The tragic events of 1945 can barely be appreciated without seeing the peaceful, dignified city of Hiroshima, Japan.
Within minutes of stepping off the bullet train, a local resident offered us a free tour of the city so she could practice her English. She led us away from the crowds by the melted sphere of the iconic A-Bomb Dome to a small graveyard hidden between houses.
The tombstones were smooth on the sides but rough and mottled on the top where granite crystals had evaporated from the heat of the explosion 2000 feet above the city. A couple of the granite markers had been tossed aside like straws.
We continued to the memorial park, where thousands of colorful paper cranes fluttered and twirled around the Children’s Peace Monument. Our guide pointed out the cenotaph to the dead, the eternal atomic flame, the peace bell where the annual remembrance ceremonies take place. After we parted company we sat for a while under the low trees, a welcome break from the stifling, summer heat.
The most haunting accounts of the attack are contained within the Memorial Peace Museum: a watch stopped at 8:15 a.m. (the time of the blast), the burnt clothes of schoolchildren, survivors’ drawings of the "black rain." A startling photograph shows a woman wearing an elaborate kimono and the horrendous pattern of burns where the black fabric had absorbed the worst of the radiation. The destruction of Hiroshima is presented here without judgement, just as something that happened.
The starkest exhibit is a set of stone steps marked with a black shadow where a person was resting at the moment of annihilation. The longer you stare at the shape, the more clearly you can make out hair, posture, identity. It is disturbing, of course, but for the sake of the Hibakusha, the "exposed people" of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it must be seen and acknowledged. Political justifications aside, a truly terrible thing happened here.
To regain our inner peace, we took the ferry to the island of Miyajima's floating torii. It rises like a red gate out of the water, circled by screeching kites. Tame deer roamed the beach as the tide swept in and pushed us back to the sands. We rolled up our jeans to get closer, to touch the painted wood of the majestic torii and remember that people can create as well as destroy.
Other tourists took pictures; some touched the torii’s frame as if it were an old friend. The air was calm, serene. A five-story pagoda rose out of the forests behind us, like a quiet guardian.
The ferry took us back to the city past the A-Bomb Dome, silhouetted against the sunset like a crude drawing. An old gentleman sat on a bench, feeding the ducks; his arm was mottled with strange, purple burns. He waved a greeting as we passed. I wondered if he was one of the survivors, or just an elderly man enjoying the tranquil sunset.