Hiroshima started out like almost every other city we had visited, with us getting on the wrong train and taking far too long to realise. Six stations later and god knows how many miles outside the centre of Hiroshima, we scrambled off the train across the platform and onto a train going the right direction.
Arriving at the correct station we were confronted with the worst directions of the trip so far: ‘Disembark the train and walk 10 minutes to the hostel’. Luckily we knew that rough direction of the hostel and because we were trapped between the ocean on one side and mountains on the other, there wasn’t too much margin for error. By the time we eventually reached the hostel we were sure we would be able to check in and rest for a minute or two…or not it would seem.
We were tired, grumpy and had been turfed out onto the street until the hostel was ready for us. It was at this point that we realised how weird the hostel’s location was. Situated in the middle of an industrial port, not near a station and nowhere near the centre of Hiroshima or the tranquillity of Miyajima. With quite literally nothing to do anywhere near the hostel we hopped on the tram and headed south, to the island of Miyajima.
Miyajima is most famous for the Ohtorii Gate, an exquisite vermillion gate that stands in the middle of Miyajima bay and appears to be floating on the water when the tide is high. However, as we quickly discovered, the island is far more than just temples and shrines. In order to reach the island, we took one of the many ferries that carries thousands of tourists across the bay every day, and like every other boat trip we had taken Yianna held her camera precariously over the edge of the deck to get the perfect shot, and I got extremely anxious at the thought of her dropping said camera (to the point that I had to sit down).
Once we arrived on the island we were confronted by a beautiful little bay, at its centre stood Ohtorii Gate and around that were hundreds of temples and shrines, each pointed directly at the gate. The whole area is packed with visitors of every age, race and religion all crowding to see what is one of the most holy sites in the world. It was Miyajima where the holy monk Kobo Daishi was said to have achieved enlightenment, as such the island is visited by thousands of Buddhist pilgrims every year.
Although most visitors come to see the temples and the shrines of Miyajima and pay their respects to Kobo Daishi at the Ohtorii Gate. We decided that we would pay our respect in the same way that Kobo Daishi did back in 806AD, by climbing Mount Misen (the highest peak on the island).
To reach the trail that leads to the top of Mount Misen we first boarded a cable car that took us to the summit of the mountain next to it. From here we descended into a heavily forested valley full of all manner of relics and holy sites where Kobo Daishi is said to have left his mark. When we left the first mountain the clouds were starting to draw in there seemed to be a storm on the horizon…by the time we reached the summit of Mount Misen the storm had arrived.
The walk itself was beautiful, made evermore so by the encroaching mist and rain. Every turn revealed a new shrine or a holy rock with healing properties, and as we struggled up the steep paths panting and sweating to the point that we couldn’t look at each other…we were once again overtaken by granny after granny, all of whom sped up the path like mountain goats.
Nothing good in life ever comes easy, and the view from Mount Misen was testament to that fact. Even in the mist and rain the 360’ view of the Seto Sea was breath-taking. All around us were hidden bays, uninhabited islands and mile after mile of beautiful silver sea. By the time we started our walk back to the cable-car station the sun was beginning to set and the whole island took on an even more beautiful look. Each of the shrines was now lit with hundreds of tiny candles, providing an eerie glow throughout the wooded mountainside. When we finally reached the bottom of the mountain it became very clear that Miyajima town shuts very early…before the sun has even set.
So, despite wanting to stay and explore the island more we were forced to hurry onto one of the last ferries of the day and head back into Hiroshima proper. Rather than stop off at the hostel we thought we might as well head into the city centre and see what was going on.
After a 2 hour tram ride we finally arrived at Peace Park. It was here at 8:15am on August 6th 1945 that the US Air Force dropped an Atomic Bomb on the city. I am lucky enough to have travelled across the world throughout my life, and I have seen a lot of memorials and monuments that pay homage to victims of war and tragedy…but Peace Park is different.
The entrance to the park is marked by the ‘Atomic Dome’ a building that was once the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. What remains is the shell of a building, a rubble strewn wasteland that captures the moment that 140,000 people perished. The building is all that remains of what was the hypocentre of the bomb, everything else was completely flattened by the nuclear shockwave.
As we walked further into the park it was hard not to be overwhelmed by emotion, the rest of the park is now filled with beautiful art installations and green spaces. At the centre is the Memorial Cenotaph, a saddle-shaped sculpture on which the names of all those who died are written. The Cenotaph itself perfectly frames the Peace Flame and a view of the Atomic-Dome. By the time we reached here it was pitch black outside and the whole park was lit by a series of small lamps that neither obstruct nor intrude.
The beauty of Peace Park reflects something that I believe the west (and myself) is yet to understand or embrace, that from tragedy we should find peace not grief or anger. Most if not all war memorials in the west grieve for the dead, that is not what Hiroshima does. Instead the overwhelming emotion there is hope. Hope that tragedies like Hiroshima will never happen again, there is no malice or anger towards the people who dropped the bomb, there is no mention of heroes or villains.
Yianna found me sat on a wall near the Cenotaph about 30 minutes after we had split up to wander around the park. I couldn’t speak, there was so much I wanted to say and yet I couldn’t find the words. All I wanted to do was get angry, angry at the people who dropped the bomb, angry that the rest of the world hadn’t followed in Japan’s footsteps and decided on peace rather than war.
However, it is now that realise getting angry is precisely the problem. The reason for the Peace Park and the beauty of it is the lack of anger, the lack of anything other than hope. The names of the people who died are not the central focus of the park. The victims of Hiroshima are only part of what the park is about, they are to be mourned like any other loss but primarily the names are there to teach future generations that in times of war it is the innocents who suffer most.
With everything going on in the world right now, I think the impact of Hiroshima was multiplied exponentially for me. I realise that this post has taken a somewhat solemn turn, and that many people may not agree with my views in the slightest but I felt the need to share them in this instance. From the Peace Park we made our way to dinner, although both of us were still deep in thought and there was little in the way on conversation until we finally sat down to eat.
If I am honest I don’t remember much else from our night in Hiroshima, the Peace Park had left a mark on me unlike anything I have ever experienced before, but one that I am eternally grateful to have felt.
By the time we made it back to the hostel we were exhausted and sleep came very quickly to us both. From Hiroshima, we would make our way south to the island of Kyushu for our final night on the main islands of Japan.
See you soon,