Visiting places of historical importance is often a very humbling experience. I remember being in Berlin and looking down to see a gold line running down the side of the pavement. It marked where the Berlin Wall once stood. A chill ran down my spine as I stood there picturing that thing stretching off into the distance.
The most iconic landmark in Hiroshima is the Genbaku Dome (the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, AKA the Atomic Bomb Dome). It used to function as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall (catchy!) before a certain bomb ended a certain war. In fact that certain bomb ignited about 160 meters above this building. Now it stands as a reminder of the evils of nuclear weapons and the tragedy of war. Every year people from all over the globe flock to this site to pose solemnly in front of the dome.
The surrounding area has been transformed into the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and is chock full of memorial statues and other displays. The Peace Flame has burned since it was lit in 1964 and will remain so until all nuclear bombs in the world are destroyed. Elsewhere thousands of origami cranes have been assembled near the Children’s Peace Monument. They were made by people (mostly children) from all over Japan, and more are sent every year. There’s an old Japanese tradition that says if you fold one thousand paper cranes you can have one wish granted. The cranes sent to this memorial are a symbol of people’s wish for peace. More info on that can be found here.
The park itself is very beautiful and full of hope despite the undercurrent of sadness that lives in the earth.
Someone told me that the Memorial Peace Museum is often visited on school trips; and that it’s not uncommon for students to have to leave the building before finishing the tour due to how upsetting it is. At first I thought this story was simple sensationalism, but then I entered the museum.
One of the first things that greeted me as I walked in was a huge diorama of life-sized mannequins singed, burned and blackened set to a backdrop of a city in flames. The audio guide recited, in chilling detail, the effects of the atomic bomb that struck Hiroshima on the sixth of August 1945.
In the middle of the room there was a model of the city with the Dome at its centre. Suspended above it from a thin wire, a red ball indicated the ignition point of the bomb. The model showed the devastation and how much of the city was decimated by the blast … it was a lot! Filling the surrounding walls of the room were various objects and artefacts recovered after the event.
The audio guide was was extensive. It contained many gripping, well-voiced narratives as well as a plethora of disturbing details. Walking around the edge of the room it seemed like even the smallest item had a harrowing history. Such as the charred and twisted bicycle that came with the tale of little Taro who, on that day, was riding that very bike to the local shop to fetch a bottle of milk for his poor over-worked mother. It was stories like that which brought the collection of objects into stark reality.
In addition to the many personal items the museum had also collected a number of things to highlight the damage done by the bomb. There were videos showing the aftermath of the bombing. There were bricks and metal doors, both blackened and melted. The most iconic of those items were the steps. The stone steps and lower part of a building’s doorframe had been transplanted to the museum. Upon the steps there was branded a shadow. Supposedly the shadow of a human being who was sat on those steps the instant the world around them exploded into light.
The sadness inherent in all of these objects reminded me of a time many years ago when I was in Poland. The gas chambers at Auschwitz contained similar shadows, also suffused with the suffering of innocents. In the museum there you can similarly find many personal items belonging to the victims; shoes, glasses, hair …
Both of these places are grim reminders of the evils of war and yet are also beacons of hope for a better future.
Have you visited Hiroshima? What other sites or activities do you recommend?
This was my second day in Hiroshima, you can read all about my first day and the beauty of Miyajima here.