Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Day 13: Heroes of Hiroshima

I admit it; my North American mindset has coloured my perspective on Hiroshima.  Thankfully, “history” as it is presented in Canada (at least for the last couple of decades) doesn’t rely on a brutally biased interpretation of WWII, and so it’s not as though I considered the Hiroshima victims to be just recipients of the horrors of Little Boy.  However, it wasn’t until I was standing in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima – part of the area that was wiped off the map in 1945 – that the magnitude of the devastation was made clear.  Everything within a two kilometre radius of the detonation was reduced to rubble.  Over two hundred thousand mostly civilian lives lost in an instant. Thousands more would die in the coming weeks, months, and years due to radiation poisoning, and the rebuilding of the entire city would take an unfathomable investment.  I know that two bombs effectively ended a war that might have raged on with many more hundreds of thousands of lives lost, but the balance of a lesser terror is difficult to contemplate.

What I just wrote was a little bit misleading. Not everything was reduced to rubble.

Atom bombs don’t detonate upon impact.  In order to maximize the breadth of destruction, the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima detonated 600m above the ground.  A single building, positioned almost directly underneath the detonation, largely survived the explosion.  Well, “largely survived” as compared to anything else in the area. And the people inside were not so lucky. As the city began rebuilding, debate waged on around what to do with it. Ultimately, it was decided that it should be kept as a memorial and reminder of the cost of war.  The “Atom Bomb Dome”, as it has come to be known, has been left as it was since 1945.

Fortunately, in a country where earthquakes are common and where erosion persists, efforts are underway to assess the structural integrity of the building, and ensure its continued safety as a tourist attraction.  Unfortunately for us, this work requires scaffolding around the building. No matter – the steel dome structure at the top, stripped bare of the building’s exoskeleton by the bomb, and the mixed rubble lying near the foundations tells enough of a story.

Like the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan, the actual Peace Memorial Park is peaceful, quiet, and beautiful. Statues and artwork commemorate the Hiroshima victims, and provide a testament to Japan’s staunch support for global peace. A distant cousin to the flame at Ottawa’s parliament buildings, Hiroshima’s Flame of Peace burns eternally.

Randomly, Mindy and I opted for an Italian dinner tonight, looking out on the illuminated Gates of Peace. The familiarity of the bread and pasta was appealing, even if the “vegetarian” spaghetti was topped with prosciutto. I learned tonight Japanese red wine is worth drinking!  Suntory wine complemented the meal nicely.

Like so many of our days lately, this day was a day of contrasts.  We awoke this morning in Nara, land of the sacred deer, and after a brief run (Japanese style – very slow), we explored a little further what Nara had to offer.  This evening, we stood on hallowed ground in Hiroshima. In a way, the day was well balanced: natural fun in a setting steeped in rich culture, followed by contemplation of unnatural forces that obliterated all cultural artefacts.

In Nara Machi – the old town – we happened upon a fruit shop with friendly owners and a working well!

Then we were off to what Nara is known for!

Don't be fooled by the cute photo of them grooming one another, those deer are aggressive!  Several bit me when I wasn’t feeding them quickly enough; one even made a little hole in my new Lake Biwa jacket! (The other bites never made it through my jeans or jacket, so they felt more like hard pinches than anything else.) The photos I wanted more than anything else captured – to my mind – the essence of Nara: ancient Japanese buildings and sacred deer. 

We came across this so much in Tokyo – “ancient” structures that were rebuilt in the 1960s after WWII’s wreckage.  While the cause of destruction was different in Nara – fires in wood buildings instead of bombs – the outcome was the same.  The pagoda above was originally built in 730, and Nandaimon Gate in 962. The structures that exist now are newer replicas.  This pagoda was built a measly 600 years ago in 1426, and Nandaimon Gate in 1199.  I suppose that’s better than nothing…
Those were my “hero shots” in Nara.  Mindy’s were unplanned, and a little bit different:

I don’t know what these children enjoyed more – feeding the deer, or interacting with Mindy and “practicing” their English (“hello” and “bye”).  Either way, this may compare with the monkeys as far as Mindy’s high points to this trip!

Notwithstanding the warnings before we came to Japan, we haven’t felt any earthquakes yet.  At least, not natural ones. Looking for a washroom, Mindy and I stopped at a tourism centre in Nara.  This building turned out to be a privately funded tourism centre hosted by Okumura corporation, which was founded in Nara in 1907. A testament to the Japanese culture of responsibility to the community, this extremely well-appointed welcome centre was free to the public, providing friendly staff, free tea, beautiful views from their rooftop terrace, and an earthquake simulation machine.

The trees in Mount Kasuga-yama Primeval Forest – the dark green area to the right in the landscape photo, above – have been protected for over 1000 years! That speaks to my environmentalist side!
The funny looking chair into which I am strapped is an earthquake simulation. Admittedly a marketing opportunity for their seismic reduction devices, the chair first reproduces the feeling of earthquakes that have hit Japan in recent times (re-living the 2011 earthquake that caused the nuclear disasters was an unusual feeling), and then demonstrates how they would feel in a seismically protected building.  Very cool!

Departing Nara, I could see myself coming back one day. Not because of the deer; they are entertaining, but not worth another visit.  I would, however, want to explore the ancient forest, the temples and museums, and the old town.

Our trip to Hiroshima would have been remarkable anywhere else, but was simply the norm in Japan.  A kind young man passed his station so that he could walk us to the right track to catch the Shinkansen.  A police officer walked us through the concourse in Hiroshima so that we would get properly oriented toward out hotel, and any time we faced stairs, a Japanese man was ready to lug Mindy’s suitcase while I carried mine.  What wonderful people!

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