A visit to Hiroshima provides a sobering insight into the aftermath of the atomic bombing. Suryani Dalip tours the various memorials and also samples its soul food
MY wanderlust heart did a happy jig upon receiving news that I will be going to Hiroshima. It’s been years since I last set foot on Japanese soil.
Here I am on board SilkAir’s inaugural flight to Hiroshima. It is the airline’s first Japanese route. As the aircraft — Boeing 737 Max 8, the newest in SilkAir’s fleet — descends at Hiroshima Airport, I look outside my window seat at the blue sky and clouds as well as down and am spellbound by the breathtaking sight that greets me. The beauty is accentuated by the autumn season though it is still early.
At ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel, my abode throughout my sojourn here, my tour guide Tetsuhiro Murakami (or Teddy, as he prefers to be called), is already waiting for me and my fellow media friends from Singapore and Indonesia.
Our first destination is Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park located nearby and we are walking there.
Located in the centre of the city and flanked by two rivers — Motoyasu and Honkawa — the memorial park covers an area of 122,000 square metres. It is dedicated to Hiroshima as the first city in the world to suffer a nuclear attack, and to the memories of the bomb's direct and indirect victims. It opened on April 1, 1954.
On the way there, we pass by various shopping streets. I notice that many people here cycle. Teddy has to constantly remind me of their presence as I keep forgetting that I am sharing the walkways with them.
At the park, we are met by Shunji Hiraoke, one of the park’s volunteer guides. He relates that 357,000 people were affected by the bombing on Aug 6, 1945, with about 140,000 deaths including those who died from radiation poisoning.
The survivors are known as hibakusha which literally means “atomic bomb-affected people”. Their average ages are 92 years old.
Hiraoke-san then takes us to the Children’s Peace Monument, built in memory of the children who died in the blast. The monument is inspired by a survivor Sasaki Sadako who was exposed to radiation at 2.
Sadako was diagnosed with leukaemia a decade later and died after eight months. While battling the disease, she folded more than 1,300 origami cranes (orizuru in Japanese) using the wrapping papers from her medicines, hoping for a recovery. (It’s a traditional Japanese belief that if one makes 1,000 orizuru, one would recover from illness).
After Sadako died, her classmates decided to build a statue for the young victims. Their efforts received support from schools around the country that began to raise funds. The statue was completed on Children’s Day — May 5, 1958. Since then schoolchildren who visit the park would bring orizuru and place them near the monument.
Hiraoke-san then brings our attention to across the Motoyasu River to where the Atomic Bomb Dome or A-bomb Dome (also known as Genbaku Dome) is located.
Designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel as the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall, construction was completed in 1915.
In the 1945 bombing, most of the building’s walls were destroyed but it was one of the few structures in the area that remained upright. It then became a symbol of the bombing and in 1966 was gazetted as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The dome is one of the 87 preserved A-bomb buildings in Hiroshima, with some of them being banks.
Located 160 metres behind the dome is the epicentre of the blast, the Hypocenter, which is currently the Shima Surgical Clinic. The actual target of the atomic bomb was Aioi Bridge, a distinctive T-shaped three-way bridge located to the north of the park. It makes an easy target as it is easily recognised from the air.
From there, we head south of the park to where more monuments and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum are located.
We stop at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb victims, also known as the Memorial Monument for Hiroshima, City of Peace, as it was built in a bid to reconstruct post-war Hiroshima as a city dedicated to peace.
It consists of a stone chest beneath an arch representing the roof, inspired by the haniwa pottery used to decorate pre-historic tombs. Inside the chest is a record of the names of the victims.
As of Aug 6, 2015, there were 297,684 names on the list. It is inscribed with the phrase: “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.”
As for the survivors, in 2002, the government had dedicated a hall — the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims (now International Conference Center Hiroshima) — as a venue to mourn them. It houses tens of thousands of written and video testimonies by survivors and photographs of those killed in the tragedy.
Our tour ended at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. We only visited the East Building as the main building of the museum is under renovation and is closed to visitors. The museum opened on Aug 24, 1955.
Museum director Kenji Shiga says, “it is built to convey to the world the actual facts of the atomic bombing, to contribute to the abolition of nuclear weapons and the realisation of lasting world peace.”
The museum houses a collection of 20,000 A-bomb artefacts, 5,000 drawings by survivors and 70,000 photographs. It displays belongings left by the victims, photos and other materials that convey the horror of the tragedy, supplemented by exhibits that describe Hiroshima before and after the bombings and others that present the current status of the nuclear age. Each of the items displayed embodies the grief, anger, or pain of real people.
In 1994, the museum was renovated to facilitate education and divided into two sections. The East Wing — the newest addition — explains the history of Hiroshima City before the bomb, development and the decision to drop the bomb, the lives of Hiroshima citizens during World War II and after the bombing, and ends with information on the nuclear age and efforts for international peace. Included in this section is a model showing the damage done to the city.
The West Wing, which was part of the old museum, highlights the damage of the bomb. Sections include a section which displays clothing, watches, hair, and other personal effects worn by the victims. Other sections document what happened to wood, stone, metal, glass and flesh due to the heat as well as radiation effects on the survivors.
Besides these memorials and monuments, there are 50 smaller memorials in and around the parks built by schools, workers’ organisations and groups.
ORIZURU AND SUNSET
Dusk has already fallen when we conclude the tour. Teddy hastily ushers us to the Hiroshima Orizuru Tower, located to the east of the Atomic Bomb Dome and next to the peace memorial park.
He wants us to experience and enjoy the sights of the city as the sun sets. The commercial complex was originally the Mazda Building that was refurbished and rebranded as the Hiroshima Orizuru Tower. It has two underground levels and 14 above-ground floors.
The tower’s main attraction is the Hiroshima Hills — a wooden observation deck on the rooftop — designed by Hiroshima-based architect Hiroshi Sambuichi and opened on July 11 last year.
From here, we not only get a panoramic view of the A-bomb Dome and the Peace Memorial Park but also the cityscape beyond and Miyajima Island in the distance.
There’s a cafe on this floor if you want to get a drink while enjoying the view on the deck.
Once it’s dark, we take the spiral down two floors to Orizuru Square, where each of us will make an origami crane that we learn from a video.
Then, in groups of three, we enter a room which is part of the Orizuru Wall, make a wish for peace and long life, and toss our orizuru down the wall. Thus far, more than 200,000 orizuru have filled the wall.
HIROSHIMA’S SOUL FOOD
For our first evening meal in the city, we sample Hiroshima people’s favourite food — okonomiyaki.
It is a savoury pancake topped with a variety of ingredients. The dish derived its name from the word “okonomi” which means “how you like” or “what you like”, and “yaki” which means “grill”.
Okonomiyaki is mainly associated with the Kansai and Hiroshima prefectures but is available throughout Japan. Toppings and batters differ according to regions.
Teddy then takes us to Okonomimura, where we head for the second floor to the famed Shinchan restaurant that has been in business for almost 50 years.
We are having hiroshima-yaki or hiroshima-okonomi, in which the ingredients are layered — batter, shredded cabbage, beansprouts, meat slices or seafood. Noodles (yakisuba or udon) and fried egg are also used as toppings and the dish is served with okonomiyaki sauce.
I watch in awe, from the other side of the teppan (big iron griddles), as masterchef Tomiharu Kawaguchi, 84, prepares our meals. It takes effort to finish the dish as the serving is rather big.
“Tonight, we are going to visit a place with a beautiful Japanese garden which has been spared from the atomic bomb,” says Teddy.
The place in question is Mitakiso, a restaurant offering traditional Japanese dishes prepared using ingredients sourced locally.
Located in Mitakimachi, Nishi-ku, the restaurant was first opened in 1946 but closed for renovation from the end of January 2006. It reopened in October 2009 as a modern style restaurant. The garden, however, remains untouched.
It has received rave reviews from patrons who compliment the great food, great ambience as well as the beautiful garden.
The building was originally a mansion — with the design blending Japanese and Western elements — that was built in the early Showa period. It used to be popular with domestic and foreign guests as well as VIPS, including Marilyn Monroe, who had stayed in the mansion.
It is already dark when we arrive for dinner. When the manager Takayanagi-san takes us on a garden tour, I am a bit disappointed that I cannot fully enjoy its beauty.
But it is forgotten when Teddy mentions that samurais used to roam the garden in those days; contemplating on political and stately affairs.
Once in the mansion, we are taken to a private dining room that used to be a “guest room”. This room has a gramophone with a vinyl record which plays Marilyn Monroe’s River Of No Return.
TRADITIONAL PERFORMING ART
When in Hiroshima, you should watch the Kagura performance of ancient myths and folktales, the Japanese traditional performing arts.
In the city centre, Kagura performances are held every Wednesday at the Hiroshima Prefectural Citizen’s Culture Center.
I have a chance to catch two shows performed by the Asahi Kagura Troupe, one of the 150 Kagura groups in the prefecture. I have a great time watching the characters, enraptured by the drama that enfolds and the extravagant costumes, and am amazed at the quick costume changes.
What intrigues me most is the dialogue, though there’s not much and I don’t understand a word.
According to troupe leader Sunada-san, the scripts are based on the old Japanese language. I like how they sound, the tonation, which reminds me of the tok dalang (puppetmaster and storyteller) of our wayang kulit (shadow play).
Each show runs for 40 minutes and carries a different storyline but with the same theme — good defeats evil.
In between the show, there’s a 20-minute intermission where a Q&A session with the troupe leader is conducted.
I cannot understand what it is all about as there is no translation. But my guess is the interview revolves around the show and the troupe.
At the end of the performances, audiences are invited on stage to meet with the actors and try out the various costumes and masks. Designs, usually faces of evil characters, are embroidered onto the costumes, which take between six months and a year to complete.
They are also very heavy, weighing up to 20kg. The masks are made using the locally-produced washi paper.
Kagura is a Shinto-originated agricultural rite performed as a way to thank the gods for a bountiful or good harvest.
As it was in the past, Kagura performers are mainly men, since Shinto rituals were mostly performed by men, even the female roles. The show is backed by musicians who play the different types of drums, flutes and cymbals. The large drum plays a key role in Kagura as there are no musical scores and the musicians have to follow the sound of the large drum.
SilkAir charts first Japan route
SILKAIR has charted a new milestone with its maiden flight to Hiroshima, Japan. The route marks the airline’s first Japanese destination in its network and is the only non-stop service between Hiroshima and Singapore. The airline is also the only airline in Southeast Asia to offer a direct flight to the prefecture.
The new service to Hiroshima is operated with SilkAir’s newest aircraft in its fleet, the Boeing 737 Max 8, which was delivered in early October. It features enhanced Business Class and redesigned Economy Class cabins.
The inaugural flight, piloted by Captain Richard Lim Yen Kong, departed Changi Airport at 1.45am on Oct 30 and landed at the Hiroshima Airport at 9.30am on the same day.
The flight’s arrival in Hiroshima was celebrated with a water cannon ceremony, whereby two fire engines flanked the aircraft and sprayed water, forming an arch over it.
SilkAir chief executive Foo Chai Woo said the launch of the route enhanced the solid diplomatic relations between the island republic and Japan, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
He said: “We are delighted to launch our new flight route to Hiroshima. It opens up exciting opportunities for travellers between Japan and Singapore as well as beyond these two major gateways.”
He added that situated on a river delta with close proximity to various attractions in neighbouring cities, Hiroshima is a wonderful destination all-year round with mild winters and late summers.
The flights to Hiroshima are scheduled three times a week, on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with same-day return. The flight MI868 from Changi Airport departs at 1.45am while flight MI867 departs from Hiroshima Airport at 10.25am. This route also sees the introduction of Japanese cuisine, allowing travellers to enjoy authentic Japanese flavours during the journey.
Visit SilkAir’s website www.silkair.com for more information and flight details.
Pictures by Suryani Dalip