Hiroshima has overcome a tragic past to become a must-see destination in Japan.
Hiroshima’s legacy of peace may initially seem at odds with the city’s tragic past – obliterated during World War II by the atomic bomb’s terrifying, destructive power. You needn’t worry about arriving to a radioactive wasteland though. Modern Hiroshima is a thriving metropolis, very much alive and well and home to more than a million people. Visitors are quick to agree that this destination is unlike any other and a true highlight of many traveller’s time in Japan.
Hiroshima’s destruction and enduring legacy is impossible to ignore. When the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945, obliterating the city, very few buildings in the two-kilometre blast zone survived. The former economic and political centre of Hiroshima has been transformed into the sprawling Peace Memorial Park, with one of the few structures left standing being the A-Bomb Dome. This UNESCO World Heritage site serves as a sombre reminder of what happened on that day.
Some of the 220,000 people who died in the initial blast and subsequent radiation exposure are remembered in the Peace Memorial Museum. This emotion-charged museum serves as a reminder that peace should not be taken for granted, and is a must-see during any visit to Hiroshima.
For a few moments of reflection after the museum, visit the Children’s Peace Monument, which honours Sadako Sasaki and the thousands of child victims of the atomic bomb. Sadako died of leukaemia caused by radiation from the bomb when she was twelve years old. Inspired by a Japanese legend, she hoped that by folding 1000 paper cranes her wish to live would be granted. Today, people from all over the world send thousands of colourful paper cranes to this vibrant monument, adding their message of peace and solidarity.
Landscaped Japanese gardens and a deep moat surround another casualty of the bomb – Hiroshima Castle. Partially rebuilt using traditional construction methods and materials, Hiroshima Castle has a small museum exhibiting the history of Japanese castles, but the view of the city from the top floor is the real drawcard.
You should not leave Hiroshima before trying one of the city’s most-famous specialties: Okonomiyaki. “Okonomi” translates roughly to “as you like” which gives some indication of the huge variety of ingredients that make up the popular meal. Similar to a savoury pancake, Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki can be made with cabbage, octopus, shrimp, pork, vegetables and yakisoba noodles.
Towards the end of the Hondori Street pedestrian mall is Okonomiyaki Village (Okonomimura). Restaurants in the area are tiny, seating just a handful of people at once. Chefs cook their own special version of the dish in front of hungry patrons, before sliding the delicious meals over, piping hot and ready to eat straight from the grill.
After exploring the surrounding laneways, be sure to visit to one of the many specialty craft beer bars. Kure Brewery (“kaigun-san no bakushu” which translates to “The Navy’s Brewery”) has won awards for its craft beers since 1995. The attached restaurant serves ice-cold glasses of beer brewed on-site, as well as delicious, Japanese, bite-sized izakaya food – Japan’s answer to pub food.
Love your meal? Let the waiters know by saying “oishii” which means “delicious”.
Prefer Japan’s traditional sake (rice wine) to beer? Then you’re in luck. Thirty minutes’ train ride from Hiroshima is Saijo Sake Town. As one of the most important sake-producing areas in Japan (Kyoto and Kobe being the others), this is a must-see for lovers of the Japanese alcohol. Eight major sake breweries, offering tastings and cellar door sales, are within a short walk of each other.
Escaping from the crowds of Hiroshima’s city life is easy, with the enchanting Miyajima Island only a brisk ferry ride away. As your boat comes into dock, be sure to see the famous red torii gate, which appears to be floating in the sea. This beautiful structure is believed to be the boundary between the spirit world and human world and is painted a bright vermilion red to ward off evil spirits.
Miyajima is a small island, best seen by renting a bike. After exploring the coastal paths, pedal uphill towards the ropeway gondola. The picturesque cable car journey to the peak of Mt Misen and Shishiiwa Observatory will reward you with one of the best views of Japan on a clear day. On the way back to the ferry, be sure to say hello to the herds of wild deer that happily let you pat them. Just watch out that they don’t nibble anything precious from your bag.
Whether it’s seeing a baseball game (one of the most popular sports in Japan) or sampling world-famous sake and food, Hiroshima is bursting with creativity, unexpected surprises and welcoming locals. You just might fall in love with the city of peace.