Monday, April 03, 2006

Hiroshima



Saturday, March 18, 2006

“At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, the city of Hiroshima fell victim to the world’s first atomic bombing. The entire city was virtually leveled; thousands upon thousands of lives were lost. Many of those who managed to survive suffered irreparable physical and psychological damage and still suffer the effects today.”
—from the brochure of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

I was excited to go to Hiroshima.

I woke up early Saturday, the first day of spring break, and my first and foremost, soul consuming thought was: I can’t miss the Shinkansen. (Though, I can’t forget my camera and charger was also tugging at the back of my mind.) I ate a piece of buttered-and-jammed toast, threw an umbrella in my suitcase, and cheerfully headed out the door.

I got to Nagoya Station a half an hour before we were supposed to meet. Once I saw other IES students coming and it occurred to me that I wouldn’t miss the Shinkansen (and after checking to make sure my camera and charger were secure), I was content. I met with Julie, one of my friends, and we chatted until the last of the people arrived, late, at 9:15 or so.

I had never ridden a Shinkansen, or bullet train, before, and that, in and of itself, was exciting. The sleek silver train almost looked like a bullet, stretched out from its speed; it glided into the station quickly and we boarded. The interior was much more spacious than it looked from the outside; the seats were wide and there was ample room to stretch, even with a bulky green bag at my feet. The smell of tobacco drifted in from the car behind us, despite the fact that we were in the non-smoking section. I got a window seat and looked out it. Shortly, the train began to run.

It felt as smooth as a stone skipping across the water; at the same time we were going much faster than I had gone before. Within a minute or so, we were outside the city, and I watched blue-tiled houses and rice-fields drift swiftly in and out of my sight.

Once, going over a bridge, my view of the water flickered strangely, like a movie whose film has caught. I asked Julie about it.

“We’re on a bridge, so those are poles we’re passing.”

I saw nothing resembling poles. “Are you sure?”

“If you stare directly at one and squint your eyes you can almost see them.”

I tried, unsuccessfully. I didn’t see poles. I didn’t even see grey blurs. All I saw was a disruption of the landscape.

“If you say so.” We came off the bridge and were heading into a mountain. Within ten minutes or so, I only saw trees: a forest, and suddenly we were inside a long, dark tunnel.

By and by, Julie let me listen to her Les Miserables soundtrack. She stopped the music every now and then to explain the story to me. We had finished one of the two CDs, when we came to Hiroshima.

It was lunchtime. We ate at the station.

It was drawing past two, and I was becoming impatient, when we finally reached our hotel, the Aioi Ryoukan. This particular Ryoukan had many attractions, but its greatest asset was its location: Gembaku (Atomic Bomb) Dome was right across the street; in fact, we could see it out our window. We piled our baggage on the tatami mats, left the key at the front desk, and went to explore the nucleus of the city.


It was raining in Hiroshima, but lightly. A mist had crept up, shrouding the tall city buildings and making everything look slightly surreal.

The dome itself was a ruin. Not much remained besides the white circular walls around the dome and the dome itself: peach wire tracing the outline. Nearby, a brick wall still stood, crumpled at the top.

Besides Gembaku Dome, I noticed trees, standing next to the river. Thin weeping willows, with fronds in full bloom. The rain had made their trunks black, their leaves a vivid lime green.

I was more excited, happy to be here at last, happy to be seeing something tangible, happy to be on spring vacation, traveling Japan. And there was a strange beauty about Gembaku Dome in the mist. I took pictures.

Besides me, Julie said, “This is where they dropped the atomic bomb.”

“Yes, around this area,” I agreed.

“No, right here, on top of this building.”

I found out later, at the museum, that she was right. The bomb had dropped almost right above the building. When it was detonated, the pilot who dropped it turned his plane as fast and hard as he could, and he could still feel the plane rattle.

“The force of the blast pressed down on the building,” Julie continued. “Because it was so close and most of the blast spread outward, the building survived. Glass shattered. Trees died. People that survived who were closest to the blast described it as a flash of light and then burning. Even though nothing was on fire.”

After that, I wasn’t quite as bouncy as before, but I hadn’t quite sobered just yet. I took pictures of a statue of two children, streaked black from the rain.

It wasn’t until I crossed the bridge that the reality of the situation hit me, smacking me in the chest and making me frown. The bridge we crossed was a recreation of the T-shaped bridge built by the newest methods before World War II. When the bomb hit, it thrashed like a leaf, but it survived. Some thirty years later, though, the strain of age, forced them to tear it down and rebuild it.

As I crossed, I noticed someone had engraved on a planter:

“London Bridge is falling down
Falling down, falling down
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.”

From the bridge, we crossed into a park, where several peace monuments and memorials had been erected. As I wandered, my chest became heavy with sadness and my thoughts muddled together like mud. When we came to the Bell of Peace, the sign instructed us to ring it in the hope that all nuclear weapons would one day be gone; I stood there dumbly while Julie walked up to the platform. The bell made a low, deep sound that resonated through the park.

Have you heard of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes? My mother told me the tale when I was young. Sadako was two when the atomic bomb hit. She was unharmed by the initial blast, but ten years later, she discovered the radiation had given her leukemia.

It’s an old Japanese legend that if you succeed in folding one thousand paper cranes, you can make a wish and it will be granted. So Sadako started to fold a thousand paper cranes, in hopes of wishing away the leukemia. But she died before she could finish. Her classmates finished the rest and buried them with her.

I saw the glass boxes stuffed with paper cranes and I understood their meaning. On the other side of the boxes, there was a small bell tower. Inside the bell, the part of it that rings, there was a metal folded crane. Atop the bell tower were two girls and a boy. The girl at the top held a huge golden paper crane over her head.

This was the Children’s Peace Memorial, dedicated to the children who died as a result of atomic bombing.

We came to the arch-shaped white cetograph, with flowers clustered around it and a tour group standing in the center. It was a memorial for all those who had died. “Let all souls here rest in peace; For we shall not repeat the evil,” read the inscription. The smell of burning incense lingered in the wet air.

And, then, finally, we came to the museum.

The one funny thing about the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is the admission: it cost 50 yen to enter, slightly less than fifty cents; but if you come with a group of thirty or more, admission is slashed and each person then has to pay only 40 yen. That’s almost a whole dime in savings. What a deal.

Inside the museum, there was a history and photographs, and materials from the bombing, like the victims clothing and roof tiles melted together that you could touch. I lost Julie somewhere in here. And there was information about the nuclear age and the mechanics of how a nuclear weapon worked, and pictures drawn by the survivors. If I attempted to tell you everything I remembered, I’d drown you in information. But there were stories and impressions I had.

“A dragonfly flitted in front of me and stopped on a fence.
I stood up, took my cap in my hands, and was about to catch the dragonfly, when….”

The poem was written on a giant photograph of a clock, frozen on 8:15.

And the diorama of wax figures representing victims right after the atomic bombing. They are surrounded by rubble, broken brick walls, red light all around them. Their hair is frizzled and their hands are stretched out like zombies, showing fingers stretched and distorted, like wax-dripped candles.

Clothing a girl had made herself, with holes shredded through them; shortly after being found, this girl had died. The uniform of a junior high boy; and that boy had died. A lunch box filled with ash, a tricycle twisted and rusted. Stories of children who had survived the bomb for a day or two, then died, still in pain. They made hospitals of the few buildings that remained standing, and more and more victims came, but there was no more doctors, no more supplies.

And those children who had survived. There was a photograph of them holding their books and sitting outside on the floor, their teacher standing besides a small chalkboard; school had to go on, even if the classroom was gone. There was another photograph of the orphans, children who had been sent to the countryside because of the war and returned to find their families dead. The picture shows the kids shining the shoes of a well-off, white lady.

Did you know the United States has several thousands, if not tens of thousands of nuclear bombs? What’s the point of having that many, if ten can destroy your enemy and a few hundred can destroy the world?

I didn’t even get through the whole of the museum. Mentally and emotionally exhausted, I skipped the last few exhibits and plunged into the chill air outside. Grey clouds still drizzled and the ground had turned to mud. But there was a red plum tree in full blossom near the museum, the flowers brighter and the bark blacker from the rain.

They said nothing would grow for seventy-five years. They were wrong.

I caught the last few memorials: a giant turtle in memorial to Korean workers who had died and a round, bald burial mound. I also found two orange cats hiding beneath a camellia bush and a blossoming white plum tree, still mildly fragrant in the damp.

Then I came back to the Ryoukan.

I was the first of my four roommates to return from the excursion. I made some tea, and opened the sweet they left us: a crumbly cookie with a paste of red bean and sweet mochi in the middle. And, sitting with my tea, in the comforting chair of the Ryoukan, I looked outside. It was starting to get dark, but I could still see the top of Gembaku Dome.

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