Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Japan Stories: Hiroshima

Back in Middle School, I was really into origami.  I could fold all the classics by memory.  Ball, boat, lily, frog, and of course, crane.  Still can, actually.  It was about that time when I read this book about Sadako Sasaki.  Sadako was a 12 year old Japanese girl who... well, I'll just leave this here:

The Children’s Peace Monument would serve to remind visitors that nuclear weapons do not discriminate.  I read this book over 25 years ago.  I never thought that one day I’d one day stand in front of this memorial with tears in my eyes.

We weren’t even planning on visiting Hiroshima on this trip.  I thought it was too far out of the way just to see a park and a museum.  But after we blew through the sites of the mountain town of Takayama in an afternoon, it left us with an open day which allowed us enough time to take the bullet train down to Hiroshima to stay a night and visit the Peace Park.

We went in the morning on a beautiful sunny day.  Our hostel was close enough to walk to the park, which we did.  The first thing you notice upon entering the grounds are the many groups of middle school aged students who are there on field trip.  Everywhere, small groups of 10-20 students gather around significant sites while a guide gave the lesson.

Many of the guides were older.  I knew that bomb survivors volunteer to talk about their experiences with visitors, but I wasn’t sure if they were the ones talking to the kids.  It sure seemed like it.  I got the feeling that most school children in Japan make their way to Hiroshima at some point.  I can’t think of a better way to learn about that terrible day.

The park itself is aligned along an axis, with the Atomic Bomb Dome at one end, and the Peace Memorial Museum at the other.  The Atomic Bomb Dome is the only remaining structure still standing from the day of the bombing.  It is located almost directly under the epicenter of the blast.  The city was actually going to tear it down during the reconstruction, but thanks to generous donors, the site was preserved.

The museum is set up in such a way that there’s only one way to go through it.  You move from exhibit to exhibit, which takes you on a complete tour of the history of Hiroshima.  We see the city’s early years and its growth as a military complex during WW2.  We learned about the decision making process of the United States, and how they selected Hiroshima as a target.  The U.S. needed a city that had not yet been bombed so that they could have a clean reference point from which to measure the effectiveness of the bomb.  We then move on to the heavy hitting exhibits describing the day of the bombing and its immediate aftermath.

The flash was so hot it burned black characters off of white paper.  

Dark kimono patterns seared into skin.  Sand turned to glass.  Human shadows were exposed onto concrete film.  Finally, we are shown the effects of radiation poisoning.  It was in this section where visitors could actually see some of Sadako’s tiny delicate origami cranes on display.

They were so small that she had to use a needle to fold them.  It was a somber tour, with more than a few sniffles and teary eyes among the visitors.

In case you were wondering whether or not the museum glossed over Japan's role in the war, I felt that the exhibits and the descriptions were honest.  This comes from a Chinese whose family played a direct role in fighting the Japanese during the war.  That's all I'll say about that.  To this day, the mayor of Hiroshima will write a letter of protest any time a nuclear weapon is detonated anywhere in the world.  You can see all of these letters in the museum.

When we left the museum, we walked through the rest of the Peace Park.

We rang the giant Peace Bell.

We paid our respects at the cenotaph, which contained the names of all the bomb victims.  You can see the A-Bomb dome through it.

Then we arrive at Sadoko’s Children’s Memorial and see this.

These students were delivering a large bundle of paper cranes to be displayed at the Memorial along with thousands and thousands of other cranes folded and donated by children from Japan and all over the world every day.  You can see one of the girls above holding the large string of cranes.

The class stood in front of the Memorial and sang a song.  I didn’t understand any of the words, but I really didn’t need to.  Neither, apparently, did many of the other tourists there, who were tearing up right along with me.

After the song, one of the girls was led to a display case by a park official, where she hung up the cranes folded by her class.  This might sound strange, but I felt honored to witness this.

We never planned on coming to Hiroshima, but it ended up being the most moving experience of the entire trip.  If you ever find yourself planning a trip to Japan and wondering if it’s worth it to travel all the way to Hiroshima, my advice is to GO.  You will never forget it.

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