The early morning light on this summer day, illuminating the under canopies of trees and sending warm, golden strobes across the oyster cafes over the embankments of the Kyobashi River, is enchanting.
A fan-shaped city divided by seven deltaic waterways, Hiroshima sits on six islands formed by estuarial rivers. It feels large and expansive, but is free of the crowds that fill Tokyo and Osaka. Elegant bridges and river perspectives add notes of grace to this modern city, but its streams of history and collective memory return, invariably, to the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, when a white light lit it up from west to east before plunging it into semi-darkness.
It was the world’s first use of nuclear weapons on a civilian population, and the effects have been indelible. Today, the story of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is well understood, but it wasn’t always so — the full truth of what happened took decades to come out as the U.S. Occupation and government sought to keep a lid on images of the destruction and suffering. Japan, for its part, also took decades to erect a memorial acknowledging the Korean laborers who perished alongside Japanese in Hiroshima. The Koreans, whose experience must count as a double misfortune, did get their memorial in the end, though you will have to seek it out. Sidelined away from the central monuments of the Peace Park, it feels a little like an uncomfortable afterthought.
Visiting the city around this time of year can be intense, especially in the areas connected with its wartime history, but it is well worth your while. Local residents enjoy the open spaces and river views; groups of tourists follow guides, stopping periodically to hear explanations; and people with signs and clipboards are never far away. Causes include everything from pleas for world peace and efforts to project Japan’s pacifist Constitution to protests against the harvesting of human organs in China. It’s tempting to get caught up in this highly politicized vortex and become a victim of the mild delirium that can assail visitors, but don’t worry — people with agendas tend to cluster around Motoyasu Bridge. Those with interest can get involved; for others, it’s good to just keep moving.
You have to steel yourself for a visit to Hiroshima. The travel writer Ethel Mannin visited the city in 1958, bracing herself on one occasion when a doctor passed her an album of photographs of A-bomb injuries.
“Once you have looked without passing out,” she noted, “you can go on looking, for you can only be profoundly shocked in that way once; after that comes only the dull repetition of horror.” Mannin witnessed the living conditions of the very poor, many of them debilitated by radiation sickness in the days before the city’s slow recovery.
She was taken to an area behind the Atomic Bomb Dome, the ruins of the former Industrial Promotion Hall, at the hypocenter of the explosion. Today, the area is set aside for restaurants and bars catering to tourists, and to a pier where visitors embark for cruises along the Motoyasu River. In Mannin’s day, improvised shacks made from scavenged corrugated iron, sacking and splintered wood, occupied the spot. The writer was told that eviction orders had been served on the slum’s residents, but many of them, unable to work full time, were incapable of paying even the lowest rents.
The plight of those exposed to radiation extended well beyond the end of the war and the limits of corporeal suffering. In the decades that followed, discrimination against the hibakusha was remorseless — some healthy families refused to let their offspring marry a sufferer, and some employers denied them work. Many of those with nonvisible injuries, fearing stigmatization, refused to visit hospitals and receive treatment.
You needn’t be of any particular nationality to be affected by the lessons this city has to teach, for its tragedy is fundamentally a human one. That said, life has moved on in Hiroshima, a city with many dimensions. The best approach, perhaps, is to pay your respects early on, and then turn your attention to a city that has become a model of forward-looking prosperity.
My first stop after visiting the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum is always to seek out the grounds of Shukkei-en, a traditional Japanese garden. Its location, close to ground zero, resulted in extensive damage. After painstaking reconstruction, it was opened to the public in 1951. If prewar photos are anything to go by, the restoration appears to be remarkably faithful.
A typical Japanese circuit garden, the site was created in 1620, purportedly by the tea ceremony master Ueda Soko. The name translates as “compressed scenery garden,” an apt description for the series of valley, forest and mountain cameos skillfully integrated into the grounds. Like today, the original garden contained a number of teahouses, stone lanterns and miniaturized scenes to form a cultural digest of sights in China and Japan. Perhaps the strongest Chinese reference is the Takuei Pond, with its many islets, including the clear outline of a turtle and crane island. The water is transected by Koko-kyo bridge, modeled on the causeway at Xi Hu, the West Lake in Hangzhou. A green and bucolic spot, Shukkei-en is more than just a garden: It is a symbol of rebirth and hope.
The original garden was constructed around the same time as Hiroshima Castle and is within walking distance of it. There are only 12 authentic castles remaining in Japan, and this is not one of them. The fortress replica that stands today is skillfully done, however, with three towers and a wide moat shored up with the original masonry. Innovations found in other castle replicas, such as elevators, are mercifully absent. As you climb to the fifth story of the donjon (keep), each floor has historical displays of armor, weaponry, manuscripts and maps, not to mention actors in costume stalking photo opportunities here and there.
It’s a short enough walk from the castle to the Hiroshima Museum of Art, though the city’s straight avenues and boulevards can also be negotiated by tramcar, vehicles that add a touch of old-world urban elegance. If the exhibits of paintings by the likes of Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and Pierre-Auguste Renoir seem removed from the life of the city, the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum (to the east of the castle) has a number of works more expressive of the spirit of place, the most conspicuous being the rather harrowing “Holocaust at Hiroshima,” a large painting by Ikuo Hirayama. The artist witnessed the bombing, so we can depend on the authenticity of the scenes it depicts. Among the museum’s more arresting works by foreign artists is the surrealist masterpiece, “Dreams of Venus,” by Salvador Dali. With its signature melting watch the canvas put me in mind of a curious weekend spent in the company of Dali and his wife Gala at their seafront home in the Catalan village of Cadaques, Spain. But that’s another story, another moment in time.
The third venue in the cultural triangle is the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, with its fine collection of works from around the world. The grounds of the museum, located at the top of Hijiyama, an incline with commanding views of the city, are peppered with important modern sculptures, including a work by Henry Moore. Hiroshima’s vibrant art scene, restaurants, gardens, parks and cafe life and the undeniably international feeling conferred on it by so many visitors from around the world combine to make it an inspiring model of dynamic recovery.
Inevitably, though, one is drawn back to the oppressive final days of the war and the superheated summer that put Hiroshima, a then little-known port city, forever on the map. I returned on my final night for one last look at the Atomic Bomb Dome. Apparently some local residents had objected to the beautification of the monument with the installation of colored lights for nighttime. The word “magical” may seem inappropriate, but there was a haunting, phantasmagoric quality to the lit girders, torn walls and blackened cavities of the building.
Despite its nocturnal charms, it is advisable to visit Hiroshima in the daytime, when the sunbeams chase away the scorched shadows of the past and one can appreciate the light, passing as it should from east to west.
High-speed shinkansen, local trains and buses all arrive at Hiroshima Station. Hiroshima-Nishi Airport and Hiroshima Airport host flights from Tokyo and other large cities. There are two information booths in Hiroshima Station. To learn more, visit www.visithiroshima.net.