Japan: where to begin?

This piece first appeared on May 20th, 2015 on tinyletter.com/Terhys.

I was in Japan, and it was an action packed 7 weeks. I’ll recount one story from each phase of the trip. Enjoy!

Every spring cherry blossoms erupt all over Japan, to the extreme delight of locals and tourists alike. The blooms last about 2-3 weeks, and the nightly news has bloom forecasts (which are uncannily accurate, like their weather reports – Japan, please share your secrets with the world).

Pink Cherry Blossoms with dark brown trunks and branches loom over Tori gates in front of the Fox temple in west Tokyo.
Beautiful blossoms at Fox Temple in West Tokyo

People go to parks with the sole purpose of seeing the cherry blossoms in events called Hanami, which are usually accompanied by delicious snacks and drinks. I went to quite a few but at the fanciest, I sipped pink Moet while strolling along the Meguro river, which coursed through the city under a canopy of pink and white flowers.

On a warm spring afternoon I sat in a park listening to birds chirping, and smelled the fragrance of zillions of bright flowers in full bloom. Despite the beauty around me, I felt tense and was having trouble breathing; directly in front of me stood the remnants of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which was the only structure left standing in the hypocenter of the atomic bomb that was dropped here at 8:15am on August 6th, 1945.

Trigger warning: I will describe some of the aftermath of the Atomic bomb below. Scroll to ‘Today’ if you’d rather not read it.

The skeleton of a building that structurally survived the atomic bomb. It is a sunny day, there are bushes with pink flowers in front of it, a weeping willow in the top L corner. People are walking by on the sidewalk in front of the building.
A-bomb dome, Hiroshima, Japan. The first atomic bomb was dropped near this structure, and the proximity along with the construction of the building left it as the sole standing structure in the area.

In the accompanying museum there were clothes of the victims, scraps really, burned and bloody and sometimes small. Of the 140,000 people killed, 6,000 were school children who were being used by the government to demolish buildings to make way for a fire road which would, in theory, protect the city in case of a serious bombing. The burns on people’s bodies were so bad–so, so bad– that you could see muscle, and some faces were a bubbling mass of skin and horror.

Hearing survivors describe the hellscape was harrowing: loud screaming, everything on fire, pure confusion as they looked around and saw every structure completely obliterated and people walking like zombies, melted skin dangling from their bodies. Others who seemingly survived the bomb and the subsequent city wide fire died painfully days, months, and years later from the effects of radiation. Afterwards the city was completely devoid of food, shelter and medicine. Medical personnel were completely ignorant of how to treat the burns, since nothing like them had ever been seen.

Today, Hiroshima is a city committed to peace and nuclear non-proliferation. The stories of the Atomic bomb are purposefully told in graphic detail, in the hope that visitors understand the horrors of war and join them in their cause. For me, seeing the bombed shell of that building in the midst of the vibrant, beautiful, bustling metropolis of Hiroshima today is the world’s greatest example that life goes on.

On May 13th I woke with a start around 6am cursing the person in the bunk above me who seemed to be clambering into bed with the sole purpose of waking me. I poked my head out to glare at the offender, only to see nobody. I slumped back into my still shaking bed, confused. Then it dawned on me: earthquake!! I jumped online and saw the first tweets already appearing – a 6.8 magnitude quake hit just off the coast, north of Tokyo. For a minute I was seized with fear, but nothing appeared broken and in 15 minutes,  I heard the train service outside my hostel resume and saw people walking down the block.

Too excited to go back to sleep, I sadly started to collect my clothing (still soaked from the typhoon the day before) and pack my bags — today was my last day in Japan. As I left the hostel I passed the Sumo stadium, seeing wrestlers walking to and from their matches in brilliantly patterned kimono and traditionally oiled hairstyles. I basked in the warm sunshine, ate some delicious ramen, and walked around the city before boarding the world’s most efficient metro (MBTA, take notes) to the airport. On the plane I watched a blazing sunset through the window, sighed, and felt supremely lucky.

Dying cherry blossoms; all things come to and end
Dying cherry blossoms; all things come to an end.

One thought on “Japan: where to begin?

  1. A voice rarely heard: August 6, 1945, 70th Anniversary Hiroshima
    July 21, 1945: Secretary of War met several top U.S. generals in Germany. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower would years later in Newsweek write: “Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent. During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.

    “It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude.”


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