I am not schizophrenic or anything… not since the last time I checked at least. But I constantly feel the rumblings of a battle raging somewhere deep within my being whenever I am faced with a hard-to-make choice. However, one day, in the southern Japanese city of Hiroshima (which literally means wide island), the battle was inching towards a war of nuclear proportions. And the irony wasn’t lost on me. It was my last day in Japan and I had eight hours to take it all in before flying out later that evening.I paused to consider: where should I begin? Should I do the touristy bits first, and then discover the ‘real’ Hiroshima? Or would the reverse work better? There couldn’t have been a more fitting backdrop for this conundrum. For Hiroshima, like the rest of Japan, is a dichotomy, a place where the radically opposite glide alongside each other in parallel synchronisation.
For every giggly teenager dressed as a bunny (floppy ears et al), you will be privy to the gentle grace of a geisha as she hops onto a tram holding on to her embroidered kimono. For every aural assault of death metal blasting from a irezumi tattoo shop, you will be soothed by the lilting strain of a shamisen (a three-stringed musical instrument) drifting out of a bunraku puppet theatre. And for every bombed-out building, you will find a tranquil park dedicated to peace.
Rest in peace
And that’s where my tryst with Hiroshima began. It was the fragrant sakura (cherry blossom) trees that made the choice for me. Despite Hiroshima’s past, the only reminders of the 6th of August 1945 are the skeletal remnants of the Industrial Promotion Hall that is today known as the Genbaku Domu or A-Bomb Dome. This building, part of the Peace Memorial Park, was Hiroshima’s ‘Ground Zero’, bearing the full brutality of the nuclear bomb that exploded directly above its dome, leaving it just the way it is today – bare-boned and rubble-ridden.
The park itself is testament to Japan’s anti-nuclear stance with its many peace memorials like the arched cenotaph – that has etched onto it every victim’s name – guarded by the Flame of Peace. The Children’s Peace Memorial, with its display of thousands of origami cranes for the dead children, and a memorial in honour of Korean slave labourers annihilated in the bombing, also finds place on the grounds.
But the most poignant visit for me was the A-Bomb Memorial Museum, which houses an exhibition of artefacts, clothes and other relics of victims. I had first seen this exhibition as a teenager in 1998 when it was displayed at Mumbai’s Nehru Science Centre. And just as it did a decade and a half ago, the fossilised remains of a child’s half-eaten tiffin box still managed to stun me speechless.
But I quickly regained my verbal faculty with an audible “wow” the minute I crossed the carp-infested moat of the Hiroshima-jo Castle. The five-storied castle holds a small museum and is surrounded by turrets with a central tower called a ‘donjon’ in Japanese, a word that became part of the English language as ‘dungeon’.
Food on my mind
Famished after imbibing all that culture, I was ready for part two of my mission, which was to test the veracity of Hiroshima’s claim to be a food haven. And I was told by a bunch of Japanophiles that if there’s one dish to settle that score, it would have to be the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.
This pancake-like dish is a DIY preparation (hence the name okonomiyaki or ‘grilled as you like’) that comprises shredded cabbage, ginger, beaten eggs, seafood and soba buckwheat noodles that diners must add in layers onto a hot oiled flat-top griddle. With spatulas, they are expected to coax the pancake into a circular shape till it can be transferred onto a plate.
The okonomiyaki is then anointed with the sweetish Japanese-style mayonnaise called kewpie, garnished with dried bonito fish flakes and cut into wedges, pizza style.
In the rest of Japan, okonomiyaki is made without soba noodles and pork or beef substituting for seafood. But purists believe that the Hiroshima-style one is the real McCoy. The one that I ate that evening at the Okonomi-mura Okonomiyaki House at Shintenchi Plaza Building, one of 2,000 okonomiyaki restaurants in Hiroshima, was an event in itself.
Chasing the okonomiyaki with an omikase (chef’s choice) sushi platter, a set of 10 takoyaki (octopus balls) and a tempura setto (set) bento box, all I needed was a palate-cleansing blast of matcha (green tea) ice cream. My ‘vendor’ was another Japanese mainstay – the ubiquitous vending machine that you can find peddling everything from neck ties and rugby balls to live fish and incense sticks.
“Bizarre!” I heard one part of me say. Eerily, for the first time in ages, the other part agreed. And it had taken a dichotomous city like Hiroshima to bring about the truce on my last day in Japan.
Nagasaki: The other bombed-out city Three days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, it was the turn of Nagasaki to feel the horror of a nuclear disaster.The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum does a good job of explaining what life was like in the city before the bomb hit, and also exhibits the damage it caused.
Peace Park: The main attraction of this Park is a massive Peace Statue created by sculptor Seibou Kitamura of Nagasaki Prefecture.
O-ura Tenshu-do Cathedral: This is Japan’s oldest wooden Christian church, built in 1864 to provide for the spiritual welfare of foreign merchants who settled in Nagasaki.
Find your feet
The best way to explore the compact city of Hiroshima is on foot, although the city does have a very efficient transport system of taxis, buses and trams. Don’t worry about not knowing any Japanese. The super-friendly locals will be more than happy to point you in the right direction as they see it as a way to practise their English language skills
Visa: Indians need a visa. See http://www.vfsglobal.com /japan/india/
Accommodation: There is a wide spectrum of accommodation options, from basic Japanese-style B&Bs to inexpensive youth hostels.
Best time to visit: The best time to visit Hiroshima is during the Cherry Blossom Week that usually takes place at the beginning of April every year. But March to June is perfect, with temperatures ranging from 15°C to 27°C.
Costs: Though Japan can seem costly by South East Asian standards, it is more comparable in price to Western Europe. Booking flights, train passes and hotels at least three months in advance helps in bring down costs.
From HT Brunch, March 31
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