When you think of Hiroshima, your mind will probably go first to the nuclear bomb that was detonated in the city by US air forces at the end of the Second World War. While this event left an indelible mark on Hiroshima and its people, there is so much more to discover about this thriving metropolis.
Hiroshima sprung up as a town in 1589 during Japan’s tumultuous ‘warring states’ period, before the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Warlord Mori Terumoto who founded the settlement commissioned the building of Hiroshima Castle, which would become his main residence. The first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu later seized the town after his victory at the momentous Battle of Sekigahara.
After the abolition of Japan’s feudal system in the late 19th century, Hiroshima was granted city status and became a major port. During the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) the Japanese government made Hiroshima its temporary base and Emperor Meiji took up residence in Hiroshima castle.
In the weeks and months leading up to the detonation of the Little Boy atomic bomb, residents were fearful of an impending attack. Almost every other city in Japan had experienced extensive fire-bombing and the people of Hiroshima knew that their turn was coming. Nothing could have prepared them for what came, however.
On the morning of 6th August 1945, American air forces released the bomb over the centre of the city. The impact was immediate and devastating. Around 80,000 people were killed by the blast and tens of thousands more died in the aftermath. The relief effort was slow and medical assistance for victims was initially, almost non-existent, given that the vast majority of the city’s medical professionals had been killed.
The operation of rebuilding the city began just days after the blast, starting with the water pumps and telephone lines. Teams of volunteers worked tirelessly to reinstate essential infrastructure and within a year, some semblance of normality had been restored. By 1958, Hiroshima’s population returned to its pre-war numbers.
Things to do
Today Hiroshima has a population of over a million people and corresponds to the vibrant, neon-lit template of all major Japanese cities. Following the war, the city’s people had a vision of Hiroshima becoming a centre of pacifism. This led to the creation of the Peace Park – a 120,000 square metre green space in the heart of the city. The park is home to the Peace Memorial Museum, dedicated mainly to the events of 1945, with displays including the preserved belongings of bomb victims and eye-witness accounts of the devastation. Also located within the park is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. The ruin of the former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall – one of the few buildings to survive the blast – has become an icon of the city and stands in memory of those killed.
Though the original Hiroshima Castle was destroyed, a perfect replica was built on the site in 1958; now used as a museum dedicated to Hiroshima’s pre-modern history. The Japanese garden Shukkeien, which dates back to the 17th century was initially used as a refuge for bomb victims and was later rebuilt and reopened in 1951. It is a beautiful example of a traditional Japanese garden, featuring a large central koi carp pond, tea houses and topiary.
If you’re looking for a little more buzz, head to downtown Hiroshima, a lively centre full of shops, bars and restaurants. Hondori street, a pedestrianised arcade that starts near the Peace Park is a good place to head first. Music fans should check out Organza, a cosy and eccentric bar with an eclectic programme of live music. The bar also serves Japanese comfort food and has English menus.
If you fancy escaping the hustle and bustle, hop on the ferry from the Peace Park to Miyajima island. In just 45 minutes, you will be transported to this idyllic and tranquil spot; a haven of Shinto shrines populated by tame wild deer. The magnificent Itsukushima Shrine is the island’s main attraction and includes the famous ‘floating’ torii gate which stands off the coast in the Seto Inland Sea.
What to eat
Both Osaka and Hiroshima are fiercely proud of their okonomiyaki and natives of each city will claim that they make it best. Okonomiyaki translates as ‘how you like it’ and is a kind of savoury pancake with a variety of ingredients incorporated into the batter. In Osaka, the pancake ingredients are mixed together, whereas a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki has separate layers of each ingredient. Okonomimura is an okonomiyaki theme park in Hiroshima, which has 24 okonomiyaki restaurants each producing a slightly different style.
Oysters are another local speciality and can be found served in a variety of styles all over the city. Try them grilled and served over rice or knock them back raw with a sprinkling of citrus-infused ponzu sauce.
When to visit
Due to its location in the far south of Japan’s main island of Honshu, Hiroshima enjoys hot summers and mild winters. Temperatures peak in the mid-30s during July and August and humidity is high, so you’d perhaps be better off exploring during the spring or autumn months.