Historical Significance

A look at Hiroshima 60 years after the bomb dropped

By: Gary Bowerman

On Aug. 6, 1945, on a clear and sunny morning the U.S. B-29 bomber, Enola Gay, took off from the Mariana Islands. At 8:15 a.m., it dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

The explosion occurred less than half a mile above the city and destroyed 90 percent of the downtown buildings. Estimates suggest that 145,000 people died by the end of that year, and countless thousands have perished since.

Sixty years later, I am standing inside Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum, staring at a wall-sized photo of the devastated city taken a few days after the bombing. Total silence is all around me. Museum visitors from several nations stand open-mouthed, trying to formulate a response to the wasteland confronting them.

Ever since school history classes, I’ve been intrigued from afar about how Hiroshima responded and rebuilt its city and population. As my Shinkansen bullet train from Kyoto sped across western Japan, I tried to imagine how modern Hiroshima would look; how it would feel; how it would go about its daily business with such a historical burden. No guidebook could prepare me for what I found.

Historical Weight

I arrived at Hiroshima station on a similarly clear, sunny morning to be welcomed by a bowing, baseball-cap-clad train maintenance team, patiently waiting to board and clean the spotless carriages. During the bus ride downtown, modern, mid-rise Hiroshima showed itself to be softened by parks, spliced by rivers and fringed by hills. European-style trams trundle down broad thoroughfares flanked by glitzy shopping malls, coffee shops and five-star hotels not quite what I had expected.

Like most visitors, my first stop was the A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima’s most poignant memorial to that catastrophic August morning. Seeing it close up for the first time, it is quite hard to absorb the historic significance. The once classic European-style green-domed exhibition hall is now a twisted skeleton of steel and masonry. Though gutted by fire, it somehow remained partially standing. An inscription reads “everyone in the building died immediately.”

The A-Bomb Dome’s modern context represents the rebirth of the city. It sits on a lush, green lawn at the confluence of the Motoyasu-gawa and Ota-gawa rivers.

Rising behind it are the city’s baseball stadium home to the pro-league Hiroshima Toyo Carp and several modern office towers. Adjacent is the Aioi-bashi Bridge, featuring a stark brass and black-ink depiction of the city two months after the bombing.

Crossing the river, I entered the triangular Peace Memorial Park, featuring 64 monuments and commemorations to the bombing and its aftermath. Here, multinational visitors move slowly between the statues, stopping to read explanatory notes from multilingual tourist guides. Weaving between them are uniformed Japanese schoolchildren, diligently studying their park maps.

The pleasant, tree-filled park embodies Hiroshima’s hope for a nuclear-free future. Walking the streets of this captivating, energetic modern city, it is impossible not to share the sentiment. Such complacency, though, is dispelled inside the Peace Memorial Museum.

Beautifully designed and curated, it tells Hiroshima’s post-nuclear story in uncompromising detail. The illustrated extracts of writings and spoken testimonials by survivors and the blood-curdling photographs of wounds and injuries are meant to display the evils of nuclear weaponry.

Sixty years have passed since the bombing, and touring Hiroshima today is emotive rather than distressing. No city in the outside world has the motive or dedication to protest more strongly against nuclear proliferation. Between 1968 and August 2004, Hiroshima’s mayors wrote 588 protest letters to the heads of nations conducting nuclear weapons tests. Each is displayed in the Peace Memorial Museum.

A City Reborn

Yet as evening descends on the bustling main streets, the neon glow of commerce, shopping and nightlife adds a rejuvenating ambience. Stores on the main streets are elegant and expensive; the chic boutiques along Jizo-dori could grace the streets of New York City. Ambient bars like Otis and Opium are classy and relaxing. And scores of exquisite Japanese restaurants are dotted around downtown.

But Hiroshima also harbors another rich secret, which (though well known by Japanese tourists) is often missed by other visitors. The island of Miyajima is home of the floating Itsukushima Shinto shrine one of Japan’s most revered sites.

Determined not to miss the early morning ferry, I jumped onto a tram and then took a taxi to the modern port district. From there, it was a 20-minute boat to the well-behaved and clearly tourist-trained, wild deer that welcomed me to the island, hoping no doubt to relieve me of any spare food. Undoubtedly, the shrine, which fronts a charming island attractively clad in trees and foliage, is best viewed on a sunny day.

During my visit, the clouds were low and a drizzly rain lingered in the air. But staring back across the waters at the city of Hiroshima, I pinched myself again and again unable to comprehend the beauty of the view. Sometimes, at times like these, the weight of history just takes over.


Japan’s shinkansen bullet trains are fun and fast, spotlessly clean and very expensive, but an essential part of visiting. Launched in 1964 the brilliant white, snake-like trains were originally designed to travel at around 125 miles per hour. Today, they zip across Japan’s picturesque countryside at up to 185 miles per hour. There seems to be no more exciting or efficient way to travel across the country.
The bullet train network spreads across Japan’s main island of Honshu, linking Tokyo with most major cities, including Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima. Reserved tickets can be purchased in advance from the rail station, as can cheaper non-reserved tickets, for which seating is provided on a first-come, first-served basis in designated carriages. Trains leave and depart to a rigorously enforced schedule. So clients can sit back and enjoy the (extremely fast) ride.