Saturday, July 27, 1996

The A-Bomb Dome

Well, on to Hiroshima, a place-name that I’m sure most people will immediately recognize… Living here must be strange, with tens of thousands of foreigners visiting the city solely because they or their ancestors once destroyed it.

Japanese laundrettes are good, they even provide a stock of comics to read while you wait. I couldn’t understand much of the story, but I think that those in the Hiroshima laundrette must have been issues of ‘Big-Breasted Babes Weekly’. From the look of things a common Japanese sexual fantasy must be to be beaten up by high school girls in short skirts and stockings… Still, some of the mainstream American and British comics I’ve read weren’t much more restrained, and I guess there are worse things to do with your time.

Hiroshima River

It also had a vending machine for ‘Pocari Sweat’, so I finally got to try some. It does, indeed, taste a lot like Pocari Sweat (whatever a Pocari might be). To quote the can, “Pocari Sweat is a health-oriented drink which supplies water and electrolytes lost through perspiration. Pocari Sweat is highly recommended for such activities as sports, physical labor and even as an eye-opener in the morning.” It would have opened my eyes in the morning, that’s for sure…

Enough of that traditional “ain’t this place strange?” business. I’m really not like some of the people I’ve met here, moaning about how these foreigners do everything wrong and nothing would meet US safety standards. I didn’t come here to live with Westerners in expensive Western hotels and only venture out in air-conditioned coaches with Western guides. I’m just trying to give you an idea of the things you might find weird if you ever get to visit these places, or the neat little things that people in other countries do.

Cute Lamp In Peace Park

Incidentally, if you do find yourself having an urge to sell everything and run off around the world I’d recommend it. If you’re a native English speaker you should be able to get jobs teaching English (there were many job ads in Taipei), and if you’re female some of the Western women I’ve met regard hostessing here (basically chatting with Japanese businessmen and pouring their drinks) as well-paid, safe and not-very-illegal work. Hong Kong would probably be a different story… Either way, as long as you keep enough money for a plane ticket home you’re unlikely to get into too much trouble.

Hiroshima is a strange place for the obvious reasons. The famous A-bomb dome is located close to the point where the bomb exploded, and in the photos I’ve seen it always appeared to be in a large park. This is not entirely true. I took the tram from the station to the hotel, and was looking out of the windows as we approached the river. The route passes along a street packed with department stores, hotels, restaurants and McDonalds outlets, then suddenly there it is, the broken, skeletal remains of the old Industrial Promotion Hall, just as it was at 8:16am on August 6th 1945. The contrast is dramatic, and somehow makes the memorial far more poignant. Rather than being hidden away in parkland, you can clearly see that it was once just another workaday building in the city.

Hiroshima Tram

Across the river is the Peace Memorial Park, which at 8:14am that day was a bustling residential and commercial center and two minutes later was just rubble. Considering its background the Park is a very pleasant place and contains a number of memorials to the people who were killed. Aside from the Cenotaph which is dedicated to all the victims, possibly the most famous is the Children’s Peace Memorial. This was dedicated to a young girl who developed leukemia a few years after the bomb was dropped, and was convinced that if she could fold a thousand origami cranes the disease would be cured. When she died she was buried in a coffin full of cranes, and literally millions more are piled up at the various memorials around the Park, sent in by Japanese schoolchildren or left by visitors. Hidden away just across a bridge on the West side is a small memorial to the Koreans who died, many of whom were brought to Japan for forced labor in the factories, and accounted for more than 10% of the dead.

The A-Bomb Dome From The River

There are many other plaques around the city detailing the effects of the bomb. While looking for somewhere to eat the first night here I walked directly under the point where the bomb exploded and passed the old Bank of Japan building, one of the closest buildings to the explosion which is still in use after repairs. The two points are about a five minute walk apart. Many of the other concrete buildings in the city were only damaged by the bomb rather than destroyed, and several are still in use today. This is in part because much of the damage occured in the firestorm which followed the explosion, and concrete survived where wood was completely burnt away.

Returning from ‘Spaghetteria San Mario’ (a cheap and interesting pasta restaurant where I can recommend the Japanese seafood spaghetti and Darjeeling ice-cream) the A-bomb dome was a spooky sight lit from the inside against the night sky.

The locals, however, seem to treat the whole area as just another park. As I stood gazing at the ruins a group were holding an impromptu ballroom-dancing lesson nearby and some teenagers on the other side of the river were letting off fireworks (another favorite Japanese pastime).

The Peace Park Memorial

The phone booth on the way back to the hotel is plastered with cards showing partially-naked girls and telephone numbers, so perhaps I’m in a somewhat dubious part of town again. They clearly do good business, as I’ve seen people in there most times that I’ve passed. The hotel, incidentally, is only about 1/4 of a mile from where the bomb dropped.

I wonder if when my parents read about that they ever imagined that one day one of their sons would spend a large part of an afternoon lounging on a park bench only a hundred yards from where it blew up. Hiroshima turned out to be not much colder than Kyoto.

Children's Peace Memorial

The A-bomb museum is quite fair in most respects and hard on both sides where appropriate. The exhibits are horrifying enough without needing much propaganda to go with them. Perhaps the only exceptions were that nuclear winter has been pretty much debunked and they made a fair amount out of the lack of warning before the bomb was dropped. As far as I remember (I don’t have any history books with me) that was just standard military incompetence – the planned leaflet drop was cancelled because of bad weather, but the attack still went ahead. They also made no mention of the Japanese nuclear weapons program.

Peace Park Paper Cranes

Anyway, I’m not going into the politics too much – I’ve read enough history to understand why the bombs were dropped, and aside from the radiation almost as many people were killed by the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden. To me the real issue is not atomic bombs but the idea that indiscrimate slaughter of civilians is a worthy military tactic – I find that idea difficult to agree with. Once that was accepted the atomic bombings were inevitable. Many of the survivors on the videos seemed to agree with this, wanting to end wars as much as abolish nuclear weapons.

Otherwise Hiroshima is quite a nice city and worth visiting as a base for trips into the surrounding area. I was planning to visit the castle today but ran out of time. I wasn’t that upset because like many Japanese castles it was partially dismantled last century and the bomb flattened the rest. The current castle is a concrete replica, which looks rather pretty from a distance. Tomorrow I’m planning to visit one of the islands near here where there is a famous shrine.

Model Of Hiroshima After The Explosion

I have been eating well here. Aside from the sushi and spaghetti, today I finally stopped off for tempura, the Japanese equivalent of fish and chips. I can recommend it, it’s yummy. I’m glad I had a tolerant waiter, as he had to show me how to eat it with hand-gestures and demonstrations since he didn’t speak English. I am, though, starting to pick up a few words of Japanese (and Kanji characters) to go with the Chinese. I can see now what people mean about languages being easy to learn when you’re living in a foreign country.

Hmm, my bottle of ‘Afternoon Tea’ is almost finished, and I’ve been watching ‘Predator II’ in Japanese and a Japanese pop show while writing this. I don’t know what the current program is about except that a lot of Japanese girls are asking questions of a Japanese woman and the male host keeps getting in the way and making jokes.

A-Bomb Dome Closeup

On that subject I think that if there was one thing I could change about Japan it would be the way they treat women here. The younger generation seem a lot more relaxed, but there’s still an idea that they should have to marry young and stay home to look after the house. Also, many of the Western women I’ve met here have tales of being molested in crowded trains and all of them who’ve been here more than a few weeks have tales of seeing Japanese girls and women molested in similar circumstances. In most cases it’s just ignored.

Time for bed – more from Tokyo!

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