We are standing in front of Hiroshima’s Genbaku (Atomic Bomb) Dome. 78 years ago, when the American army dropped the first atomic bomb on this city, everything was flattened. There were no buildings left standing. The traces of the bomb that leveled the city that day have been erased over time. This building is all that remains. It is before us with its eerie appearance of that day. Of course, we ask the same question that everyone asks. How come this building, located at ground zero of the atomic bomb, didn’t turn to dust like all the other buildings in the city? We learned the answer when we read the detailed information in the museum.
It was 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945 when the most famous weapon in the history of the war, the atomic bomb, was dropped on this city by an American B-29 bomber. After the explosion, almost everything in the 10 square kilometers of the city center was destroyed, killing about 80,000 people, some of whom were vaporized in an instant by temperatures reaching 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Celsius. Those who survived fell ill with radiation poisoning, resulting in an estimated 192,000 deaths.
When the city of Hiroshima was leveled to the ground, only the Genbaku Dome, only half of which was blown up, survived despite extensive damage. Designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel in 1915, this building was the city’s Industrial Promotion Hall before the bomb. A US warplane dropped a bomb right over this building. The bomb exploded in the air, not on the ground, and the heat generated by the explosion buffered the air at ground zero. The building was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. This dome is a symbol that reminds everyone who visits the city of the cruelty of war.
When we arrived in Hiroshima, we were greeted by a modern Japanese city with buildings, parks, shops and businesses. Our hotel was within walking distance of the park, ground zero of the bombing, and was fully booked. Tourists were here today, as they always are, to get to know the city. From 2015 to 2019, the annual number of foreign visitors to Hiroshima exceeded 1 million, and the city welcomed 1.8 million overseas visitors in 2019. So why do people flock to the site of such a catastrophe?Experts explain it as “dark tourism”, “grief tourism” or “battlefield tourism”. Hiroshima is not the only example. Like the Nazi concentration camps in Europe, Cambodia’s torture prisons, Cambodia’s killing fields, and West Africa’s slave ports, Hiroshima offers emotional moments for visitors. According to local government statistics, the largest number of foreign visitors are Americans, followed by Australians and Chinese. Not only foreigners but also Japanese people visit this place frequently. As we were touring the city, we came across dozens of tourist buses parked in the memorial area. Primary and middle school students, not tourists, were getting off the buses. All of them had come to visit the peace memorial and the museum accompanied by their teachers.
With a population of one million, Hiroshima represents resilience in the face of adversity. Despite the city’s message of peace, it is important not to forget its complex relationship with history. Anyone who goes back to those days can see how a city became a military base.
Hiroshima was one of the few major fortress cities of the Edo period (1603-1867). During the Meiji Restoration, Japan underwent a process of modernization, and in 1888 the city became the base of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Fifth Division Headquarters. The following year, when a railroad was connected to the port of Ujina on Hiroshima’s southern coast, the city began shipping troops to the Korean Peninsula and mainland China. As hostilities in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Pacific War (1941-1945) intensified, Hiroshima’s role as a military capital expanded and critical military facilities were built in the city. Hiroshima’s military organization and capacity made the city a target for the atomic bomb. The city struggled to recover from the initial shock, but recovery was not easy. Full-scale reconstruction began in August 1949.
Our first impressions of Hiroshima were that the Japanese built the city from scratch and decorated it with green areas. After this first impression that gives peace to every foreigner, one naturally finds oneself in August 6, 1945. The Peace Memorial and the museum just beyond the Genbaku Dome also remind us of that day.
78 years later, it is a strange feeling to walk in the footsteps of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It is impossible not to feel sadness and pain at the same time. We are right in front of the Genbaku Dome. Where once there was ruin and desolation, it rises on a series of pillars overlooking the greenery in all directions.
At the entrance of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, we quietly wait for our turn. Designed by Kenz? Tange and inaugurated in 1955, the museum is today recognized as a national and international symbol of peace.
The permanent exhibition at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum provides information about the people killed by the bomb. The artifacts exhibited in the museum are engraved in the minds of the visitors, never to be forgotten again. We are in front of the melted bicycle that a 4-year-old boy rode during the explosion and burned to death. A little further away is a lunchbox carried by a student who lost his life at school. We look at the shadow of a person sitting on the steps of a city building at the moment the bomb exploded. Shredded clothes, watches, diaries recorded by witnesses of that day, drawings by survivors, scientific explanations of the explosion and glass melting into concrete… Each one reminds us of that terrible day and seals us in the present moment to think about the future.
The hall is packed with tourists, everyone is silent. It is a silence that, if you close your eyes, you can feel like you are in a vacuum. Behind the glass display cases are portraits, clothes, bicycles, dolls and drawings of the dead. We can’t take our eyes off the memorabilia, each with real human stories. Children wishing they could sacrifice their own lives for their mothers, mothers thinking that the person knocking on the door is the child they haven’t seen for years, recounting that terrible day. The eyes of the people in the hall are moist, and from time to time sobs are heard in the dark hall. The way out of the museum is the most striking scene of the day. As we walk down a long corridor to the exit gate, we see the peace monument on our left and the Genbaku Dome standing with its horrible skeleton right behind it. The sky is clear, with cottony white clouds. People are silently moving towards the exit, reckoning with the moments they have just witnessed.
Bomb survivors are called hibakusha. Immediately after the bombing, the hibakusha became important actors in Hiroshima’s peace-centered identity. Instead of bottling up their anger and pain and resigning themselves to life, they led the struggle for the abolition of nuclear weapons and anti-war. The Atomic Dome situation was also a subject of debate for a while. Some of the bomb survivors or those who lost loved ones wanted the dome to be demolished because it reminded them of the past. Today there are very few hibakusha survivors, but the city is working hard to document their stories on paper and film. In one of the museum’s special exhibitions, survivors’ drawings are passed down for posterity, depicting the memories that individuals across Japan still have of the day that changed their country forever.
A little further from the museum there is a park with many traces of the atomic bomb. In the park, apart from the Atomic Bomb Dome, there is a Mausoleum for the victims of the bomb with the names of all those who were killed in the stone vault. The Peace Flame, the Peace Bell, the Children’s Peace Memorial and the Aioi Bridge connecting the museum and the dome are also located in this park.
When I first saw Hiroshima, I thought it was a peaceful city, a bright, spacious city with traffic, restaurants and cafes, modern buildings… I had not yet encountered the traces of the atomic bomb. After visiting the museum, I realized that the city was peaceful but very sad, and I remembered that I was in a city that had once experienced hell.
There were other reasons that made this place even more special. Years ago, when we were living in the USA, we had the opportunity to take a road trip and ended up in Los Alamos. We had wandered around the town where the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was invented and visited the museum that explained how the bomb was prepared. We even sat in the park where the bomb was transported to the vehicle during testing and saw the barracks where the scientists who “worked” on the bomb lived, including Oppenheimer. That day, as we were walking around in a gloomy mood in the darkness, we were also reading about Hiroshima, the target of the bomb. It must have been a strange twist of fate to be in the city where the atomic bomb exploded years after seeing the places where it was produced…
After the war, great efforts were made to rebuild the city. Predictions that the city would never be habitable again proved to be wrong. Sites such as Hiroshima Castle and Shukkeien Garden were rebuilt after the destruction as symbols of Hiroshima’s historical heritage. These places are within walking distance of the peace park.
Hiroshima Castle is one of the hundreds of historical sites destroyed by the atomic bomb dropped in 1945. Thirteen years after the bomb, it was partly rebuilt in reinforced concrete with a wooden facade. This castle (Hiroshimajo), also called Carp Castle, is one of the hill and mountain castles built on the plain in the center of the city. Its main castle is five stories high and its grounds are surrounded by a moat. Within the castle boundaries are a temple, some ruins and several reconstructed buildings of the Ninomaru (second defense ring).
The castle was built in 1589 by the powerful feudal lord Mori Terumoto and became an important center of power in western Japan. Inside the castle there is an informative museum about the history of Hiroshima and the castle, and from the top floor there is a panoramic view of the surrounding city.
Our next stop after the castle was Shukkeien Garden. Shukkeien can be translated as “reduced landscape garden”. This description also describes the garden itself well. Valleys, mountains and forests are represented in miniature in the garden’s landscape. Thanks to the careful cultivation of the terrain and vegetation, the garden imitates various natural formations and landscapes. The garden also dates back to the castle and displays many of the characteristics of the traditional aesthetics of Japanese gardens.
Hiroshima has a vibrant city center and the heart of this center beats on Hondori Street, a pedestrian passage lined with shops and restaurants, closed to traffic. We stopped here on our way back to the hotel from Shukkeien Garden, where you can taste Hiroshima’s most famous specialty, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Many restaurants along both Hondori and Aioi streets serve this specialty dish, but Okonomimura is its paradise. Often translated as Okonomiyaki Village, Okonomimura is a small area just south of the eastern end of Hondori.
While many people are familiar with Osaka-style okonomiyaki, it’s worth checking out the rival version in Hiroshima.
There’s a small island less than an hour from Hiroshima. It’s called Miyajima. Just in front of the island, a giant torii gate rises in the sea. This view is considered one of the two best views in Japan. The other is Mount Fuji. I don’t know who said such an ambitious statement, but this claim can lead to great expectations. Miyajima Island has no difficulty in living up to this high praise.
Miyajima island was a place that we said was a must-see in Japan when we were making our travel plan before we came here, and we will see this place that we have known from photos for a long time. The train we took from Hiroshima brought us to the station just across the island. There are ferries departing to the island across the station. Since this trip was included in our JR tickets, we boarded the ferry without paying a fee. We came to the end of this already short journey by watching the beauty of Mount Misen. A large group of tourists were going to the island with us. We encountered the crowds of tourists we had seen on the roads during our week in Japan. The first thing we saw as we approached the island on the ferry was the “floating” torii gate of Miyajima.
As soon as we landed on the island, we came across a small shopping center. Without bothering with food and souvenirs, we walked to the nearest shore opposite the famous gate.
There are many things to do in Miyajima, but none as impressive as watching the Torii Gate rising out of the halls of Itsukushima Shrine into the sea. We came here for the day, and it’s easily worth a couple of days. The most important feature that distinguishes it from other islands is its trees and vegetation. In other words, the most beautiful months of the island are spring and fall. The taste of being here on the days when the trees start to turn yellow and even red is like nothing else.
Miyajima means “temple island” in Japanese. This is because it is home to Itsukushima. Like the Torii gate, the main buildings of the temple are built on water. Another feature of the island is the presence of deer close to humans, just like in Nara. The difference from Nara is that the deer here are not fed.
The centuries-old Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima is the source of both the island’s fame and its name. The shrine and its torii gate are unique in that they are built on water that appears to float on the sea during low tide. The shrine consists of numerous buildings, including a prayer hall, main hall and theater stage, connected by boardwalks and supported by pillars above the sea.
The Itsukushima Shrine experience can feel different at different times. On the day we were on the island, the temple and gate were in the water. At low tide, when the sea water recedes from the bay, visitors can walk up to the gate and have the opportunity to see this magnificent structure up close.
After a long look at the shrine and the gate, we went up Mount Misen. At 500 meters above sea level, this mountain is the highest peak in Miyajima. On clear days it offers a spectacular view of the Seto Inland Sea and Hiroshima City. Luckily it was such a beautiful and clear day that the buildings of Hiroshima could be seen in the distance. We took the cable car to the summit in a few minutes.
It is believed that Buddhism was first practiced on Mount Misen by Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect and one of Japan’s holiest clerics. Near the summit of Misen is Daisho-in Temple.
On a small hill opposite Itsukushima Shrine, Senjokaku is also an important part of Toyokuni Shrine. Once inside the shrine, you can look at the weathered wooden columns and beams and guess the age of the building. The giant paintings hanging between the wooden columns of the hall are also extraordinarily beautiful. It was an interesting experience to look at these faded works of art and imagine the stories they could tell.
Right next to Toyokuni Temple is Gojunoto, the Five Storey Pagoda. The 27.6 meter high pagoda was built in 1497 and restored in 1533. The interior is not open to the public.
The true owners of Miyajima are the deer. They pay no attention to anyone because they are the sacred messengers of the gods and have been here for more than 800 years. The deer have never hesitated to follow us, rummaging through our backpacks or searching for food in our hands. They are usually docile and friendly enough to be tamed, but unlike the deer in Nara, they are considered wild, so feeding them is forbidden.
Despite being a small island, Miyajima has many restaurants and cafes. All of them are great, but the most popular product is Momiji Manju or wagashi, a steamed doughnut in the shape of a maple leaf with a filling. The traditional filling is bean paste. There are many other variations such as cream, cheese, chocolate and big bean jam. There is also a fried version of these. Like tempura, but sweet. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside.
Even though I tried and tasted them all, my eyes were still on the oysters. Freshly caught oysters have been on my mind since the moment I set foot on the island. We visited the temple, watched the gate to the fullest, climbed the mountain, walked through the wooden halls, but we still couldn’t eat oysters. When we came across oysters being cooked over charcoal fire in a crowded but clean place by the sea, we had no choice but to stop and taste them. The oysters are served with ponzu (a sauce made with soy sauce and citrus juice), lemon or red pepper.
Miyajima was the place I most wanted to visit during our two weeks in Japan and it did not disappoint. At the end of our trip, this is still my favorite place in Japan!
It’s time to say goodbye to Hiroshima. Our journey is to Himeji. Actually, we were going to go to Kyoto today and start exploring the city, but after hearing about Himeji, we changed the program. Kyoto can wait a little longer, but a trip to Japan without seeing Himeji will always be incomplete.
Himeji City is known above all for its castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the most beautiful and well-preserved castles in Japan. We arrived here from Hiroshima, connecting via Okayama. The castle was within walking distance. We were planning to walk anyway, but as we were passing by the bus stop just across the station, we came across a bus going to the castle and we got on it immediately.
Luckily, the weather today is clear and crisp. In the distance, the white structure of the castle came into view. The bright white walls, delicate decorations and gray roof tiles were accompanied by the blue sky and white clouds. As we approached, I heard Yelda’s words “It’s magnificent…” over and over again.
It is one of Japan’s most beautiful surviving castles, with bright white paint and ornamental roof designs adorning the building. The grounds of the castle are as beautiful as the castle itself. Before entering the building, it is useful to watch it from a distance.
The fact that it is one of Japan’s 12 original castles and has survived four centuries without significant damage from war, earthquake or fire puts it on the “must-see” list. Chosen as a strategic defense point west of Kyoto, the castle’s first fortifications were built in the 1400s. The current castle complex was completed in 1609 under the supervision of Lord Ikeda Terumasa. The main building consists of more than 80 structures connected by a series of labyrinth-like winding paths. We learn all this information while touring the castle. From the top floor of the castle you have a unique view of the city. As the floors get smaller and smaller as we go up, we continue on our way at a snail’s pace accompanied by the crowd.
After leaving the castle, we stopped by Kokoen, a large Japanese garden next to Himeji Castle. It consists of nine separate walled gardens designed in various styles of the Edo period. The gardens were opened in 1992 to commemorate the centennial of Himeji City and were built on the former site of the residence of the lord of Himeji Castle. We forgot the tiredness of the stairs we climbed in the castle and the stress of the crowds by relaxing in this paradise corner. While waiting for the train, we continued on our way after a ramen feast at a local restaurant, one of the surprises of the city.
You can visit Himeji Castle as a stopover between Hiroshima and Osaka. From Hiroshima, Himeji is a 1.5-2 hour train ride away. From Osaka, you can reach here after an hour’s journey. The distance from the castle to the train station is 15-20 minutes.
Next: First Kyoto and then Nara