The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

New Year's in Hiroshima

Hello all. I am re-resolved yet again to post more faithfully, and as I have many travels to transcribe hopefully I will stick with it this time. This post describes my trip to Hiroshima from 1/1-1/2 this year. Also, all of my photos from this trip and others are on my flickr account, and you can get there by clicking on the flickr widget on the left. The photos are organized into a Japan collection and then sets by city or region.

I arrived back in Osaka after a long flight from Maui on New Year's Eve. Daniel met me at the airport and we took the train to Nanba. I was exhausted from travelling but ecstatic to be back with Daniel. It had been eight months since I'd been in Japan and four months since I'd seen him. Still, as we walked down Sennichimae Dori from Nanba to the covered arcades at Bic Camera, everything was so familiar that I felt like I'd only been gone a few weeks. We turned into the arcade and stopped in the McDonald's, which was pretty much the only thing open. It was nearing midnight and we still had my large bag, so we got some food to go and hurried home.

Daniel had explained that the Japanese do not celebrate the moment that one year turns into the next with the same exuberance that western countries do. They celebrate the solar new year, but at midnight there are no fireworks or confetti or loud horns, just a solemn ringing of a large bell in a Buddhist temple. It's the same sort of bell that is usually only rung at funerals, so I'm not sure what to make of this. We turned on the TV and watched a few minutes of old-fashioned Japanese love singers before the anti-climactic ringing of the bell, then went to bed. Despite the fact that I had just arrived from Hawaii, we were taking off in the morning for a trip through southwestern Japan, starting with Hiroshima.

We took a bus from Umeda in central Osaka to Hiroshima. There was a bit of going up and over the mountains and just a little bit of snow, so parts of the drive were quite scenic. We stopped a few times at highway rest stops, which dot the major highways in Japan. They are typically large gift shops featuring packaged local foods, especially cookies, that you can take home to hand out as souvenirs. In Japan souvenirs are pretty much mandatory. If you go anywhere outside your prefecture, you're usually expected to bring back a small souvenir, typically a cookie or sweet, for everyone in your family and workplace. These rest stops also have large restrooms and various convenience foods. The one we stopped at had a long row of stands outdoors selling traditional foods like fried squid, but it also had a Starbucks so I got a hot tea for the bus. I know, you're thinking I should have got the squid...

We arrived in Hiroshima in the afternoon and took a trolley to our hostel. It was one of my favorite hostels in our entire experience in Japan, actually, because it was the first Japanese-style room I stayed in. We had a private room with tatami floors and two futons. It was simple but comfortable and very charming, to me at least.

The next day we went straight to Peace Memorial Park, which is only a few blocks from the hostel. We went to the Cenotaph first, which is the primary memorial for the victims of the atomic bomb. It is a stone box containing the names of those who died, covered by a stone arch. Next to the Cenotaph is the the Peace Flame, which will not be extinguished until all the nuclear weapons on earth are destroyed. Around the park are dozens of monuments to various different groups, such as Koreans, mobilized students, and others who were killed in the bombing. One of the most famous is the Children's Peace Monument, which has a statue of a young girl who died from radiation exposure to the bomb, and who believed that if she folded 1000 paper cranes she would be cured. School children from around Japan and the world fold paper cranes and send them to the monument, where they are housed in protective boxes. We also visited the Peace Memorial Museum, also in the park, which has exhibits on the war, the events leading up to the bombing, the bombing itself, and the effort to eliminate nuclear weapons. To this day, any time a country conducts a nuclear test, the mayor of Hiroshima sends a letter to that country's leader asking for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

I was very moved by the way in which the city of Hiroshima, and Japan as a whole, has channeled the tragedy of the bombing into a call for peace in the world, instead of a cry for vengeance. Daniel tells me that in general there is a sense of shame in Japan for their aggression in World War II, and an agreement that Japan's actions in that time make them at least partly (if not mostly) responsible for the loss of Japanese civilians. I am amazed at the ability the Japanese have to take responsibility for their part of the conflict and form an alliance with the United States after such a horrific event. I realize that the atomic bombing is a very complex issue that cannot be fully discussed in a single post, and it is an issue that I've been torn about for a long time. I'm glad that I was not the one responsible for the decision to drop the bomb, because I cannot fully condemn or approve of it. I can only say that the great loss of life caused by that single act still makes me very sad, and I have tremendous respect for the Japanese for the way they have reacted to it.

This all made for a rather depressing day, of course, so the next day was more upbeat. We went to a shrine near Hiroshima castle to celebrate the New Year, and the grounds were packed with festival vendors a large crowds. We stood in a long line that wound its way all through the festival and finally made it to the shrine so we could toss in our coins for good luck in the new year. We tried a few different kinds of festival food, including a candied orange and some yaki soba (fried noodles). There were children running around everywhere with decorated arrows, a traditional gift for the new year. We returned to the hostel around sunset, and settled in after a long day of walking around in the cold. The next day we would be off to the sacred island of Miyajima.