On August 6, 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima became the scene of one of most horrific events in human history, the dropping of the atomic bomb. Yet today Hiroshima has risen from the nuclear ashes as a city of hope and peace with its cherry blossom lined waterways, where the painful memories of that fateful day mingle with traditional Japanese heritage and a new identity as a home for contemporary art.
Located on the coastline of western Honshū, the largest of the Japanese islands, the city of Hiroshima has a long history as a military stronghold, effectively established when the warlord Mōri Terumoto erected Hiroshima Castle in the 1590s. Positioned on a delta where numerous rivers converged at a bay, the city developed as a web of bridges spanning the various waterways, connecting the islands while it steadily developed
During the Meiji period of the late 19th century, the US “persuaded” Japan to cease its self imposed isolation from foreign powers. The new Japanese attitude was for the “Land of the Rising Sun” to retain its traditions and internal hierarchy while drawing upon the very best of foreign nations, which led to rapid industrialization. Hiroshima grew into a sprawling urban centre, not only due its ports and rail links but also for being a staging point for Japan’s military campaigns as its colonial interests grew in Korea, China and the rest of East and Southeast Asia. With each major conflict, such as the first and second Sino-Japanese wars and the Russo-Japanese war, Hiroshima grew bigger and more devoted to serving the military’s needs.
This increased urbanization and constant interaction with foreign powers also led to a growing foreign influence on the city’s design and architecture, such as the electric street car system that was installed in 1910 and the domed, European-style Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall constructed in 1915, whose image was frequently featured on postcards of the city (and whose carcass would later become a symbol of the nuclear bombing). With its almost Venetian waterways and modern features blending with a strong sense of history and Japanese nationalism, Hiroshima had arguably emerged as the model city for the new face of Japan.
From the 1930’s onwards, Japan had become a military dictatorship with ever increasing colonial interests elsewhere in the Pacific. Fearing that the US would intervene in these interests, Japan attempted to disable the American fleet with their preemptive strike at Pearl Harbor in 1941, which ignited a full blown conflict throughout the Pacific region.
Meanwhile the American government had begun developing nuclear weapons as far back as 1939, fearing that Nazi scientists were doing the same. The US was also aware that after the war had finished, there would be a power struggle with their temporary ally, the Soviet Union, and whoever possessed the capability of producing nuclear weapons would have the upper hand in this conflict. As consequence, a list of cities on which to demonstrate the awesome power of the new weapon being covertly developed was drawn up. Seeing as it had been deemed unwise to use nuclear weapons against German cities as it was thought that the Nazis would be able to learn from the attack, Japan’s declaration of war against the USA made its cities prime candidates for testing this new bomb .
By May 1945, Japan had refused offers to unconditionally surrender, while attempting to sue for peace with the US thorough the Soviet Union to little avail. As a consequence, a short list of Japanese cities had been compiled, the potential targets being large, open, urban areas that would allow US scientists to gauge the bomb’s effectiveness. These chosen cities were excluded from the bombing raids taken by the US Air force so to further the aid damage assessment after the bomb’s detonation. In the end it all came down to good weather and visibility and Hiroshima became the prime target for the bomb.
In the early hours of August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, soared 31,000 feet over Hiroshima, at that time home to some 300,000 civilians. The Enola Gay’s fuselage could be seen glinting in the sun light overhead by onlookers down in the city. No sirens went off as the air raid alert had already been lifted. The Enola Gay’s target was the point where two rivers converged under the distinctive “T” shaped Aioi Bridge, next to the domed Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall, since renamed the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, in the heart of central Hiroshima. With the target directly below, pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets released the Enola Gay’s payload at 8:15am. “Little Boy,” a 9,700 pound nuclear bomb, plummeted towards the Earth while the Enola Gay banked steeply to get as far away from the blast zone as possible.
Within a minute, the bomb had detonated 1,900 feet over the city, creating a shockwave equivalent to 15 kilotons of TNT as a ball of fire exploded in the air. The bomb had actually missed the target at the bridge, but this was quite irrelevant given the pure magnitude of the blast.
The force of the explosion pushed down upon the city, literally flattening Hiroshima, destroying every building and engulfing the ruins in fire and ash. Some 80,000 people in the direct radius of the blast were incinerated instantly, while others further away suffered horrific burns from the intensity of the heat. Those who were not killed straight away suffered from the unseen powers of the bomb: survivors who had been relatively unscathed became sick and died within the following weeks of the bombing as the effects of radiation become more and more apparent. Unborn fetuses suffered mental and physical damage and years later, incidences of leukemia and other diseases would be abnormally high within the city.
The Japanese high command were not exactly sure of what had happened until almost 16 hours later, while newspapers in the US confirmed what had been unleashed upon the city. Japan once again refused to unconditionally surrender and three days later on August 9, the United States dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki. Finally, six days later on August 15, Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allies, bringing a close to the Second World War.
During the ensuing Allied occupation of Japan, publications regarding the bombings and any research into its effects were forbidden. It was only when control was restored to the Japanese government in 1951 that the truth about the bombings and their effects began to come to light. Hiroshima was rebuilt and designated a city of peace with the intention to stand as an example as to why nuclear weapons should never be used again. In 1955, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was opened with this same goal.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
To get to the park take the street car to Genbakudomemae station. When you get off the tram here you will find yourself at the T shaped Aioi Bridge that was the original target for the bomb and in front of the A-bomb Dome, formerly known as the Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall or Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, depending on the period.
Walking parallel to the Aioi, you can get a closer look at the Dome which was the only building within the vicinity of the blast to remain standing despite being directly beneath the bomb’s hypocenter. While the building was gutted, its concrete walls and the metal struts of the dome remain, although violently twisted out of shape by the force of the explosion, a visible testament to the power of the bomb. The Dome was a controversial reminder of that day in the years that followed as the city was rebuilt around it. While some called for it to be torn down, it was eventually fenced off and reinforced to preserve it as a symbol of the bombing.
After walking around the dome, follow the river away from the Aioi Bridge towards the next bridge, the Motoyasu, which will take you onto the island housing the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. If you choose to, you can keep walking along the river, which has numerous gardens and cherry blossoms trees running its length. After crossing the Motoyasu Bridge, you are on the island where you will find the Peace Park Rest House (to the immediate left of the bridge), which acts as a tourist information centre where you can buy souvenirs and find transport and accommodation information.
Walking directly onwards from the Rest House, you will find a small square surrounded by trees with the Children’s Peace Monument at the center of it. The monument, entitled “A-bomb Children,” is a hybrid of a bomb sculpture and bell with a child perched on top with a paper crane in hand. The child is meant to be Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese school girl who became a victim of the bomb’s fallout. Sadako was two years old at the time of the bombing and would later develop leukemia as a result of the radiation from the fall out. In 1955, while in hospital, she folded pieces of paper into cranes on the understanding that if she folded a thousand, she would be granted her wish for world peace. She died on October 25, 1955, but her classmates continued to fold cranes for her and through their fundraising efforts the A-Bomb Monument was built and unveiled in her memory in 1958. Around the monument you will find glass boxes filled with wreath upon wreath of colorful paper cranes from people and school children all around the world. There are also donation boxes inviting visitors to fold their own cranes and wish for world peace.
Turning around, and with the children’s monument behind you, you can find other monuments to your left such as such as a statue commemorating the Koreans who were killed during the bombing, while the Memorial Cenotaph and A Bomb Museum lie directly ahead, past the Rest House. In 1949, while the rest of the city was being rebuilt, a law was passed pledging financial assistance and money in order to erect a peace memorial to the victims of the bombing. The same year the design for the park was selected, while the city was designated a city of peace by the Japanese Parliament, an initiative that continues today with the city and each of it successive mayors being at the forefront of advocacy movements to ban nuclear weapons. The Peace Park is intended as an embodiment of these ideals and you can enter it by walking away from the Children’s Monument and past the Rest House.
Inside, you’ll find yourself walking alongside a small artificial lake, known as the Pond of Peace, with a concrete T shaped platform in the middle of it that holds a constantly flaming torch. This is the Peace Flame, which has been constantly burning since 1964, and will continue to do so until the world is free from nuclear threats. At the far end of the lake is an oval concrete statue known as the Memorial Cenotaph, below which the names of all of those killed in the bombing are interred. If you look through the center of the statue, back down the Peace Pond in the direction you came from, you will be able to see the flickering Peace Flame at the other end and behind that it the A Bomb Dome looming in the distance, both perfectly framed within the Cenotaph’s statue, a powerful vision.
After looking through the Cenotaph statue, if you turn to your right, you can find the National Peace Memorial Hall, which displays photographs and memoirs of the bomb’s victims, while elsewhere in the park you can find the three Bells of Peace and other smaller monuments within the park’s gardens. Nearby, you will find Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a large rectangular concrete building rising from the ground with two additional buildings on either side, which was opened in 1955. Admission to the museum, via the building off to the left which serves as the entrance, is only about $.50. Once inside, you are guided through the history of Hiroshima as a military staging point, the bomb and its development, the events of August 6 and the aftermath through videos, photographs, reconstructions and models.
There are various displays detailing the effects of the blast on the city and even the belongings of those caught in the explosion, such as a clock that stopped at the exact time of the explosion and the clothes that people were wearing. Beneath the museum, art galleries hold paintings and illustrations by survivors of the blast, recounting their experiences and memories of the bomb’s aftermath. On the basement level, you can also find a library of literature and manga relating to the bombing, such as the semi autobiographical “Barefoot Gen” canon of work by Keiji Nakazawa, as well as photo galleries holding various exhibitions, such as the incredible life work of Yuichiro Sasaki, a Japanese photojournalist born in Hiroshima who from August 18, 1945 until his death in 1980 dedicated his life to documenting post-war Hiroshima as the city slowly rose form the ashes.
The building to the right of the main building is a conference centre that frequently hosts various anti-nuclear conferences and peace talks, as well as the International Exchange Lounge with English language publications and city information for both residents and foreign visitors. Tourists are welcome to enter and make use of the lounge’s facilities, which are the perfect place to take a break before exploring the rest of the city centre.
Eat & Drink
Food is a big tourist attraction for any of Japan’s cities, each boasting its own culinary trademark and Hiroshima is no exception to the rule, being home to one of the Japan’s most delicious and sought after dishes, okonomiyaki. Best described as a savory pancake that is cooked before your eyes on a hot plate, typical ingredients can include anything from shredded cabbage, egg or cheese to squid, onions, ham and kimchi. A recommended place to try it in downtown is Tsuruya Okonomiyaki (6F Focus Building Minami-ku 10-1 Matusbara-cho, 082 568-7829), one of the city’s most established okonomiyaki restaurants, located across from the main exit of Hiroshima station directly opposite the post office. Here young chefs perfect the art of serving up sizzling delights from $8 along with the choice of various special tonkotsu toppings and vegetarian options. Alternatively check out the pedestrian shopping streets by the peace park for other okonomiyaki joints, each basting its own delicious special topping.
Another famed area of Japanese cuisine is undoubtedly ramen noodles, which can come in a variety of flavors and styles. A good place to start in Hiroshima is Gaba Ramen Shop, which can be reached from the Yokogawa streetcar stop just around the corner from the Crystal Plaza building. Gaba Ramen specializes in pork bone tonkotsu ramen, with a choice of a spicy broth and well cooked noodles, along with some delicious side dishes such as rice balls, seaweed and egg and fish eggs. Lunch sets are available from $7.
Possibly Japan’s most famous export, ever major city brims with $1-per-plate sushi bars. However if you would like to try something slightly more up market, check out Nobu Creative Sushi (Naka-ku Otemachi 3-1-7, 082-247-1769), located down the river from the A-Bomb Dome and next to the larger Heiwaohashi Bridge (or alternatively next to the Chuden-mae street car stop). The menu offers a great introduction for the sushi novice, as traditional, California-style and vegetarian sushi is all available, while experienced sushi connoisseurs will not be disappointed with the delicate flavors and exceptional presentation. The lunchtime set is priced at about $11, offering both great value and variety.
If you want to eat like Japanese people do on a day-to-day basis, check out this popular chain of restaurants. A must have is the gyudon: strips of piping hot beef sitting a top a bowl of white rice for around $5.50. A Yoshinoya can be found in the Fukuromachi district of Hiroshima.
Where to stay
Generally speaking Japan is an expensive country, not just in terms of Asia but anywhere in the world, and accommodation is no exception
One Hiroshima-based antidote to this is Hana Hostel (082 263-2980, website). Located a stones throw away from Hiroshima JR station. Despite its name, it is in fact a comfortable and cozy “hybrid inn” that in addition to dormitory-style sleeping arrangements offers both Western and Japanese style double rooms with en suite option for about $35.
Capsule hotels also offer a cheap place to stay for a night or two in addition to giving a very unique “Only in Japan” experience (although despite rumors that Japan abounds with capsule hotels, they are actually quite rare outside of Tokyo and Hiroshima only has a few). The Capsule Inn Hiroshima is the most well known but unfortunately is for male visitors only. From $25 per capsule. Located in central Hiroshima at Kanayama-cho streetcar station, Yagenbori 4-6, 082-248-0101
Hotel Active! (15-3 Nobori-machi, 082-212-001, website) has small but modern rooms, both Western and Japanese style, with internet access. It’s also located centrally, near Peace Park, the shopping district and the street car stops. Singles from $66, doubles from $94.
Given Hiroshima’s long history coupled with it’s rapid industrialization in the 19th century, the city is comprised of a blend of European antiquity along with its strong Japanese traditions, and complemented by the many art galleries and gardens located throughout the city.
Originally constructed in 1593 and rebuilt after the bombing, Hiroshima Castle is considered a point of great historical significance, while also possessing a calming atmosphere within its forested grounds with the moat running around the outside giving a strangely familiar appearance for European visitors. The castle hosts a 1 mile jogging route as well as providing the perfect place to view the cherry blossom trees weaved throughout. Another reconstructed landmark within the castle’s grounds is the Gokoku Shinto shrine.
The castle grounds can be reached from the Kenchomae streetcar station or alternatively by a 10 minute walk from the A-Bomb Dome and Peace Park by walking away from the Aioi Bridge and taking the first left at the main intersection.
Along the way to Hiroshima Castle you will pass the baseball stadium and beside it the Hiroshima Museum of Art (3-2, Motomachi, Naka-ku, website), which houses the work of Meiji oil painters as well as Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso, among others. Admission about $11.
Across the city from Hiroshima Castle and A-Bomb Dome, the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (Hiroshima-shi, Minami-ku, Hijiyama Koen 1-1, near Hijiyamashita streetcar stop, website) can be found in Hijiyama Park. The first museum of contemporary art in Japan, its collection includes Henry Moore and Andy Warhol, along within regular exhibitions of contemporary artists from around the world. .Admission is $3.50 for adults and $2.15 for students.
For a traditional shopping experience, try the Ai Yu Ichiba market located next to JR Hirsohima station. Nicknamed “wabi-sabi” to reflect its traditional Japanese flavor, you will find no tourist souvenirs or globally franchised supermarkets, instead just old style Japanese grocery stores, seed sellers and sweets stores.
If you feel a need to get out of the city, take a trip to Ninoshima Island, a small island in Hiroshima Bay that offers a more sedate pace than the city. Located just a 30 minute ferry ride from Hiroshima’s Ujina Port (“Hiroshima Port” on the streetcar line), you can enjoy relaxing walks and cycle routes around the island or climb to the summit of the island’s mountain Aki-no-Kofuji to take in a beautiful view of Hiroshima and the surrounding area.
Getting There: Hiroshima’s location on the island of Honshū puts it within easy reach of other major cities such as Fukuoka, Osaka and Tokyo, linked up by the fast and efficient bullet train of the JR network. If you intend on travelling around a JR rail pass (website) is a worthwhile investment.
Getting Around: Inside Hiroshima the city’s street car network is by the far the best way of getting around, with stations located in all the key parts of the city and flat fare of about $1.60 no matter where you are heading. City buses are also a good option while if you are feeling green bicycle rental can easily be arranged through hotels or through bike shops such as Mitsuo Cycles (2-7-13 Futabanosato, Higashi Ku, 082-263-0202) located near the Takasu street car stop.