This past Fall, I had the good fortune of being able to travel to Japan once again for my friend’s wedding.
During that trip, I also took some time to explore parts of the country I had missed the last time around. One of those places was Hiroshima.
Why visit Hiroshima?
I only allotted a day for Hiroshima. It’s small for a Japanese city; arguably smaller than my hometown of Pittsburgh.
I stayed at an Airbnb in Hiroshima, and my host was super generous, sending me a guide to strategize my short visit — both for time and money. His tips are integrated with my personal experience throughout this post. I love staying with Airbnb when I travel, and love that I can get you a $55 credit off your first booking even more.
After my visit, though, I realize I could have easily spent far more time here. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to do so again.
Peace & History
This was what drew me to Hiroshima; its history of being one of the two Atomic bomb sites in Japan. It felt like it would be an uncomfortable place to visit as an American, but an important one. Too important to skip on this trip. I was in the West anyways.
Any discomfort I felt was of my own imagination’s imposition. When the Japanese say they are now dedicated to spreading the message of Peace around the world, especially in context of nuclear weaponry, they appear to really mean it.
While the memorials I visited were somber reminders of what we as Americans — nay, humans — should never do again, it was not framed in that context. There appeared to legitimately be no grudges or malice. Only a desire to remind people of what happened, to ensure it never happened again. Anywhere.
Okonomiyaki is a flour-, noodle-, egg-based dish with sauce and other toppings. I really can’t think of an Western equivalent at all. Depending on which part of Japan you visit, the Okonomiyaki will have a different flair, flavoring or ingredient.
Hiroshima, in particular, is known for its excellent Okonomiyaki. In fact, there’s an entire building dedicated to it. It’s called Okonomimura. In this multi-level building, you’ll find stall after stall of Okonomiyaki restaurateurs, each putting their own spin on the dish.
My friend’s dad told me I had to eat there. So I did. I had to ask some locals how to get there; Google had me wandering in circles. You ride up this elevator that’s a little difficult to find if you can’t read Japanese.
It was amazing and if you’re in Hiroshima, you should go, too. The dining is not expensive, and you’ll be fine dropping in wearing whatever you may happen to have on.
Kagura Folk Theater
Kagura is hot right now. It’s experiencing a resurgence in popularity — especially in Hiroshima and the surrounding prefectures.
Kagura is folk theater, performed as an expression of gratitude for the harvest. In the area around Hiroshima, each farming community has their own Kagura performance.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t in town on the right day of the week to catch a show. There are two shows every Wednesday, and admission is currently 1,200 yen, which is roughly $12 USD at the time of writing.
As I walked around Hiroshima on my history tour, I was surprised by the amount of shopping there was. It was reminiscent of downtown Osaka in some places, with covered streets lined with multi-floor shop fronts.
I learned that this is the place you’ll want to buy Kumano brushes, which are some of the best in the world for painting, calligraphy and makeup. It’s also the best place to buy the Maple-leaf-shaped sweet, Momiji Manju and the best sake.
I didn’t actually buy any of those thing. Because I’m me and I hadn’t planned the spending.
But I learned that is what you’re supposed to do.
Save money with the Visit Hiroshima Tourist Pass
If you have the JR Rail Pass, you’ll be able to get to Hiroshima for free. You’ll even be able to ride some buses for free.
But if you’re staying for more than 24 hours like yours truly, you’re likely to find yourself paying for transportation around the city itself. In these situations the Visit Hiroshima Tourist Pass may save you money.
You get access to all the Hiroshima Electric Railway lines, almost all the bus lines in the area and the ferry to Miyajima — a UNESCO World Heritage site — for 3 days for 2500 yen, or roughly $25 USD. If you want to travel throughout the entire prefecture, you can pay 3500 yen — roughly $35 USD — for the same three-day time period.
Like JR Pass eligibility, you can’t get the Visit Hiroshima Tourist Pass unless you’re in the country on a tourist/temporary visitor visa. However, you can actually buy the pass once you’re in Japan.
You can pick up your Visit Hiroshima Tourist Pass at the Hiroshima airport or as soon as your arrive at Hiroshima Station. At the station, you can purchase a pass at the Transportation Information Center near the South Exit or at Swallow Travel on the second floor.
Peace Memorial Park
As soon as I got off the train, I locked up my suitcase and headed to Peace Park. I only had 24 hours, and I wanted to see as much as I could before the sun went down.
Everything I did and saw at Peace Memorial Park was free, moving and unforgettable.
Take the Meipuru-pu bus line to Peace Memorial Park.
The Meipuru-pu line is designed specifically for those looking to visit Peace Memorial Park. If you have the JR Pass, you should be able to ride for free by showing your pass to the driver the same way you show it at the train station. The only localized JR Pass that would also potentially work is the JR West Pass.
Otherwise, it’s 200 yen — about $2 USD — to ride. If you’re good at planning ahead and frugal, you’ll splurge on a 400 yen all-day pass. If you plan on riding the bus there and back anyways, it can only save you money.
The walk to Peace Memorial Park is doable. I took a bus almost to the edge of the river on my way there. I wanted to walk across the bridge as I approached the sites.
On my way back to the station, I walked the entire thing. I ended up walking with my suitcase all the way to the Airbnb, too. It was a beautiful night, and I wasn’t staying too far outside of Peace Memorial Park. The trek from station to park and visa versa took about half an hour each way.
It’s about half that when you take the Meipuru-pu. You can catch this bus right outside the entrance to Hiroshima station.
Hiroshima Municipal Girls High School Memorial
As I crossed the bridge for the first time, I happened upon a memorial for Hiroshima Municipal Girls High School. On the morning of August 6, 1945, 541 preteen students and 7 teachers were helping clear fire lanes in preparation for bombings. Japan mobilized many students into child labor during the war because of the shortage of working-age men in local municipalities.
At the moment these girls were pitching in for the war effort, the Americans dropped LIttle Boy from the Enola Gay over their heads. They died instantaneously.
Some of the teachers were cognizant of the planes overhead. There were efforts to save the girls. Efforts afterwards to save the dignity of those who had lost clothing along with their lives. Exposed bodies were covered. During the blast, teachers died trying to shield the young girls in cisterns or with their own bodies.
View this post on Instagram
One of the most heart-wrenching stories of Hiroshima is the storyof a girls’ school that was in the blast zone. So many innocent daughters lost. . . At the time this memorial was constructed for them, American forces were occupying Japan under its reconstruction. Using “Atomic Bomb” or variants thereof would have been too inflammatory. So instead, they used the formula for Einstein’s theory of relativity. . . Full info by scrolling all the way left. Sorry it’s not the easiest to read. Couldn’t get around the sun’s reflection. . . #pathofpeace #hiroshimajapan #hiroshimabombing #onethousandcranes #1000papercranes #peacecrane #hiroshima #abomb #abombmemorial #hiroshimagirlsschool #theoryofrelativity #einstein #eequalsmcsquared #hiroshimagram #hiroshimacity #visitjapan #visitjapanus #peaceonearth #japangram #japan🇯🇵 #fbf #flashbackfriday #restinpeace #sheisnotlost #travelgram #instapassport #girlslovetravel #nofilter #travelgirlsgo #travelphotography
The love and righteous mourning of the mothers is on display at the memorial. Visitors can leave their chains of 1,000 cranes and pay respect.
I stayed at the girls’ memorial longer than most people would, I suppose. It felt like if I left, I would be breaking with the respect they deserved. I needed to spend time with their memory.
Eventually, though, I crossed the street. That’s where the bulk of the memorials and museums were.
Before I crossed paths with any museums or memorials, though, I ran into one of Hiroshima’s atomic trees. Miraculously enough, dozens of plants survived the blast and are still growing today. Eleven of them are inside Peace Memorial Park.
Cenotaph at Peace Memorial Park
Next I wandered over to the cenotaph. It was built so that those who bring offerings and prayers to lay in front of the sculpture’s feet will look out over the peaceful pond, over the Flame of Peace, and have their eyes drawn directly to the destroyed frame of the Atomic Dome.
Before it was destroyed, the Atomic Dome was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. The bomb went off almost directly above it, pushing down into the building and igniting it and everything — and everyone — inside. Because the impact came from almost directly above, the walls and large parts of the structure largely survived the ensuing fire.
The Japanese decided to preserve the destroyed structure as a stark reminder of the destruction caused by atomic warfare.
It’s an impressive reminder, inspiring reverence every time it pops into your field of vision.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
I walked through the lobby of the Peace Memorial Museum. It was getting closer to close, though, and there was a line for headsets. My Japanese is remedial; I wasn’t going to get as much out of the tour as I wanted to, and I was going to feel rushed.
I took note of the hours, fully intending to return the next morning.
Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims
I wandered over to the National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims. It was a quiet, somber place, and everything was printed in a myriad of languages, including English.
You walk in and go down this ramp lined with cement walls on either side. You feel like you’re walking down a nautilus’s shell as you read the story of everything that happened not just on August 6, 1945, but also beyond.
When you finally arrive at the center, you find yourself in the middle of a circular room, with 360 degrees of Hiroshima surrounding you. Hiroshima as it looked immediately following the atomic bombing. It’s a place that calls you to sit and show respect for the sanctity of human life.
In the next hall, known victims are listed along with their photographs when available. The number now exceeds 290,000, but the list grows longer every year.
At the end, you’ll be able to tour the library where manifestos of mourning mothers and other family members tell the stories of those who lost their lives. You’ll be able to view some of the possessions that survived the blast, and listen to video testimony from survivors.
This testimony doesn’t just tell you what happens. It tells you how Japan’s spirit transformed and survived. Hiroshima’s mothers chose to ascribe meaning to the loss, allowing them to push forward. Allowing them to push for peace at a global scale. It was through this meaning that any semblance of healing was born.
Because of my short timeline, I wasn’t able to take advantage of it, but you can listen to live readings from parents, survivors, etc at the Hall for free. Some times slots are even read in English.
View this post on Instagram
Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students
The girls memorialized just over the river’s edge weren’t the only mobilized students to lose their lives. In fact, a ton of students were out working on the fire lanes that day.
As you cross the river once again via the northern bridge, you’ll run into another memorial for mobilized students. This memorial honors not only the 6,907 that died in Hiroshima’s Atomic Bombing alone, but all those who died helping the war effort both in mainland Japan and across the Pacific Theater.
Folding Origami at the Atomic Dome
I was standing there contemplating the twisted metal and lives lost in the Atomic Dome alone when I caught someone out of the corner of my eye.
He was an older man. He tried a couple languages before he got to my native English, inviting me over next to his “FREE” sign, motioning for me to sit on this tiny little portable stool so we could fold origami together.
My American backside spilled over both sides of that stool, but it did not break. My origami teacher pulled out his papers to show me he was 8 months in utero when the bomb went off. He was born during the black rains that followed the bombings. His medical records showed that he had survived many lung diseases as an infant.
I was given the portrayal of a long, vibrant life, not letting anything slow him down or defeat him. He married a Portuguese woman, and now spends a portion of the year giving Hiroshima tours in Portuguese, largely to European and South American tourists.
Later, I realized that he had shown his papers to me to tell his story. But the real reason he had them was to show to the cop that stopped over about halfway through our visit.
I love that the Japanese cop was watching out for me as an obvious gaijin, and it made me even happier to see he probably wasn’t going to try to scam me in the next ten minutes as the paperwork more than assured the police officer of the origami teacher’s legitimacy and apparent right to be in the park spreading the message of peace.
1,000 Paper Cranes for Hope and Healing
Because ultimately, that’s what he was doing. He was teaching people how to fold origami cranes — specifically the red-headed kind that migrate to Japan from mainland Asia. He was impressed that my friend’s mother had taught me the art before, and took the opportunity to teach me a more advanced method.
I’m always getting rewarded by my Japanese teachers like a little kid. And I love it. This time, my origami teacher rewarded me with the tiniest paper crane I’ve ever seen. He must have used tools to make it; there’s no way any human fingers are that nimble.
My final stop for the day was actually outside Peace Park. The epicenter — the site where the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy all the way back in 1945 — sits about a block into the city, down a smaller street.
The plaque lies in front of what appears to be an apartment building. As ordinary as could be.
But 600m in the air above this building, the Atomic Bomb went off and changed the course of history.
Like the Japanese, I hope we remember the lessons of history, allowing the massive shift that happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be for the better. For denuclearization. And beneath it all, a current of genuine and healing peace.