After Kyoto, Tom and I were feeling all templed out so we decided to visit Hiroshima to learn more about one of the darkest footnotes to Japan’s past. For most people, Hiroshima is almost synonymous with the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan during WW2. Before we entered the museum we went and looked around the peace memorial park. There is the Atomic Bomb Dome which is the shell of a large industrial building which somehow survived when the surrounding area was all but wiped out and serves as a haunting reminder to this day of the destruction that occurred here. The Memorial Cenotaph is a concrete semi-arch containing all the names of those who died, which also has a lovely concept behind it whereby the arch shape provides a refuge for the victim’s spirits. It also frames the Peace Flame at the other end of the park which will only be extinguished once the last nuclear bomb is destroyed. It was then time for the museum itself which gently leads you in by going through the events leading up to the bombing. It was here I learnt that Kyoto was only spared because one of the US Generals had enjoyed his honeymoon there years ago and demanded the city be taken off the list of potential targets.
The museum then goes into meticulous detail of the bombing itself with a strong focus on the personal stories of the victims which were of course harrowing to read. Two images which particularly stayed with me was a photo of a woman’s back where the pattern of her kimono was imprinted on to her skin and a surviving chunk of wall where the imprint of a man’s shadow had been left behind. You then move on to the aftermath section which in some ways was just as sad to read through as there were many who had escaped the direct effects of the bombing but later discovered they had been affected by the radiation. The statue of the girl with her arms outstretched in Children’s Peace Memorial was actually set up in tribute to a young girl who was 2 years old when the bomb hit and later died from cancer caused by radiation from the bomb aged 12. It also surprised me to read that many survivors went to suffer from stigma due to public ignorance of radiation sickness which some even believed to be contagious, as well as discrimination against those who carried permanent physical marks. It just seemed very incongruous with the learned and respectful culture I’d encountered so far.
I came away feeling very humbled from what I’d seen. And I don’t know whether it was the tragic stories fresh in my mind which then tempered with my feelings but for me Hiroshima still didn’t seem to have recaptured its soul and didn’t contain the same vibrancy I’d felt everywhere else in Japan. So in search of distraction, Tom and I went and sought out a local delicacy okonomiyaki. This is essentially a bed of noodles mixed with okonomiyaki sauce (a spicy mayonnaise) and then topped with a savoury pancake. I don’t know how this hasn’t become a worldwide hit as it was one of the cheapest but most delicious things I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.
We didn’t spend that much time at our next destination Osaka so I don’t feel qualified to write that much about the city itself other than it definitely was inviting enough to make us want to come back and experience it properly. It was here that I really noticed the Japanese “salaryman” as we were staying in Osaka’s business district. As ubiquitous a sight as combini stores and invariably a man, always suited and booted, salarymen make up a third of Japan’s labour force and will typically stay with the same company fresh from graduation until retirement. It is deeply ingrained into Japanese culture for the salaryman to work 90+ hours per week and to then regularly socialise with colleagues after work (as if you hadn’t seen them enough during the day!). This certainly seemed to ring true with our personal experience as we’d often see large groups in conference be it at a bar or still working away in offices come 10pm. However, in return for their devotion, the salaryman’s company will oversee any difficulties with rent or other legal problems, and will even step in if they are having trouble in their search for a partner!
Anyway back to Osaka, as the Autumn foliage season was soon coming to a close I couldn’t resist going to yet another park. I chose Mino Koen, a short train ride away from the city centre and supposedly a local’s favourite with a waterfall at its summit. It was about a 1 hour walk to the waterfall but I didn’t even notice as the maple trees were a riot of colour here and some had fully turned to a deep gorgeous red. It also wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t another beautiful temple to admire halfway through, which admire I did.
After feasting with my eyes for the last couple of hours on the maple leaves, I took it one step further and tried a local snack which is maple leaves deep fried in batter, not as disgusting as you may assume and the closest I can describe it to is a very crispy cookie.