Travel. What is it all about? Is it about subjective experience, a departure from the sturm und drang of our ordinary existences, or something more interactive? What is it that lingers with us long after our trips? Is it the images and sensory details, the relationships, or the feelings that we carry with us when we travel from place to place. For whatever reason it is that we travel (or combination of reasons), it is something inherently intriguing, something that inspires us to get uncomfortable, to part with our hard-earned cash, and to set out for circumstances unknown.
I, for one, have been willing to make this tradeoff many a time. Xiangyun and I have been places together. This year thus far, we have been in Taiwan, Myanmar, Philippines, Malaysia, Shanghai, and now Hiroshima. Our travels have never been perfectly smooth sailing. We often debate where to go, when to leave, and what is – and is not – reasonable. These conflicts, however, are always fleeting. Soon after each trip, we are searching for booking flights for the next. Left only are memories of bunny rabbits and sunsets, along with a greater appreciation for the place we have visited.
This past trip was no exception. Hiroshima certainly tore at my heartstrings in a way that few other locations have. Seeing the Atomic Dome and Peace Memorial will make anyone tear up, especially a sensitive guy like me. The steady bombardment of imagery of lives destroyed is overwhelming. One is taken on a tour-de-force of burnt children’s school uniforms, discarded mementos, and even concrete etched with a human shadow, along with images of victims of all ages, including those who were lost, those with physical deformities, and those with mental disabilities. One can’t help but leaving the place in tears, wondering how one of the greatest crimes against humanity of the 20th century is not subject to greater scrutiny.
Walking outside in the Peace Park, it is easy to lose sight of the destruction wrought on the city. Hiroshima, like any other Japanese city, is tidy, modern, and spotlessly clean. The area around the Peace Park is no exception. The tree-lined park is well-manicured and filled with monuments, including the eternal flame, an artificial lake, a monument to children, and a monument to youth volunteers. There are also paper cranes both large and small, along with drawings by children and paper cups carefully arranged for display along the lawn. On the day we visited, the skies were bright and clear; thousands of people young and old were making the most of the public space for their holiday.
The beautiful park and festive atmosphere could easily lead one to believe that things turned out alright in spite of the bombing. After all, Hiroshima clearly seems like a nice, modern city. People are assiduously polite as they go about their daily lives in Japan’s 9th largest city. But such a smooth surface belies a deeper reality. Some 200,000 innocent lives were lost in the bombing. Many more were forever altered, through injury (including radiation exposure), loss of loved ones, and destruction of the city they had called home. For those who must live on in the shadows of such tragedy, there is surely some degree of resentment toward the Americans, even if they are too polite to express it. For the bombing of Hiroshima was more than an act of war: it was a failure to acknowledge the basic human dignity of a people, a failure which continues in the absence of any formal apology.
A quick tour of the area around Hiroshima, however, allows one to see a flourishing of human decency. Miyajima (宮島) Island, home to temples and a large population of deer, is a world heritage site, and for very good reason. Okunoshima is a special place, and not just for the cute bunny rabbits. The great Hiroshima Art Museum features some excellent paintings, including Rembrandts, Picassos, and Monets. There are many other attractions in Hiroshima which could be considered special, including the beloved local Hiroshima Carp, with a cute Cincinatti Reds’ “C” inspired logo and cute mascot, a reconstructed Hiroshima castle, and Mazda Museum.
For all of its happy modernity, the war experience still looms large for Hiroshima, and perhaps for Japan more broadly. Visitors, both domestic and foreign, do flock to pay their respects at the Peace Park. However, aside from the Atomic Dome and a few recreations such as the Hiroshima Castle, there is almost no evidence of the old city: people very consciously want to move on. In true post-War Japanese fashion, greatness is to be achieved in the perfection of crafts, a tendency reinforced by structural factors such as low migration and a stagnant labour market.
Perfection in Hiroshima can be found in any number of domains. Taxi drivers have the navigation and customer service down to a science. Local bakeries will put any French pâtisserie to shame. Local restaurants generally focus on a single item and do it extremely well, something we discovered when okonomiyaki joint on our last night in Hiroshima. The locals were extremely welcoming and displayed not the slightly bit ill will when I told them I was an American.
While silent resentment may linger silently in the background, one can hardly see it in interacting with locals. Our most gracious AirBNB host, Yoshihiro-san, welcomed us into his home and made us feel as if we were family members. As we had arrived in Japan on April 30th, the last day of the Heisei reign, we watched the festivities on television with Yoshihiro, his wife, and two daughters. We then proceeded with the family in their Toyota minivan to the grocery store, where we bought the ingredients to make homemade onomiyaki, a savory noodle and cabbage-stuffed pancake. We cooked together and had an extremely filling meal, which involved a fair amount of sign language and assiduous efforts on both our parts to avoid being impolite. Yoshihiro and his family continued to offer us more food and drink; we continued to try demonstrating that the food was both excellent and entirely filling, a balance we struggled to achieve.
After spending the evening at Yoshihiro and his family’s immaculately-maintained house, we went out for an excellent meal of ramen, sitting on the floor and seasoning our ramen it’s generous helpings of spring onions. We tried out out elementary Japanese, resorting mainly to repeats of the word “oishi-desu” (it is tasty) and “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you). From our brunch, which Yoshihiro’s wife quite accurately described as ‘Japanese soul food’, we made our way to the train station, Yoshihiro and his family most graciously saw us off, the full family politely standing still and waiving until we were out of sight. They left us feeling at home in what would otherwise be a strange land, sad to see that the world was once (and could once again be) so tragically divided.
With this food for thought, which was reinforced by many more excellent experiences during our short time in Japan, Xiangyun and I made our way to the airport. Although we didn’t get as much shopping as Xiangyun would have liked to (much to my relief), we did learn quite a bit about a fascinating country, including the devastating effects of war and nuclear weapons, the more prosaic effects of recent economic stagnation, and the decency and politeness of the Japanese people.