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Exploring Hiroshima: A Day of Insight and Inspiration

hiroshima seen from above

I just didn’t know what to expect when visiting Hiroshima. Prior to visiting, my exposure to Hiroshima was restricted to listening to “Enola Gay” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark on my iPod and looking at the pictures of horrific post-nuclear devastation in the back end of history books about the Second World War.

Beyond that, I lived in blissful ignorance of one of Japan’s most interesting cities, so I genuinely wasn’t sure what to expect. 

Mrs B, as a lifelong supporter of all things peace and harmony,  was very keen to pop along to have a look, and to be honest, so was I.

The Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall
The Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall

It might be a bit morbid, but the chance to stand where the first atomic bomb was dropped in anger was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things you should probably check out, so you could at least understand how and why these things happened, and hopefully, understand why it should never happen again.

We travelled to Hiroshima from the Osaka leg of our recent Japanese trip. Because, unlike the UK, Japan has a functioning high-speed railway system, so we took the Shinkansen Express between Osaka and Hiroshima.

A journey of just over 200 miles takes just 1 hour and 21 minutes, making a day trip entirely possible and hassle-free. We set off from our Osaka hotel bright and early one January morning determined to make the most of a day by taking the bullet train to Hiroshima.

Hiroshima

children in front of a sign for Hiroshima

After a typically smooth Shinkansen journey, we pulled into the sleek and modern Hiroshima station where to my delight, the next part of our journey into the City Centre was to be via tram, specifically the catchily named Hiroshima Electric Railway Co., Ltd, or Hirodem for short.

Yes, Hiroshima is one of the few cities left in the world that has decided to stick with trams as a viable form of city transportation. This for me, as a lifelong train nerd, was very exciting and I had visions of cooly cruising through the city like the uber-cool residents of San Francisco do.

a tram in Hiroshima

Well, I did, right until the moment I saw the rather utilitarian-looking trams, which are slightly more prosaic and less romantic than the streetcars of San Fran.

But then, of course, that’s Japanese efficiency all over; no time for anything aesthetically pleasing when there’s a transport network to run. Indeed, such is the industrious nature of the Hiroshima Electric Railway Co., Ltd, after the city was obliterated by a literal atomic bomb in 1945, damaging 108 of the 123 cars in existence, within three days the system started running again.

I mean, coming from a part of the world that suffers from British Rail, that’s a staggering level of efficiency. And since that day, the efficiency has continued; what a treat it was to be able to travel smoothly through the city from the station to our first stop, the Peace Memorial.

Visiting The Peace Memorial and Peace Gardens, Hiroshima

the bombed hiroshima hall

As I said, I’d seen the Peace Memorial before in books; the image of a ruined wasteland where once stood a prosperous and bustling city and then, jutting out, having somehow miraculously survived, a ruined building with a dome on top.

It was all that was left at Ground Zero after the bomb dropped, and while Ground Zero is a deceptively boring phrase, it’s a very different gravy when you’re stood at the receiving end. That’s the Peace Memorial now and the history of it is as fascinating as the rest of the area.

the hiroshima prefectural industrial promotional hall

I had no idea that, for example, the original Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall was designed by a Czech architect, Jan Letzel, back in 1915 and was built as some sort of commercial exhibition hall.

For some reason, that really threw me, as I sort of assumed, given the rabidly Nationalist nature of the Japanese Government in the run-up to World War Two, that there would be very little Western influence in the area until after the war.

But here was the proof that it wasn’t so – how did one country go from an internationally facing, bustling, trading nation, to right-wing warmongers in the space of a few short decades? The warnings from history are everywhere once you look.

the hiroshima prefectural industrial promotional hall
Genbaku Dome

Anyway, the Peace Memorial very nearly wasn’t – the original plan was to level and rebuild the area after the way, but due to the fact that the building was originally well built – and I should bloody well think so too, having survived an actual atomic bomb – pulling it down proved somewhat problematic.

So again, being pragmatic, the decision was taken to leave it there and, as time progressed, it became a permanent memorial to the bombing. In the 1950’s the area was expanded to include a Peace Park around the area, with various memorials and monuments scattered around to remember the victims of the bombing.

peace memorial park in Hiroshima

And what a tranquil and peaceful area it is too.

Probably what hits you hardest is the Children’s Peace Monument, in memory of the children killed. Inside several glass cases are thousands, if not millions of neatly folded origami cranes, the Japanese symbol of peace.

The Japanese believe that if you make a thousand cranes, you are granted a wish by the Gods, and it was the wish of one of the child survivors that there would be a world without nuclear weapons. Judging by the sheer number of paper cranes inside, that’s definitely a wish shared by a lot of people.

Children's memorial in Hiroshima

As you stroll through the park, you’ll also see the Memorial Cenotaph, which frames a sobering view of the Peace Memorial, as well as the Peace Bells, where to the delight of the children you are encouraged to ring the bells as loudly as you can in support of peace.

You can hear the bell chiming consistently throughout Hiroshima and the flame will stay alight until all nuclear weapons have been eradicated.

Later, if you do need a spot of refreshment, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Building – an imposingly large, flat structure at the end of the park – hosts a small café with the always beautiful Japanese cakes, as well as further exhibitions on the city of Hiroshima both before and after the bombing.

The exhibitions are not really suitable for children, nor indeed, the faint of heart, as it’s uncompromisingly graphic and flatly tells the story of the horror of being on the receiving end of an atomic blast. That said, it obviously does its job well as over a million people per year pass through the doors.

Adults can gain entry for just 200 Yen (£1 GPB/$1.2 USD), and older children (High school age) are 100 Yen (£0.50 GBP/$0.60 USB), with younger children entering for free.

kids next to a large fountain in Hiroshima
We didn’t take the kids inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, but they enjoyed the gardens and fountains

It was certainly a really sobering morning but well worth it if you want to understand a little more about what happened here. From a Western perspective, you could argue that, at that stage of a World War, the indiscriminate bombing of a city was justified.

If you do think that I’d certainly recommend a trip here. The human cost of obliterating a city, including women and children, for the sins of a regime is one hell of a price to pay. It absolutely deserves its title as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – it should be remembered forever.

large letters spelling 2024 with views of Hiroshima through the window
The Orizuru Tower is one of the best places to visit in Hiroshima with incredible views and a guide through Hiroshima’s history

One stop worth calling out is the nearby 9-storey Orizuru Tower on the North East side of the Peace Gardens.

Billed as a City Observatory, it’s much more than that. Sure, you get some stunning views of the Peace Gardens (more so at night) from the top, but the floor below is given over to various activities that allow you to explore the city in more innovative ways.

a slide inside a building
The slide at the Orizuru Tower

There’s a VR machine that allows you to virtually fly over the city like a crane as well as activities for children – and for adults, there’s a bar. For thrill-seekers, rather than just get the lift back down, there’s an honest to God slide that allows you to slide back down to the bottom floor.

Although the ever-sensible Japanese do insist you wear safety equipment if you decide to go down that way. They did give me some odd looks as I launched myself down; it wasn’t until I walked home that I realised this was mostly for children to use. I did wonder why the safety equipment was only available in smaller sizes.

Visiting Hiroshima Castle

Hiroshima Castle

Not far from the sobering Peace Memorial and worth a trip while you’re in the area is the lovely Hiroshima Castle; originally built in 1590, flattened unceremoniously by the bomb in 1945 and then painstakingly recreated in 1958, it now serves as a museum to Hiroshima’s history pre-1945.

It offers a welcome respite from the heavy going of the Peace Memorial area and is another good half-day activity. As with all Japanese castles, like Osaka Castle which we previously visited, it’s beautiful, serene, and wasted on a philistine like me.

Mrs B however, with her eye for all things aesthetically beautiful, was enamoured with 5 stories of history, covering everything from the samurai lifestyle through to replicas of tea houses and merchant houses of the time.

You will also find the Regional Military HQ Air Defense Room which is 700 metres from the hypocentre next to the castle. Inside this very room, Japanese soldiers were assisted by Hijiuama Girls’ High School students who were helping with the war effort.

The atomic bomb destroyed most of the communications, but the girls were able to find a working military phone to relay the news of the bomb and it is reported to be the first communication of the devasting destruction of Hiroshima. One can only imagine the horrors of what these schoolgirls were going through!

stalls at the Hiroshima castle

Whilst we were at Hiroshima Castle, there was a busy fair in place, with stalls selling food, crafts and the kids favourite, strawberries coated in sugar glaze. It was a good insight into how Hiroshima is putting the past behind them and is thriving as a modern, and welcoming city.

Places to Eat in Hiroshima

kids with a animated character
The eccentricities of Japan! :)

You can’t come to Hiroshima and not try the okonomiyaki, a wildly popular pancake-style dish in Japan but the Hiroshima version comes with a thinner layer of batter and a generous amount of cabbage on top of yakisoba noodles, topped with whatever you like.

Cheese or the local oysters are popular, and not forgetting a great big dollop of okonomiyaki sauce – a thin, brown sauce which is probably similar in flavour to a very, very mild brown sauce. It is, without a doubt, delicious, hot and filling and you’ve got to try some while you’re in town.

Okonomiyaki Nagata-ya

We ate in the excellent Okonomiyaki Nagata-ya (1-7-19 Otemachi, Naka-Ku 1F, Hiroshima 730-0051 Hiroshima Prefecture, just round the corner from the Peace Memorial) where for a very reasonable price the chefs will smash out piles of steaming hot food and English is, thankfully spoken.

But for those of you who are of a more seafood persuasion, there’s Guttsuri-an (1-36 Tannacho, Minami-ku, Hiroshima 734-0034 Hiroshima Prefecture) which has the best seafood in the city. Be warned though, you’ll have to book as it’s literally a very small Mum and Dad type run place and it’s wildly popular with locals and tourists alike.

Hiroshima Tours

We created our own itinerary, mainly because we travelled to Hiroshima with my Japanese mother and cousin, who know the city well. However, if you are looking to get the most out of this city, I’d recommend these tours –

Accommodation in Hiroshima

Although we were staying in Osaka and travelled by bullet train to Hiroshima, there are plenty of accommodation options in Hiroshima, all close to the Peace Memorial Park and Castle.

  • Hotel Granvia Hiroshima – Located close to the station, this hotel is the perfect base to explore Hiroshima
  • Hilton Hiroshima – with an indoor pool, sauna and restaurant, the Hilton offers a comfortable stay after a day of exploring.
  • Hotel Intergate Hiroshima – the rooms are small, which we found to be the case with a lot of hotels in Japan, but you can enjoy breakfast with a wonderful view of the city
  • Daiwa Roynet Hotel Hiroshima – We stayed at a Daiwa Roynet Hotel in Osaka and can highly recommend this chain hotel. It is a good price if you are just looking for a bed for the night, with plenty of facilities.
  • The Royal Park Hotel Hiroshima Riverside – this hotel has a restaurant and river views.

Thoughts on Hiroshima

A rainbow appeared whilst we were in the Peace Memorial Park, a surreal moment

As the Shinkansen pulled out of the station late in the evening to whisk us back to Osaka, I looked out of the window as the city disappeared at 200 kph into the night and felt strangely comforted by our day trip to Hiroshima.

It’s a city of many things – tragic, thriving, modern – but what it ultimately is, is a city of hope. A triumph of humanity over fate. If a city can be so utterly ravaged by destruction and bounce back to become a thriving, peace-loving and modern place, then anywhere can.

It’s gone from being a literal atomic wasteland to one of the most lovely cities in Japan and you can see that the horrors of the past weigh really heavily on the minds of the residents.

the sun setting over Hiroshima

The preservation of peace and the endless campaigning against the horrors of nuclear warfare are everywhere, from the cranes that pop up all over the city, to the painfully accurate art displayed by the local high schools that show the aftermath of the bomb in the exhibition halls.

I suppose the residents of Hiroshima really do have the right to campaign on that, more than anyone.

Hiroshima castle

If you’re in the area, please go along and learn a little more about this dark bit of the past. I make no comment on the rights or wrongs of what happened at the end of the war, but to my simple mind, if the answer to your problem is wholesale indiscriminate destruction of a city – you’re probably asking the wrong question.   

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