War and peace in Hiroshima

by Chris Bamforth

Before coming to Japan, most people don’t know more than about half-a-dozen place names in the country. But one name certainly familiar to all is that of the largest city at the western end of Honshu.

Sixty years ago last month, on Aug. 6, the atomic bomb “Little Boy” was detonated 580 meters above that city, reducing vast parts of it to char and ash and making Hiroshima instantly known around the world. Ground Zero of the blast was close by Hiroshima’s Industrial Promotion Hall, which seconds after the explosion was just about the only structure still standing within a 2-km radius.

For the millions of visitors to Hiroshima every year, the remains of that hall, built in 1914 by a Czech architect, are high on the itinerary, the structure having subsequently been renamed the Atomic Bomb Dome. Left as a poignant reminder of the bomb’s awesome power, the shattered dome and frail walls of the building would have fallen apart long ago without expensive reinforcements to hold them together. In 1990, Hiroshima resolved that it would preserve the ruin for all time, and in 1996 the Atomic Bomb Dome became a World Heritage Site.

Just across the river from the Atomic Bomb Dome extends the Peace Memorial Park, with its simple cenotaph for the A-bomb victims. There is also the Flame of Peace, the idea of which is to keep it burning so long as nuclear weapons exist. Nearby is the Peace Memorial Museum, which sets out to explain with great clarity the horror that befell Hiroshima that day in 1945. Grimly, it succeeds.

A visit to the museum is a harrowing experience. It is impossible to be unaffected by the tragedy at the individual level, as seen in exhibits like the lunchbox of young Shigeru Orimen, found by his mother clutched under her son’s body, the lunchbox containing the charred remains of the meal he would never get to eat.

While the museum depicts the awful destruction the bomb wrought, what it conspicuously fails to do — unlike the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki — is create a historical context for it. If beforehand you didn’t know anything about Japan’s long period of aggression in Asia and its actions in the Pacific War preceding the dropping of the bomb, you wouldn’t be any the wiser after a visit to the museum.

Hiroshima has declared itself a City of Peace, but the image of the place wasn’t always thus. After the Sino-Japanese War broke out in August 1894, the Meiji Emperor moved his Imperial headquarters to Hiroshima, and he commanded his troops from there until April 1895. With its position at the western end of the Sanyo Railway, Hiroshima developed into a logistics base supplying the military overseas with troops, provisions and ammunition.

The stone remains of those headquarters can still be seen near another symbol of the city’s military past. Hiroshima Castle was built between 1592 and 1599, but the wooden donjon of the original building was destroyed during the atomic blast. What can be seen today of this castle, nicknamed Carp Castle (and thus providing the local baseball team with its name), is a modern reconstruction in reinforced concrete — like most castles in Japan. It is, however, not a bad facsimile of the original structure, and the 26-meter-high donjon, surrounded by its broad green moat, is convincingly evocative of the Hiroshima of years ago.

Not far from Carp Castle is a historical part of the city with gentler associations. Dating back to 1620, the garden known as Shukkeien was, like the castle, destroyed in 1945 and has since been artfully re-created. Shukkeien means “shrunk scenery garden,” indicating that the garden includes a presentation of a landscape in miniature — in this case, a downsized version of a lake in Hangzhou, China.

There is, in fact, something a little Chinese in the overall execution of Shukkeien, with its improbable-looking waterfalls and sculptured islands topped with manicured pine trees. Few people would travel to Hiroshima just to see this garden, but it is popular and makes for an agreeable spot, with its engaging bridges and pavilions from which you can leisurely contemplate such features as tiny streams with grandiose names like Valley of the Milky Way.

If Shukkeien represents something of the high culture of Hiroshima, cultural pickings at the other end of the scale are to be had at Okonomi-mura. This collection of around 30 or so mini-restaurants spread over three floors of a building is devoted to Hiroshima-yaki, the local version of okonomi-yaki (savory pancakes).

Here in Hiroshima, they take their okonomi-yaki seriously. A large sign outside the building proclaims “Okonomi Republic Hiroshima Village,” above which two flags are proudly displayed, one flag bearing the image of a pancake, the other a pancake spatula. It’s probably fair to say, though, that if you don’t go to Okonomi-mura as a fan of okonomi-yaki, the experience won’t convert you.

The food is elaborately prepared on a griddle in front of the diner, though despite all the ingredients put into it the dominant flavor tends to be the thick brown sauce that you slap on at the end. Okonomi-yaki is usually seen as simple, hearty fare, but since the principal ingredients of Hiroshima-yaki are fried noodles, batter, bacon and eggs, it may be better described as arteriosclerotic.

Built on an extensive delta, Hiroshima is very much a city of rivers. Despite this attractive natural feature and the pint-size trams that trundle along its streets, the Hiroshima that has grown up since the devastation of World War II is not an especially pretty place, but then neither are most Japanese cities. So, Hiroshima may not be a place where you go to feast your eyes on a breathtaking urban landscape. But it is still a city that, while you are in Japan, you do feel you have to go and see.