William Matheson (nova_one) wrote,
William Matheson

120. Hiroshima and Miyajima

(Written from notes taken September 6th)

I stumbled out of the cybercafé into the burning, blinding sun-drenched streets.

My first stop was the Via Inn next to the train station. Could I book a room for that night? Well, lo and behold, it was “full.” I really have to wonder if they were telling the truth, or if they just didn’t want to have to deal with some uncouth gaijin. It’s so easy to just cross your arms and send it on its way – much easier than waiting while it flips through its phrasebook and having to use a calculator to show it numbers (although some models do understand Japanese numbers, and can even speak a little).

So on this night I would be taking my own advice and going to A'precio at an earlier hour. But first, there was a big long day ahead! In my haste to leave my apartment the previous day, I forgot one essential item: deodorant. I bought that, and then spent the next hour looking for a bathroom that didn’t smell like sewage. Hint: Don’t waste your time looking for one near the train station.

I went across the square to the Fukuya department store, and went to the penultimate floor with its panoramic food court. Just what I needed – a nice, clean, quiet washroom – I could listen to light jazz as I dobbed on my sunscreen.

Now that I was ready, I took the tram to the “A-bomb dome,” which is a natural starting point for exploring the memorial park – it’s on the north end of the park, and it’s where the tram stops.

The “A-bomb dome” (lest you think such a description to be a flippant exonym, it’s actually referred to that way locally, and the tram stop is even named such) is an impressive sight. I say that carefully. What I mean is that it’s impressive that it’s been preserved and that it will continue to be preserved in perpetuity, albeit with the irony that a bit of work here and there will be required to keep it in its “original state.”

Lots and lots of people were taking pictures – in fact, it seemed like just another thing for Japanese tourists (it seems funny to use that term inside Japan) to stand in front of and have their picture taken. It is kind of a novel, curious artifact. By itself, it is far more fascinating than tragic. It’s a building, and it doesn’t have much emotional impact.

But that’s just the beginning. If after seeing only the A-bomb dome, one succumbs to the temptation or necessity of getting back on the tram and heading for the station or Miyajima, one is depriving oneself of 99.9% of the impact and meaning of the place.

The next thing I walked to was the Children’s Peace Monument. Knowing what it was from prior reading, tears welled up in my eyes as soon as I saw the cranes. They are again as I type this. There is a tradition that says that you can be granted a wish if you fold a thousand paper cranes, and so Sadako Sasaki duly folded the cranes, yet she died of leukemia in 1955. (The cancer would have had to have been incubated for a while (the eight years prior to her diagnosis), but it very likely resulted from the bomb, as she was about a mile from ground zero when it struck.)

Next was the National Peace Memorial Hall. If you only have time to visit one of the, um, “attractions,” I suggest coming here. It presents the bare facts and lays out the bare realities. At its center is a panoramic view of the destroyed Hiroshima, made up of 140,000 tiles (though the tiles themselves do not make up a raster – it’s really more of a “grid art” look) – this is to match the estimated 140,000 Hiroshimans who did not survive the immediate blast or the remainder of 1945 as a result of the blast. The image is accompanied by the names of the neighbourhoods “depicted” in it – many of which simply ceased to exist after the explosion.

As I sat on a small bench at the bottom of the hall, I reflected on a few things. What would Auschwitz be like if it was a large, modern city? What are the differences? Where are the atomic-bomb-deniers? Many government buildings were simply wiped out in the explosion, and so there are few official records from that part of time, and “theorists” could have a field day.

Once I saw each place, my ‘doubt’ (if I had any – it’s like doubting that the Earth is round) vanished. There it was the shoes, here it was the cranes.

Hiroshima definitely deserves a place on the tragi-tourism A-list (the Halifax Explosion would be on the D-list). It should be noted, though, that there is a key difference in magnitude. Approximately 140,000 Hiroshimans did not live to see the end of 1945 (and I’m willing to bet that there were many others who wish they didn’t). In Europe, Hitler’s genocides wiped out perhaps eleven million (11,000,000) people, and since about six million (6,000,000) were Jews, it can easily be argued that there was a particular focus to that end.

Therefore, for the Jews alone, each stone of an identical memorial to the Holocaust would represent 42 people, not one. Or they could just build a much larger hall, with 42 cavernous chambers like the one I was sitting in while I was thinking about this. A tour could take half an hour just to pass through them all, to say nothing of counting. If you want to add the Poles, other Slavs, communists, Gypsies, and other potential dissidents / “blemishes,” you would need 78 such chambers, and the tour could take a full hour.

Tragedies by Order of Magnitude
100Hurricane Juan (8)
101Columbine High School massacre (15)
102Pan Am Flight 103 bombing (270)
103September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks (3,018)
104Hurricane Mitch (11,000+)
105Hiroshima atomic bomb explosion (140,000+)
106 – European Jewry in the Holocaust (6,000,000+)
107Eastern Front, World War II (30,000,000+)

When you see large numbers like the ones toward the bottom of this scale, they just start to become a blur. We can’t even begin to give each victim particular remembrance. What you really need are individual stories, and the Hall does an exemplary job of exhibiting these.

There is a permanent library with computer workstations linked to a large database with recorded testimonials from survivors, relatives of victims, and people who witnessed the aftermath and assisted in the relief efforts. There is also a temporary exhibit, and when I was there it was on the theme of water.

The bomb struck at about the worst possible time, weather-wise – it hit right in the dog days of summer, with that scorching sun and withering humidity. Now imagine having been broiled and roasted (if you weren’t lucky enough to be vaporized) by an atomic bomb, which also happened to wipe out every possible shelter.

“Water… water…” the people cried. But the rescuers, operating under the assumption that giving a burned person water would guarantee their death, held back – this being Japan, only a few defied orders and gave water to some who were likely going to die anyway. The ones who didn’t were wracked with guilt for the rest of their lives. One soldier, who had enough water to keep his own mouth wet for the operation, developed throat cancer 35 years later, and had his voice box removed. The irony was not lost on him.

By all accounts, it was difficult to tell the living from the dead. Beyond desperate, many victims drank cistern / river water – the approach was a death march, and bodies lined the water’s edge.

The Hall promulgates, contrary to what Bart says, that there is no good war, and there is no bad peace. Taken wholly (how else are we to take it?), I agree. Now if country A decides to wage war on country B, then admittedly country B doesn’t have much of a choice. But if all countries were to put aside war…

The next place I visited was the Museum. There is an admission charge here – it’s all of 50 yen (about 50¢). If you can afford to part with that kind of money, the museum is a worthwhile stop, but it takes a few hours to go through. The Hall is a sufficient source of information and perspective on its own, but if you have time, the Museum piles on the details, and it also puts the events of 1945 in a broader context.

“Highlights” include models of the city pre- and post-explosion, the many artifacts, and the mounted copies of letters from the Mayor of Hiroshima to ambassadors and heads of states after the states concerned have conducted a nuclear test.

I warn potential visitors that the photos of victims (especially including momentary survivors) are somewhat disturbing. After you see what happened to metal and stone, you can imagine how horribly disfigured a being made of flesh, bone, and hair would be. Not to sound flippant – I’m just trying to connect this to something people know about – you know that scene in Robocop? And that’s just scratching the surface – imagine living for years with ghastly lesions and bumps – some of the survivors looked only somewhat human. The suffering is difficult to imagine.

I came out quite convinced that war, especially nuclear war, could not be an answer to anything. And this was just a fission bomb – a modern fusion bomb means upping the destruction and suffering by perhaps a factor of ten, or more. There can’t be a “next time,” and the authorities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have determined to do all they can to ensure that there won’t be.

After leaving the museum, I collected my wits and got back on the tram. Hiroshima is the last large (1,000,000+) Japanese city with a streetcar system – a subway would have been too expensive, as the city is on a river delta, and so it’s also the largest stand-alone Japanese city without a subway.

As streetcar systems go, though, they have a pretty good one (and they were able to dual-track it after the atomic bombing allowed them to widen many of the streets) – but the first half of the long ride to Miyajima was almost unbearably crowded. The term “moving museum” is appropriate and illuminating, and does not inappropriately evoke the notion of speed. I was happy to ride it, but I wouldn’t want to have one like it in my own city, you know? Fortunately, the JR ferry ride was fun and short.

The island itself is pretty, though it is perpetually covered with deer and their droppings. I saw people who had let their guard down on their belongings fighting off hungry deer – they eat paper.

Mt. Koya was kind of a fun place to arrive late at – this spot, not so much – too many things had to be “open,” it wasn’t so laid back, and it was a bit more unabashedly a tourist trap – it’s a pretty place, but bring your wallet.

I saw the torii of course, and then I went deeper into the island to find the Daisho-in temple.

It was growing dark, but a sign on the closed gate said, “The gate is closed between x and y, please be sure to shut the gate behind you.” I interpreted that to mean going in was OK – just shut the gate behind you. There are numerous shrines and temples in this country which can be entered at any time, and I thought that maybe this was similar.

So I gingerly opened the gate, closed it behind me, and slowly climbed the steps. It looked like a really interesting place – unfortunately, when I got to the top I really startled two locals – with a wild look, they made a closed gesture and waved me off post-haste.

I guess there are certain places where you can wander around all night if you want to, and there are certain places where you cannot. You can go to many of the Shikoku temples after hours (within reason) – you just can’t get your book stamped. It’s not without irony that this very temple had many items related to the pilgrimage. That said, you can understand their need to bolt down everything, especially in such a high-traffic locale.

Feeling like I’d worn out my welcome, I made for the ferry terminal, but I did stop to buy my omiyage. There were all manner of things for sale, including a vast array of rice scoops. Oddly enough, Miyajima is known for its rice scoops, and I remembered L.’s “gaijin moment” story of being at a shop here and having the following interaction:

“Oh, what’s this?”
“It’s a rice scoop.”
“What do you do with it?”

The, “You… scoop… rice… with… it…” reaction of the clerk was so condescendingly delivered that L. bought his Official Miyajima Rice Scoop™ at another shop, so the joke is kind of on the clerk. Of course, he wasn’t asking about the mechanical utility of the rice scoop, he was inquiring as to its greater (perhaps decorative) purpose.

As I type this, I can’t believe I missed the World’s Largest Spatula. (Where’s Weird Al when you need him?) It’d be like missing the World’s Largest Perogy in Glendon – how could you?

I got on the ferry and back on the tram; I was a few minutes early for the latter, so I grabbed the rearmost seat so I could see the outskirts of Hiroshima slip off into the distance as we re-entered the city. I think I got some decent photos along the way. Most of the route outside the city proper is on a dedicated right-of-way, so we started off at a good clip, and then slowed down somewhat as we started to mix with traffic. I had a good view of the empty cab (the operators were on the other end), but unfortunately none of the indicators were indicating anything – it would have been nice to know how fast we were going. I can tell you that it definitely wasn’t the Shinkansen, though. =)

I went for a bite at the department store’s food court – it was ostensibly open until ten, but even at 9:15 only the McDonald’s wanted to take my order. (“What did you eat in Japan, Will?” “McDonald’s.”) I realized I was pushing my luck with the cybercafé, but when I got there there were still a precious few booths left, and I secured a spot and had a decent night’s sleep.

Next: The journey back, and more temples!
Tags: hiroshima, japan, memorials, miyajima, museums, streetcars, suffering, temples, tourism, tragedies, transportation, travel, war
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