Sights and memories
HIROSHIMA – Easily the centerpiece of this city is the Peace Memorial Park, found on the spot where the atomic bomb was first detonated over a populated area toward the end of World War II. Tour buses pass through the “T” bridge, whose distinctive shape identified for the American pilots of the Enola Gay the target area for the detonation of the bomb.
When you get off the bus, the first sight to greet you is the “A Bomb Dome,” whose semicircular shape outlined in stark metal stands as a symbol of the devastation and horrors that followed. But for a more detailed look at what exactly the bomb wrought on the people of Hiroshima in 1945, you’ll need to tour the “National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims,” which lies off to one side of the park.
On our way to the museum, we pass through a small monument dedicated to children who fell ill and then died because of either the immediate effects of the bombing or of the effects of “radiation sickness,” which burned the skin, caused hair to slough off, and resulted in cancers that killed the victims years after the bomb fell.
As we pass, we espy a group of schoolchildren, one of many that day, standing in formation before the burning flame of remembrance. A small group of students bearing strings laden with origami cranes approaches some panels already filled with similar artwork. The cranes hark back to the story of Sadako Sasaki, who was two years old when the bomb was dropped, but survived, seemingly unharmed, until years later she began showing signs of leukemia.
Hearing a story about how, if a child was able to fold a thousand paper cranes, the gods would grant the child’s wish, Sadako decided to embark on the project, imploring the gods to spare her life. Working at first with the paper bags where her medication was wrapped, Sadako was able to fold only a little more than 600 cranes before she passed away in 1955. Friends and family, however, continued to fold more cranes until these reached a thousand, with the folded paper birds buried with her.
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Sadako’s story continues to fascinate children all over the world, and this is why that delegation of youngsters came bearing origami cranes. When the students rejoined their classmates, a teacher gave a brief talk about their collective wish for peace, and then led everyone in a popular hymn on the same subject.
Certainly, one feels close to the brink of tearing up as one makes one’s way through the museum whose exhibits tell of life in Hiroshima
before and after the bomb. One diorama is an aerial view of the city before the bomb, crammed with houses and buildings. Beside it is a similar view, but of a seeming desert of devastation, the explanation lying in the big red ball hanging above the center, the symbol of the bomb.
Most moving for me are relics of children caught at or near the epicenter of the bombing. These are small, seemingly insignificant items: a broken pair of eyeglasses, tattered uniforms, a shoe whose owner had patched some cardboard on the sole so he could continue wearing it.
In another part of the exhibit can be found a replica of the bomb, just a few feet long and looking like a scuba scooter. How startling that such a small object could wreak such huge damage on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and threaten the entire planet with the proliferation of nuclear weapons—many times more powerful than that original A-bomb.
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But Hiroshima—though it is dedicated to remembering and to resolving “never again” to have such a catastrophe visit humanity—is not just about tragedy.
About an hour’s drive from the city is the island of Miyajima, accessible through a 10-minute ride by ferry. Declared as one of Japan’s three most scenic spots, Miyajima is most famous for the temples, shrines, walkways and shops that hark back to a Japan of decades—nay, centuries—past.
One of the most famous sights is the “O-Torii” (Grand Gate) that, at high tide, seems to stand on water. But when we visited at low tide, this grand vermilion structure was shown to be standing on huge cement blocks, accessible to intrepid tourists. The “O-Torii” serves as the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine, built in the second half of the sixth century and remodeled in 1168. Like the “O-Torii,” the shrine is painted a vivid red-orange, but has a simple elegance that belies its garish paint work. We are admonished by our guide against leaning on or touching any of the walls or railings because these are hundreds of years old. But in one part of the shrine is a shop selling talismans and prayer cards, and even a fortune-telling corner where one can rattle some sticks, pour these out, and have these interpreted. Nearby are some frames on which one can tie and leave a “negative” fortune behind.
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The rest of Miyajima—if one should be loath to climb its mountain to visit the Daishoin Temple and pagoda that overlook the island—consists of a small town center of winding streets and intimate souvenir shops, coffee and tea houses, inns, and bakeshops selling the famous “momiji manju,” pastries shaped like maple leaves that are stuffed with all kinds of sweets though the red bean paste is traditional.
Before buying our share of manju, we chance upon a vendor of flavored shaved ice (the origins of our halo-halo, it’s said). So hot and humid is it that we all crowd around the stall, thrusting our yen at the vendor who rewards us with a cooling glass of shaved ice infused with strawberries.
We consume the treat under the shade of the trees and the curious gaze of the wandering deer.
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