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Many think visiting Hiroshima is to see a radioactive wasteland, but it’s far from it. Here’s the things to do in Hiroshima – a thriving modern metropolis that doesn’t forget its history as the first city in the world destroyed by a nuclear bomb.
When you travel to Hiroshima in Japan you will be surprised by its striking modernity and overwhelmed with emotion when you are confronted with its past. Many are shocked when they visit Hiroshima and see that it is a huge, functioning city, much the same in expanse and layout as many other key Japanese urban spots.
The city is more known as being the first city in history to be targeted and destroyed by a nuclear weapon – an atomic bomb which was dropped by the United States Army Air Forces during the final stages of World War II, killing thousands of people within seconds.
The main reason people travel to Hiroshima is to pay their respects and learn more about what happened here. A city that never forgets and which fights for everlasting peace, your first point of call will no doubt be the Peace Memorial Park.
- Remembering Hiroshima’s History
- What to Do in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
- Things to Do in Hiroshima City
- Learning from Hiroshima
- Things to Know About Visiting Hiroshima
- Travelling to Japan
Remembering Hiroshima’s History
8:15 am, August 6th 1945
The first atomic bomb used against human beings exploded over Hiroshima and the world entered the nuclear age.
The bombing of Hiroshima, as well as nearby Nagasaki, are the only direct uses of the atomic bomb to date and when wandering the city’s streets, arty hang-out spaces and leisurely perusing the Hondōri shopping arcade, you would have no idea that approximately 70% of Hiroshima city was once completely wiped out in one of history’s biggest atrocities.
Background to the War and the Use of the Atomic Bomb
The nature of the bombing and the roles and agendas of the US and the Japanese during the Pacific War are still very much debatable.
Some say it was justified that the US retaliated after the Japanese made the first strike with the attack on Pearl Harbour; others say the US is said to have potentially provoked Japan to attack them so that they had an excuse to use force and push out the Soviet forces who were gaining control in Japan.
Many more ask: is the use of the atomic bomb unethical and unjustified in forcing a country to surrender and does the use of the atomic bomb constitute a war crime? The debates continue and you may find it’s one of many you have with your fellow hostel friends when you return.
Japan was ruling the Korean peninsula, Taiwan and northeastern China – opposing it, the US and other countries took severe economic sanctions against Japan – whilst much of Southeast Asia was controlled by western forces. Japan insisted that its aim was to release these countries from Western control when really they were desperate for the natural resources in these areas.
The US was considering ending the war by either invading the Japanese mainland, asking the Soviet Union to join the war, ensuring the continuation of the Japanese Emperor system or using the atomic bomb – the latter of which would also ensure that Soviet influence in Japan would be restricted. Hiroshima is said to have been chosen as a target because it didn’t have an Allied prisoner-of-war camp.
Whilst Japan was given warnings about intense air raids if it didn’t surrender, it was not given a warning about the use of an atomic weapon. Japan’s bomber watch system was tricked when a US plane flew over Hiroshima in the direction of west to east. It was thought that this plane was checking the weather and that a bomber plane would follow it from the same direction.
Except for the American B-29 bomber – the ‘Enola Gay’ carrying the atomic bomb “Little boy” – came from the east and exploded 600m above the ground, intended to cause the most devastation with a violent blast.
The heat rays exceeded a million degrees Celsius at the point of detonation, and the blast destroyed everything within a two-kilometre radius. It is said to have instantly killed an estimated 80,000 people – around 30% of the population of Hiroshima – and a similar number were injured. Casualties from injury and radiation reached multiple thousands by the end of that year, with survivors suffering irreparable physical and psychological damage, still visible today.
Is Hiroshima Safe to Visit Today?
Many people ask: Is Hiroshima radioactive today? While many visitors assume that Hiroshima is still partially derelict from that time, it’s far from that image. It’s not a nuclear wasteland but a modern, functioning city of green spaces, vibrant urban centres art and compact islands.
The only thing that remains here from that time are ruins like the Atomic Bomb Domb – memorials to a period of history we must never forget. Today, Hiroshima is a city that calls on worldwide activism for peace.
What to Do in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
See the Atomic Bomb Dome (A-Bomb Dome)
I’ve always seen images of the Atomic Bomb Dome – the most iconic symbol of Hiroshima – but when I finally saw it I felt struck down by emotion and must have stood there staring at it the exposed steel and skeleton foundations from all angles for at least half an hour. I wasn’t expecting to feel so overwhelmed.
The A-Bomb Dome (what was once the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall) is the closest building to the epicentre (the exact location of the bomb’s detonation) left standing after the attack and is now the main memorial – a haunting image of the past overlooking the beautifully landscaped Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park site.
We’ve all read about nuclear weapon development and heard of the threats to use it, but here, right before your eyes, is proof of the exact damage this kind of warfare produces. And then you start to think: if this is what it did to bricks and mortar, what did it do to human beings?
The Park also contains important memorials such as the Children’s Peace Monument (in honour of Sadako Sasaki who was two when the bomb hit, and who died 10 years later from leukaemia caused by radiation exposure), the Korean Atomic Bomb Memorial (many Koreans were slave labourers in Japan during WWII), and the Flame of Peace (which will only be extinguished once the last nuclear weapon on earth has been destroyed).
Meet and Learn from the Peace Activists
I met two Japanese men near the Peace Memorial Park. One, who had no choice but to move away from his home near the Fukushima nuclear plant, now runs a petition demanding a national referendum for the maintenance of or abolition of nuclear power generation. The other man’s mother was four months pregnant with him at the time of the attack and he was born, luckily, without any major health issues. He gives detailed, historical guided tours around the park. Both work in the area every day, raising awareness and calling for change.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
The majority of your time will be spent in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Graphic, touching and informative, the museum walks you through the history of the Pacific War and the lead up to the attack.
It displays belongings left by victims and other materials conveying the devastation, educates about the development of nuclear bombs and how they work, talks about the long-term effects of radiation exposure including what is done to support the survivors today (called ‘Hibakusha’ – many of whom are tormented by discrimination and prejudice) and highlights Hiroshima’s role on the world stage as leaders of the peace movement.
Near to the end of my time in the museum, I stood in line behind a Japanese man, his wife and their two children. He wouldn’t stop crying every time he saw another image of a burnt person, charred clothing and objects that had melted or changed in shape and texture instantly from the intense blast of heat. Only then did I realise how this event is still affecting the Japanese people today.
Hiroshima Calls for Nuclear Abolition
The museum is not completely biased in its viewpoint, and it was refreshing to see it used as a platform to highlight Japan’s faults during the war, stating:
“…But we must never forget that nuclear weapons are the fruits of war. Japan, too, with its colonization policies and resulting wars, inflicted incalculable and irreversible harm on the peoples of many countries. A critical examination of not just the atomic bomb but also war and the causes of war is a prerequisite to learning the lessons of history.”
Yet, it does call for one thing: the abolition of nuclear weapons, globally, and for a peaceful international community. With Hiroshima being given the title as a ‘City of Peace’ in 1949 when the Peace Memorial Park was built, it has since been on the international stage for holding conferences on peace and global social issues and in 1998 the Hiroshima Peace Institute was established to continue to raise awareness. Successive Mayors of Hiroshima have sent letters of protest in response to every nuclear test by any country since 1968.
As the Hiroshima Peace declaration of 2013 highlights: “The city of Hiroshima and the more than 5,7000 cities that comprise Mayors for Peace, in collaboration with the UN and like-minded NGO’s, seek to abolish nuclear weapons by 2020 and throw our full weight behind the early achievement of a nuclear weapons convention.”
Things to Do in Hiroshima City
Visit the Hiroshima Peace Poster Exhibition
While in Hiroshima, check out the former Bank of Japan building – another structure still standing after the blast and which has been restored and turned into the Peace Poster Exhibition and art gallery – before resting in one of the many coffee shops or bars around the city.
Hiroshima Castle and Shukkei-en Garden
Hiroshima Castle’s original structure from 1589, built by the Daimyo (feudal lord) Mori Terumoto, was destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945. It was reconstructed in 1958 with its five-tiered main compound and surrounding defence system, representing a powerful seat of Japanese power during the Edo period.
The feudal fortress sits in the centre of the city, rather than elevated in the hills. With its construction came the essence of Hiroshima – today’s urban metropolis grew from its original existence as a castle town.
Hiroshima Castle is also affectionately known as Carp Castle for the small historic Japanese garden, Shukkei-en, whose lake is filled with carp. On a slow stroll, give yourself at least an hour to stroll the garden, which is free to enter.
Wander Hiroshima’s Urban Centre
Like any other Japanese city, Hiroshima teems with urban life – business centres, restaurants, cafes and art spaces. I choose to wander without any particular plan, crossing bustling shopping streets and squares with art sculptures.
You can even watch Baseball here at the Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium. The Hiroshima Toyo Carp are Hiroshima city’s professional baseball team.
Day Trip to Miyajima Island (Itsukushima Island)
Around one hour south of the city in Hiroshima Bay is the temple and shrine-filled, forested Itsukushima Island – more commonly known as Miyajima Island.
People flock here to see the Itsukushima Floating Torii Gate. It’s Japan’s most famous torii gate and UNESCO World Heritage Site which you can get up close to it when the tide is low and marvel at its floating-on-water illusion when the tide is high.
Take the Miyajima Ropeway to the Shishiiwa Observatory and Mount Misen Observatory for spectacular island views.
Learning from Hiroshima
A few days after leaving Hiroshima, I met a local from the city working in Tokyo and told him I had visited and would be writing about it. He told me how his grandparents survived as they lived far from the epicentre and said to me: “Please. Tell everyone about it. Everyone must visit. Everyone must learn.”
And to him, I dedicate this post, remembering how we shook hands and smiled as newfound friends, as I promised to be one voice. One voice of many, spreading the courage of the people of Hiroshima, who have risen from the ashes and now fight for peace.
Things to Know About Visiting Hiroshima
Peace Memorial Park
- Entry to the Peace Memorial Park is free.
- Entry to the Peace Memorial Museum costs 200 Yen ($1.50).
How to Get to Hiroshima
Hiroshima is a four-hour train ride from Tokyo (costing approximately £83/$294) and a 90-minute ride from Kyoto (£83/$131), worth considering as part of your Japan itinerary.
Many people are put off by the high cost of the rail ticket, so it might be worthwhile investing in a JR Rail Pass (7 days: £178 / $282, 14 days: £285 / $459, 21 days: £364 / $575 $) to make the cost worthwhile.
Where to Stay in Hiroshima
located next to the ferry terminal for Miyajima Island and close to the rail service for the 30-minute trip into Hiroshima – the best of both worlds for the city and the island.
- Hiroshima and Miyajima Private Guide Tour – Customise your own itinerary with a local guide.
- Hiroshima Cycling Peace Tour – An e-bike tour with a local guide that takes you from the Peace Park to the Hiroshima heritage sites in the suburbs.
- Hiroshima Like a Local – A guided walking tour that helps you navigate the city and know where the locals hang out.
- Hiroshima Bar Hopping Food Tour – Try the best food and drink from three local bars in the city’s biggest nightlife district.
- Early Morning Hiking Tour with Tea Ceremony – Hike up Futaba Mountain for sunrise over Hiroshima before enjoying an open-air tea ceremony and yoga lesson.
Travelling to Japan
- How Much Does It Cost To Travel In Japan? Budget Trip Tips and Worthwhile Expenses.
- What is Tokyo Like? Things to Love About Japan’s Capital City
- What to Do in Osaka – The Rebellious and Eccentric City
READ ALL: On my Destination Page for Japan.
Jan Vinall says
You have such a delightful way with words and that is a gift not many people have. It has made me think about how it was for the ordinary people of Japan rather than just what happened to our guys. Was the bombs necessary? For many years I have though yes they were but after reading your blog I am not so sure. All I do know is that it must never happen again for what ever reason.
Maybe one day I will get to Japan to see for myself
Backpacker Becki says
Thank you so much for your kind words and it’s interesting when you say it has made you think differently. The Hiroshima debate is a long-standing one and I gather from your comment that you are from the US? The man I mention in the piece, whose mother was pregnant with him at the time, prides himself on taking Americans around the Peace Park, many of whom are trying to make peace with what happened. I hope you get to visit Japan someday. Despite its terrible and somewhat barbaric history, it is an incredible place and cities like Hiroshima and what it fights for are testament to how we can learn from the past.
Backpacker Becki says
Ahhh. I see, I see! I’ve had Americans say some thing similar so just assumed the same!
Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) says
When my husband and I were in Japan last August we both felt that Hiroshima was a mandatory stop during our month in the country. It may sound strange to say it, but I was pleasantly surprised by what we found—I thought that Hiroshima is quite different from other Japanese cities (it’s boulevards are so broad and expansive) and for a place of such pain, I found it remarkably peaceful and with many charms to recommend it. I was deeply touched by all of the memorials we visited which prompted a lot of reflection on my part, but I think there is much to enjoy as a visitor to Hiroshima beyond its tragic past.
Backpacker Becki says
I totally agree. I think many people expect there to be a city full of rubble when in fact it’s one of the most busy, happening cities I was in during my time in Japan. Great shopping, nightlife, colour, art, the castle! Plus near-by Miyajima too! I wasn’t sure, before arriving, if the museum was going to be very bias and calling for sympathy, but it was balanced and informative and I commend that, especially when the Japanese have such a terrible history with the way they treated others. It really does get you thinking there, doesn’t it?
Hiroshima seems like a place worth visiting, it put a whole new meaning and importance to the word, PEACE. At least it ended the suffering for countries that are under Japanese Occupation.
Backpacker Becki says
It certainly brings to light how a country has not only recovered from it’s suffering but learnt from it’s mistakes, and admitted them.
Backpacker Becki says
I never expected to learn as much as I did. A very moving day indeed.
I have chills and tears in my eyes just from reading this. I can only begin to imagine how you must have felt visiting. I think it’s so important to visit places like Hiroshima so we never forget. I pray that the Flame of Peace is extinguished one day. Great post, thank you for sharing.
Backpacker Becki says
It really takes it out of you after spending the day here, but I wanted to tell people exactly how much you learn, especially about how much Hiroshima fights for the abolition of nuclear weapons today. The letters from the Mayors were particularly moving – I never expected things like that.