One of the places firmly on our bucket list for tour Japan trip was Hiroshima. As the site of the first ever atomic bomb used against human beings, Hiroshima was a place we definitely couldn’t ignore.
We took the bullet train (Shinkansen) on our travels from Nagasaki and that in itself was an experience. You always hear about how Japanese transport is so efficient and orderly, and that’s definitely true.
To even get on the train, you’re meant to stand on the correct spot on the platform, and everyone forms an orderly queue behind. We were standing literally two steps to the side of the marked spot and a nice old Japanese man politely asked if we were getting the shinkansen, and if so, can we please stand in the right place. It’s not like in the UK, where you just stand around with a vague idea of where your reserved train carriage is likely to stop, then scramble on in any old manner. Lesson learned.
The bullet trains are futuristic looking, very streamlined and cool. The inside is also much better than UK trains, with loads of legroom and overhead luggage storage. Because we’d bought our JR passes in advance, all we had to do at either end of the journey was flash the passes and away we went. No tickets needed, unless you want to reserve seats.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and A-Bomb Dome
We only had one full day in Hiroshima so we wanted to make the most of it. We had an early start and headed straight out to find the museum and dome, taking in the city as we went. Hiroshima is a typical modern Japanese city, all high rise buildings and big neon signs – you’d never know the centre was utterly flattened 80 years ago.
We rounded a corner and in front of us stood the A-Bomb Dome. It was smaller than I expected, dwarfed by the modern buildings around it. The surroundings made it even more of an incongruous sight, this ruin in the middle of a modern city. We walked around it and took it all in, trying to imagine a whole city flattened around it. It was impossible.
Just over the river we found the Peace Park and Memorial Museum. It was only when we got there that the history of Hiroshima began to sink in. The Peace Park is huge, 120,000 square metres. It used to be the commercial and political heart of Hiroshima until it was completely flattened by the atomic bomb. After that, the city decided not to redevelop the area but instead to leave it at a memorial.
In the park we found a memorial to the children who died, and in front of the museum is the cenotaph for the A-Bomb victims; an arched tomb representing those who died in the blast and in the following years due to the radiation. Underneath the arch is stone chest which contains the list of names. There are over 200,000.
The museum is heart-breaking. It tells the stories of the victims in a simple, direct way. It lays no blame, and shows no anger. It just tells it’s visitors a story of what happens to the people when a nuclear bomb hits a city. The museum singles out certain residents of Hiroshima and follows their stories. It contains their photographs, their clothes, their diaries. The worst are the stories which continue in the months and years following the explosion – diaries which show the writer mourning family members, struggling to have the energy to work and feed their families while their hair falls out, their gums bleed, and finally they write no more.
I couldn’t read all the stories, it was too horrible. At the same time, I felt like everyone needs to read them, everyone needs to see what happens. That is essentially the take-home message of Hiroshima – a plea for everyone to see the devastating effects of nuclear war, and a plea for peace.
The morning in central Hiroshima was really tough. For the afternoon, we decided to head out to another area the city is known for – Miyajima Island. This is a beautiful place just to the south west of the city, and very easy to get to – the JR pass covers the train to the ferry terminal and also the ferry to get out to the island.
The island is known for it’s beautiful forests and shrines, and it was a refreshing counterpoint to the city. We took the cable car up Mt Misen and then hiked to the very top. We saw plenty of girls getting on the cable car wearing high heels and I wondered how on earth they were going to hike the rest of the way in those… but they just hopped off and got their pictures at the viewing platform at the top of the cable car and then went straight back down again, no hiking involved.
To be honest, they were probably wiser than us. Climbing up and down a mountain in 35 degree heat and ridiculous humidity isn’t exactly fun. However, covered in sweat, we made it up to the top. It was worth it. The view from the top of Mt Misen is outstanding. We sat on some rocks and just took it all in – you can see down past the forests of Miyajima and right across the bay, islands dotted about and the city in the background. I think it’s one of the most beautiful sights we’ve seen on our travels so far, and so peaceful.
As the sun started to drop lower in the sky, we made our way back down. The cable car closed for the day at 5.30pm so we had to walk down the mountain instead. It made me very glad that we had taken the cable car up, it was a long way. It took us over an hour to get to the bottom of the mountain, legs like jelly and desperate for a cold drink.
At the bottom we were greeted by some of the island’s friendly deer – they’re wild but happily come up and say hello, hoping for food. You see them walking around the town near the shine and curled up near the sea in the evenings for a little sleep.
We spent some time exploring Itsukushima shrine and made it to the bright vermilion Great Torii Gate just as the sun was disappearing behind it. It seemed like everyone on the island was waiting to see the sun set behind the famous ‘floating’ gate – seen as one of the greatest sights in Japan apparently.
Is Hiroshima worth a visit?
I think the answer to this one is pretty obvious – yes, definitely. If you go to Japan, you should really take the time to visit Hiroshima. You can do it in a day, or spend longer, but you really do need one full day at least to take it all in. I can’t say it’s fun to visit the museum, but it’s an important part of history and extremely interesting.
Watching the sun go down behind the torii gate was a lovely end to the day – Miyajima was such a beautiful contrast to the city, and the views from Mt Misen were definitely worth the trip, even in the ridiculous heat. So if you do visit Hiroshima, don’t be tempted to skip Miyajima – you could easily spend a full day just exploring the island.