While there are many places in Japan worth visiting for any number of reasons, the one at the top of my list was Hiroshima for the same reason that I imagine comes to mind for most people. The bomb.
I grew up basking in the glory of a victorious atomic history offset by fears of nuclear winter. “The friendly atom” working hard behind the clean white walls of the nuclear power plant on the green hill surrounded by yellow daisies under a bright blue sky to power an electronic future clean of the dust and soot of coal or the dead reservoirs and flooded valleys of hydroelectricity. Little “mishaps” rendering vast swaths of land uninhabitable for generations and condemning those who happened to be nearby to generations of agony. I grew up considering things to big to be grasped simply in terms of 5,000, or 10,000, or 400,000 times the power of Hiroshima.
I needed to go there. On the evening of the 60’th anniversary I was on a flight to Korea and we flew nearby. Where the words on the map said “Hiroshima” the sky was flashing in a summer thunderstorm. I needed to see it from the ground.
I knew what I would see – a brick building with a twisted metal top surrounded by a memorial park surrounded by a modern city. I had lived in Hamburg and visited Dresden; the rational 1950’s and 1960’s urban planning of city centers rebuilding from the after effects of aerial bulldozing and firestorms would be nothing new. In the Hamburg city history museum I had sat with a schoolgroup in the dim light of a simulated bomb shelter for what seemed hours while surround-sound thuds and sirens simulated an attack, than walked into a display of windowpanes melted in their frames and other testaments to the unimaginable conditions of the change of a city into a blast furnace. That much would not be new.
That is what I saw. Instead of window glass it was roof tiles. Instead of one part of a museum it was an entire park and museum complex. But there was a difference. Instead of the results of hours, this was the result of an instant. It was an experiment – done intentionally without direct warning to a city that had been spared conventional attack in order to better study the effects. It was a turning point in history. The before and after diorama showed not simply a neighborhood but an entire worldview change.
It was a good day to leave the museum and sit in the park and contemplate “where they once taught war they now teach peace,” then set off on a walk to discover the Hiroshima of today complete with streetcars and a rebuilt castle. I regret spending less than 24 hours in the area; it was both an injustice to the rebuilt city and the nearby mountains and islands looked far too attractive as the train pulled away.