For most visitors, a trip to Japan is not just a voyage through space, but also one through time. Travel to Tokyo and Osaka and you may feel like you have traveled 20 years into the future; visit a place like Nikko or Takayama, and you may easily feel like you have traveled 20 times that but in the other direction, into the past. In the face of all the possible leaps through time you might make in visiting Japan, it’s perhaps understandable that many tourists might bypass Hiroshima in favor of sites in Japan whose history is more epic, or for cities whose views of the future are less imbued with sorrow. Few tourists elect to go out of their way to seek out the dark pockets of the past, and yet, Tony & I knew that our trip to Japan would be incomplete if we elected to bypass Hiroshima. For better or for worse, Hiroshima is the site of one of the world’s most shameful and most important history lessons, arguably one of the most relevant slices of history for any international visitor, and on that basis alone, we believe it is a mandatory stop on any itinerary for Japan.
After disembarking at the train station and making our way to our traditional Japanese hotel (we would be bedding down on futons on tatami mats and there was only one communal bathing room for the entire building) via Hiroshima’s extensive network of streetcars, we made our way to the Peace Park, which is surely the city’s biggest tourist attraction. We headed straight to the museum that, with an admission price of 50Y (~$0.75USD) per person, is so cheap not even the most budget-conscious traveler has an excuse to miss it. The museum lays out the history of Hiroshima, as well as Japan’s involvement in WWII prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb, the various factors that contributed to the deployment of the bomb, and why Hiroshima itself was targeted.
As someone who had not studied WWII beyond what was covered in high school history classes, I found that I learned quite a lot about what was happening behind the scenes, and it was interesting seeing how the war is portrayed by a country that fought on the losing side. Given the penchant some countries have for revisionist history, I thought that the museum actually presented a relatively balanced perspective on how both sides ultimately contributed to the dropping of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. While the United States certainly does not get off scot free, I was surprised to see that Japan also held itself accountable for what ultimately transpired, and was also quite open about the atrocities they had committed in China and Korea leading up to the dropping of the bomb.That said, Tony personally felt that certain nuances were glossed over or ignored completely, and didn’t necessarily coincide with what he had been taught about the war: he felt like the museum made it seem like the U.S. rather glibly decided to deploy the bomb, in contrast to what he had learned, which is that by the time the A-bomb was dropped, the war in Europe had been long over and all other attempts at negotiating and end to the war with Japan had failed. While Western history teaches us that the bomb was dropped as a last resort, the museum here presents that story a bit differently, suggesting that he bomb was dropped so as to justify the expense that had been invested in its research and manufacturing, and that Japan was selected because the U.S. assumed that if for some reason the bomb malfunctioned, the country would not be sufficiently equipped to duplicate or salvage the weapon and use it against its makers. I suspect the truth is to be found somewhere in the no man’s land between those two sides, so while I think the museum offers some interesting information I had not personally been aware of prior to my visit, it’s worth remembering that what is portrayed is only part of a larger story.
Regardless of your biases, however, as you move through the museum, I think it would be very hard to remain dispassionate. I was already teary when we first arrived, but as we moved past the portion of the museum that focuses on setting the scene for what happened and transitions into the fall-out of the bomb, I was reduced to tears on several occasions. The museum has accrued a collection of personal items and debris that was salvaged after the bomb dropped, ranging from school uniforms and wallets, to actual pieces of skin and hair from victims. You should know that I probably love gross ephemera more than the average person, and yet most of the display cases were just too horrific and sad for me to stomach. Seeing the remnants of the city and its denizens, I couldn’t help but feel overcome by an unbearable sadness. We have all seen images of what happened to Hiroshima before, yet to be standing in the place where it all actually happened has way of making it all undeniably real; the terror that must have been felt when the bomb fell was truly palpable. You see the evidence of the devastation that was wrought, and it is not hard to imagine how for the people of Hiroshima, it truly must have seemed as though the world were ending in a final blast of fire.
As we left the museum, it was hard to shake the cobwebs of the past from us and comprehend that this beautiful, serene park in which we walked, filled with fountains and tributes, was not so long ago the site of nothing more than death and destruction. It was truly surreal to walk through a place that, apart from the tributes and memorials, belies the fact that one of the greatest atrocities occurred where we were standing. To see the city now, it is remarkable to realize that it has rebounded so well in 60 years. Peace Park is an apt name, because not only does it serve as a constant reminder of the importance of peace and the price of war, but the grounds themselves hum with a sense of utter calm and tranquility. We sat on a bench near the river and listened to a musician strum his ukulele while we observed the colorful Children’s Peace Memorial, which is made up of thousands of paper cranes. These are in reference to a young girl named Sadako, who was 3 years old when the bomb dropped and escaped apparently unscathed. Seven years later, she developed leukemia and believed that if she was able to fold 1000 cranes she would be cured. Although she surpassed her goal, Sadako eventually succumbed to her illness, and now these cranes, sent in from people from all over the world, are a tribute to all innocent victims who lost their lives in the war and a symbol of the desire for world peace.
Within the Peace Park, you can ring the peace bell and view the T-bridge, which was the original target for the bomb. Nearby is the A-bomb Dome, which is a large building that was half-demolished by the force of the bomb and has been preserved in this state so as to act as a constant reminder of what transpired on August 6. We also viewed the cenotaph that commemorates the Korean victims of the war, though truth be told, it is rather poorly done, which only adds insult to injury, as the cenotaph was erected long after all the others in the park, and in fact it was only recently moved to the park area as it was previously situated ignominiously on the outskirts.
Although many visitors to Hiroshima dash in and out in one day, dutifully observing the sites in the park and not venturing farther afield, the Peace Park is but a small fraction of what Hiroshima has on offer. Unlike many Japanese cities, the main avenues in Hiroshima are extremely wide and picturesque, and absolutely perfect for walking. The day was nice so we opted to stroll to Hiyajima Park and found our way to one of the city’s lesser known relics: an original, pre-bomb house that managed to survive the war. Although the house is essentially abandoned, it is still standing and although it was several kilometers from the hypocenter of the bomb, the effects of the blast can still be observed, most notably in the weather-vane style ornamentation that perches at the house’s peak, which was warped from the energy of the bomb. It may not be quite as impressive an image as that made by the A-Bomb Dome, but hammers home the insidious effects of the blast… even those who survived the initial detonation would suffer mutations and subtler injuries that would ultimately manifest, slowly corrupting their bodies if not killing them.
The WWII attractions may be the main draw for visitors to Hiroshima, but for us, one of the most memorable and enjoyable parts of our time in this city was the food! Our first meal was at a restaurant called Kassui, which inhabits the top floor in a hotel that overlooks the Ota river and the Peace Park. We had an amazing kaseiki set lunch for just 2500Y per person; although it was a bit of a splurge, a comparable meal at this restaurant for dinner would easily be double that price (if not more), and the food was AMAZING. It was beautifully presented, arriving in a set of interlocking boxes which our waitress then set up for us. We enjoyed some amazing sashimi (so silky and clean!), some impeccably fried fish, a dark miso soup (with tofu, perfectly cut, naturally) and some pickled vegetables, cured salmon, egg tofu and eggplant gelé, and a dessert of fresh fruit (the star of which was some watermelon with a salted foam; weird combo, but it works!). Every dish was a triumph, and we were so impressed with how delicate each item was and the obvious care that had gone into our meal’s preparation. It was truly delicious art on a plate!
While in Hiroshima we also partook in a local specialty, far more humble but no less delicious than our kaseiki set, known as “tsukemen”, which involves dipping noodles into a spicy sauce that is liberally sprinkled with sesame seeds. We ate this dish at a restaurant called Bakudanya, which is a Hiroshima institution. Though the dish sounds simple enough, the spiciness of the accompanying sauce can be customized based on your own preference and some claim that the dish can be addictive. After one meal there, I can see how this might be true, as it has been weeks since our last fix and hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of them and wish I could sit down to another bowl. If you dine in the summer, you can get traditional tsukemen which is served cold, or you can do as Tony did, and get tsukesoba which is served hot. Both options are solid (though Tony & I both claimed ours was the better variant of the two), and really the only mistake would be not dining here at all!
(Also, you can also order fried chicken at Bakudanya and it is awesome. Honestly, you’ll be hard pressed to decide whether to save room in your belly for it or for the tsukemen, as the chicken is perfectly crisp, but prior to frying has been soaked in some kind of amazing garlic-laced marinade that makes it succulent and mind-bogglingly flavorful. At the risk of being terribly gauche, we have to say that this chicken was the bomb.)
And of course, no trip to Hiroshima would be complete without trying okonomiyaki. Although this dish was invented in Osaka, the people of Hiroshima claim that they perfected it! So intense is their devotion to okonomiyaki that there is actually a building in Hiroshima called Okonomura that is filled with nothing but okonomiyaki stalls! Tony and I headed there on our last night in town for an okonomiyaki show-down. We entered assuming that each stall would offer a subtle variant on the dish, something to set themselves apart from the rest of the stalls and gain loyalty, but as we made our way through, we found that the stalls all pretty much had identical menus and pricing. So we sat down at the first place that had beckoned to us and ordered up a basic okonomiyaki, which had cabbage, egg, and pork as its fillings. One thing that sets Hiroshima okonomiyaki apart from the Osakan style is that it also includes noodles, and the ingredients are stacked on top of each other, rather than simply scrambled together. The dish is finished off with a liberal squirt of a sweet sauce and you eat it right off the griddle.
We appreciated the showmanship and friendliness of the cooks at the first stall we ate at, but it wouldn’t be much of a battle if we only sampled one dish, so we paid and headed to another floor where we found a vendor who offered oysters as one of the mix-ins. Given that Hiroshima is famous for oysters, we knew we had to try this, and we recommend that if you are ever in this neck of the woods that you do the same. The oysters were plump, juicy, and just a little bit salty.
So what was the result of our informal taste test?
Well, first, we have to say that although the two stalls we ate at weren’t identical, there is an aura of “sameness” that pervades Okonomura, so if you hit the place up, don’t agonize over selecting one stall over the other. Prices seem standardized across the board, and while some of the stalls have some subtle differences in what you can get (like adding oysters), there wasn’t one place that was obviously different than all the rest. Overall, we probably enjoyed the first okonomiyaki best, but we did appreciate the oysters and hot sauce of the second, so I suppose it’s a bit of a toss-up!
Second, however, is that this venture proved to us that, unfortunately, we aren’t really fans of okonomiyaki. Shock and horror! A Japanese food we don’t really like! Truth be told, we find okonomiyaki quite bland on its own as very little seasoning is used, but the sweet sauce is rather cloying and overpowering to our palates. We appreciated that at the second stall they offered a hot sauce, which while not really hot at all, was better than the standard sweet sauce. That said, the okonomiyaki we had in Hiroshima was probably our favorite iteration on the dish that we have ever tried, as it was more flavorful and the noodles added a tasty extra dimension, so if you are an okonomiyaki fan, it’s well worth your while to try it here. But for us, you’ll find us over at Bakudanya gorging on tsukemen!
We spent two days in Hiroshima, but it’s the kind of place where you could happily stretch out and spend more time. Given its sordid and sad past, it’s natural to imagine that Hiroshima must be a bleak little town constantly struggling under the heavy weight of a mantle of sorrow. And yet, in reality, the city is anything but. Say “Hiroshima” and for those who have never visited, the corollaries that come to mind are probably words such as “war” or “bomb” or “destruction”. Despite the time we spent at sites steeped in tragedy, we found that by and large, the Hiroshima of today is hardly a drab or sad place to be. Surprisingly, if we were to describe Hiroshima, the most apt adjective would probably be “peaceful”, and much of the two days we spent there we found ourselves filled with a lightness of spirit. From its wide, expansive tree-lined avenues that felt like they were built to allow you room to breathe to some of the best food we ate while in Japan, the city unexpectedly charmed us. It’s not an easy balancing act, trying to move forward while also working to keep the past alive, but Hiroshima manages to do it with grace and dignity. Though it will forever be a city known first and foremost for its past, we left with little doubt that there is plenty about present-day Hiroshima to enjoy.