Great sadness and great beauty

I spent last weekend in Fukuoka, a small city in the southwest of Japan. While I was there, I did a big day trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima, two relatively nearby destinations via the shinkansen bullet train. I didn’t think I would be able to go to Hiroshima while in Japan, but as the end of my time here got closer, the more ridiculous it seemed that I would miss it – I think its importance demands making the effort to go there. As I planned the day, reading online about day trips to Hiroshima, I decided it would be possible to spend the morning in the city and then take a ferry in the afternoon to the nearby island of Miyajima – the site of the Itsukushima shrine and famous floating torii. It was a packed day, but I am so glad I did it.

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The Atomic Bomb Dome building with a plaque depicting the hall as it was before the bombing.
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On the way to the Peace Memorial Park.

After arriving in Hiroshima, I went straight to the Peace Memorial Park, which is exactly where the atomic bomb was dropped – in the center of the city – on August 6th, 1945. The Peace Memorial Park has the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum on one end and the Atomic Bomb Dome on the other. I started at the Atomic Bomb Dome, the only ruin left from the war. The bomb exploded almost directly over this structure, which actually minimized its impact – as you can see, the frame of what was a dome in the center of the building was left standing. The building is preserved exactly as it was after the bomb hit. But as for the rest of the city’s buildings, Hiroshima is completely rebuilt and thriving with no evidence of the bomb.

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The Atomic Bomb Dome.
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The Flame of Peace, burning since its completion in August 1964. The flame’s large stone pedestal is supposed to be “an abstract rendering of two hands opening upward.” Beyond the flame, the long rectangular building is the museum.

On my way to the museum from the Dome, I saw this flame. My mom, who has been to Hiroshima before, told me to “look out for the eternal flame.” As I spotted it and walked towards it, my eyes teared up at the idea of a flame that’s been burning since it was placed there to honor the victims of Hiroshima. How much work to keep the flame burning for so long! As I read the plaque, I realized that the idea of the flame wasn’t exactly to be eternal. It reads: “Symbolizing the universal desire for a world free from nuclear weapons, the flame will burn until the day when all such weapons shall have disappeared from the earth.” A beautiful sentiment. Thus the idea of it being eternal – burning forever because we will never rid this planet of nuclear weapons – is all the more depressing.

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The red ball hovering directly over the center of Hiroshima represents the fireball created by the bomb immediately after it detonated. As you can see here, most of the city has already been reduced to rubble at this point.

I arrived at museum, which was already packed with tourists at 9am, and I spent 2 long hours there reading every detail. It was difficult and depressing, but its focus was peace. The museum was all about the horrors of the bomb itself, sadness about war and destruction, and the desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons. There was very little anger against America or the other countries involved in the war.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum taught me details of the war that made it even more depressing than I had realized. (Stop reading here if you don’t want to delve into these tragedies with me – but do keep scrolling for the photos). The first detail that struck me was about the demolition crews. These were groups of people who worked to safely demolish various buildings in Hiroshima’s more concentrated areas in order to minimize the effects of fires that might result from air raids during the war. That is, if there were fewer buildings all stacked up against each other, one catching fire from an air raid would not cause so much damage to the rest of them. I’d never heard of this tactic, but that’s what they were doing in Hiroshima. Most of these crews included young schoolchildren; innocent civilians as young as 8 years old. Maybe they lived far from the center of the city or came from surrounding neighborhoods, but they came to work in the center of the city where the buildings were densely packed. That means that when the bomb exploded that Monday morning, there were far more young children in the center of the city – right where the bomb hit – than there should have been. That was heartbreaking.

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Because dark colors absorb more heat than lighter colors, the heat from the bomb burned out dark fabric (including any black pattern in the clothing people were wearing that day) while leaving the lighter fabric.

The museum displayed many pieces of clothing of the children who died as a result of the bomb while working in those demolition crews. Their parents had to search for them, and they were lucky if they found any clothes or belongings (bodies were far rarer). I find it much sadder that parents had to look for their children rather than the other way around, though of course both are horrible. With each item or clothing scrap, the museum included as much detail (including a name) about the previous owner as possible to give you a full picture of the people that died in the bombing. This went on and on. But in one glass box, the museum had put clothing from 3 different children onto one mannequin. It was as though all these individual scraps of things and clothing, all with unique identities attached to them, had fused into one image: the child who died because of the bomb.

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This tricycle belonged to a 3-year-old and was buried along with him by his father. Forty years later, the father dug up the tricycle and helmet to donate them to the museum.

Another fact I learned was that there were American prisoners of war in Hiroshima when we dropped the bomb. I can’t imagine there were that many, but it still surprised me. I never knew that. Also, there was a replica of the bomb in the museum. It was called “Little Boy” due to its fairly small, lanky shape. It was smaller than I imagined compared to the amount of damage it was able to inflict – 10 feet long. Of course, it only takes a tiny bit of uranium to cause mass destruction, but it was still unnerving to see a full-sized replica of the bomb, just sitting there like something harmless.

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Lastly, it was stunning to realize just how much damage the bomb had done, and in which various indirect ways. Of course, I knew that the force of the bomb itself leveled the city and that the resulting radiation affected people for many years later. But there were other things, too. For example, the intense heat of the bomb burned people to death. Some people who weren’t killed by the bomb’s force, or heat, or radiation, were injured instead by glass – the bomb exploded so many glass objects and surfaces that it sent shards flying all over, into buildings and people’s clothes and into the people themselves. Some survivors had pieces of glass surgically removed from their bodies 20, 30, and even 40 years after the bomb. There were so many ways that the bomb hurt people.

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The center of the Peace Memorial Museum is lined up perfectly with the Cenotaph for A-Bomb Victims (the arch), the Peace Flame, and the Atomic Bomb Dome at the end of the park.

One way that was particularly depressing was that some of the people who died as a result of the bomb were those who came to the city the next day as rescue. No one in Hiroshima was capable of leading or organizing a rescue effort, so any help had to come from outside the city, and it did. But the radiation levels were still so high the day after the bomb exploded that many of the people that came to help suffered as a result.

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A close-up of the cenotaph. The small chest under the arch contains all the names of the known victims.

Okay – that is all I will say about the Peace Memorial Museum and the bombing. That museum is now a small part of the big, lively, healthy city that Hiroshima is known for today. After I left the museum, I had Hiroshima’s local specialty for lunch (a type of okonomi-yaki made with noodles) and visited a beautiful garden – though of course what I saw at the museum stayed with me.

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Itsukushima shrine and its torii from the ferry.

On the island of Miyajima that afternoon, I saw just as much beauty as the sadness I had seen in Hiroshima. The famous “floating torii” is the torii gate of the island’s Itsukushima shrine. Built on a beach, it stands in the sand at low tide, and it appears to “float” on the water in high tide, when the water submerges its base. Of course, all the pictures I had seen of the torii were taken at high tide in perfect lighting, so it looked magical. When I was on the ferry approaching the island, not only was it evident that the tide was low, but also the torii looked tiny from the boat! I prepared myself to be disappointed by a small, non-floating sight.

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Walking through the shrine, I was still mesmerized by the torii even though it wasn’t at all “floating.”
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These little hanging lanterns were very cool.

Luckily there is more to do on Miyajima island than see this torii, and first I explored the rest of Itsukushima shrine. It was enormous and beautiful, and I couldn’t get enough of the bright red vermillion structure, all built on stilts over the sand. On the rest of the island, there are hikes to do, Buddhist temples to visit, village shops to see, and a surprising amount of deer to avoid.

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With the water at low tide, I walked right up to the base of the torii like the people in the background here. It loomed above me once I was close.
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Many of the shrine’s ema (wish tablets) depicted the floating torii, of course.
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The looming torii up close! Despite looking small from the ferry, it definitely felt big here.

I spent about three hours on the island, and as the day inched closer to sunset, the tide started coming in. The island’s visitors that day started to gather at a stone wall facing the torii, many of them sitting in silence sipping beers. I quietly joined them, and as we watched the sun disappear into the clouds behind the torii, the water level rose enough to truly make the torii appear to float. I have to say that it was one of the most magical moments I’ve experienced so far on the Watson, and the sight was extraordinary.

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I’m thrilled that I was able to see the torii at both tides – I had the opportunity to walk up to it and touch it, and I also got to see it “float.” And that was really something.

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