Hiroshima and Miyajima, Japan

Dec 5 – 7

Hiroshima is a place everyone should visit when they are in Japan.

Based on the recommendation of a guy I met at a hostel in Osaka, I stayed at the World Friendship Center. The room was a little more expensive than I was used to paying, but it was a really good choice.

The World Friendship Center is more like a bed and breakfast than a hotel. And there are usually a lot of guests there, but I ended up being the only one. Apparently December is not the season for tourists in Japan (well there were plenty of Japanese tourists, just not a lot of foreigners). That was fine with me. I quite like being one of the only tourists. And I had my own cozy room.

The World Friendship Center is run by volunteers who rotate every 2 years. Kent and Sarah were the volunteers when I was there and they were super sweet and welcoming. They said I reminded them of their daughter (who loves to travel, photographs street art, and has a knack for finding things). I worked on a puzzle and drank tea while they played scrabble. It was such a cozy place, I ended up staying 2 nights.

On the second night, Sarah and I finished the puzzle.

Anyway, there was a big light display downtown, so one night I walked down there to check it out.

Almost as amusing as the light show was watching all the Japanese people taking photos with their camera phones.

I think Japanese light displays are much more creative than American ones.

And of course it wouldn’t be a proper Japanese light show without cute little bug-eyed animals.

I had fun twirling under the lights and taking pictures of my face in different colored lighting (and yes, I was by myself).

:)

It snowed a tiny bit in the morning. I had a giant puffy coat, but it’s much too big for me and makes me a little self conscious that I look like a homeless person compared to all the fancily dressed Japanese girls. So I just put on all my other layers and dealt with it. Actually…I guess I really am a homeless person, come to think of it. At least for the next year anyway.

That day, I went to the Peace Memorial Museum. At the museum, I saw the same lady that I had met on the train to Nara. She’s from Houston. We decided that we’d eat lunch together if we ended up leaving the museum at the same time, but I couldn’t find her in the end. I think we were both probably not in the mood to socialize anyway. I know I wasn’t.

There were some extremely graphic and horrifying things on display and I spent about 4 hours reading everything. I won’t go into all the details, but this website might give you a basic idea of the museum’s contents. I didn’t take many photos inside the museum, although I probably should have. It was quite thorough and well thought out. I also thought it was very well rounded. In addition to basic information about nuclear weapons, it also talked a lot about the atrocities caused by Japan during the war, how Japanese children were forced from their homes and into military work camps, and how Japanese text books are still very biased and need to be reformed to present a fairer depiction of what happened.

The US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima August 6, 1945, killing over 140,000 people. The majority of the victims were civilians and many more died the following years due to injuries or other health problems caused by prolonged radiation exposure. Three days later, the US dropped a bomb on Nagasaki (Kokura was actually the planned target, but it was cloudy that day…so Nagasaki was chosen as the default). The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission was established to study the long-term effects of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hiroshima was chosen as the target because it was an important military town, it was located in a significant industrial area, and it could easily be targeted by radar. It was also surrounded by mountains, which would increase the bomb’s impact and destroy a large portion of the city – displaying the incredible power of the weapon for all the world to see. Hiroshima was one of the only cities purposely unharmed by America’s nightly bombing raids so the atomic bomb’s damage could be accurately measured.

Since the atomic bomb, Hiroshima’s mayors have been writing letters urging the presidents of “nuclear weapons states” to support a resolution calling for a ban of nuclear weapons. Maybe someday this will happen. The eternal flame in Hiroshima Peace Park will remain lit until all nuclear weapons are abolished.

The Museum is divided into several buildings. One building displays the names and photos of all the people who died.

I think the most shocking things on display were all the stories and drawings of survivors, as well as the remnants and clothing scraps from people who died.

Many people died in the Motoyasu River. Every year on August 6th, Hiroshima holds a world peace ceremony and thousands of paper lanterns are sent to float down the river, bringing peace to the souls of the victims.

Many victims of the bomb died asking for water. This is why a lot of the monuments incorporate water.

The Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall, now commonly referred to as the Genbaku (or A-bomb Dome), was one of the only buildings to remain standing after the bombing. Today it remains in the center of the city in the same state as it was after the bombing.

Many survivors of the A-bomb hate the memorial and want it destroyed because it serves as a constant reminder of the horrors they dealt with. And they feel like they’re being forced to relive the pain every time they walk by it. But many other people want it to remain standing. Soon all the A-bomb survivors will have passed away and there is a worry that without solid reminders, the coming generations will become too detached from everything that happened. Today the A-bomb dome is a UNESCO World Heritage site and its remains will be preserved forever, serving as a memorial for all the victims, but also as an educational tool for those people who have never known war.

After such a heavy museum, I left feeling very depressed. I needed something uplifting, so I went to Miyajima, a little island that can be reached by a 20 minute cable car ride and about a 20 minute ferry.

Miyajima is most known for the Itsukushima Shrine and its large torii gate that is surrounded by water during high tide. Here is some info about Shinto shrines.

Miyajima literally means “shrine island” and there are many shrines and temples scattered around the island.

Aside from shrines, Miyajima is well known for its shakushi (rice spatulas). Here you can see the world’s largest shakushi.

It is also known for momiji manju (small cakes shaped like maple leaves and filled with sweet bean paste).

There is even a Hello Kitty store where you can buy Hello Kitty momiji manju.

Like Nara, lots of wild deer roam around Miyajima. And also like Nara, they are very aggressive. They eat paper and will rip tickets and maps out of your hands.

I had lots of fun wandering around the island. I was about to board the ferry back to Hiroshima, but when I reached into my pocket to grab my precious Japan rail pass (that was just activated the day before and had 3 weeks left of prepaid, unlimited travel), I realized that it was missing! I decided that my luck had finally run out. I wasn’t ready to give up yet, so I retraced all my steps – back through the souvenir shops, the hello kitty shop, the shop where I had bought rice crackers, along the waterfront, past the floating torii gate, up several layers of stairs leading to various temples. But I never found my pass. I figured either someone picked it up off the ground and is going to try to use it themselves…or a deer at it. Both seemed very likely.

I probably wandered around searching in the dark for another few hours. In the end, I was tired, frustrated, and already mentally drained from the Hiroshima museum earlier that day. I sat at the top of the temple steps and got all teary eyed, not sure if I was crying because of all the bomb victims I couldn’t get out of my head or if it really was because of something as insignificant as losing my train pass. In any case, I decided there was probably a good reason for me losing my pass. I took it as a sign that I should stop trying to sightsee the entire country and just select a few places, taking the time to truly appreciate them.

Once I had that attitude, I began to lighten up and see the good things that stemmed from me losing my pass. I got lots of exercise, I got to see a real raccoon dog! (he was foraging under a coke machine – perhaps searching for a bottle of sake – and he took off as soon as he saw me), and I got to see all the temples again at night (something I would have missed had I gotten immediately on the ferry like I had planned).

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Eventually feeling OK about my expensive loss, I went back to the ferry station. But just to make sure I covered all my bases before leaving the island forever, I approached the man at the ticket counter and with a lot of gesturing and pointing, I asked if he had seen my rail pass. He seemed confused and I was about to walk away, but then he figured out what I was saying and said “Ah. You are Cristen.” Excited, he motioned for me to follow a different man, who led me a few blocks to a woman in a shop, who then drew me a map to go to the police station. Once at the police station, I found a serious looking police officer sitting behind a counter. He had just gotten off the phone (I guess with the men at the ticket station) and seemed to know why I was there. I figured I’d just show him my passport to prove it was me, he’d give me the missing rail pass, and I’d say “arigato gozaimas” and be on my way. But instead, he unlocked a little gate, motioned for me to enter, and he interrogated me for at least 30 minutes while I sat at his desk. After lots of rapid questioning in Japanese, to which I just simply smiled, shrugged, and said “wakarimasen” (I don’t understand), he huffed and puffed and finally pulled out a thick notebook that displayed all the common questions one would need to ask in the context of a police station. The English equivalents were written next to each Japanese phrase and so we communicated that way – by him questioning me in slow, choppy English. With a large break in between each word he asked things like “When – did – you – last – confirm – that – the – articles – were – in – your – possession?” and “Where – did – you – determine – that – the – articles – were – missing?” I would answer, only for him to ask the same questions 3 or 4 more times before he decided that my answers were acceptable and wrote them down onto two separate documents. Next he had to check, recheck, and check my passport some more, while occasionally quizzing me on my date of birth and state of origin. Then he made multiple phone calls (and I could only tell he was talking about me because every now and then I’d hear “Cristen Andrews”). Then he asked to examine my passport one more time so he could copy all my information on the documents, then get my fingerprints and have me sign the documents. I couldn’t read the documents, but I had no idea why anyone would ever need them again. Clearly this case was closed. I was so happy that he had my rail pass though, I didn’t really mind all the weird steps he was making me go through to get it back. I was actually quite amused. He pulled down his glasses, squinting to inspect my passport with so much seriousness you’d think he was trying to solve some sort of puzzle. I showed him my camera and asked if I could take a photo, but he waved me off and said “No. No.” While he continued examining, I glanced around his desk and saw the most amazing poster I’ve ever seen. The poster had little photo icons of people in various stages of pain so the police officer could identify them when people come in with those complaints. One was of a boy with his head in his hands and the English caption said “Very Painful.” Another had the same boy, but a more distressed face and some blood. The caption said “Extremely Painful.” Too bad I wasn’t allowed to take photos. Anyway, after viewing my passport one final time, the police officer stood up abruptly, and said “Ok. Byebye. You go now.” And that was that. Yay – rail pass at last! Only in Japan would someone return something like that! And only in Japan would you have to go through so much meticulous questioning to get it back! It turned out to be a great cultural experience. I got to witness the the honesty of Japanese citizens and the intricacies of Japanese bureaucracy.

The next day, I met Chiyoko, one of Sarah’s English students who volunteers at the WFC a few times a week. We talked a lot over breakfast and she told me that she’s practicing to give guided tours of the monuments. She said she was nervous about speaking in public (especially in English) and I told her she was welcome to practice on me! So…we went to the Peace Park together and she told me everything she knows about the monuments. I helped correct her English from time to time, but honestly…her English was really really good. And it was so great to have someone explaining everything to me. There are small signs with brief English descriptions, but once she started talking, I realized that I would have missed out on so much information if she hadn’t been there to show me around.

Chiyoko’s grandma died in the atomic bomb and her mom was a teenager during the time of the bombing. Chiyoko said her mom rarely talked about her experiences during the bomb and she passed away a few years ago. She did say that her mom told her about having to flee from a burning house with a little boy who’s face was so badly burned it was falling off. And she also said her mom was always terrified of lightning.

This is Chiyoko. She’s lived in Hiroshima her whole life and is eager to educate foreigners about the atomic bomb. She’s 52. Can you believe that?!?

Here are some of the monuments at Peace Park.

This clock tower is supposed to represent the lives of the people of Hiroshima. Chiyoko said it starts out straight (the time before the A bomb), then it gets all twisted (the time of the A bomb), and then it goes back to being straight (representing the resilience of Hiroshima and the peoples’ desire to move forward). Just a few days after the bomb, people resumed work on the roads and sections of the public transport system were up and running again.

The Peace Bell is Chiyoko’s favorite monument. It displays a traditional Japanese bell and visitors are encouraged to ring it as a cry out for world peace. This monument is surrounded by a pond of lotus flowers (although they were dead when I was there because it was winter). On the bell, there is an engraving of the world map with no borders.

This is the Memorial Tower for the Mobilized Students. The statue incorporates aspects of 3 religions: Buddhism, Christianity, and Shinto. Many students were forced to work for the military (either sewing clothing for soldiers or demolishing buildings as barricades). Many of these children were outside working during the day of the bomb and they died while trying to find their way back home.

The Cenotaph for Korean Victims of The Atomic Bomb honors the thousands of Koreans who served as forced laborers and died during the bombing. This memorial used to be located outside the park. But after much protest from the Koreans, it was moved into the Peace Park in 1999.

The Memorial Cenotaph is shaped like an ancient tomb. Underneath the arch is a chest containing all names of those who died in the atomic bombing. The chest displays the following inscription: “Repose ye in peace, for the error shall not be repeated.” The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound (a separate monument I didn’t get a photo of) contains the ashes of the thousands of unidentified people who died in the bombing.

The Children’s Peace Monument was erected as a memorial for Sadako Sasaki, who died of leukemia related to radiation poisoning. She tried to cure her illness by folding a thousand origami cranes. Today children from schools all over Japan visit this peace monument to leave elaborate artworks made out of folded cranes.

Desipite Hiroshima’s horrible history and the overwhelming sadness many of its people had to endure, I thought the town was very beautiful and it had a certain peacefulness to it that I didn’t sense in the other Japanese cities I visited.

First there are the colorful paper cranes, that can be found scattered all over the city.

There are also the carefully planned statues and monuments.

But mainly, this peaceful feeling was from all the wonderful people who are so warm and friendly. This Japanese group was standing on a bridge over the Motayasu River (the river where hundreds of dead people floated down) and they had signs advertising free hugs. I got 6 free hugs. And believe me – after you leave the museum, you’ll want some hugs. I thought that was a really beautiful thing. It kinda gave me chills.

After the Peace Park, Chiyoko and I went back to the WFC. I was really craving a big bowl of warm soup and when I got back to the place, Sarah was amazingly already in the kitchen cooking up a big pot of vegetable soup to share with me. I feel very lucky to have found these people.

Notes:

  • Despite the vegan delights that are readily available in most convenience stores, it can still be confusing to be a vegan in Japan. Several times I’ve purchased a seemingly vegan-friendly food item only to discover that it wasn’t at all! It’s always fun when you bite into a rice ball or a burdock salad only to find little fish heads with eyeballs! They hide those little guys in everything!

  • Barefoot Gen (Hadashi No Gen) is a Japanese manga series by Keiji Nakazawa, a Hiroshima survivor. The series tell the story of 6-year-old Gen and his life during the time of the bombing and its aftermath. The series has been adapted into a movie. I’ve seen the movie. Very sad, but highly recommended. If you live in Austin, you can get it at Vulcan Video.

  • Victims of the atomic bomb are referred to as Hibakusha. The World Friendship Center was established by Barbara Reynolds, who dedicated much of her life to sharing the message of the hibakusha.

  • There are 2 different types of cranes – girl cranes (on the left) and boy cranes (on the right). The cranes most people are familiar with and know how to make are the girl cranes. Boy cranes for some reason are not as well known.

  • Learn some Japanese:

sumimasen (excuse me). This word is very useful. It can be used as an “I’m sorry” if you accidentally bump into someone or as a “please help me” if you are approaching someone with a question.

Eigo ga wakarimas ka? (Do you understand English?)

Nihongo ga wakarimasen (I don’t understand Japanese)

Nihongo sukosi wakarimas (I understand a little Japanese)

iie (no), hai (yes)

arigato gozaimas / arigato gozaimashta (thank you)

domo arigato gozaimas (thank you very much)

O-genki des ka? (how are you?)

genki des (I’m fine)

gomen nasai (I’m sorry)

Ikura des ka? (How much is it?)

ohayo gozaimas (good morning)

konnichiwa (hello, good afternoon)

hajimemashite (nice to meet you)

….eki wa doko des ka? (where is….station?)

…..des ka? (is this….?) Good to use if you aren’t sure where you are. For example, Osaka eki des ka? (“Is this Osaka Station?”)

*The ending “masen” is used to negate a verb. For example:

wakarimas (understand) / wakarimasen (don’t understand)

hanashimas (speak) / hanashimasen (don’t speak)

taberemas (eat) / taberemasen (don’t eat)

Kawaii des ne? (pretty/cute isn’t it?) Kawaii seems to have a wide range of meanings from cute to beautiful and can be used in many different contexts (when talking about children, the weather, a pretty scarf. Really anything that you like is probably “kawaii”). This word is very popular and you will likely hear it a lot. It’s also really useful for meeting locals if you don’t have many other Japanese words in your vocabulary. Just point to something they are wearing and say “Kawaii!”

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2 Comments

  1. What a wonderful blog this time Cristen! I understand the feeling about the museum as I felt that way about the Holocaust Museum in D.C. ( In fact it never leaves you…). I hope you get a big book deal with your wonderful stories that are so informational and interesting! You do such an amazing job. I look forward to your blogs so much and it lights up my morning when I see your emails waiting.

    You are just wonderful….and I am glad that you are in this world. You make it a better place to live by helping to balance it.

  2. Grandma

     /  January 8, 2009

    Wow! what an history lesson! I lived through that time period, you know, and when I read about the museum and how the Japanese people dealt with all of that, my heart was heavy all over again. It still is at this moment. I’m afraid this will be with me a long time.
    This blog was so very informative.
    That was something you had to go through with the police to get your rail pass back, so all ended well in the end.
    Your experiences are priceless, aren’t they?

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