in to find Tyler in much the same attitude in which I had left him.