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Hiroshima, Japan: A phoenix among cities

Cherry blossom season calls for long picnics with friends and family

Perhaps the biggest casualty of WWII, Hiroshima has risen from the ashes to become an emblem of peace and a world-class city


Two American guys are sitting in a bar.
“We’re from the US Army, came here on vacation,” they tell me. BOM, as the Japanese bar owner likes to call himself, roars in approval as they order a round of shots for everybody. I’m in Hiroshima, where you’d think such introductions might be awkward and unsettling, knowing the city’s tragic history.

But no.

Tonight, I’m living the tale of how the world’s most infamous bomb site rose from the ashes and became a passionate champion of peace after the Second World War. There’s so little we know about what happens to destroyed war zones after the war’s over. My reaction on learning I’m coming here is surprise, followed by doubt: isn’t it still a bit radioactive? I ask stupidly. On second thoughts, not that stupidly; the Bhopal gas factory still hasn’t been fully cleaned up, after all.

But then, these are the Japanese we’re talking about. I don’t know how to describe Hiroshima’s resilience and rebirth without stereotyping an entire people, so let’s just say it’s spectacular. Public parks and cherry blossom trees adorn Ground Zero, above which an American B-29 bomber dropped a deadly atomic bomb on August 6, 1945 and wiped out the city.

Modern Hiroshima has a vivacious appetite for life’s pleasures, from art to shopping to bar- and restaurant-hopping; but, before plunging into these, I have to know the legacy of that terrible day, how that shaped its cityscape.

And so the story unravels.

Genbaku Domu (Atomic Bomb Dome) was a stately exhibition hall by the riverside before WWII. When Little Boy detonated – 600m above and 160m south-east of the spot – its windows and occupants were blown out, leaving behind broken walls and the dome’s iron frame.

Decades passed, flattened houses and buildings near the hypocentre were rebuilt, but the dome was left untouched. It stands before me like a lone survivor of the bombing in a city that’s moved into the future, bandaged by stasis in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. There’s an old lady distributing pamphlets near the dome, “The war, as my husband saw it,” she tells me, referring to her late spouse who was apparently in the thick of things. They hint at an American conspiracy theory surrounding the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack and slam Hollywood’s version of events, probably referring to the 2001 box office success Pearl Harbor.

Depending on who’s speaking, you hear different versions of the events leading to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; but no one denies the folly on both sides. No one will be untouched by the Peace Memorial Museum. Where grainy photographs of a mushroom-shaped nuclear cloud preside over panoramas of ruin. Where I come upon a fascinated child staring at a scrap of burnt human skin. Where letter after letter, written by Hiroshima’s mayors to President Obama to cease nuclear weapon testing, is framed and hung upon the wall.

It’s peak tourist season and I’m surrounded by other international visitors. Many are engrossed in the exhibits with heads bowed silently, as though laden with a guilt that shouldn’t be theirs. Over 1.3 lakh people were killed by the A-bomb, and many developed genetic defects that passed down generations. It’s a moment in history that has bred countless paintings, films, and books like the manga comic series Barefoot Gen, about a little boy grappling with the aftermath (I read the English translation for free at Hiroshima City Manga Library). It’s fired imaginations around the world: cult author Kurt Vonnegut used a Hiroshima survivor’s genetic mutation as a major plot point in his novella Galapagos.

The city’s revulsion for nuclear technology is shared by all of Japan after the Fukushima catastrophe of 2011. Those appeal letters from Hiroshima’s mayor aren’t just posted to the US though; they’re dispatched to the heads of state of every country that conducts nuclear weapon tests, since 1968. Which means Indira Gandhi and AB Vajpayee would have also received one each in their time.

Get the whole story in the April 2016 issue of Lonely Planet Magazine India. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.