Sunday, September 09, 2007

"Hiroshima, August 27th/28th 2007"

Twenty-three years in Japan and I finally went to see Hiroshima City. Other than the Peace Memorial Park (with the remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Products Exhibition Hall, now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome), there is nothing in the city (that I could see during my two-day stay in any case) that indicates what happened to it on August 6th, 1945. Still, places have their atmospheres and echoes from the past, so I looked around and tried to comprehend how the city is now and how it was in the past; with that day in August 1945 being a wall between normalcy and a hovering horror (you might not mind the idea of vaporized cities in another country, but imagine it happening to your own city - one device in the sky - boom - city gone; it's much too easy).

The Atomic Bomb Dome is something just about everyone has seen a picture of at one time or another, but I hadn't realized what the building was originally for and that it was originally a much larger building. Most of it was knocked down in the blast, with only the central part remaining. It seems to be have been a combination of brick and wood -there's no trace of any flooring left at all - just the walls of the central part of the building. Here's a history of the building (from a Hiroshima government website):

The history of the Atomic Bomb Dome

1915 April Hiroshima Products Trade Fair held.
1915 August 15 Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall opens.
1921 January 1 Name changed to Hiroshima Prefectural Products Exhibition Hall.
1929 Showa Industrial Exposition held.
1933 November 1 Name changed to Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall.
1944 March 31 Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall functions suspended. Subsequently used by government offices and the distribution control union.
1945 August 6 Atomic bomb explodes nearly directly above. Mostly collapsed, completely burned. All persons in building killed immediately.
1966 July 11 City Council decides to preserve the A-bomb Dome.
1966 November 1 Beginning of fundraising for Dome preservation.
1967 August 5 First A-bomb Dome Preservation Project
1989 May 1 Beginning of fundraising for Dome preservation.
1990 March 31 Second A-bomb Dome Preservation Project.
1995 June 27 The Dome was designated as a National Historic Site.
1996 December 7 The Dome was registered on the World Heritage List.
2003 March 31 Third A-bomb Dome Preservation Project.

After visiting the dome, I walked on, turned right and crossed a bridge, and then noticed an old concrete three-story building that is now a Tourist Information Center. On my own, I would have walked in, but I was with a few people, so as they walked on, I followed them and went through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. At my hotel later in the day, I was looking at some pamphlets I'd picked up and I noticed that building again. The pamphlet said:

Rest House in Peace Memorial Park

The former Taishoya Kimono Shop. The basement has been preserved just as it was when the building withstood the A-bomb. Now this building houses a visitor's center and [has] shops selling products you can't buy anywhere else.

The "basement has been preserved just as it was" bit caught my attention and I went back the next day and had a look. More on that later....

That first day, after riding the street cars, seeing the Peace Memorial Park area and Hiroshima Castle, and then walking back to the hotel, I was bit tired. After relaxing in the hotel for a bit, I went out to a local convenience store and bought a few cans of seasonal (fall) beer and took them back to my hotel room. I drank the beer, ate some mixed nuts, watched TV, and fell asleep on the small sofa near the TV. Waking up at around 4:00 a.m., I took a long shower (kicking myself for not having done so before falling asleep on the sofa), put on a hotel bathroom and went to bed. It was a little stuffy, so I opened the windows (which were with chains that only allowed them to open a few centimeters) and lay down thinking about Hiroshima.

What with seeing the remains of the ruined building and the museum, I had naturally been thinking about August 6th, 1945 a bit, but it was mainly regular-process thinking - you know, you see a picture and you take in the details, or you read a story and think about the words and what's between the lines - just normal thinking. Then, as I lay there on the bed around 5:00 in the morning, beginning to drift halfway back into sleep, a non-regular-process... feeling/image/concept/perception came to mind. It's impossible to explain properly in words, but it was a sensation of a horrendous force slamming into the ground. All day I'd been seeing photos and whatnot, and thinking about them, but mainly my thoughts were of burns and buildings knocked down with a horizontal force. The conscious realization of the sensation jolted me wide awake - ending the impact perception.../something, but like a fleeting memory I still have from the middle of rolling a car back in 1977, I can recall a fraction of the feeling when thinking back to the moment.

So, did I manufacture that sensation? It seemed more like a memory of an event than something I thought up myself, but then again, people's imagination is powerful, so I don't know....

After checking out of the hotel, I headed over to the former Taishoya Kimono Shop and its waiting basement. (Being made of concrete, the building survived mainly intact - with the roof collapsed, but otherwise intact.) Walking into the Tourist Information Center, I didn't see any evidence of stairs leading down, so I asked a woman at the counter about it, and she said that it could be seen by request only, and gave me a form to fill out (in Japanese). After filling it out, she called somewhere and said that a visitor was on their way to see the basement, and then lead me outside of the building and back in through a side entrance that led to stairs going up and - at the end of a dim hallway, stairs going down.

Opening a metal cabinet with several hard hats in it, she took one out and handed it to me, saying that I was required to wear it when visiting the basement. I took it, dutifully put it on my head, and she hurriedly went back outside. As people generally will guide you all the way to a destination here, I thought it odd, but proceeded to the top of the stairs and took a picture of the old wooden handrail and narrow stairs leading down. Walking down, I was struck with an acrid smell... my first impulse was turn around and get out of there double-time, but I wanted to see what was in the room and I continued on.... Looking ahead, I saw an exhaust fan that was in one of the small windows up against the ceiling, so I walked over towards it stupidly thinking that it might be blowing air in - it wasn't, but by then I was in the space, so I took some pictures and looked around.

It was an empty basement basically, so I was initially surprised, as the words "has been preserved just as it was when the building withstood the A-bomb" led me to believe that there were still things in there from before August 6th (not logical, but...). The strange thing is that as I took pictures, it almost seemed like any old concrete basement that could use more ventilation, but after leaving the space and thinking back, that space and that acrid smell scare me. Suddenly I understand why the woman didn't go near the stairs leading down and got away from there in a hurry. And the lack of ventilation... how long does radiation from an atomic bomb blast at ground zero hang around in a poorly ventilated underground space? (The exhaust fan was turned on and the door opened after the phone call I presume.) I was only in there for two or three minutes, but somehow the memory of the place seems to be growing into something more... scary? Frightening? Dangerous? For some reason, I thought I really wanted to see that space, but I think it conveyed more to me than I bargained for somehow. The next time I visit Hiroshima, I don't think I'll go back - once was enough.

Back upstairs in the Tourist Information Office I heard that everyone in the building had been killed in the blast, save one person who was in that basement - the unanswered question in my mind being (I didn't have the courage to ask) "how long". It's hard to imagine that they would have escaped the effects of radiation in the ground-zero area, even though they escaped the effects of the blast by being in the basement of a concrete building....

After that I went to Miyajima and was quite happy to visit an old wooded temple there that has been there for hundreds of years. That is as it should be. Cities shouldn't be erased from the map in a flash. They can be rebuilt, as Hiroshima was, but it's just such a horrible thing - taking out an entire city. One side or another may win a war, but we all lose.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon