Warning for this will be an emotional post (and somewhat graphic) for my first day in Hiroshima visiting the Peace Park and Museum. I fitted in most of the a-bomb related sites into one day so I could enjoy a different and happier side of Hiroshima for the days to come, but it ended up being pretty upsetting.
For the worst of reasons, Hiroshima needs no introduction. I hadn’t really learnt about Hiroshima much at school: since I’m from Spain, Spain and other European countries usually took the spotlight when it came to the history we learnt. It was mentioned as something that happened but we spent very little time learning about Japan or the US. So before going I wanted to know as much as I could about the tragedy to properly understand the experiences of those who lived it and had been reading quite a bit about the bombing before I arrived. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to complete my senbazuru (1000 origami cranes) in time, so I only brought 50 small squares of paper with me and made some cranes while there, leaving them at the different memorial sites individually.
Leaving the hostel at 7:15am I crossed the Peace Bridges south of the Peace Park along Heiwa Odori as I made my way to first find some breakfast.
I’d seen old photos of one of the bridges from 1955 (they were built in 1952) and had seen it pictured a couple of times as I was reading about the bombing before my trip. I read that there had been a competition to design the bridge and the one existing today is that of the chosen winner, Isamu Noguchi. One is named Tsukuru (to build) while the second is Yuku (to depart), they are a symbol of the reconstruction of Hiroshima after the bombing. Both are easy to find; they’re on either side of the park behind the Peace Museum.
After buying my sushi breakfast at a konbini near Hondori I decided to eat next to the Dome. It was constructed in 1915 as a facility for the display and sale of commercial products within Hiroshima prefecture and was the location for the Hiroshima prefecture art exhibition and other such events. Seeing it in 2D in photos was very different than having it right in front of me, the burns were so clear and I wondered how the building still managed to hold itself up. The dome survived because it was almost directly below the explosion, meaning the pressure pressed down vertically and saved a few of the vertical walls. Of course there are other more technical reasons but that isn’t my area of expertise and explaining it would be much too difficult for me. If anyone is interested I’m sure you can look it up and take it from someone who knows more about this.
I imagined people of the past walking around inside the building when it was still in its original shape. What were they wearing at the time? Were they in a hurry? Were they talking to someone? What were they thinking about? I’m sure their life was very different to mine, and yet we were both in this city with the same name.
Before any sightseeing, I went to the Bus Centre to pick up a discount pass I’ll talk more about in the next post, but they turned me away since apparently I could only buy it the day before activating it or the same day. It was almost eight and I had a date with the Seiko Clock at 8:15 so I walked there slowly over the T-shaped Bridge. Otherwise known as the Aioi Bridge, this was the apparent target of the bomb. Even being so close to the hypocentre it somehow managed to survive and after a few repairs it was still usable for over 35 years. The bridge here today was built in 1983 but has kept its distinctive T-shape.
The Peace Clock or Seiko Clock in the northern area of the Peace Park rings every day at 8:15am, the time of the explosion. As I reached the Peace Park a class of school children started to sing in front of the Children’s Monument. It started off as a sad song but the ending seemed to be a message of hope. Silence fell upon the class as they left their cranes at the monument, and I went back to the clock in time to see it strike 8:15. Leaving my first crane next to the clock at that time I think it was a good way to start my introduction to the bombing of Hiroshima.
There are many monuments in the park and all deserve to be looked at as one thinks about the history behind them, but I won’t mention all of them here. Instead I’ll talk about the four that moved me the most.
The Burial Mound may be the least impressive of the monuments but it holds the ashes of 70,000 victims who were never identified or whose remains were unclaimed by living relatives. How many people must’ve lost someone they loved, never knowing exactly what had happened to them, where they were at the time of the explosion? Never seeing their body or ashes probably meant never having closure, the what ifs and the hows in the back of their minds for the rest of their lives. Or whole families whose existences were wiped out in less than a second, leaving nobody behind who would remember them.
Japan took control of Korea during the Meiji Restoration; many Koreans were forced to work in Japan because of labor shortage. At the end of the war about three million Koreans were living in Japan and it is said that tens of thousands of them suffered the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. They are a group of people that tend to be forgotten when talking about the Hiroshima victims, I don’t now any personal stories of Korean survivors and I don’t think they would’ve received the same care or treatment after the bombing as Japanese survivors would’ve had (not that there was much medical treatment for anyone). I think it’s important to remember they were there, the monument dedicated to Korean victims is also in the Peace Park.
During World War II students in Japan between the ages of 12-16 were sent to work because of the shortage of labor work: they were known as ‘mobilised students’ and mostly were in charge of tearing down buildings to avoid the spreading of fire in case of an attack. The ‘Memorial Tower for Mobilised Students’ was built to remember the more than 10,000 mobilised students who died during the war.
There is another monument similar to this one. Sadako Sasaki was two at the time of the bomb. She grew up seemingly perfectly healthy until she was diagnosed with leukaemia at 12 years old and had to be hospitalised. A friend told her about an ancient legend saying if one makes 1000 paper cranes they will be able to ask for a wish — Sadako managed to complete the cranes just before she died, wishing for peace and for no other children to have to suffer like she did. Her classmates decided to also make 1000 cranes in her honour and it has today become a symbol of peace.
I didn’t take any photos inside the museum since I think it’s something that I couldn’t capture well. The museum is heartbreaking to say the least, it’s a pity they were doing renovations at the time of my stay and I only got to see half of the exposition. Only five minutes in I was already crying, but I didn’t even bother hiding it since I felt that it was okay to express my feelings outwardly in this kind of situation.
It’s hard to imagine how horrible and devastating the bomb was by saying the number of those who died; when it’s such a large number it seems more like a statistic than anything tangible. The museum did a good job of exposing individuals’ stories which made it feel much more real. There were many items from people who were in Hiroshima at the time of the explosion, from clothes, tickets, tins, notebooks, name tags and Sadako Sasaki’s paper cranes to even fingernails and hair.
One of such items was a lunchbox still containing the burnt food of a mobilised school boy, Shigeru. His mum had made his lunch that morning before he set off to meet with the other students. His mother went out to look for her boy after the explosion but she only found his lunchbox with the food she had made that morning — now burnt into a lump of black — next to a pile of bones. Shigeru’s mother scattered his ashes alone that night.
Alongside some architectural structures and pieces, pottery and glass and explanations about what radiation and black rain do to the human body, the Peace Museum covered many aspects to do with the bombing. There is now also an area with a few photos from Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima.
The peace sites don’t stop after the Peace Park and museum though, there are buildings that survived the bombing and smaller museums and dedications that are also worth a visit.
The Memorial Hall a minute walk from the Peace Museum is also in the Peace Park. It has a solemn and quiet atmosphere that gave me the space to think about the bomb and the museum I’d just been to.
In the last room there are very few seats and they are very uncomfortable if you manage to grab one, but do try and stay until the end of the video for it explains personal stories of some of the survivors. Since it is filmed in first person it feels much more real than what reading an explanation would, it brought tears to my eyes imagining myself in their situation; seeing my sister die right next to me, not being able to find my mum after days of walking through rubble and ruins looking for even just some proof that she used to exist, being next to my dad at the time of the explosion only for him to be gone forever only a second later.
The Rest House also located in the Peace Park is one of the few buildings left standing after the explosion.
It used to be a kimono store until it was purchased by the Prefectural Fuel Rationing Union in 1944, only for the roof to collapse and the interior to be destroyed one year later by the bomb. All people inside at the time were killed but one man that was in the basement, making him the closest survivor to the hypocentre. The building was later reconstructed and today it is a shop, rest house and information centre with some bathrooms open to public use. The basement has been left just like it was at the time of the bombing and open to visitors, though not well known to tourists.
I went to the counter and asked if I could go down into the basement (‘asked’ may be a bit of an overstatement, I really just said ‘chika’ for ‘basement’) and they gave me a quick form to fill in with my name and nationality. The lady then picked up her keys and opened a door followed by steps to the bottom floor. She also asked me to pick a helmet from the shelf just in case and left me to make my own discoveries.
It is a single room — what must’ve been three rooms, but the walls understandably aren’t in the best shape —, a corner full of cranes where the survivor was located at the time.
There is not much to see, nothing that deserves an explanation or a sign, what is special about this place is imagining what the man must’ve been thinking and doing at the time and right after the bomb. Did he lift his head to see shelves and boxes thrown all over the floor? What must he have thought when he opened the door (was the door still there?) to see the world outside in flames and chaos and rubble?
One of the survivors explained how he was a child at the time of the bomb, walking through the town to get away from the burning city. A woman, still alive but only just, called out for help and grabbed his arm. The child, of course scared to see the figure touch him when she hardly looked human anymore because of her melting skin, pulled away. The woman’s hand broke off and was left stuck to his arm. I’m sure the experiences of the survivor of the basement weren’t too different and he must’ve been terrified to see the state of his home town without even having seen how it happened.
Making another stop at the Genbaku Dome I thought about how it must’ve felt like to look down at the river of corpses on that day.
Right after the bomb, fire was threatening in every direction and people’s skin melted on their bodies, it only seems obvious that the river would be the safest place to run to at the time. But soon the water was hardly visible, the river being an accumulation of floating bodies instead. It must’ve been horrible to look at, knowing that those were people you once crossed on the street and might’ve even known. The drawings I’ve seen done by people who were there at the time are heartbreaking, and hard to believe sometimes that this was something that actually happened.
Near the Dome is a small temple called Sairen-ji. It doesn’t really look like a temple from the outside, but there is a window holding a statue and a coin box. Just outside the temple, on the corner of the building, is another statue. This Jizo was located almost directly below the blast and a dark shadow can be seen around the base of the statue, a result of the radiation lightening the rest of surface that wasn’t shielded. There are a few Jizo statues that survived the bomb, known today as ‘Hibaku Jizo’. Jizo is a deity able to descend into Hell to rescue souls, particularly those of children. He is often depicted with the shaved head and robes of a monk, stone figures are typically adorned with red bibs or children’s clothing and often serve as a memorial to children whose lives were taken away too soon. If there is a hell after death I hope Jizo was able to save the victims of Hiroshima, they don’t deserve to go through hell twice.
Not even a minute later is another important site. Shima Hospital is considered to be ground zero as the bomb exploded only 580m above the building. The hospital was completely destroyed and the 80 patients and medical staff died instantly. Kaoru Shima, founder of the hospital, and his attending nurse were away from Hiroshima at the time as they had gone to assist a difficult operation at a hospital in a nearby town: they were the only two survivors. Dr. Shima returned to Hiroshima on the night of August 6 and began treatment of the injured people. The hypocentre was determined by the direction of shadows caused by the heat ray. Those directions were plotted on a map, and the point where they intersected was to be where the blast had come from.
The new Shima Hospital built in 1948 stands in its place, today named ‘Shima geka naika’, and a small plaque can be found at one side marking the hypocentre.
The Former bank is another of the buildings that survived the bomb despite being only 380m from the hypocenter and today it looks as it did when first built. Since the armoured shutters on the first and second floors were closed at the time of the A-bombing, the interior was not badly damaged. However, on the third floor where the shutters were open it was completely burned.
Only two days later the bank reopened for withdrawals and provided space for temporary branches of other financial institutions in Hiroshima which had been rendered unable to conduct business. This is a building that is important for the reconstruction of Hiroshima from a financial aspect.
The inside of the building was unlike anything I’ve seen in Japan before, looking instead totally western. I wonder if the Dome was similar to this on the inside? At the time of my visit they were doing a small exposition with photos from the occupation of Japan by Americans after the war. As I walked in a lady was excited to see me and talked to me for a while, although she didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Japanese, so our conversation didn’t last long.
Located only 460m from Shima Hospital, Fukuro-machi Elementary School was one of the closest schools to the hypocentre and suffered extensive damage. At the time of the bombing there were more than 100 students and teachers at school and nearly all died instantly. All the wooden structures collapsed and burned completely except for the west wing, the only reinforced concrete structure that retained its original shape. Three of the students survived, all of which were downstairs in the west wing taking off their shoes. They had been taught to head to Hijiyama Hill in case of an attack, so they pushed their way through the ruins, bodies and burnt trams full of burnt people who had died still standing to reach that point. I think it’s lucky that they were given those instructions beforehand because a child in such a situation wouldn’t have known what to do.
Many students from the school had been evacuated before that day to relatives’ homes in the countryside or temples that looked after children. The museum told me how the evacuated children used to live far from their home and families and there are a couple of stories about it worth reading on the bottom floor. One of the surviving students in the building at the time also told their story.
After the bombing the west wing of the school became a place of refuge and a relief station. One of the walls, black from being burnt, became a message board to find missing people, today you can still see the wall as it was then with all the writing written by people trying to find their family.
Don’t miss out on the video downstairs: it talks about the discovery of the wall but, most importantly, finding living relatives today whose family wrote on the wall. Seeing a daughter read the message written by her mother in hopes of finding her deceased daughter (the sister the woman was never able to meet) was heart wrenching and it was definitely the place that made me cry the most out of all the memorials in the city.
Classes at Fukuromachi School started once again ten months after the bombing with a total of 37 students and now the west building has been reconstructed and works as a small museum. The rest of the school is new and I could hear the children outside laughing and playing. I imagined all the beautiful sounds just suddenly stopping like it did back then.
Feel free to read some of the stories if you like:
Instead of making my way to Honkawa Elementary School, another peace museum similar to Fukuromachi School, and visiting the memorials behind the Peace Museum I headed to Hondori to take a bit of an emotional rest from all the A-Bomb sites. Hiroshima has two different Daiso 100 stores, so I stacked up on the bean chips I love and also bought a few packets of miso to try and tabi socks with pictures of origami cranes. I hadn’t had a full conversation in English since the man I met at Mt.Shosha who offered me a ride back to the station, so it was nice to meet some other tourists in the hostel.
In the evening I bought some food and ate in silence. Hiroshima has done an amazing job of rebuilding itself since the day of 1945. I couldn’t help but look at the peace sites and think about how difficult it must’ve been, how much pain was caused and how fragile the things I have are — how easy it would be to loose them —, but seeing what a wonderful city Hiroshima is today gives me hope. I definitely wish nothing even remotely similar to this ever happens again.
All the peace sites are free apart from the Peace Museum that costs 200yen. The Memorial Hall hosts public readings of personal stories of the bombing on the second Sunday of every month and the library there also offers more stories and videos of people’s experiences. The Peace Museum gift shop is also worth a look if you’re looking for a book about the bomb. I bought one full of pictures drawn by survivors; they put a lot of effort into drawing those pictures because it brought back memories that they didn’t want to remember, many of the images are gruesome and disturbing. The least I can do is look at them with attention so that that effort wasn’t wasted and so that what happened will continue to be remembered.
I didn’t mention it before since it didn’t really fit with the rest of the mood, but I also visited the Rai Sanyo Shiseki Museum right next to the Former Bank. The Rai Sanyo Shiseki Museum has some works and materials related to writer Rai Sanyo, a representative thinker of Japan’s late Edo Period. In 1800 he ran away from home (Aki Domain, today Hiroshima) to Kyoto but was captured and placed under house arrest, confined in a room within his residence. This room, where Rai Sanyo is said to have worked out a draft of his “Nihon Gaishi” history of Japan, was once designated a national historic site until it was destroyed by the bombing. However, the room was reconstructed in 1958 and can be visited today. There’s another room with a few works from Rai Sanyo but I’m guessing it would be interesting to those who know who Rai Sanyo is since there isn’t much to the exposition itself. Another area hosts the temporary exposition, in my case I saw many scrolls painted with Indian ink (sumie) which were all truly beautiful. It’s a pity photos were not allowed so I can’t show you any, but it’s what I liked most of the museum.