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After the Bomb

Hiroshima, Japan

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Hiroshima, Japan, was and is a beautiful city. However, it has in its time been two cities – the one that existed before the 1945 atomic bombing, and the one that was rebuilt on its ashes.

The main reason that Hiroshima got bombed sixty years ago was its role in the Second World War and, crucially, its strategic location on Japan’s Inland Sea that allowed it to play a major role in supplying the Imperial forces facing the US Navy and Marines in the Pacific Theater of war. But then, as now, it was not designed to be a warlike place. In fact, as hectic Japanese cities go, Hiroshima is calm and quiet – certain areas of the city are havens of peace of quite from the manic pace of modern Japanese life.

This peace and quiet is best encapsulated in the city’s gardens and castles. The Shukkeien garden isn’t officially recognized and preserved as one of the finest in Japan, but for many the beautiful, small and elegant park represents all that is great about the Japanese and their love of gardening. Shukkeien is an elegant composition of trees, shrubs and beds, linked by a series of limpid ponds. After the area was devastated by the atomic bomb, the garden has been rebuilt in a rather more modern style than many similar Japanese gardens – the traditional wooden bridges over the ponds and streams, for example, have been replaced with low, elegant arches of smooth concrete. This is an altogether blissful place, a sanctuary against the cares of the modern world.

Another kind of sanctuary – this one built to resist the more physically dangerous cares of a decidedly unmodern world – is Hiroshima-jo, the city’s castle. Rebuilt as an exact replica of the old building, which, like nearly everything else, was completely blown away. It's a beautiful building. Originally built in the sixteenth century, the castle was built by warlords of the local Mori clan to protect them during Honshu’s inter-clan civil warfare.

Ancient construction of a more peaceful nature can be found a little way out from the city limits on the shores of the Inland Sea. The Itsukushima Shrine is a World Heritage Site, and one of the most revered and loved spots in Japan. This Shinto shrine or temple is actually more like a small village, built on an island lightly offshore that is largely submerged at high tide. The view of the Itsukushima’s water gate at high tide is one of the defining images of Japan. The gate – the red-painted timbers of which have been replaced several times since its original construction in the twelfth century – appears to float on the water at high tide. It is, however, securely sunk into the sandbanks beneath, and, when the tide goes down it is possible to walk out to the gate and admire its beautiful lines as close quarters. Also within the boundaries of the Shrine you can find out more about the ancient Japanese dramatic art of noh – there is a noh stage right by the entrance – and even about the production of sake, the Japanese nation’s favorite tipple.

Lovers of wildlife will enjoy a visit to the shores of the Inland Sea for another reason: the waters are the home to an astonishing array of marine life. Asking the right questions at tourist information centers will help you to find out the location of current wildlife ‘hotspots’, so you can stand on the shore with your binoculars and admire the porpoises and schools of dolphins. You can even take to the water yourself, if you like, though you’d be well-advised to take local advice on prevailing conditions first: the Inland Sea is one of best places in the world to see great white sharks – only you don’t want to see them from too close a range!

Back in Hiroshima itself you really should try the local dish, Okonomiyaki. It would be wrong to call this a ‘delicacy’ as such, as it’s historically been enjoyed by locals from all levels of society, and is really a form of glorified street food. Sometimes called ‘Japanese Pizza’, Okonomiyaki is made from a batter mixed with vegetables like cabbage, and then stuffed with meat, fish or prawns and served with a special sauce. Like most Japanese food, it’s deeply delicious, and, having tried one, you’ll almost certainly find yourself returning to Okonomiyaki bars every day of your trip!

Hiroshima really is the phoenix of Japan. Having risen from the ashes of nuclear warfare, it has become one of the most pleasant, relaxed and beautiful cities of the Pacific Rim. A visit to the city is a demonstration that human beings can, ultimately, recover from anything - it’s a city built as a monument to the human spirit.

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