On this earth -- peace

Time has passed, ruins are buried, survivors struggle on, memory is painful, yet on the poor, poisoned ground, a city recovered and grows and reminds everyone article page player in wide format.
By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / August 2, 2009

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HIROSHIMA, Japan - This city, which 64 years ago was destroyed by the world’s first atomic bomb, is one of those places, like Auschwitz or Pompeii, that’s become a one-word synonym for horror.

The city was incinerated on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, and some 140,000 people perished, with tens of thousands more dying later from radiation sickness. But almost immediately Hiroshima set about to rebuild itself, a task that posed a particular challenge.

Consider the options: Do you try to replicate it, as though nothing had happened? Do you start over and create something new? Do you remember the bombing, and if so how: a single memorial, a plaque, a shrine? In short, how do you integrate an apocalypse into the fabric of a city that is emerging, literally, from the ashes? Slowly.

“The first 10 years after the bombing was a real period of hardship,’’ Tadatoshi Akiba, the city’s mayor, said in an interview at City Hall. “People had to struggle to survive.’’

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that planning policies were formalized. Among the goals: Hiroshima would become an “international city of peace and culture.’’ It would be environmentally friendly, giving maximum consideration to “harmonious coexistence’’ with the city’s rivers and greenery. And it would become “a city of charm and vitality.’’

It is plainly apparent that world peace is a big industry here, and not in an abstract way. The rebuilt Hiroshima may be a big (population 1.2 million) and bustling city with its Mazda headquarters, an international trade port, and a new baseball stadium for the hometown Hiroshima Toyo Carp. But the legacy of the atomic bomb is never far from people’s consciousness or even their line of vision, and it informs almost every aspect of city planning and daily life.

It’s most apparent in the thousands of “hibakusha’’ living here, the “explosion-affected people’’ who were near the hypocenter that day or were exposed to radiation from the fallout. There are more than 73,000 hibakusha in the area, whose average age is 75, and “they are in a constant state of suffering from PTSD every day,’’ said Mayor Akiba, an MIT-educated math ematician who taught at Tufts University in the 1970s and ’80s and is president of Mayors for Peace, a worldwide group dedicated to nuclear abolition. “When it comes to the suffering of the hibakusha, we are just beginning to discover what radioactivity does to those affected 60 years later.’’

Not surprisingly, the number one tourist attraction in the city is the Peace Memorial Park on Peace Boulevard. This is home to the haunting Peace Memorial Museum, familiar to anyone who has seen the 1959 French film classic “Hiroshima Mon Amour.’’ The museum tells the story, in clinical detail and devoid of sermonizing, of the bombing and its aftermath. It tells it more succinctly in the form of two clocks standing sentry at the museum door. One counts the days since the United States dropped the bomb: 23,369. The other counts the days since the world’s last nuclear test: 66 (numbers as of July 30). It was reset to 1 on May 25, the day North Korea tested a powerful underground nuclear weapon. Point taken.

For me, though, it was the park itself that best evoked that fateful day. Most eerie is the so-called A-Bomb Dome, formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall. When the bomb exploded directly overhead, it ravaged the building and killed everyone in it, but remarkably some walls were left intact, along with the skeletal framework of the dome.

It’s one of the only tangible remnants of the old Hiroshima, which alone makes a statement about the force of the blast (3,000-4,000 degrees centigrade at the hypocenter). I’ve toured ancient cities that have more to show for them.

But through a thoughtful combination of monuments and signage, the park does a remarkable job of sketching the contours of a city that’s no longer here. There are 75 monuments scattered throughout the park, each one commemorating a particular subpopulation that was annihilated. There’s a Monument Dedicated to Construction Workers and Artisans. Another is dedicated to the employees of the Hiroshima Post Office (most of whom, we learn, were women and girl students hired to fill the vacancies left by male employees who had been drafted).

There’s the poignant Children’s Peace Monument, which would resonate with any child who knows the story of Sadako Sasaki, subject of the popular storybook “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.’’ She was 2 when Hiroshima was bombed and died 10 years later from leukemia. But while she was hospitalized, she attempted to make 1,000 cranes out of paper, which, according to legend, would get her wish granted. (A few of her tiny cranes, made from paper removed from her medicine bottles, are exhibited in the museum.) Horrified by her death, her classmates solicited donations from around the world to build this monument, a three-legged pedestal topped by the bronze figure of a girl holding a folded origami crane. Japanese schoolchildren keep the story of Sadako alive by hanging chains of 1,000 cranes in a nearby glass-encased booth.

At the museum, I picked up a “Guide to A-bombed Buildings and Trees,’’ truly the saddest map I have ever seen. It recalls in detail the Hiroshima that no longer exists, noting, for example, the ginkgo tree in front of the main hall at Hosenbo Temple; the juniper in the sidewalk in front of Fukushima Nursery School; the Nippon Bank, Hiroshima branch.

It’s all very sobering. But as Akiba emphasized, Hiroshima is not only about peace, but also about “charms.’’ In preparation for our meeting, his staff had compiled a list of some of them. “We offer river cruises, open-air cafes on our riverbanks, and visitors can enjoy walking along the riversides,’’ it emphasized. Other tourist resources include “historical sites conveying the history and culture of Hiroshima,’’ such as Hiroshima Castle, Shukkeien Garden, and Fudoin Temple. Three art museums. The baseball stadium. Good food: Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake, and pickled Hiroshima mustard greens. “A new style of karaoke system, which has been customized for our foreign visitors’ tastes.’’

Akiba seems particularly proud of the city’s hospitality and openness to visitors. “I’m sure you noticed there is no hostility,’’ he said, tactfully answering an unspoken question. In fact, I had noticed. I visited three other cities in Japan - Nagoya, Kyoto, and Tokyo - and Hiroshima made touring easiest for an English speaker. It has launched a “Hello International Travelers,’’ or “HIT’’ campaign, with maps and tourist information widely available around the city. (Memo to Hiroshima tourism bureau: Under the circumstances, you might want to rethink your slogan, in light of its full phrase: “Hit Hiroshima.’’)

I spent three days in the Hiroshima area and was able to cover a lot. I took a walk to the baseball stadium, disappointed that there was no game, but even more disappointed when the mayor told me afterward I could have toured it anyway: In the spirit of Hiroshima hospitality, it’s open to the public all the time.

A popular spot is the Shukkeien Garden, a beautiful landscape garden originally built in the 1600s and rebuilt after the bombing. Its name literally means “shrink-scenery garden’’ because it miniaturizes and mimics many scenic views including mountains, valleys, bridges, and tea cottages. You can stroll around it in half an hour, but I could have stayed all day.

A 20-minute walk from the garden is the five-story Hiroshima Castle, built in 1591 and destroyed by the blast. It was rebuilt in 1958, its moat is populated with fish and turtles, and it is used to exhibit artifacts and tell the history of Hiroshima as a castle town.

Time constraints kept me from visiting an architectural wonder recommended by a member of the mayor’s staff: the waterfront Hiroshima City Naka Incineration Plant, designed by no other than Yoshio Taniguchi, who redesigned New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

I opted instead for a day trip to Miyajima, an island considered one of the three most scenic spots in Japan, just a 30-minute boat ride from Hiroshima in the Seto Inland Sea. The island is best known for its “grand gate,’’ the O-torii, a huge vermilion-colored arch standing in the sea and presiding over the Itsukushima Shrine, which dates to the sixth century.

Miyajima is a visual feast. You take in winding, narrow streets with ancient merchants’ homes and latticed doors; women stooped on the sand at low tide, digging clams; and a particularly quirky photo op: a display of the world’s largest rice scoop (Miyajima is the birthplace of the rice scoop). Also, there are lots of tame deer roaming around town, nonchalantly greeting visitors.

But don’t get too close, and watch your rice scoops. “Please pay attention and keep an eye on your personal belongings,’’ a guide map warns. “Especially tickets and souvenirs as the deer might eat them.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at

If You Go

What to do
Peace Memorial Park Peace Boulevard, city center
Memorializes the victims of the atomic bomb. Free.

Peace Memorial Museum In Peace Memorial Park
Tells the story of the bombing.
50 cents.

Shukkeien Garden 2-11 Kaminobori-cho, Naka-ku
Landscape garden, in miniature. Adults $2.50.

Miyajima Scenic island in Seto Inland Sea
Get there by streetcar from Hiroshima Station or ferry.

Where to stay
Hotel Granvia Hiroshima 1-5 Matsubara-cho Minami-Ku
Conveniently connected to the Shinkansen Line’s JR Hiroshima Station. Doubles $135-$148.

Where to eat
Kushinobo 7-4 Horikawa-cho
Near the Hondori covered shopping arcade, a friendly, cozy place where they happily explain what you’re eating. Set dinners $19-$35.