Hiroshima – An Ode to Living

In a city linked with death, life is everywhere

In June 1945, Hiroshima was predicted to be unsafe for human habitation for at least 70 years. It seemed optimistic.

Though the sun rose and set over the city as it had since the dawn of its birth, the absence of light was palpable. A war which had decimated a city, dishonoured a nation and divided a planet was finally at an end, but the true cost of what had happened at 8:15am on June 6th was yet to be felt. The dust may have settled and the sky no longer rained droplets of fire, but the aftershock of such a powerful weapon had no precedent in either science or science fiction.

A conventional bomb causes death, but nothing yet made by man took life from its victims like the fruit of the Manhattan Project. Those who did not die physically suffered horrific burns, deep emotional scars and debilitating birth defects which would take generations to correct, leaving a sickening feeling that those within the hypocentre had almost been lucky. By the end of the year 160,000 lives had been lost, and with such a dark cloud hovering above, Hiroshima could easily have died with them.


72 years later and Hiroshima’s heart is not just still beating, but the city is an ode to living. If the plentiful, yet tasteful, reminders of the city’s pained history were not there, it would be even harder to believe its people’s stories of suffering were true. The streets are not as filled, nor the lights as bright as many other regions of Japan, but Hiroshima functions as a working city with a calm dignity. Life does not move quickly, but rather celebrates and savours the fact that it moves at all.

Each city of Japan has a unique character more distinct than in any country either Billie or I had visited, but Hiroshima was the first with a soul as open for all to see.

A city like Tokyo is made up almost entirely of smaller towns and districts. One could spend weeks wandering each of these without feeling they had discovered, let alone understood, the true heart of the city, with their many variations in architecture, food and culture.

This is not true of Hiroshima, as the intangible feeling of the city is present and similar in all of its corners. Hiroshima has welcomed the challenge thrust upon it to change its perception as a place of unspeakable violence and tragedy, and been transformed into a world centre of peace and tranquillity.


Whilst the reminders of war are constant, they are cautionary when vengeful would perhaps have been more understandable.

The ‘Atomic Bomb Dome’, formerly a hall for exhibitions of art and innovative products, is one of few buildings to survive the blast that still stands to this day. The skeletal frame of its formerly full cupola haunts the skyline of Hiroshima with an eerie beauty like the cage of a vulture. Its presence is inescapable, and in the early years of the city’s revival such a stark and ghostly reminder of its former prosperity proved controversial.

As much as many of its citizens would have killed to wipe the slate clean, Hiroshima needed to live both with, and in spite of, its history. The dome’s importance as a dark relic of remembrance had to be fought for, but look closely on a sunny day and the beams entering through the near demolished ceiling reflect to form a nest of light. Though it was born in darkness, the dome is symbolic of the city’s rebirth from rubble and ash.


The rebuilding of life doesn’t just stretch to humankind and its buildings, as we found Hiroshima to be one of the greenest cities in Japan.

From learning the cold, numerical facts of the atomic bomb in history and physics lessons, I had assumed that soil in the hypocentre would forever be unusable, but where was once a blackened crater is now a stunning memorial garden and museum. At its centre, an eternal flame burns for those who lost their lives and provides a focal point for remembrance and reflection in a quiet space only interrupted by bird song and the laughter of children.

Though we visited in autumn, it is clear to see that the garden is very deliberately evergreen. A truly humbling walk through the museum tells personal stories which humanise the devastating numbers, but the natural light which permeates the building reminds one of what has happened since. By no means is the impact lessened, as all who enter undoubtedly leave with an altered worldview, but thoughtful planning and even better execution bring hope to a place with such potential for bleakness.


The entire prefecture of Hiroshima basks in the light originating from the city. Two of our five days in the area were spent exploring the bounteous surrounding islands, home to some of our favourite sights in Japan.

The island of Miyajima was outside of the main blast radius, and as such gives a unique insight into the ancient history of the prefecture few other places can. The ferry ride itself is worth the trip out, as even in autumn the bright orange ‘floating’ shrine provides a striking reminder of Japan’s rich religious heritage. In one of many happy coincidences to befall us on our travels so far, we were treated to a showing of the healing process Hiroshima has undertaken in practice. Buddhist monks walked across hot coals to ward off evil spirits and cleanse the soul, showing that whilst fire is destructive, it also has the power to heal.


When the attack on Hiroshima effectively ended the war in the Far East, the weaponised poison gas factory housed on the island of Ōkunoshima no longer had a use. The rabbits used in testing were freed and it isn’t difficult to imagine what happened next. From 20 rabbits in 1945, there are now thousands. A bag of carrots or nutritious pellets will make you incredibly popular for however long it lasts, and if you can escape harassment long enough to find a secluded spot there are few places on earth better for a picnic.


Our last night in Hiroshima consolidated what we had come to learn and love about the city. On an all to frequent trip to find sushi and curry bread, we stumbled across what looked like the switching on of the city’s Christmas lights.

The man we assumed to be the mayor gave a short speech in front of a modest crowd before a brass band played an unfamiliar, yet festive tune and the countdown began.

But what was lit at the pressing of the button was far more poignant than any set of Christmas lights. Stretching as far as the eye could see and in every possible colour, Hiroshima now shined in a sea of electric art. The annual Dreamination festival had begun.


Split into four distinct sections each highlighting a different aspect of the theme, residents and visitors young and old played in and enjoyed the now nocturnal city centre. Along with the feast for the eyes, the ears were treated to several live music acts and the taste buds to traditional food stalls in a newly pedestrianised area. This festival wasn’t for or about Christmas, but the spirit of giving, togetherness and joy through peace was clear for all to see.


Hiroshima deserves recognition for the way it has recovered from heartbreak and become a Japanese city to rival its ancient brothers. So often a name followed by “bomb” or “attack” in the same way that crystal is trailed by “clear”, Hiroshima bravely fights its perception as a city in the shadow of tragedy. But despite all this it reminds us of a fact so easy to forget: for a shadow to form, it must be shrouded in light.

“A Stranger’s just a Friend you Haven’t Met”

A crisis averted thanks to new friends

If ever you could use a fresh mint tea to calm your nerves, it’s after watching a bus holding all your belongings turn onto a motorway without you.  Like those who recount near death experiences say time seems to slow and one knows instinctively what to do to maintain the best chance of survival, it seemed vitally important to me while sprinting behind this bus to keep the tea upright and save its contents, minus the collateral drops now scalding my hands, chest and legs, at all costs.

The buying of this tea from a rest stop McDonalds somewhere over the Czech border was an easy scapegoat of blame for the pickle Billie and I now found ourselves in, but in that moment it provided sweet, if small, relief. I knew I only had a few seconds before staring down the slip road and not confronting the problem or comforting my girlfriend would be seen as unhelpful, so I decided to take full advantage. After waving the cup under my nose to steal any relaxation hiding in the fumes, I sipped and took the moment to feel better before preparing to pretend to Billie that I had a fucking clue what to do next. Although it fought every stereotypical instinct I had as an English male, the only option was to ask someone for help.

As we know our backpacks and lack of familiarity in our new environment make us an easy target, we have always erred on the side of caution when it comes to security. Our bags have a padlock on each zip, we put our tablet back in the bottom of the bag every time after checking directions and at times hesitate to trust those offering to take our photo with our camera. By no means do we never feel safe and pack a cricket bat with which to arm ourselves every time we turn onto a dark street, but it pays to be vigilant.

Almost everyone we told about our travels offered the advice to “stay safe and look after each other”, and for anything to happen to us would break countless promises.

We also, to a fault, feel an overwhelming urge to tackle problems independently even if this takes thrice as long as reaching out to others. There is nothing more demoralising to a stubborn person than admitting defeat and asking for directions to a museum or restaurant after searching for an hour, only to be 10 yards from its door. Taking the plunge to embark upon this journey is without question the most challenging and independent thing either of us have ever done, and showing that we need help can sometimes feel like we bit off more than we could chew. Of course asking for help is actually a sign of strength, but everyone who has ever had to do so knows that that’s not always how it seems.

But this situation was different. All we had with us was a debit card, a phone without mobile data with 6% charge and the clothes on our backs. This wasn’t getting lost trying to find a statue or an ice cream stall, it was not being entirely sure which country we were in.

There’s being out your depth, and then there’s full on drowning.

What we were met with after admitting we needed assistance was more than we ever could have hoped for. Kindness, by nature, can only happen in a situation where it would be easier to do nothing, but the people we met that day were willing to help us when they simply didn’t have to. They were busy, communicating in a language which was not their own and offered no reward, but could see we were in trouble and took that as the only reasoning required.

The first person we met was Jakob, a Polish man transporting film equipment across Europe who fortunately spoke English and German and offered to call the bus company for us and try to explain our situation. It would eventually come to nothing (as a strongly worded email to the customer service department would later show) but the weight lifted off of our shoulders now that there was a plan in place was immense. Already full of gratitude and humility, we then learned that Jakob was actually on the first day of a new job, and had prioritised us at a time when most would have not taken any risks with time at all.

Waiting for a call back from the bus company that would never come, the next six hours were spent nursing drinks and trading sympathetic looks with staff. We were beginning to lose hope until Eliška and Dominik, who were unlucky enough to be looking after us purely because they spoke very little English, offered to drive us the 60km we were short of Prague at the end of their shift. The tears we had both been fighting to hold back in those hours started to flow as each frantic “are you sure????” was greeted with a smiling nod. They would not even accept money for fuel and dropped us off at our correct bus stop a mere seven hours later than expected. Buoyed by a renewed faith in humanity, but anxious as to whether we would get any of our things back, we checked in to our hostel for a sleepless night.

After some frankly incredible detective work honed through dozens of tv cop dramas and several angry phone calls, we managed to find out when and where the same bus would be leaving Prague. Unshowered and in the same clothes as the day before, we staggered to the bus station smelling like that bottle of milk sitting in every university halls fridge who’s owner has long been forgotten.


The length of time we had to kill was longer than gut wrenching worry can stave off an appetite, so camping out for a platform floor picnic seemed the only option. Eating Alpro yogurts with toddler spoons bought from Tiger provided one of the most special photos of our journey so far, and an attitude that we were getting drunk on cheap Czech lager whatever happened that night made the situation much more bearable. The station pianist playing ‘Yesterday’ while we were waiting may have felt like a sarcastic personal attack, but we powered through and were eventually reunited with our bags. Jubilant with victory, the evening consisted of a shower, mini golf, a drink in the ice bar and lots and lots of much needed sleep.


It’s in a crisis where you realise the good nature of most people. If it hadn’t been for Jakob, Eliška and Dominik’s kindness that day, our travels could well have ended with a hefty bill and an even heftier sense of regret for ever getting off that bloody bus. With this newfound confidence in the kindness of strangers, we’ve met some incredible people on our trip that we never otherwise would have. From new friends in hostels offering tips, tricks and recommendations to the happiest man in all of Tokyo walking us straight to the door of a ramen shop half a mile down the road, backpacking as a couple has no longer become a journey just for two. Whilst you should never lose your wits and always be careful, a stranger is often just a friend you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting.