Text and photos by Leonhard Wolff
Up, bright and early as per usual, we headed to Itsukushima shrine on the small island of Miyajima. A quick 10-minute ferry trip from Hiroshima brought us over. I understand why Itsukushima Shrine was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site but there is no need for the rest of the island to hide. Miyajima as a whole is beautiful, home to numerous other temples and pagodas and gently sloping forested hills that offer a nice retreat from the bustling city-life of Tokyo we enjoyed the past few days.
There is a curious side-effect of the island being designated a sacred ground. The indigenous deer – who have been living on the island long before any human ever set foot on it – are not allowed to be killed. As a result, they are quite unfazed by the people around them and walk around the shrine areas and the town without a care in the world. Quite an unusual sight for someone not used to seeing wild animals this close up.
The town of Miyajima was a pleasant change of pace from the ever-busy streets of Tokyo. With nature so close nearby, both in the form of the sea and the forested hills, the atmosphere of Miyajima was nice and relaxing. I would have loved to hike around the island, walking through the forest further up into the hills. Sadly, we had only so much time to enjoy our stay here. It was to be a busy day. By the time we came back to our meeting point at the ferry station, the O-torii Gate was floating atop the water.
After we had our lunch (very tasty!), we went to the Atomic Bomb Dome. It is always odd to visit places in person that you are familiar with from having seen them in pictures for years. Standing next to the Dome looking over the peaceful city, it was hard to imagine the terror of August 6th, 1945. On the way from the Dome, we also passed the spot marking the explosion’s Hypocenter. It was odd to see the site tucked away in a small side street, with daily-life going on all around it. Only a small sign gives any indication of the spot’s significance. Here too, the contrast between past and present was striking. Present-day Hiroshima is a peaceful city, its streets are lined by trees, the parks are spacious. It gives Hiroshima a welcoming feeling; life seems calm and regular. The almost unimaginable suffering once experienced here seems very far away.
This changed when we visited the Children’s Peace Monument. There, we put down paper cranes in memory of Sadako Sasaki, who folded 1000 paper cranes in the hopes it would grant her wish of becoming healthy. She passed away but her memory lives on in the tradition.
Next, we visited the Flame of Peace and the Cenotaph for the Atomic Bomb Victims before moving on to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where we heard a survivor speak about her experiences. I found it quite interesting that she considered many more people Hibakusha (a survivor of either of the atomic explosions) than those affected by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She drew parallels to Chernobyl and Fukushima, showing us that this was not an issue of the past alone but also one of the present. Her testimony was quite moving and I would have loved to hear her talk more. While small in stature, standing alone in a room full of people, her steadfast determination to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons was clear to us all.
There was only little time left to look at the exhibit after the presentation. What little I had time to see left a big impression. To educate about the atomic bombing, there is comprehensive background information presented to visitors, which covers both the events leading up to August 6th and the aftermath. To give visitors a more personal connection, belongings of the people who were in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing are displayed. Among them is badly torn clothing, melted glassware and the diary entry of a mother looking for her missing loved ones after the explosion. It was very difficult for me to look at some of these items. I cannot imagine how the people of Hiroshima must have felt back then and how they ever managed to go on and rebuild their city into the peaceful home that it is today.
Today was a very moving day. From the peaceful hiking trails of Miyajima to the somber experience of the Peace Memorial Museum, it gave me a lot to think about. If I ever have the chance, I would love to take a day to walk around the forest paths of Miyajima, moving from temple to temple. And I would love to take a day to visit the Peace Memorial Museum to have the time to fully appreciate the effort that went into its exhibitions and to properly listen to the stories they tell.