Hiroshima, one of Japan’s most popular tourist cities, is one of those destinations that you feel the need and desire to see, but it’s hard to get excited about. Rather, you might feel a little bit of trepidation about visiting a place famous for death and destruction. Auschwitz in Poland and the World Trade Center in New York City are two other popular destinations that come to mind. A visit may be heavy on the heart, mind and soul, but it is so worth it for remembrance, reflection and respect.
Although Hiroshima is now a bustling city and top tourist destination, there’s not a whole lot to see or do there except visit the Peace Memorial Park. This is why I recommend visiting Hiroshima as a day trip from either Kyoto or Osaka. A visit to the Peace Park will take up a good half day of your time, but there will still be time in your schedule to make a visit to the beautiful island of Miyajima while in this area of Japan. You can find a complete day trip itinerary for Hiroshima and Miyajima here.
The Peace Memorial Park
The “Peace Park” was developed in the part of the city that was once the political and commercial zone of Hiroshima, and subsequently, ground zero of the atomic bombing. Covering over 29 acres, it is a large park housing a museum and various memorials including the most photographed memorial, the A-Bomb Dome. Although it is located in the middle of the busy downtown district, once you enter the park, you don’t seem to hear anything. Street noise almost seems nonexistent and there’s no chatter from the solemn visitors.
The Atomic Bomb Dome
If you follow my directions below, your first site off the tram will be one that you’ll have no problem recognizing, the A-Bomb Dome. Although I’ve seen it so many times in black and white pictures, there is no way to prepare yourself for seeing it in living color right before your very own eyes. You’ll freeze in your tracks and become overtaken with emotion just at the site of this one building that reminds you of the type of destruction that resulted from the dropping of the atomic bomb.
The A-Bomb Dome, also known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, is the structural remains of what was once the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. It was one of the few buildings to remain standing and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Peace Flame and Memorial Cenotaph
Next, walk across the bridge towards the tree lined walkway, as you make your way in the direction of the museum. Along the walk, you’ll come across two monuments, the Peace Flame and Memorial Cenotaph.
The Peace Flame is a monument to the victims of the bombing, but it also serves a symbolic purpose. The flame was first lit in 1964, and it has burned continuously since then. It will continue to burn until all nuclear bombs on the planet are destroyed and the planet is free from the threat of nuclear annihilation. Sadly, it appears this flame will never be extinguished, but one can hope.
Continuing your walk, you’ll next visit the Cenotaph. The Cenotaph is an arched monument built to frame both the Peace Flame and the A-Bomb Dome. The arched shape was selected as a symbol of shelter for the souls of the victims. It holds the names of over 220,000 people, both those who perished on the fateful day as well as those who died later due to radiation exposure.
Peace Memorial Museum
You’ll now see an open field and towards the end, a long building borders the park. This is the museum, the Peace Park’s main facility. Consisting of two buildings housed on the opposite end of the park from the A-Bomb Dome, the museum is dedicated to the events of August 6, the dropping of the atomic bomb and its aftermath. You’ll find many exhibitions of the destruction including videos of survivors’ stories. You’ll also learn about the atomic bomb as well as the effect of radiation. The museum is very well done, but be warned, it’s emotional and graphic (as you would expect it to be).
The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound
The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound is a large, grass-covered knoll that contains the ashes of 70,000 unidentified victims of the bomb. It’s located in a quieter section of the park and makes for a good place to take a moment to reflect and say a prayer for all the victims.
Children’s Peace Monument
It’s not hard to recognize this monument in the park when you approach it. A statue dedicated to the memory of the children who died as a result of the bombing, it is one of a girl with outstretched arms with a folded paper crane rising above her. You’ll see lots of folded cranes nearby as well as some children’s drawings and letters on display here. It’s very sad but you get a sense of hope at the same time thanks to the beautiful story behind the memorial. As the true story goes, a young girl who died from radiation from the bomb believed that if she folded 1,000 paper cranes, she would be cured. To this day, children and adults from around the world send folded paper cranes to Hiroshima in honor of hope, which are then placed by the statue. Even if you can’t make a trip to Hiroshima, you can make a paper crane to be placed at this memorial.
The Peace Bell
Close to the Children’s Peace Monument, you’ll find the large Peace Bell in the middle of a small lotus blossom pond. Visitors are encouraged to ring the bell for world peace and many do just that, as you’ll hear the tolling of this bell in the distance the entire time you are within the park.
Regroup and Unwind
After a visit to the Peace Park, you will undoubtedly feel a little wiped out both from walking around and from the heavy emotional experience. The best treatment for this mental and physical exhaustion is comfort food, and there’s no better place to find Japanese comfort food than in Hiroshima. I’m talking about okonomiyaki, and a big plate of it does the soul some good.
After my visit to the Peace Park, I had very little energy left to seek out one of the 2,000 okonomiyaki restaurants in the prefecture, and instead, I opted for convenience. So off I went back to the train station to check out the okonomiyaki restaurants on the 2nd floor. There were several to choose from, and all were packed. I got lucky and was able to find a spot at the counter instead of a table, so I not only was in for a gastronomical treat, but I was getting a show with my dinner, too!
Okonomiyaki, which means, “cook what you like”, is a crepe-like dish containing meat, seafood, cabbage, egg, sprouts and whatever else you want in it. It’s cooked on a hibachi, and if you sit right at the counter, you’ll get to watch the chef create your delicious dish right in front of you. It’s a filling dish that goes down well with a cold beer making it the perfect ending to a long day.
Know before you go
How do I get to the Peace Park?
The train station is well marked with signage, but if you can’t find the exit saying “Peace Park,” simply ask one of the friendly and helpful Japanese people to show you the way. The Peace Park is about a 30 minute walk, but most people opt for the convenient and inexpensive tram located right outside of the train station. The tram takes about 15 minute as it snakes through downtown to the Peace Park, You’ll want to take either tram line 2 or 6 to Genbaku-Domu Mae station (the A-Bomb Dome).
Is it safe to visit Hiroshima?
It seems anytime I mention my trip to Japan, the first question that always comes up is whether or not it is safe to visit, with the concern being radiation. One would think Hiroshima might not be safe because it was obliterated by an atomic bomb. However, Hiroshima has normal radiation levels now, and the museum does a good job at explaining why Hiroshima is in fact safe to live in and visit. If you are going to worry about radiation exposure while visiting Japan, it’s the north you need to be concerned about thanks to Fukushima. The south, on the other hand, is just fine.
How much time do I need in Hiroshima?
Plan about a ½ day (5 hours) in Hiroshima for visiting the museum and Peace Park monuments, your roundtrip transportation from the train station to the Peace Park, and to enjoy an okonomiyaki dinner.
I recommend doing a day trip to Hiroshima from Osaka (I recommend using Osaka as your base to visit both Kyoto and Hiroshima). Get a very early morning train out of Osaka and go straight to Miyajima for a morning visit. Miyajima is about an hour south of Hiroshima.
Return to Hiroshima in the early afternoon for your visit. I think the Peace Park is beautiful in the afternoon hours through dusk, which will allow you to experience the park as the sun sets. The Peace Flame is more visible as the sun goes down, and if you are lucky, you’ll catch the sun setting on the A-Bomb Dome. Afterwards, grab dinner at the train station before catching your late evening train back to Osaka.