Having a blast in Hiroshima

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Thursday, December 7, 2006

When we arrive at Hiroshima, our good friend Keigo picks us up.  Keigo used to live with us in our Toronto apartment and was always one of our favourite roommates.  He kindly offered to put us up at his family's house for a couple of days.  Although it is a bit of a grizzly day in Hiroshima - cold and rainy - we still go off for a bit of sight-seeing, beginning with the Peace Park.  The Peace Park is located at what was the 'hypocentre' of the Atomic Bomb, famously dropped here on August 6, 1945.  The bomb actually detonated 600 metres above the ground but destroyed virtually everything at street level for miles around.   In the 1950s, the ground below the hypocentre was turned into a memorial with a flame that burns even in the rain and a large museum. The museum contains a lot of interesting history and moving re-telling of the fateful day.  It is quite amazing to think that a thriving city can be vaporised in an instant.  It is impossible to visit a site like this and not come away with a greater realisation of the potential destruction that a nuclear war would cause.  This feeling is heightened when you think how easy it would be for one of the nuclear-powered nations to start such a war and how quickly things would escalate.  In a way, it is sad that our happy reunion with Keigo is so quickly tempered by such sobering thoughts, but it would have been extremely remiss of us to visit Hiroshima and not come here.
On a more happy note, our next sight-seeing stop is Miyujima Island.  A short ferry ride from the mainland, Miyujima is a very old and spiritually important island containing some beautiful shrines, temples and pagodas.  It is also famous for a little factory that makes soft cookies filled with things like chocolate, red bean paste, and cheese.  The rainy weather doesn't make it all that pleasant for strolling around but it creates an amazing layer of mist that lies like a blanket of cotton wool over the hills.  Contrasting with the red and yellow autumn trees and the curvy-roofed temples on the hillside, the effect is magical and authentically Japanese.   
Keigo's home is a fair drive from Hiroshima city, in a small village in the hills.  He was born there and lives with his mother and grandmother.  The house, like my parents' house, has no central heating, so it can get rather chilly on days like today.  The centrepiece of the living room is a low table covered by several blankets that drape onto the floor.  The underside of the table is a heater (known as a 'kotatsu') so, when you sit on the floor and put your legs under the blankets, your legs are immediately warmed up.  Needless to say, this is a popular spot during the winter.  When I get up after an hour or so sitting at the kotatsu, I notice that part of my trouser leg has actually been burned away by the heat, leaving me with an inconvenient hole on my knee.
The rest of the family comes home at around 5pm.  Keigo's mother, his sister Shiho and her two daughters, Miyu (4) and Ayu (2) are all so generous and hospitable.  From the moment they walk in, Mrs. Sasaki and Shiho scamper around preparing food and drink for us.  Tea, sweets, soup, dumplings, fried rice, noodles and more are delivered in a never-ending procession.  Just as we finish one dish and lay back with a satisfied sigh, another plate appears.
A little later, Keigo's 84 year-old grandmother pops out of a side room to meet us.  Jane and I immediately stand up but she begins to prostrate herself, dropping to her knees and bowing right down to the ground about a dozen times.  We don't know how to respond to this so we bow as well.  This continues for a while, no doubt to the amusement of the rest of the family.
 Once everything settles down and everyone is seated again, I take the opportunity to ask Grandma about the A-bomb.  She has lived in Hiroshima all her life, in the house in fact, and she was near here when the bomb was dropped.  Because of the distance from the hypocentre, she avoided any ill effects.  She describes how she looked up from the field where she was working to see a huge mushroom cloud rise above the mountains.  At that time, bombs were a fairly frequent occurrence but it was only later that day, as word spread, that she learned of the magnitude of this particular bomb.  People that she knew were killed, and many others became sick because of the radiation.  She also goes on to talk about the post-war American occupation of Japan and how the culture became very westernised as a result.  Japanese society was very different before and after the war and she experienced both sides.  You can read all the history books you like but there is nothing like speaking to someone who has lived the history themselves.
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