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.