HIROSHIMA, JAPAN — Wounds heal. History fades. Time passes. But no human will ever forget the name of Hiroshima. It’s just a damn shame they will remember it for all the wrong reasons.
To be clear, Hiroshima doesn’t sit. It floats. On half a dozen canals that stretch like long, lazy fingers into the Hiroshima Bay. In fact, it’s these canals and the deep saltwater bay that made Hiroshima one of the leading industrial ports — and therefore an Allied target — powering the Japanese war machine.
We won’t talk about the bomb here. I have neither the poignancy nor the insight to even begin to scratch the surface of what the most devastating act that man has done to man means to these people, this country, this world. The point is, though, that Hiroshima is determined to never let that moment be forgotten. It’s not a victim’s cry for justice; instead it’s a recognition that no one — no one — can turn a cold shoulder when the people of Hiroshima share their story.
That’s largely the purpose of the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Set on a wide green space of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, it’s just a few steps from the so-called A-Bomb dome, the only building left remaining in downtown Hiroshima that partially survived the the bomb.
Granted, the museum shows a generally Japanese-centric approach to the war. While it doesn’t take much responsibility for the actions that Japan took that led to the devastation (invading China, enslaving thousands of Koreans, subjugating millions of other ethnicities), it does give a sobering narrative of how urgent it is to rid our world of nuclear weapons. Most touching is a display of the letters that Hiroshima mayors have sent to the leaders of every country that has tested a nuclear weapon… every time they have done so.
But back to not defining Hiroshima by a split-second event outside of its control. Today’s Hiroshima is so utterly beautiful, active and engaging. Think of the dynamics of Chicago set on the canals of Venice. We spent our short day and a half just jogging through the city.
Our favorite moment was following the heavenly smoke into a tiny, 10-seat Yakotori restaurant in the heart of town. No one, not the chef, patrons or owner, spoke English. But somehow, we managed to fill our individual gas grill with sizzling slices of bacon, pork and fatty ham. The meat sputtered away as we washed it down with cold Asahi and chatted in no particular language with the friendly locals that sat next to us. When the chef didn’t realize how to use our camera, we walked away with about 200 candid shots of us and our best friends for the evening.
From Hiroshima, we headed further south to Japan’s third largest island, Kyushu.
The town of Beppu is another relic.
The area’s seismic activity means that hot water springs bubble straight from the grounds. There is a major national park featuring some dozen “hells,” hot springs at temperatures that make them unusable for bathing (though some locals use them to cook food).
In the town itself, these hot springs feed over a hundred Onsen where tourists bathe in turn of the century halls.
Today Beppu is more pot-marked than posh. But 20 years ago, this was THE place to soak away a Japanese salaryman’s meager holiday. We used the two days to while and soak away our road-weary feet after nearly two weeks exploring the country.
Our home in Beppu was an art deco style Ryokan — a traditional Japanese inn — set on a tiny side street. Yamada Bessou was truly a treat, if you don’t mind sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor. As traditional as Ryokans get, the building dated to the 20s and had been passed down by three generation of family members. The art deco influence was both apparent in the light fixtures and bathroom amenities, and yet so interesting to witness my favorite architectural style with a distinct Japanese twist.
We had a private suite with rice paper blinds set on a little quiet garden. The Ryokan’s female and male Onsen hadn’t been touched since it’s inception. Though a bit worse for wear, these tiny enclaves in the big house were amazing little getaways. But the truly amazing experience was the outdoor “private” Onsen.
Guest could rent this natural, hidden hot spring for half an hour at a time and bathe with both sexes (something rarely possible in traditional Onsen). It turned out half hour was more than enough, the water came straight from one of the city’s main aquifers and was nearly too warm to bath.
In Beppu, we had reached our end of our journey south. In the morning is was back to the Shinkansen for a straight shot back to the capital, putting not only kilometers behind us, but years of memories, tragedies and triumphs.