Japan: a tale of two cities

“War is the work of man.
War is destruction of human life.
War is death.
To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future.
To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war.
To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to Peace.”
Pope John Paul II

Last week, I recalled my visit to Japan’s charming Takayama. But there were two other places in Japan that left a profound mark on me – Kyoto and Hiroshima. Kyoto was the Japan I had always imagined – with its ancient temples, cobblestone alleyways and delicately manicured Japanese gardens – while Hiroshima was simply overwhelming. We stayed with a local family, who treated us like royalty, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty as we explored the Peace Memorial Park and Museum. But then I realised that the people of Hiroshima have a simple wish and that is for visitors to reflect on the importance of abolishing nuclear weapons and realize lasting world peace.

A version of the article below was first published in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail.

A tale of romance and reality

“Let all the souls here rest in peace; for we shall not repeat the evil.”

Cherry blossom trees bloomed in the park where the Cenotaph is located. It is merely a week since Hanami festivals welcomed the arrival of the famed cherry blossom, but now grey skies and light drizzle marked the blossoms’ fall, gone until the following April.

Yet a flame burned, flickering, refusing to be extinguished. Here in Hiroshima’s Peace Park the Flame of Peace will burn until all nuclear weapons have gone.

On 6 August 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb exploded above Hiroshima, reducing the city to smouldering ruins. To the north, Kyoto remained untouched and today these two cities provide a startling contrast for visitors to Japan.

Approaching the famous Kiyōmizu-dera Temple, via Teapot Lane, in Eastern Kyoto, I found myself in a marketplace amid craft shops and restaurants. Delicious aromas caught the breeze, as yakitori, or chicken kebabs, sizzled on hotplates. Shopkeepers invited me to sample treats such as manju, a bean paste that looks like chocolate but tastes sweeter.

At first glance Kyoto appears modern and intimidating, but hidden in the winding backstreets I found ancient treasures of traditional Japan.

Standing on the temple steps is a maiko woman (apprentice geisha); her hands clasped in front, head tilted modestly. Her black silky hair was pulled back from her face and tied in a bun with a red scarf. Flowers, white, but scattered with red, spilt from her headpiece, reflected in the floral pattern of her kimono. Her face was painted white, accentuated by blood-red lipstick.

A shy smile lit her face as she posed for the gaijin (tourist) who had asked permission to take her picture. Self-conscious, she paused briefly, before gracefully heading down stairs leading to the street known as Sannen-zaka.

Eager to take her picture, I followed, glancing quickly at the surrounds. Old wooden houses and restaurants haphazardly lined the alleyway. Ahead I saw an ancient temple, the sensual lines of its roof repeating the contour of the hills. Distracted for a second, I looked again for the woman; but only caught a glimpse of her red dress as she disappeared into zigzagging streets.

Tinkling music caught my attention and I turned to see a monk ringing a bell. He was dressed in black and yellow robes and wore a wide-brimmed straw hat. Standing tall and upright, he stared straight ahead, but did not see me, even when I threw a coin into his beggar-bowl. He simply rang the bell and moved away.

Browsing in pottery and craft shops, I walked along Sannen-zaka, before turning into Ninnen-zaka, another narrow street lined with historic houses and shops. The teahouses and restaurants, with elegant Japanese gardens, reminded me it was lunchtime. I chose a bowl of steaming noodles before continuing my walk through Maruyama-kōen Park, and onto Nanzen-ji Temple for a traditional tea ceremony.

Sitting on tatami mats and looking out at a simple, yet elegant Zen garden, I felt at peace with the world. This was how I imagined Japan.

While many Japanese cities were flattened by repeated air raids during World War II, a number remained untouched, including Kyoto and Hiroshima. Both were cited as possible targets for the atomic bomb and there is speculation this no-bomb policy was a deliberate measure, to assess how much damage the bomb had caused.

Spared from the bombings, Kyoto remains the Japan most people long to see. But Hiroshima is the Japan everybody should see. In a time when weapons of mass destruction are discussed daily, the city stands as testimony that peace is the only option.

I walked alongside the river, its surface dimpled with falling rain and mist rising in the cool conditions. Dappled light filtered through branches of trees and dew formed on tiny pink flowers. Ahead, a strange form loomed out of the haze, a shell of a building, its ghostly ruins propped up as reminder to the devastation that visited this place.

The World Heritage-listed A-Bomb Dome, previously the Hiroshima Industrial Promotion Hall, is the only building to have survived the blast. When Hiroshima was destroyed many people lost their lives and those that survived faced great physical and mental suffering, much of which continues today.

At the Peace Memorial Museum, I saw models of Hiroshima before and after the bomb. Remains of possessions were displayed, including a watch that stopped at precisely 8.15 and a child’s blackened bicycle. A shadow on a wall is all that remained of one person standing a few metres from the blast.

Later, in the Peace Memorial Park, I came to the Children’s Memorial. Adorned with thousands of paper cranes, this monument was inspired by Sadako Sasaki, 10, who contracted leukaemia from the radiation.

She believed that if she folded 1000 paper cranes, symbol of longevity and happiness, she would recover. Tragically, she died after completing 644 cranes. Children from her school folded the remaining 356.

Sadako’s story continues to inspire many people, and millions of paper cranes, made by school children all over the world, arrive daily to pay tribute to one of many brave children who died because of the bomb.

A question on the brochure from the Peace Memorial Museum is relevant today. “With the stockpiling and proliferation of nuclear weapons still a major concern, can we safely assume that humanity has the wisdom to survive the nuclear age?”



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