Japan - Getting to know Hiroshima & Miyajima
Unless you’ve had no exposure to 20th century world history, it’s hard to see the word ‘Hiroshima’ without a jolt of emotion, and the calamity of August 1945 continues to shape Hiroshiman culture - its people speak up loudly against nuclear proliferation, and strive to promote international peace and the arts.
Hiroshima, situated on the southwest shoreline of Japan’s largest island, has been a significant city since the 16th century, when one of Japan’s most legendary warlords built a castle here, turning a cluster of villages into a military powerbase that remained strategic until WW2.
Because the nuclear warhead was detonated half a kilometre above ground, the city avoided a legacy of ongoing radiation, and its inhabitants rebuilt quite quickly. Now, the gentle modern metropolis is known for its innovative architecture and many museums and art galleries.
What to do in Hiroshima
- The Peace Memorial Museum is a must-visit on most lists; the Peace Memorial Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, containing the museum, cenotaphs, peace bells, and ruined buildings that survived the blast.
- Alongside the Peace Park sits the 16th century castle that served as army HQ during WW2, with several people surviving the blast in its cellars, despite being less than half a mile from ground zero. The castle has been reconstructed, and houses an exhibition of regional life in the Edo era. There's a good view across the city from its keep.
- Art lovers are drawn to the City Museum of Contemporary Art to see important pieces by international artists like Moore, Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Francis Bacon and Donald Judd, as well as acclaimed homegrown talent like Saito Yoshishige and Yukinori Yanagi, and to the Museum of Art’s significant collection of 19th and 20th century masterpieces from Europe and Japan.
- The Mazda Museum is perhaps a little more specialist, although the brand has played a respectable role in Hiroshima’s economy.
Off the trail - Miyajima
- An hour from Hiroshima's centre, in Hiroshima Bay, sits Itsukushima Island, known colloquially as Miyajima or 'shrine island' because of its 1,500 year old Shinto shrine. Embedded in the sand, the shrine’s huge red torii gate appears to float on the water at high tide, and the Japanese consider them one of Japan’s three most scenic places.
- Miyajima is beautiful - mountainous and wooded, famous for its cherry blossom, fiery autumn maple leaves, and sacred peak, Mount Misen, which was worshipped long before the shrine was built. It makes for an excellent hike or cable car ride.
- Deer and increasingly rare monkeys roam freely, and human development is low key. It is possible to stay overnight here, though, in traditional ryokan guesthouses, with the island becoming tremendously peaceful once the day visitors have gone.
- Miyajima speciality foods include conger eel and locally farmed oysters (the farms can be seen from the ferry across) and the leaf-shaped momiji-manju bean paste buns that are Hiroshima’s most popular souvenir.
Atomic bombings over Hiroshima & Nagasaki
In August 1945, the USA and UK jointly detonated two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second explosion effectively ended the Second World War, and the bombings are still seen as a ‘necessary evil’ by some, but up to 245,000 lives were lost, and those who survived endured a lengthy legacy of trauma.
There was no ongoing contamination because the warheads detonated in the atmosphere instead of on the ground, meaning the citizens could rebuild fairly quickly after the catastrophe. Now, both cities have become vocal proponents of peace - Hiroshima is especially solid in its stance against nuclear proliferation, and pours a great deal of energy into promoting the arts. Each city has its own Peace Park and countless memorials, as well as bomb museums, although these are frequented more by visitors than locals.
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Against nuclear proliferation
Hiroshima’s Peace Flame will only be extinguished when all nuclear bombs are decommissioned.
Protected by UNESCO and dedicated to the god of seas and storms, Myajima's shrine features a noh stage, and is brightly lit in the evenings, making for superb views from boats on the water - sunset at the torii gate can be simply humbling, and is reason alone to linger, or even stay on the island.