Hiroshima: Tourists moved to tears

By Chris Pritchard

A park in central Hiroshima is a poignant destination for Chris Pritchard.

The Atomic Dome in Hiroshima (left), the nearest building to the blast zone, survived the atomic bomb attack in 1945. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Hirotsugu Mori
The Atomic Dome in Hiroshima (left), the nearest building to the blast zone, survived the atomic bomb attack in 1945. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Hirotsugu Mori

"Thank you so much for crying," says a guide, giving a deep bow. "It's really appreciated."

He is addressing a young woman who sobs uncontrollably behind me.

It's a sombre experience, wandering through a memorial to the dropping of a United States atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. About 140,000 people were killed by the explosion and its after-effects.

Despite its sadness, Hiroshima Peace Park is a must on the itineraries of many domestic and foreign tourists.

Tragedy tourism makes many people uneasy. Some shun it, while others argue it prevents recurrences. Either way, places like Hiroshima and Auschwitz, the killing fields of Cambodia and the torture cells of East Berlin still attract plenty of visitors.

Modern-day Hiroshima isn't only about recalling World War II horrors. It's a typical big Japanese city with good hotels, restaurants and a vibrant nightlife scene. But Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is the destination for most visitors.

It's anchored by the ruined hulk of a former exhibition hall, now called the Atomic Dome, and kept as a bombing reminder.

A walk from this wreck across the park's well-manicured riverside expanse leads me past a succession of memorials. Notable among them is the Peace Flame, lit in 1964 and intended to burn until all nuclear bombs are destroyed and Earth no longer risks nuclear annihilation.

But the main focal point is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where the poignant exhibits bring tears to the eyes of many. There are melted uniforms and weaponry, melted school lunch boxes and melted glassware; locks of hair from dead children; photos of badly-burnt and shocked residents, with scorched rags clinging to their bodies, trudging through mud as they flee the carnage.

"This had to be done to end the war," maintains a middle aged British woman matter-of-factly. "Yes, it cost many lives - but it ended the conflict."

Her husband weeps quietly. "But not like this," he chokes. "Not like this."

After Hiroshima's heart-tugging memorabilia many Japanese tourists - and a handful of foreigners - seek relief in the beauty and tranquillity of the nearby island of Miyajima.

I watch Japanese tourists getting out of a rickshaw to pose for cute photos with deer that wait to be rewarded with gifts of biscuits. Another group of deer is waiting outside a bakery whose owner gives them leftovers every afternoon. A fellow foreigner, noticing how patiently they're queueing, whispers to me, "They're so orderly, so Japanese."

You can reach the isle's highest point by cable car but I choose the sweaty option and walk up along a steep, forest-fringed path where wild monkeys offer entertainment. Near the top is a ninth-century Buddhist temple and a tunnel through rock, leading to sweeping views of Hiroshima Bay.

A small fire, said to have been lit by an eminent priest almost 1300 years ago but today tended by monks, burns constantly at the temple. I watch the faithful pray at this place of pilgrimage.

The temple is one of many, both Buddhist and Shinto, on this holy island. For instance, there's the 425 year-old Pavilion of 1000 Mats, with its five-storey pagoda (a Miyajima landmark), vast timber-pillared main hall and elaborately painted ceiling. Then there's Daoshoim Temple with its 500 Buddhist statues.

But the most-visited of Miyajima's many temples is a Shinto shrine called Itsukushima. It's the island's main attraction and is partly built over the sea. Neatly-uniformed school excursion groups file through.

Here I bump again into the British couple I'd met earlier in the day at one of Hiroshima's bomb memorials. "Miyajima certainly supplies a different take on a visit to Hiroshima," says the man, no longer tearful, while his wife strokes a deer and feeds it biscuits. "It's so tranquil, a real timewarp."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand operates regular services to Tokyo and Osaka. By super-fast bullet train, Hiroshima is 90 minutes from Osaka and 3.5 hours from Tokyo.

Where to stay: Hiroshima and Miyajima are often visited as day trips from Kyoto or Osaka, but from Tokyo, overnight visits are more usual. Hiroshima, Osaka and Tokyo are well-supplied with international chain hotels as well as independent lodgings from basic to opulent. Miyajima has many small ryokan (Japanese inns).

Further information: See visitjapan.jp or Globus Tours Japan.

Chris Pritchard was a guest of Globus Tours.

- NZ Herald

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