AT 8.15 IN THE MORNING on August 6, 1945 – in the final hours of WWII – an atomic bomb exploded without warning in the skies over Hiroshima, turning the city into a blackened, flattened wasteland of smoking rubble, and raining death and destruction on its population. Final death toll: 200,000 – 70% of them children, women and the elderly (many killed instantly
by the massive blast, many more dying slowly from burns and radiation).
Three days later (August 9, 1945), at two minutes past 11:00 in a blinding flash of light and a terrifying roar, a second bomb was detonated above the city of Nagasaki. The grim statistics this time: 73,000 dead – 75,000 injured – 120,000 left homeless.
Like most Kiwis of our generation, we’ve known of these Japanese place-names and what they signify for ages. But last year, while visiting the vibrant, charming cities that have risen from the ashes, we were confronted with the grim statistics, the horrifying photos, the heart-breaking stories … and forced to think again about the sheer insanity of war and our planet’s desperate need for peace.
Delivered from Kyoto to Hiroshima by a 330kph bullet-train, we found ourselves amongst wide boulevards and welcoming people. It was cold and wet when we toured the sobering Peace Memorial Park & Museum and snapped photos of the Atomic Bomb Dome (the only structure left standing in the area where the first bomb exploded). But the rain only added to the atmosphere … as did the small group of Japanese women, singing hauntingly beautiful peace-songs under their dripping umbrellas.
Two days later, another 90-minute bullet-train to the south, and we were in the city of Nagasaki – today a Japanese gem that begs to be explored. We spent the afternoon studying more horror-photos and artefacts in the Atomic Bomb Museum … checking out the lovely sculptures displayed in the Peace Park (including a stunning stainless-steel Maori peace-cloak donated by Aotearoa New Zealand) … and reflecting on the moving message conveyed by a 10-tonne bronze peace-statue at the top of the Park.
Our hearts joined with the good people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in feeling, thinking, praying, hoping: “No more! Never again!”
Somewhere in between all this, we braved shivering temperatures and took a short ferry ride out to Miyajima Island, a small wooded outcrop on the Seto Inland Sea. There we eyeballed the famous Torii Gate, entrance to the Itsukushima Shrine, and known worldwide for appearing to float on the sea. We rode the Mt Misen Ropeway (gondola) for some up-high grey-sky views … visited the Daishon Temple, a sacred historic complex deep in the forest … inspected the Five Story Pagoda, a stunning vermillion-coloured masterpiece built in 1407 … witnessed a traditional Japanese wedding … shopped for souvenirs in Omotesando Street, the liveliest place in Miyajima … and sampled a yummy hot-food favourite: okonomiyaki rolls.
Which reminds me: the food we encountered throughout Japan was an adventure all in itself. We literally ate our way around the country – from sushi (we even made our own) … to sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish and meat) … to shabu-shabu (cooked piece-by-piece in a hotpot, and eaten with dipping sauce) … to tempura (battered and deep-fried delicacies) … to yakitori (skewered and grilled chicken or pork) … to kaiseki (an intricate multi-course meal, with each item served in a tiny dish) … to eat-as-much-as-you-can-get-on-your-chopsticks Japanese buffet.
From start to finish, the Land of the Rising Sun knocked our socks off – an even-better-than-expected experience we’ll never forget. The people we met couldn’t have been more welcoming. Their gorgeous manicured parks and gardens kept our cameras running hot. Their hi-tech gadgets and infrastructure wowed us again and again. And we all came home wanting one of those multi-function toilets/bidets that we played with in every hotel (washing and blow-drying our bits while sitting in heated comfort).
Oh, and did I tell you about the cherry-blossoms?