Past Revisited: In August 6, 1945, a B-29 bomber famously known as the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, marking the first of two times the bomb has ever been used in warfare. The death toll itself was mind-boggling. As many as 140,000 people ultimately died from the blast, but not all perished immediately. The residual health issues caused by intense radioactive fallout claimed thousands of lives in the months and years afterwards as well. The city was leveled – less than 10 percent of the buildings in Hiroshima were left undamaged by the bomb, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Days later, on August 9, 1945, the U.S. dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, putting Japan on the brink of surrender. (https://www.usatoday.com/)
65 years later, November 2010, I visited Hiroshima…a visit full of trepidation and awe. Trepidation for finally going to a city that had been a target of diabolics of war. The awe, for it being back on the map.
Now again a decade later, 2020, as the world remembers the tragedy in its 75th year, I glance over my shoulders towards the city of Okonomi-yaki, Oysters, Momiji manju, Itsukusima Shrine and the Atomic Dome. The first three is cuisine, the third a shrine and the last a reminder of the traumatic destruction of the city. We remember and move on. The lessons are there and so is living in the present.
2010: We fly into Hiroshima from Tokyo late November 2010 and the drive from Hiroshima airport to the city meandered through mountains resplendent with flaming autumn colours and grey roofs of settlements peeping through thick foliage. I suppose it is nature’s attempt to soften the cataclysmic events we would be experiencing. As we move closer the Guide informs that Hiroshima is referred to as the “City of Water’ with six rivers criss crossing through the city. It was one of the bridges on the Ota River that was the focal point for the destroyers.
On first look…a bustling metropolis with wide boulevards, bridges, concrete structures, the ubiquitous McDonalds, stores displaying the latest gadgets and fashion, people rushing around along the Aioidori …..I had to re-confirm from our Guide whether we were in the right city. Somehow I had expected a city that might still be struggling with its past, of destroyed buildings and bleak landscape, a city sketched by modern history. She smiled.
Japan is not new to natural disasters, a sitting duck for the 10% of the world’s volcanoes hidden in its fold and avoidable human errors. But has had the advantage of century’s old inclusive culture and lifestyle evolving in harmony with its environment and natural boundaries to help deal with wars, fires and economic recession. The Buddhist and Shinto shrines and the gardens spread across the country reflect this oneness with nature.
Hiroshima was an important pre-World War Two industrial town when at 8.15 a.m. on August 6, 1945 an atomic bomb dubbed ‘Little Boy’ obliterated this status. The structures, mostly of wood, burnt down with few concrete ones remaining and some still preserved as testimony to the senseless day. The 70,000 dead, the maimed and suffering, had no idea of what had hit them.
Serenity amidst destruction: As we walk the, (not the entire) 120, 000 square meters of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park rebuilt on land that was once the political and commercial hub of the city, the full force of the tragedy engulfs us. The Park, situated between the Otagawa and Motoyasugawa rivers, and accessible by the unique T-shaped Aioi Bridge was the target used to drop the A-Bomb because it was easily recognizable from the air. The Rivers, which we now see with floating flowers, candles and merry makers in boats, had turned red (the color of blood)… reminders of senselessness inflicted.
The former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall or the A-Bomb Dome (Genbaku Dome), a model of which is inside the museum, sustained heavy damage as its atrium was almost directly below the’ hypocenter’ of the bomb. The damaged A-Bomb Dome is preserved and as the Guide informed it was because of the the dairy of Hiroka Kajiyama, a schoolgirl who had been exposed to the radiation from the bomb. She died at the age of 16 from leukemia and the Dome is a reminder of her sufferings. By this time most of us had no words and we followed the guide through rest of the exhibits; the Cenotaph, an arched tomb for the dead, due to bomb or exposure to radiation. Below the arch is a stone chest holding a register of over 220,000 names; The Children’s Peace Monument constructed to commemorate Sadako Sasaki and thousands of other innocent children who had died. Sadako Sasaki was two years old girl, whenexposed to radiation. For ten years she suffered from leukemia, till finally left for heavenly abode. Sadako had continued to fold paper cranes throughout her long illness and it is her image, holding a wire crane above her head, on top of the monument. Even today, folded paper cranes, symbolizing the pursuit of peace, arrive at the monument from all over the world; the Peace Flame burning continuously from the day it was lighted in 1964.
Every year, on the anniversary of the bomb, a ceremony is held at the Park, speeches given, wreathes laid at the Cenotaph, moment of silence observed at the precise moment of detonation and we are back in our shells.
(The two photos taken by my son in 2018 at the Museum).
The Park’s main facility is the Peace Memorial Museum. Consisting of two buildings, the main focus is on the events of August 6, the dropping of the bomb and its outcome in human suffering. Divided into the East Building and the Main Building, the museum displays possessions from the victims, photographs and explanations of why and when of the entire sequence. The personal details displayed are emotionally upsetting and one could see the disbelief, awe, indifference and pain on faces watching the time when the city’s luck ran out.
I left my companions for some ‘me’ time, to stroll around and came across a Japanese teenager sitting alone in the Cafetaria. She was engrossed in a beauty magazine and when I tried striking a conversation, her answer ‘I do not know anything about the war’. She had accompanied her out of town cousins and indifferent to ‘something that had happened a long time ago’. I did not blame her for looking ahead, to the present and her future.
In the Cafetaria there was an elderly Japanese couple, visitors too, and from their expressions one could make out their distress. Langauge was a barrier for me to converse.
Outside the Museum the half burnt and still blooming Chinese Parasol tree, supplanted to the present site in 1973, portrays the silent resolve to rise and shine again. The banks of the two rivers flowing alongside the Park, afloat with bodies on the fateful day, feature walking trails, river cruises, monuments, cafeterias and Cherry blossom lined avenues.
It was time to bid adieu and with heavy hearts we moved on.. to drive past the 16thcentury Hiroshima Castle or Ri-jo (carp castle), destroyed and rebuilt and converted into a museum of Hiroshima’s culture and history. Cherry trees, still to blossom, planted in the grounds created a colorful ambience to forget and forgive.
Moving on: Any visit to Hiroshima is incomplete without trying out the Hiroshima Okonomi-yaki or oysters. I was a wee bit skeptical when our Guide announced that we were going to try a special Hiroshima dish, and walked into a noisy eatery with surround sound of sizzling elongated girdles and people sitting around waiting to be served. ‘Okonomi’ means ‘what you like or want’ and ‘yaki’ means ‘grilled’ and it is fascinating to watch the individualistic pizza or American pancake facsimile being prepared according to taste. The cooks work in fast motion: layer the girdle with flour batter and pile it up with cabbage, onions, ginger, sausage, tenkasu, and pork, Soba or Udon noodles then toss it upside down. Once done, flip back and top it with fried eggs and optional items such as octopus, squid and cheese with generous dollops of okonomiyaki sauce, fish flakes and dried seaweed. One could literally hear the slurps of eaters anxiously watching each step, mesmerized, till the hot concoction slid from the girdle to the mouth.
The Hiroshima ‘Okonomi-Yaki’ layered and stuffed needs an empty stomach to finish the entire serving. No wonder it is considered ‘conventional’ or common man’s food. It could be followed by one or two Momiji manju, the maple leaf-shaped sweet cake with a choice of custard, cream chocolate, cheese and sweet bean paste fillings.
Somehow, got saved from trying out oysters though oyster aficionados vouch for Hiroshima oysters eaten raw, baked in the shell, stewed, or deep-fried with different sauces or in a hot pot with miso called dote nabe. Hiroshima Prefecture produces 25,000 to 30,000 tons of oysters per year with nearly 80% exported to other regions and countries. The Hiroshima oyster farming history dates back to 16thCentury and we had a panoramic view of bamboo rafts on floats, that have replaced traditional branches with twigs to entrap oyster larvae, along Hiroshima Bay.
Different images from different perspectives of a city, sumptuous, assorted and reticent like the many layered Hiroshima Okinomo-yaki and the edible Oyster: A city that decided to evolve than indulge in eschatological reverie.