HIROSHIMA is a Manchester-sized prosperous and thriving city. It has trams, delightful parks, galleries and stylish places to eat – much like any other. Except, of course, it isn’t.
Its place in history was sealed forever on August 6 1945 when an atomic bomb was dropped on the city.
I found a surprising, vibrant city that has used its tragic story to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons.
The focal point of remembrance is the Atomic Bomb Dome, or Genbaku Domu.
The former exhibition hall was one of the few buildings left standing after the bomb detonated 150m away. Its skeletal remains stand as a haunting memorial to the 166,000 people who died that day and from the bomb’s effects.
Across the Ota river is the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, where survivors’ stories tell of the horror of the bomb’s power. Some victims were vapourised and left only a shadow on stonework which survived.
Here, a striking arch houses a flame which is intended to burn until the last nuclear weapon has been destroyed.
The museum and memorial park make this a tricky place to bring children. We would often have to steer our seven-year-old away from the more harrowing exhibits and display boards.
But across much of the island there are beautiful and dramatic reminders which are moving yet not explicit. The memorial to Sadako Sasaki is one.
She was two years old in August 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city and nine years later, she was diagnosed with leukaemia.
She believed that making origami paper crane birds would help her recover and kept folding paper to make the figures until she died eight months later.
Her death inspired a campaign to build a memorial which became the Children’s Peace Monument, built with funds donated from all over Japan.
Now, around 10 million cranes are taken each year to the monument from across Japan and beyond. The statue is wreathed with garlands of the colourful birds made by schoolchildren from across the world in memory of the brave 11-year-old.
As I pushed my daughter on the swings in a park overlooked by the Atomic Bomb Dome, her laughter and that of another girl filled the air. Her father was with her and I noticed him carefully folding a piece of paper. He came over and offered a beautiful crane made from a newspaper to my delighted daughter.
It was a touching gesture in a place of such sorrow.
Hiroshima’s story didn’t begin with Second World War, of course. Only half a mile from the atomic bomb memorial is a reminder of more distant history. Hiroshima-jo castle was originally built in the 16th century and although destroyed by the atomic bomb, it was rebuilt in 1958. It looks every inch the samurai stronghold – its beams made of whole pine trunks and tiled roofs with corners gracefully upturned.
Visitors can climb the six storeys to the top and take in the breathtaking view across the Ota delta’s expanse and the mountains beyond. You can also try on full Samurai garb. So clad in comfy but weighty armour, my daughter and I tried our best to look like medieval Japanese warriors.
The fortress is set in stunning parkland and when we visited, it was lush with autumnal colours, framing the castle in russet and red.
Hiroshima sits on the shore of Japan’s ‘inland sea,’ whose island-flecked waters have been compared to the Aegean. The tranquillity of these islands has attracted visitors for hundreds of years and on Miyajima, they have left the most striking marks.
The most wondrous is the Shinto monument or Tori, a ceremonial gateway erected in the shallows near the shore. The gate is around 50 feet high and built of camphor wood to resist decay. As intended by its makers, the red gate appears to be floating, and on the day we came to the island, the flat calm water showed the gate at its finest – its dull, vermillion arms rising from the pancake-flat sea. The sun was setting as we walked back to the ferry and a clutch of photographers were poised to capture the scene at this magical time of day.
We had to run the gauntlet of the island’s famous miniature deer, whose natural shyness has long been overcome as they pester visitors for food. Some of the more brassy snaffled unwary children’s ice creams or rooted through women’s handbags.
It was here we had a taste of the distinctive cuisine of the region. A kind of sheesh kebab made from octopus was very popular here - and rightly so. Ashore, at our daughter’s insistence, we made a bee-line for anywhere that sold katsu curry.
In the UK, the pork in breadcrumbs, curry and rice combo doesn’t always appear on Japanese menus. Here, they have whole restaurants devoted to it. The more entertaining are semi-automated where you choose the dish you want by pressing a button underneath an illuminated picture of what you want. You then take your seat and hope you get it. Our favourite in Hiroshima though, had service at the table, but boasted a Manga comic book lending library. This explained its popularity with schoolboys, who would sit quietly munching their katsu while reading a comic.
An image I saw often was of the city a month after the bomb had exploded, which was haunting. Almost all of the city’s buildings were gone and the only landmarks were the rivers and the mountains fringing the city.
From our hotel room, high on the seventh floor, much of Hiroshima was laid out in plan form in front of me and it was easy to compare the two views. The achievement of this brave city was laid bare. Almost everything they had had been destroyed, but taking inspiration from people like Sadako Sasaki they faced the future and had rebuilt their home – and I felt privileged to have seen the result.