A New Yorker visits the original "Ground Zero" shortly after 9/11
Most travelers don't go to Hiroshima. It's not on the beaten path for tourists trekking to Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan's most popular cities. And surely, this past fall of 2001 was hardly the time that most New Yorkers would have planned such an expedition. But arrangements had been made months before, for what my husband and I had viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Japan.
After September 11th, our first instincts had been to cancel. But six weeks later, with great trepidation (for our families in the United States, as well as for ourselves), we flew to Tokyo for three days, and then traveled on to Hiroshima.
Its name had haunted me since childhood, when I first learned about my country's bold decision to finally end the war in the Pacific by dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Was it still a frightening place? We had expected to feel discomfort and sadness there, but we did not forsee how much renewal and healing had occurred after such an unbelievable disaster.
The first thing you notice about Hiroshima is how beautiful it is. Not the shops or buildings, which are fine but not extraordinary. It's the natural beauty - five rivers run through the city, which is surrounded on three sides by green mountains, and faces a lovely bay on the Inland Sea. Unfortunately, the setting was also its downfall and one of the reasons it was chosen as a target for the Bomb.
We visited the Peace Memorial Park on a warm day in October as magnificent as September 11th had been in New York. Sunlight shimmered on the water, and easy bunches of people ambled along curving paths that flank both sides of the Motoyasu River. Virtually everything has been rebuilt since 1945, and a new bridge has replaced the T-shaped one that American pilots used as a homing device.
Standing at the original "Ground Zero" is a chilling experience for anyone. For New Yorkers still reeling from the World Trade Center attack, it felt all too familiar: On a bright, sunny morning in 1945, planes approached Hiroshima from the northeast and out of the blue - literally - one dropped a bomb that wreaked havoc on the city and killed almost 200,000 people. Many survivors died subsequently from burns and radiation poisoning. Those who lived - at the very least - were haunted by feelings of panic and desperation for the rest of their lives.
After the war, the park was built on that site and dedicated to "No More Hiroshimas." Green gardens and trees flourish beside the river, and there are park benches and other spots to linger while gazing at memorials such as the Peace Flame, which will burn until all atomic weapons are destroyed, and the A-Bomb Memorial Mound, which holds the ashes of thousands of unidentifiable victims.
The most poignant monument is The Atomic Bomb Dome, the shattered, skeletal remains of an industrial promotions hall that withstood the bombing and has been kept as it was on that fateful day. A short walk from the Dome is the Peace Memorial Museum, which tells the wrenching story of the bombing and its aftermath. Boldly, it also confronts Japan's militaristic past, and Hiroshima's ensuing dedication to the eradication of nuclear weapons. It is known today as The City of International Peace and Culture.
The people of Hiroshima took their city of sadness, a scorched barren land of horrors, and turned it into a place of beauty. May Americans also consider this idea, when we contemplate ways to memorialize the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks....
(c) Copyright Susan J. Gordon
(Florida Times-Union March 3, 2002.)