So I got back to Hirakata on Sunday night, after spending the weekend visiting Hiroshima and Miyajima. There’s a lot to talk about.
The journey from Hirakata started at about 6:30, when our party took an early train into Osaka to catch the shinkansen, or “bullet train”. Travelling on one of these extremely fast and luxurious trains is something everyone should do at least once while in Japan. I didn’t enjoy the ride to its fullest, though, as I was asleep for a lot of it. We passed through the rain that had been falling since I woke up, and arrived in the centre of Hiroshima – a prosperous, modern city – at 9:30.
Walking along the wide modern streets, I thought about how Hiroshima the city and Hiroshima the cultural signifier were entirely different things. You could be in any large city in Japan, until you turn a corner and find yourself face-to-face with the bleak, skeletal structure of the Atomic Bomb Dome.
The main feature of the trip was a talk from a Hiroshima survivor, organised by Prof. Scott. Ms. Yamaoka was 15 at the time of the bombing, and only started talking about her experience after her mother died twenty-five years ago. She’s a very small woman, but she doesn’t look frail at all. The term “inner strength” is much overused, but that was what she had. It was very moving, and humbling, to be in a room with someone like that and to hear about their experience. As the generation who lived through the Second World War diminishes worldwide, opportunities for understanding the experiences of ordinary people on all sides of the conflict will also fade away. I count myself very lucky that I had the chance to meet someone like Ms. Yamaoka.
After the talk, I joined the crowd of people around the table waiting to thank her. I managed a couple of sentences in Japanese before the emotion of it all hit me, and I had to leave. Looking around, I could see that emotions were running high for a lot of people. A friend of mine was very upset, from both the talk and a question afterwards about the Chinese attitude to the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It threw me to see her like that, but also because it made me realise everyone took away something different from the talk, depending on their country, culture and personality. At a place like Kansai Gaidai, you navigate through different cultures during the course of each day. Humour and friendliness ease the way, but sometimes you have to step back and realise that someone else’s experience is not the same as yours.
I had a lot to think about as I headed off into Hiroshima for lunch with some friends. We had okonomiyaki, a delicious Japanese dish made from cabbage, egg and noodles which looks a bit like a pancake. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is slightly different to that found in the rest of Japan, and we watched it prepared in front of us on a hot surface running the length of the counter.
Afterwards I took a tram down to the coast and checked into the youth hostel. It was a real dive, run by one old man with a beard I hadn’t seen outside of kung fu movies. But it was cheap, and it was right next to the ferry service to Miyajima Island. I took a ferry out as dusk was falling, and stood at the railing watching the darkened mountains draw nearer. Because of the number of Kansai Gaidai students coming on the trip, I ran into groups of people everywhere – on the tram, on the ferry, walking around Miyajima. In fact, we’d pretty much taken over the youth hostel. The advantage of staying in a place like that was that there were no stringent rules on alcohol – in fact, there was a beer vending machine in the lobby. So we stayed up and got drunk in one of the rooms.
I woke up pretty early and returned to Miyajima in the daylight. It’s a sacred island set in Hiroshima Bay. Its most famous landmark is the huge torii gate standing out in the bay.
Tame deer wander about the island. They look very cute, but will make a beeline for you if you have any food. I wandered about the island in the morning, exploring the thick forest covering the mountains, the Buddhist temples, and the Shinto shrine set out into the sea. Here’s my favourite of all the photos I took there, standing on Itsukushima Shrine looking out into the bay.
I took the train back into Hiroshima and revisited the Peace Park. As well as a memorial space, it is actually a park, which oddly enough I wasn’t prepared for. Along with the tourists and school parties, you could see couples taking walks, businessmen on their lunch breaks, old men playing go at folding tables. The place was as much a celebration of continuing life as a memorial to those lives cut short on August 6th, 1945. It was a quiet end to the weekend, but I’m glad I got the time alone to reflect on everything I’d seen and heard.
In the news: Japan and the US are stepping up military cooperation as part of a reorganisation of US forces in Japan. The consequences of the war and its end are still with us, and how we deal with them depends on our understanding of the past.