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Deborah Howell’s Japan Journey: Experiencing Hiroshima’s Hurts, Hearts and Healings, and a Trip to Miyajima

It has been 71 years since the horrific events occurred at Hiroshima, marking one of the darkest chapters in American history. 71 years hence, it’s a bustlng industrial town of around a million residents. It’s a city that lives in the present but carries the past in its proud pockets every day.

PHOTOS: Experiencing  Hiroshima’s Hurts, Hearts and Healings, and a Trip to Miyajima

As we pass the large green road sign, “Welcome to Hiroshima” a shiver passes down my spine. So much has happened here and I’m anxious to see how its people have survived this terrible tragedy and understand how they explain it to their children. Does Hiroshima wear a shroud of sadness around her shoulders still, or do the residents here have that fierce survivor pride that some cities express following a tragic event? Something akin to “Boston Strong” after the bombing at the Boston Marathon…. ? I hope to find out. I know this town will never forget the dropping of the atomic bomb. But have they, or will they ever forgive?

Hiroshima is the headquarters for Matsuda and the capitol of this prefecture. We’re staying at the Righa Royal Hotel in the center of town just a short distance from the Hiroshima memorial.
We”ll spend most of the day there tomorrow but today is Blake’s birthday, so we’ll check into the hotel and then walk the streets and do some shopping.

We visit a store that hand carves makeup brushes for companies like Estée Lauder. We visit another which sells cat-shaped or cat-themed everything. This super cosmopolitan city reminds me of a cross between a very clean New York and Paris without all the tiny dogs. Unlike the other places we’ve been, there’s a lot of western (American, Italian and French) influence here. Starbucks, Hermes, Prada, and on and on.

After buying some beautiful writing paper and envelopes for friends, we head back to the Rihga Royal, where rumor has it they have a pool. I throw on my suit and head to the roof. Oh my.
Before me is a gleaming Olympic sized pool with 180 degree views of Hiroshima’s mountains at sunset. And I am alone under this dome. Not a soul in the pool! It’s a swimmer’s nirvana.

As always, hygiene is of utmost importance. Yo literally have to walk through a shower that comes from the ceiling in order to get to the pool itself. Then you put on your hotel-supplied bright blue bathing cap and choose the correct lane. Then you can have your swim. And did I ever enjoy it, looking up at the sunset move through the clouds, turning the sky pink and gold and blue as I did the backstroke. Utter heaven.

Since it was just the attendant and me, I also had the jacuzzi to myself. Can’t fathom why no other guest was partaking in these pleasures, but was only too happy to enjoy them on my own.

A quick shower and we were off to dinner in the hotel’s Japanese tepanyaki restaurant. (Think Beni Hana only without the flipping of the shrimp.) We start with wagyu beef-the real deal–served in broth In small bowls. Next comes grilled vegetables and tasty shrimp with fresh parsley butter. Yowsah, that is delish! Then filet, prepared exactly to order. It doesn’t get any better than this.

We make friends with the sommelier and he brings out two jerobaums of wine for us to look at–then served us some Montrachet that is truly unforgettable, as a toast to Blake on his birthday. (He’s now officially 19 in both Japan and the US.

The next morning, the the time has come to visit the Hiroshima Museum and Memorial Dome, a World Heritage site, and I have a out in my stomach. Hiroko tells us it’s very hard for Americans to visit this place, and puts her hand on my shoulder.

Imagine a bomb dropped from a plane, detonating well before it hits the ground, for maximum impact. Imagine the core of this bomb initiating temps of one million degrees and spreading vast amounts of radiation for miles– destroying an entire city and harming or killing approximately 350,000 innocent souls as they went to school, walked to work or sat on their steps.

One second a life. The next, a black shadow on the sidewalk or a set of stairs. A life–then a shadow. In a split second. While others filmed the disaster from afar. And prepared to drop a second atomic bomb just a few days later in Nagasaki. (There were 5 bombs made, and two delivered.) The city was annihilated, and the destruction and radiation spread for over 20 kilometers. So if you were hanging laundry 5 or 10 miles away, you would see a mushroom cloud and then minutes later a black nuclear rain would fall on you. Unimaginable.

It’s just so hard to get our minds around it, no matter how much we studied this event in school. Looking at the devastation from the inside of the Hiroshima Museum, you have the evidence in front of you–melted ceramic roof tiles, damaged pocket watches and wallets, a tiny shoe that somehow survived, a burned beloved tricycle–black and white footage of the actual event–and yet it’s no easier to comprehend.

Now try to consider this: only 15 per cent of the bomb “Little Boy” actually exploded. Would Japan even exist today if the other 85 per cent had also detonated?

Sadako Sasaki was one of thousands of school girls affected by radiation. She and her roommate in the hospital were suffering from leukemia as a result, but didn’t want to give up hope. They had a contest to see who could fold more paper cranes, hoping that if they each made 1000 cranes they might somehow be cured.

Word of this contest made the news, and people sent good luck cranes from around the world to Sadako along with their best wishes. Although Sadako eventually succumbed to cancer, her legacy to this day is felt in the form of the paper cranes that children fold and hang from the children’s memorial in Hiroshima Memorial Park.

President Obama visited recently and hand folded two paper cranes to leave in the memory of Sadako and the children of Hiroshima. The only other president that has visited Hiroshima was Jimmy Carter in the 1970’s. He hung a flower wreath and paid his respects. How is it that these are the only two U.S. presidents who’ve made it a priority to come here? I just don’t understand. Everyone in the world who possibly can should try to make this journey to Hiroshima and/or Nagasaki so we can all remember just how devastating nuclear warfare really is. And to do everything we possibly can to make absolutely sure it never happens again.

Hiroshima city today is proud to wear its mantle as a no nukes world capital. Although there is some lingering anger about the dropping of the A-bomb, that anger is not directed at present day Americans. Instead, that energy is channeled into doing everything they possibly can to promote world peace and to lobby against nuclear weapons.

The school children of Hiroshima come to the memorial park, hang their paper cranes, offer their prayers of hope and ask for a peaceful future. It breaks my heart that even one of them should have to ask for that. It should be their birthright, and if we all work together in the spirit of the white crane, perhaps one beautiful day it will be.

Next on the itinerary is a trip to a Shrine built in 593 AD on small island called Miyajima, about an hour’s drive from Hiroshima. We get there by taking a 10 minute ferry ride from the mainland.

This place coincides with the beginning of the samurai era. The man who built the shrine made his fortune by trading with China, then became guardian of the emperor and built a shrine on the beach called Itsukushima Shrine Torii (gate) where it’s buffeted by typhoons and storms, yet still stands. (It was considered disrespectful to build a shrine on the land at that time, so he figured out how to construct a sturdy waterproof shrine made of camphor wood right on the beach.)

You come here to offer prayers. The great Torii gate is also located here where the experience varies dramatically as the tide rises and falls. We arrive at low tide and walk the beaches near the vermillion colored shrine. We take pictures of Blake praying to the gate of Torii, as his girlfriend’s name is Tori. He texts her the photo and she loves it.

As in Nara, wild deer mingle freely with the people–it’s known as the place where people and gods live together in peace. We enjoy placing our coins in the pillar of the shrine and then decide on a whim to take the Miyajima Ropeway to the top of Mount Misen. Actually, it takes two gondolas to get there–a small gondola to the midway point and then a larger one to the summit.

We pass high over the primeval forest as we ride. This area is untouched by man–only animals and birds are allowed–except for one dirt hiking trail. Every August there’s a big Fire Festival with torches and ceremonial happenings–we’ve just missed that. The panoramic view of the city of Hiroshima from the top is absolutely extraordinary and includes the swirling turquoise inland sea and its many islands. A true feast for the eyes.

Once down from Mt. Misen, we change into our kimonos (we get to select what style and length) and have dinner served in our tatami room, with a view of the inland sea. Nothing could be more pleasant (especially since the staff has brought in 3 higher chairs for us long legged Americans who find it difficult to sit on the floor pillows for a couple of hours.)

Since Yuki and Hiroko have reached a milestone, the staff brings them special red satin jackets and hats and dresses them for a photo in front of the dinner table. This happens at all boutique hotels for all guests who reach this milestone, and yet it feels quite special. At every hotel, they’ve been given small gifts in honor of their special year–hand carved chopsticks, a beautiful hand towel, some special soap, small cakes or a maple filled cookie shaped like a maple leaf–the specialty of Miyajima Island. Nice touch!

After dinner we take a short boat cruise in the dark night. The tide is now high, and the Torii Gate now seems to float on the sea. We glide through the gate as rain begins to fall–but we get our photos just in time. A gorgeous site!

Speaking of rain–we get the happy weather report that Typhoon Lion Gate has turned north and is headed to Uzbekistan–hurrah!!! We can continue with our original itinerary!! And of course we wish everyone in Uzbekistan good luck.

The next morning we get up early and after breakfast I take a run along the strand. As I run, I take in the inland sea to my right, the verdant mountains to my left, the primeval pine trees and sweet deer all around, and the Torii shrine gate floating on the sea in the distance. This has to be one of the most perfect spots on the planet. If you ever come to Japan, put this high on your list and experience the magic of Miyajima Island for yourself. (Time and again it’s ranked in the top 3 scenic places in Japan.)

See more of my adventures through Japan here.

More from Deborah Howell
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