Riding a bullet train to a new definition of peace

Published on: December 6, 2012


On Thanksgiving weekend my wife Lisa and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary. To make it special, Lisa took her first vacation in six months.

Ever since I moved to Japan six months ago I have wanted to visit Hiroshima. I had heard good things, so Friday morning we hopped aboard the shinkansen express. Unfortunately, so did everybody else.

Hiroshima is one of the prettiest places in Japan to witness the fall foliage. That Friday was ‘Thanks Day’ in Japan and most people had a holiday from work, including Lisa. So everybody and their mother was on the train to Hiroshima to look at the damn momiji (maple) trees.

It was a four-hour train ride. The shinkansen, or bullet train, travels up to 200 miles an hour. Lisa and I bought non-reserved tickets. The seats are first come, first serve. Luckily Tokyo Station is the first stop along the way so Lisa and I had our pick of seats. However, all of the seats on the non-reserved cars (which cost about $50 cheaper than reserved seats) were full before we departed Tokyo Station.

So the poor saps who boarded at each subsequent stop had to stand in the aisle. With their luggage. Did I mention this was a four-hour train ride?

That is why if you ever visit Japan, make sure it isn’t during one of the work holidays. Most Japanese salarymen don’t take vacations except during the national holidays. So on these three-day weekends every tourist area is ridiculously crowded.

Unfortunately, we don’t have much of a choice since Lisa herself is a salaryman.

Of course, as you know, Hiroshima was the site of one of the A-bomb drops that ended World War II. Over 200,000 people died as a result, of which about 120,000 were killed instantly. A large swath of the city is dedicated in memoriam to this tragic event, and as an American I couldn’t but help feel awkward and ashamed for the duration of the trip.

However, the people of Hiroshima were delightful and welcoming. But still, history wears in the bones.

Our first stop was to eat some of Hiroshima’s renowned okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki originated in Osaka and most people like to call it a Japanese pancake. It has dashi (fish) flavored batter that is mixed with cabbage and other vegetables as well as different meat, usually pork or shrimp. It is then topped with mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce (a soy-based syrup) and fish flakes. Hiroshima okonomiyaki, or Hiroshimayaki, as opposed to Osaka okonomiyaki, is also fried with soba noodles. I admit I prefer the Hiroshimayaki.

After lunch our first stop was the Peace Memorial Park and the Peace Museum. I can’t remember the last time I was so moved. The first monument you see is the A-bomb dome. This shell of a structure was once a convention hall with a large dome at its peak. It was one of the few buildings left standing after the atomic bomb and its condition has been preserved.

Another notable landmark is the Children’s Peace Monument, which is dedicated to Sadako Sasaki, the girl who was exposed to the radiation at the age of 2 and contracted leukemia when she was 10 and passed away. She is the girl that folded 1,000 paper cranes and started a worldwide peace movement.

The monument is a statue of a large atomic bomb with a girl holding a crane perched atop the nose. There is a bell underneath the statue that people can ring. Ringing the bell is a prayer for peace.

Before we went in to the Peace Museum, Lisa asked me if I wanted to ring the bell. I refused. I told her that I didn’t want to be one of the stupid Americans naively ringing the peace bell for a photo op without being aware of its significance.

However, after touring the Peace Museum and witnessing relics from the destruction of that day in 1945 – seeing the pictures and the tattered, bloody clothes worn by children, children who lived in agony for as long as 10 days after the bombing – I was compelled to ring that bell.

The Peace Museum was as awe-inspiring as it was grotesque.

What was nice about the Peace Museum was that it was not over-critical of the U.S. In fact, it was much more accusatory to the warmongering nature of WWII-era Japanese government.

Hiroshima was a military site where soldiers were trained and weapons and ships were built and stockpiled. Soldiers were preparing for an endless battle and were instructed to take 100 million lives.

Children were also involved in the war movement and worked in rather stark conditions in the factories. In fact, many of the children died while they were walking from school to the factories.

Still, after meandering through the Peace Museum, mouth agape, it is impossible to justify the use of the A-bomb. In fact, it seems atrocious that nuclear bombs still exist in the world. I wish that everyone had a chance to tour this spectacle in order to truly understand the immense destruction and agony caused by this single man-made action.

The Peace Museum is worth a visit – once.

Anyway, moving on to brighter things…

Friday night we explored the shopping district, which was nice, and found a decent restaurant on tripadvisor.com that served oysters and anago (an eel-like fish), both delicacies local to the area.

Saturday we took a ferry ride to Miyajima Island. The island is supposed to be one of the top three most beautiful places in Japan, especially during the fall season. It is the home to Itsukushima shrine, which includes the orange torii (gate) that during high tide is supposed to look like it is floating on water. The shrine was built in the sixth century and the torii was built out of water-resistant camphor wood in 1168. It has since been rebuilt three times, most recently in 1875.

This was a great place to soothe the psyche after the trip to the Peace Museum, which felt like an over-aggressive dental assistant was scraping your soul to the bone.
After visiting the shrine we hiked through Momijidani Park. The park was gorgeous.

There were some nice walking trails, splendid views and some nice surprises. For instance, when we turned a corner on the trail we were greeted by a giant rainbow arching from the coastline to the mountainside.

It was pretty surreal.

On Sunday, still a little weary, we toured through the Shukkeien Garden, which was only a 10-minute walk from our hotel. This is a tea garden built in the 1600s and is one of the few gardens left in Japan that was designed by the architectural masters of medieval Kyoto.

It was a nice half-hour stroll and then we headed back to the train station. Once again, we were able to take a shinkansen that originated in Hiroshima so we were able to sit, while other forlorn travelers were forced to shuffle from foot to foot in the aisle. Once again, it was a four-hour trip.

Somebody mentioned that Hiroshima is a bit of a gloomy place for a first anniversary, but it really turned out just perfect. And since the first anniversary is the “paper” anniversary Lisa and I folded some paper cranes to commemorate.