May 10, 2014

I felt a profound sadness walking through the streets of Hiroshima on my last night here. I hadn’t been to the atomic bomb memorial yet, but it was already on my mind. That feeling of regret subsided as I walked through a vibrant Saturday night market to get to Okonomi-mura, a three-story complex of 50 stalls serving Hiroshima’s unique style of savory pancake. Around a large, hot griddle were several fans of the Carp, the local baseball team, discussing the game they’d just seen earlier that day, and several domestic tourists. Even though the Carp had lost, the mood was celebratory and the beer flowed liberally.

My visit to Hiroshima began with a Carp game the preceding night. The crowd at Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium, which overlooks both the shinkansen (bullet train) and a Costco, was fired up from the first pitch. The first-place Carp were starting a weekend series against the hated second-place Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo. I was specifically asked who I would root for when I bought a ticket, as most of the seats are reserved for Carp fans. The faithful of all ages go nuts on any kind of contact. Even a foul ball or a lazy flyout gets a booming cheer as if it were a crushed home run. Hiroshima’s new stadium features plenty of amenities including a two-story merchandise shop and a variety of food stands, including one exclusively dedicated to octopus. (Its octopus karaage wasn’t very good.)

I highly recommend for any baseball-fan tourist to jump on the Carp bandwagon. The entire city of Hiroshima is awash in Carp signage and memorabilia. The team’s logo (identical to the Cincinnati Reds’ white-on-red C) adorns kamaboko, the fish cakes used in ramen bowls and bento boxes; canned chu-hi cocktails; katsu breading mix; and even condoms. The “lucky seven” break in the middle of the 7th inning involves thousands of fans singing the team’s fight song (which is still stuck in my head weeks later) and inflating long, slender balloons, which they later release, causing them to fly everywhere. As part of the celebrations following the last out, some more of these balloons were released, the team bows to thank their fans, their mascot drives a Segway around the outfield, and more.

The day after the Reds’ 7–3 win, I took a relaxing day trip to Miyajima, an island retreat that’s a short train and ferry ride from Hiroshima station. Because both the train and the ferry are free for JR Rail Pass holders, I found myself making the trip with a large number of Western tourists. Although it’s nowhere near as popular as Tokyo or Kyoto are, I was still surprised how many European and American tourists chose Hiroshima as a stop on their trips to Japan. Miyajima thrives on tourists of all sorts and its own Omotesando shopping arcade features dozens of stalls selling traditional and modern gifts. Although I paid a visit to the popular “floating” torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine and treated myself to a bowl of orange sweet potato ice cream (with a garnish of the tuber), I passed by the world’s largest rice scoop and headed for Mt. Misen, the tallest point on the island.

Misen is only about 1750 feet high and its paths are largely paved, making this mountain a time-consuming but achievable climb. At the top, the much sparser crowds can treat themselves to drinks from a vending machine, visit a couple of temples, and if they planned ahead, enjoy their boxed lunches at a surprisingly modern observation platform. (Imagine my surprise when, after a 2-hour hike, I found a building with Western toilet facilities awaiting me at the top.) I saw a few mostly docile deer in the town and on the mountain, but unfortunately I didn’t come across any of the monkeys that famously call Misen home.

I reserved my final half-day in Hiroshima for the Peace Park, a large area devastated by the atomic bomb and set aside in 1949 as a memorial to the roughly 140,000 who died as a result of it. (The exact death toll is unknown as the city’s records were destroyed in the blast.) Only two buildings in the Peace Park survived the bombing itself: the famous Genbaku Dome (A-Bomb Dome), which stands as it did following the explosion, and the Rest House, a former fuel station which now houses a souvenir shop. Many monuments commemorate the peoples who were struck by the bomb. The centerpiece of the site includes the Peace Museum. I’d rank the museum as the most horrifying I’ve ever seen, more intense even than the Holocaust sites and memorials I’ve visited. I took few pictures inside not because photography was banned, but because I couldn’t stand to look at some of the exhibits. Beyond the property damage to the city, the Peace Museum features many exhibits about the human toll that citizens faced in the aftermath of the bombing. Burned clothing and personal effects, melted possessions, and photographs of the injured are all on display in brutal detail. All of this horror guides visitors toward the museum’s mission of complete nuclear decommissioning of all the world’s missiles and bombs. The gift shop includes T-shirts, buttons, and books in many languages urging countries to halt nuclear weapons programs. I spent some time in the intentionally upbeat visitors’ lounge just processing what I’d just seen as I sipped a can of iced coffee.

What impressed me most about Hiroshima is the way it has rebounded from the events of August 6, 1945. While aboard the city’s streetcars, visitors notice large, modern concrete buildings everywhere. The city remains home to Mazda and is a significant seaport. An exhibit at the Peace Museum noted that some observers predicted that the city would be uninhabitable for 75 years; to the contrary, Hiroshima returned to its prewar population by 1955 and now has 1.2 million residents, triple what it had before the bomb. Over 60,000 atomic bomb survivors are still alive after having survived medical issues and being socially stigmatized for nearly 70 years. The city has no more levity about the A-bomb than Hawaii does about Pearl Harbor, but it is astonishing just how vibrant the place is today.

Before my trip, I had read one guide that warned that the Hiroshima Peace Museum will ruin your day, no matter what your plans were. I totally agree. I’d recommend both the Peace Museum and a Carp game to visitors, but there’s no way you can truly enjoy the latter if you’ve just come from the former.

See all my Hiroshima photos on Flickr.