Catching Up: Hiroshima (On Redemption)
This past week has been like drinking from the fire hose of Japanese culture and history, and each evening when I sit down to write about it, I'm paralyzed with the processing.
But we've been in Hiroshima for a couple of days, now, and the sheer emotional upheaval of THAT coupled with the necessary space I needed between myself and all I learned in Kyoto has me ready to do some catching up. So I'll apologize up front to all of my friends and family now for the inundation of photos and words that is about to come your way. From here on out I promise to sort out our days in smaller chunks -- for both myself and you.
I might as well start with what's freshest in the mind: Hiroshima. Our airbnb apartment is a mere five minute walk from Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which means we're staying very near the "hypocenter" where "Little Boy" fell from the Enola Gay on August 6, 1945 at 8:15 am, tragically destroying just about everything in its path.
Initially, today's modern urban area looks like any other Japanese city with its sharp-looking crowds and timely metro system. But then, right alongside the river and in the middle of a beautiful park, we face a stark reminder of war's casualties: Atomic Bomb Dome.
Previously known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, it is thought to have been very close to just below the atomic bomb when it exploded, and therefore, it was one of the handful of buildings that wasn't crushed. It did explode, however, catastrophically killing everyone inside, but the majority of the frame remained standing. The remnants of the building are what we see today -- in the same condition as it was seen shortly after 8:15 am, August 6, 1945. Preserved as a prayerful representation of the country's desire for peace, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
I can't stop looking at it.
And now that I've been in Japan for three weeks, I also can't stop thinking about the Japanese people who have overcome the massive language barrier with gestures of kindness to us.
Like the man who gave the girls heaps of bread crusts to feed to the fish at a temple pond; or by the taxi driver who, after seeing an error in the GPS coordinates, refused to let us out at our first airbnb until he could be sure he had left us at the right address; or by the woman at the kimono shop who grasped my hands with genuine excitement and gratitude that we chose to stay above her shop; or by another airbnb host who not only graciously picked us up from the train station and took us to his house, but who also drove us to the supermarket.
I think about all of the different groups of sweet schoolchildren who eagerly addressed us at various public places asking us if they could speak with us to practice their English. I see the countless faces of toddling Japanese babies snuggled into the necks of their parents on trains, and the Japanese grandfather who brought his tiny grandson to the train station to watch the shinkansens (bullet trains) go by.
And then I come back to the A-Bomb Dome and suddenly imagine similar beautiful Japanese visages such as these faces we've met -- and I see them decimated, extinguished, gone. And part of me is decimated, extinguished, gone, too.
Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood said that "war is what happens when language fails," and I understand that sentiment. But I'm convinced that the language of which she speaks doesn't have to be words. (And that's saying a lot, because you know how I like the words!) The language of kindness -- that is gentleness, compassion, care, consideration, helpfulness, thoughtfulness, hospitality, neighborliness, sympathy -- extends above, through, and beyond any barrier be it language or skin color, ethnic difference or economic disparity, generational gap or sexual orientation.
I think it's why Jesus told us that we shouldn't expect any kind of medal if we only greet our "own people" or merely "love those who love you" (Matthew 5:43-48). To love like Jesus loves means we reach above, through, and beyond the barriers, one person at a time, all the while hoping that small, awkward gestures full of big love might turn strangers (and maybe enemies, too?) into friends.
And it just might be how we avoid future Hiroshimas.
Which is exactly the goal of Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum where harrowing artifacts from the bomb's wake display the horrors committed against civilians. Like the tiny tricycle that burned in the blast while little 3-year-old Shinichi Tetsutani rode it in front of his house. He died that night, and his daddy, thinking Shinichi too young to be buried in a grave far away from home, buried both the trike and Shinichi in their backyard as they rebuilt their lives. In 1985, he exhumed little Shin and his tricycle, donating the trike to the museum and burying his son in the family grave.
Looking at the artifacts and imagining the horror and fear of those wearing them is hard. But remembering is important. American philosopher and writer George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." God forbid that a future nuclear attack tears another young woman to shreds by shards of glass beneath the rubble of her own home, or burns young junior-high school-aged boys leaving them clothed only in bits of their tattered school uniforms where their parents find them dead.
Despite its haunting past, Hiroshima exudes much hope. Our girls, for example, rang the Bell of Peace at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park. Dedicated to Hiroshima's aspiration that all nuclear weapons and wars be gone, the bell bears an invitation to all who pass to "step forward and toll the bell for peace" that it "may ring to all corners of the earth to meet the ear of every man, for in it throb and palpitate the hearts of its peace-loving donors."
Furthering its peace initiative, Hiroshima Prefecture includes the (accidental?) redemption of a notorious island located about an hour's drive past Kure from Hiroshima City, an island called Okunoshima. A place infamous for the manufacturing of poisonous gases during World War II, officials removed it from all Japanese maps during that time to keep its location secret. Eerily abandoned and appropriately dilapidated factories still stand on the island today -- a testament of its dark past.
The freeing of Okunoshima from its ugly past involves rabbits -- a lot of them. In fact, locals now refer to the island as "Usagi Shima," or Rabbit Island -- an appropriate moniker taking into account that somewhere between 700 to upwards of 1200 bunnies now inhabit the place. Visitors flock to the island thrilled that throngs of wild rabbits happily greet them hoping for a handful of food.
Because the bunnies were used in Japanese experiments at the factories, some surmise that workers freed rabbits who subsequently multiplied (as rabbits are wont to do). But because Americans likely euthanized the experimental rabbits during their occupation after the war, another theory arose that maybe schoolchildren released several rabbits on the island sometime in the 1970s (and then they multiplied, you know, as rabbits are wont to do).
Regardless as to how the soft, gentle creatures arrived, however, the fact remains that they are the star attraction. They've kind of redeemed the island from its infamous history, I'd say.
Not to be outdone by the bunnies, Hiroshima's local food scene is THE hotspot for Japan's okonomiyaki. What is okonomiyaki? Good question. At first, we were a little skeptical to dig into something that looked like a mash up of a whole bunch of weirdness like cabbage and a pancake.
I know. It doesn't look all that appetizing. But I read that there are over 2,000 okonomiyaki restaurants in Hiroshima Prefecture, and whether or not that number is exactly accurate, it does bear witness to the fact that the people here like their okonomiyaki!
Grilled on and eaten directly from a hot plate, okonomiyaki (okonomi = what you like, yaki = grill) is made "as you like it," and grilled with basic ingredients usually including cabbage, bean sprouts, noodles, pork and a fried egg. (You guys! I know it does not sound appealing either, but hang in here with me.) In the spirit of ordering it as you like, you can also include garlic or cheese, squid or shrimp, kimchi or onion. (And yes, I realize that does not make it sound better, haha!)
We selected the popular Nagata-ya restaurant for our first taste, as it was just a few blocks from our apartment.
Let's just say this: OH MY WORD: OKONOMIYAKI RULES! Like I mentioned before, you eat it right off the hot plate with a "hera" -- a tiny spatula, and the sauce mixed into the layers of noodles and cabbage and bean sprouts and shrimp and pork and all. the. things. is HEAVEN to the taste buds. For real. We would have eaten here every single day, but for some reason the restaurant was closed for two days during our stay. We did manage to dine here at least once more, though.
Frederick Buechner said that “much as we wish, not one of us can bring back yesterday or shape tomorrow. Only today is ours, and it will not be ours for long, and once it is gone it will never in all time be ours again." The Hiroshima of yesterday, before the dropping of the atomic bomb, cannot be brought back. But today is hers, and the advances she is making for peace reverberate throughout the nation of Japan and on into the entire world. She has taken back her narrative and redeemed it for good. And to that, we say amen.