From 1980 until after I graduated high school, the Doomsday Clock was always set just two or three minutes to midnight. Like all Generation-X Canadian schoolchildren, we learned about the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and it’s aftermath. We watched movies about nuclear fallout and mutually assured destruction, movies like The Day After and Where the Wind Blows. Our parents were taught how to survive nuclear war – hide under your school desk and run to your parents’ homemade bomb shelter. But my generation was taught surviving a nuclear war was impossible. Duck and cover was just a comforting fiction for the baby boom generation. Growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s, we all lived with the looming spectre of nuclear holocaust. But really, none of us have any idea of the actual horror.
There are few iconic places in the world that, despite living so prominently in our cultural consciousness, actually still take your breath away when standing before them in person. As we rounded a corner from our guesthouse and approached Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome and the Peace Memorial, we were both struck silent. We arrived there around 7:45 am, half an hour before the memorial Clock Tower would chime at the exact time the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on a living populace. We were standing near the hypocentre, the exact point above the earth where the bomb detonated. The Americans had targeted Aioi Bridge, the unique three-way crossing at Hiroshima’s centre. In reality the bomb detonated a few metres away, just above a surgical clinic close to the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the building now known as Genbaku domu or A-Bomb Dome.
The atomic bomb dome is an uncanny place. One of the few buildings whose original structure could still be discerned after the blast, it stood hollowed out and alone amidst a desert of rubble. Now it stands like a cathedral memorializing not just the victims, but the prospect of lasting peace and genuine humanity. That morning on August 6, 1945 at 8:15 am, tens of thousands of people were out walking to school or work. In the split-second after it detonated, eighty thousand (80,000) people were killed. Another sixty- to seventy thousand died in the immediate, painful aftermath of radiation sickness or burns. We walked around the dome several times and then stood there quietly, accompanied by three or four other Japanese visitors. We then crossed the Aioi Bridge to the memorial Peace Park.
The Children’s Peace Monument is a monument for peace to commemorate Sadako Sasaki
and the thousands of child victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
The park is beautiful. There’s a remarkable tone to it. More than a simple monument of mourning, it is a quietly hopeful place. Remembrance of lives lost and the human cost of war are balanced with a collective and genuine spirit of peace. As the clock tower chimed a beautiful song at 8:15 am, we approached the middle of the park and it’s memorial peace flame that sits at the centre of a long reflecting pool. Because we had approached from the back of the monument, we hadn’t understood the intended effect. Then we walked around to the front, near the entrance to the museum.
As one approaches, you see a concrete arch – a cenotaph – that bends over the reflecting pool with the eternal flame in the distance. At the centre of the cenotaph are the remains of the A-Bomb Dome, framed perfectly within the embrace of the arch and underlined by the flame. As far as memorials go, this one is near perfect. It frames the dome and focuses your attention on it completely. The Japanese line up in front to bow and pay respects. We’ve seen dozens of shrines in our time in Japan. Nowhere were simple acts of reverence more solemnly paid than here. Many are praying for loved ones lost in the conflagration. Some are paying respects to their fellow Japanese and honoring their memory. Still others offer prayers for peace.
Nearby, the memorial museum recounts the history and aftermath of the world’s first atomic bombing of civilians. It also recounts life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki before the bombings, and tells the horrific stories of victims and survivors. The museum doesn’t shy away from the historical fact that the Pacific War was instigated by Japan. But neither does it allow a visitor to escape the moral turpitude of using such a weapon on living beings.
Each year on August 6th there is a ceremony held in Hiroshima to remember what happened in 1945. A large bell is rung, and a minute of silence is held to pray for peace, and to pray that an atomic bomb is never used again on anyone in the world. We wondered why this remembrance day isn’t honoured by every country. All of us should pray this never happens again.
Today, Hiroshima is a modern city. So little survived after 1945, it is now remarkable for the number of buildings built in the 1950s and ‘60s. This is true of many Japanese cities that were destroyed (using conventional weapons) during the war. Almost nothing remains of the city prior to 1945. And yet, Hiroshima is a very charming place. Built on an estuary, it is a city of canals and rivers. During cherry blossom season (now), the city is alive with hues of pink and red.
Nearby to Hiroshima, a 30-minute train ride away, is Itsukushima Island. Known by tourists as Miyajima Island for its beautiful shrine and the Great Torii that lies out in the shallow bay. I have long wanted to photograph the Torii and knew about the island from my mild obsession with old Japanese samurai films. Torii gates mark the boundary between the spirit and human worlds. They are ubiquitous in Japan. This particular Torii is almost absurdly photogenic, making it one of Japan’s most revered (and photographed) sites. Situated in the low-lying bay of the sea, at high tide the Torii appears to float in the middle of the ocean. Despite a massive crowd, it was well worth the effort to visit the gate at sunset. After dark, the island becomes a place of serenity and solitude. Without a sunset selfie to get, almost everyone leaves. This would have been a spectacular place to spend a couple of nights. The island has a lot worth seeing. If we return to Japan, we would make Hiroshima and Itsukushima priorities for a longer visit.
On our first long sabbaticals, we used to have wonderful encounters with other travelers. We’d even spend a few days traveling along with some of the people we met. Now, almost no one talks to each other. In fact, we’ve noticed few other tourists even make eye contact as you pass them on the street. Maybe they’re trying to pretend they don’t see the other million tourists visiting the same sites and taking the same photos. Or maybe we are all too fixated with our social media profiles, trying to portray a perfect moment for our digital “friends” that we forget to talk to people right in front of us.
Whatever it is, something has changed.
But we met a young couple on Itsukushima that night at the Torli gate that sort of restored our faith in their generation. We stood and chatted with them as the crowds swirled around us in a slow stampede for the ferries. The time went by so quickly that what was originally a short exchange of niceties – he had asked me if my photographs had turned out well – actually turned into a long conversation about the state of the world, life choices, and the future. It was refreshing. We left them with our contacts, just like in the old days, and said goodbye. All in all, our evening had turned out better than we expected.
Our plan was to make for the island from Hiroshima in time to hold a place where I could set up my tripod. We were expecting large crowds. On our way through Hiroshima to the train station we noticed hundreds of people in baseball jerseys. I watched as they all headed in the same direction. That could only mean one thing: Baseball game! We had noticed a few people earlier in the day walking around in the red caps and jerseys of the Hiroshima Carp.
Not many people know this: Karen loves baseball. She’s a real, bonafide fan. I enjoy the game, the aesthetics, the history, the deep analytics and strategy of it, even though I don’t understand most of the game. But Karen really gets baseball. She loves the ball park, the smells of the crummy hot dogs, the cries of the touts, the cheering, the fandom, the rules of the game, the stats and the etiquette. The mascots and the absence of formal cheerleaders. Everything about it, she loves. We were nearing the train station when I turned to Karen and pointed to the red crowds. “There must be a game tonight. Do you want see some baseball?”
“Um… yes,” she said. “Yes I do.”
At that moment, we attempted something that Karen rarely does: we changed plans. And at the last minute. “What about photographing ‘the wonder’?” she asked. I suggested foregoing the crowded tourism frenzy that surely awaited us at Itsukushima (Miyajima). Instead we would go and watch the Hiroshima Carp play the Chunichi Dragons. I like to photograph baseball fans and players. It would be a lot of fun.
We followed the river of red jerseys knowing it would lead to Hiroshima’s ballpark. The official name is Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium. Who couldn’t love that? As we imagined things, we would just navigate the language difficulties and purchase two tickets. Somehow. We didn’t care where we sat.
It was amazing. There were thousands of people all heading to baseball. The atmosphere was like a playoff game. We arrived at the stadium and quickly realized there was a zero chance of scoring game tickets. The ticket booths weren’t even open. They had security checking tickets. We stood behind a chain link fence and peered through it at the beautiful outdoor ballpark just a few metres away. It looked fun in there. We saw an American couple wandering around. “Do you know if they’re sold out of tickets?” I asked. “Yeah. Very much so,” he said, obviously dejected. They had been trying all day and before I could ask, he added that secondary markets for sports tickets are illegal in Japan. So sold out means sold out. As we turned and slowly walked away from the stadium, Karen elbowed me. “See? This is why I plan.” Eyeroll.
Back to plan A, we headed straight for the train hoping we could still catch sunset. Clearly we were meant to have our conversation with those two lovely millennials. And I did get a nice photo or two of the Torii.
But when we got home that night, Karen got right on the Google and got straight down to business. She found two tickets to watch the Yomiuri Giants play against Yokohama’s DeNa at Tokyo Dome next week. The Giants are Tokyo’s largest baseball team, and Japan’s defacto national team. Just like the Bluejays!
Today is a bit of a rest for us. It’s raining. We’re in Kanazawa, a wonderful city near the coast of the Sea of Japan. It is much different from other Japanese cities we’ve visited. It was among the very few that wasn’t destroyed by allied bombing in World War Two, so much of its historical architecture remains intact. Large areas of the centuries-old city have been preserved, including a samurai neighbourhood, a geisha district, and dozens of original temples. Kanazawa has a spectacular eleven-hectare garden, one of the finest examples of Japanese horticulture in the country. The city’s wabi sabi patina paired with a focus on traditional arts and crafts and sophisticated modern art scene, make Kanazawa a hip and laidback place to hang out for a few days. There are also way fewer tourists here, an unexpected and very welcome surprise. I even found a talented and charming barber to shave my head.
We picked a barbershop at random for Scott. Turns out he’s a champion barber with several trophies (see above).
He was really excited that Scott came in to get his hair cut. Several photos were taken afterward.
We are here for a week, so we’ve been talking some day trips out to places like Tojimbo to take in the natural beauty of the seaside and the imposing magma cliffs that end at the ocean. For such a stunning place, there were very few people wandering around. I even took a few long exposures, or “smokey pictures,” as Karen calls them.
Our next stop will be a two-night stay at a traditional Japanese Ryokan or inn at Fujikawaguchiko. With a bit of luck, we’ll see Mount Fuji. Then we’ll end our trip to Japan with an evening of baseball in Tokyo.
Karen is just a little excited.