Hiroshima, city of peace

November 21, 2009 at 4:28 pm 2 comments

15th November 2009

Following a lovely first evening in Hiroshima, featuring our first taste of delicious okonomiyaki and a trip to the ‘Dreamination’ light sculpture festival on Peace Boulevard, we were still gushing about what a delight Hiroshima is as we walked through Peace Memorial Park – all fountains, polished granite and forgiveness – and up to the A-Bomb Dome. The Dome was one of the only buildings left standing by the Atomic Bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima at 8.15am on August 6, 1945. Although it was gutted by the bomb and subsequent fires, most of the structure still stands and is preserved by the city of Hiroshima and UNESCO as it looked immediately after the blast, including the debris collected around the base of the building. As upsetting as this sight is, the music wafting over from some flautists performing across the river did something to take the edge off.

While we were at the Dome we were approached by a woman (we later learned that her name was Machiko Yamaoka) who wanted to give us a free tour. Her mother, she explained, was a hibakusha (A-bomb survivor) and had recently gotten sick. As she was no longer well enough to tell her own story, Michiko felt that it was now her responsibility to make people aware of Hiroshima’s past and the importance of the city’s quest to eliminate all of the world’s nuclear weapons.  And so our tour of the other, less peaceful, less happy-smiley Hiroshima began.

Michiko

Michiko’s mother had been outside the city when the bomb exploded but her sister was not so lucky so she rushed into the city to find her. It took her a week to track her down and take her home, where she soon died. While she was combing the streets, she saw exactly what hell looks like and Michiko’s bedtime stories seem to have been anything but the norm as a result. As painful as it was, her mother felt the importance of teaching her children about the horrors of war.

She told her about people wandering the streets, their skin literally melting off as they walked. Other people, burned beyond recognition and parched with thirst, went in search of water – jumping into the river and water tanks, only to send their bodies into immediate and fatal shock, leaving every source of water strewn with decaying bodies. One woman was walking around with her baby still strapped to her back. She had not yet noticed that her child, black with soot, had already perished.

On our tour of the city, Michiko showed us the hospital that was at the epicenter of the blast and the shop where one lucky man had wandered down to the basement for papers and, protected by a wall of steel and water, had emerged to find every building for blocks completely flattened. She also showed us the graveyard nearby which had survived although the marble headstones had little holes punched in them – in three seconds the immense heat of the blast (6,000 degrees Celsius) had done what takes 20 seconds with a blowtorch in a workshop.

Dazed and more than a little grateful to our obliging tour guide, we headed for the Peace Memorial Museum, wondering how the picture could get any bleaker. But it did. After a strange entrance building outlining, in ridiculous detail, Japan’s entire military history, we got to the main exhibition space. Here there were various items on display, from baby clothes to bits of skin and warped roof tiles, each of which was attached to a placard outlining its origin. Walking from one to one it was pretty difficult not to give up all hope for the future of humanity and sit on the floor crying. This tricycle was one particularly upsetting example:

The placard said:

Shinuchi Tetsuntani (then 3 years 11 months old) loved to ride his tricycle. That morning, he was riding in front of his house when, in a sudden flash, he and his tricycle were badly burned. He died that night. His father felt that he was too young to be buried in a lonely grave away from home and, thinking that he could still play with the tricycle, he buried Shinichi with the tricycle in the backyard.

Children’s Peace Memorial

The most upsetting element of the Peace Memorial Park for many however, is the one memorial with a face – the Children’s Peace Memorial.

This memorial was built for Sadako Sasaki who was 2 years old when Hiroshima was bombed. Although she was in Hiroshima at the time of the blast, it seemed that Sadako had escaped with only surface wounds and so she lived a normal childhood, excelling at athletics and gathering a big gang of friends in elementary school. Ten years later however, Sadako became ill and was diagnosed with leukemia as a result of her exposure to such massive quantities of radiation.

She was hospitalized and while there she saw all the origami paper cranes that were sent to patients as omens of good luck. She heard somewhere that folding 1,000 paper cranes could make a wish come true and became convinced that this was the answer to her plight.

Although she managed to reach, and far surpass, her target, Sadako soon after. At her funerals her family handed out a lot of the cranes she had folded to guests – some of them were large and some were so small that she had used a needle point to fold them. Every one, however, had been folded with care and imbued with her fervent wish to live.

News of Sadako’s tragic death and her cranes spread around Japan and touched something in the public consciousness. Schools petitioned for a monument honouring her and all the children killed by the bomb. Eventually, with the help of people across the world, they raised enough money to build their own. Meanwhile, in a more personal tribute, kids started folding their own paper cranes and sending them to Hiroshima, a practice that still exists today. Millions of these cranes, pasted into pictures and hung in long strings, now make up the Children’s Peace Memorial in Peace Memorial Park.

More pictures of Hiroshima are available in the gallery.

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