Ctrl-Alt-Del. Reboot. ... A visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan with an Okonomiyaki food tasting on the side





Children of modern day Japan pay their respects to the children who had lost their lives in the
atomic bomb explosion in Nagasaki which had happened on 6th August 1945. September, 2018

Note: This post is a travelogue and not meant to be a historical treatise and should be read in that spirit. Here I speak of the impression the people of Japan left on us. How our visit to Hiroshima affected us. There are travel tips for going to Hiroshima too. For foodies there is my account of trying out the Hiroshima version of the Japanese grilled this, Okonomiyaki.

Japan: The opening of the eyes.


“A trip to Japan is a life changer. You will love it so much that I can’t even begin to explain it.”

I received this Whatsapp from Manna, a friend of ours who lives in Mumbai, just before K and I had left on our holiday to Japan. I must say that she was not the only one to say this. From articles written by food writers such as the late Anthony Bourdain to people we know who have visited to Japan, the refrain was the same. 

'You will love Japan', they said. 'It will change your life', most added.

Well, we are back from Japan now and you know what? They were all very right.

I do not think that I can ever get Japan out of my blood now. I had visited the country forty years back in 1978 when I was four, but I think this visit is the one where I really got to understand the magic of Japan, and it is the people of Japan, more than anything else, whom I have to thank for this.

To start with the feeling of respect and courtesy that the people there show to everyone is truly humbling. It is as if everyone that we met during the trip embodied the spirit of the “Bodhistava Never Disparaging’ whom one has read about it in Buddhist books and who is said to have bowed in respect to everyone he would meet, even his detractors. Every interaction that we had in Japan would be followed by many bows and many, very earnest 'arigato gozaimasus' (thank you very much). 

Inspired by them, I so got into the spirit of things that I bowed to people I interacted with at the airport in Bangkok on the way back while on transit and they looked back at me perplexed. By the time I reached India, I realised that it was the translation of the spirit that mattered and not transliteration. That one should aim to imbibe the spirit of respect toward others that one saw there, in a culturally appropriate context, than copy their actions blindly.

The gentleman with his eyes shut in the pic was a stranger sitting
in the metro beside  us when we had to reach Shin Osaka from Osaka
and then catch the train to Tokyo. He asked us where we were going 
& then saw the time of the next train on our ticket and realised how late 
we were. When the train stopped, he walked all the way with us, up escalators and 
to an elevator  and took us to a point where we could enter the platform and not
miss our train. A story that got repeated so often in Japan 

There was so much more that was unforgettable about the people of Japan. Their helpful nature for example. There were times when we were stuck on the streets and would walk up to a stranger for help and help is what we would get each and every time without fail. If language was a barrier as it often was, they would ask others, Google, but they would make sure that they had an answer and would walk with us till they felt assured that we were on the right path. 

Even if it meant straying from their own.

Be it a high end sushi restaurant or a station elevator sushi one,
 Tokyo station in this case, the focus that the chefs brought
to their work was exemplary


There is so much more to learn from the people of Japan. The clean public toilets everywhere, even in the trains, is something for us to aspire too. The muted volume levels in public spaces was something that I just loved.  When there were phone calls, people would step out to take them. Inspiring too were the looks of concentration and focus in the eyes of their chefs when they cooked. This ensured, for example, that regardless of whether you ate at an expensive and exclusive five star sushi restaurant or a railway station affordable conveyor belt sushi one, every bite that you took would be perfect. 

Work is worship here.

The Japanese don’t judge you. Even if you ask for a fork instead of chopsticks (as we did everywhere). They don’t roll their eyes if you do so. Which made me wonder if any Japanese would ever be on Twitter, a platform that seems to be the happy hunting grounds of sanctimonious trolls these days. 

If you asked for something that they could not offer, in the shops for example, they would apologise and say, “I am so sorry,” a million times even if it was no fault of theirs.

And if you went to information counters, then once done with answering your queries, they would ask you, “excuse me, where have you come from,” and when we would say “Indo” (Japanese for India), they would break into a warm smile and say, “oh, so far! Thank you for visiting our country.”

In Japan, everybody smiles. And very widely and warmly at that.

Yes, Japan was indeed a life changer. That’s where I learnt how one should treat one’s fellow human being. 

Now it is up to me to prove how good a student one can be.

Excellent dark chocolate ice creams and very cheerful staff at the Far Eastern
Bazar in the Osaka Station basement. 'In Japan, everyone smiles.'

Hiroshima: Changing poison into medicine


However, what was without a doubt a ‘life changer’ for me in Japan was our visit to Hiroshima. A city that I had first heard of from my grandfather in the stories of the second world war he would tell me when I was a kid. The city where the first ever atomic bomb was dropped.

We were at Osaka on the last leg of our trip when K suggested that we make a day trip to Hiroshima from there. She had come across an excellent blog post on Earth Trekkers (check the link at the end of the post) which told her exactly how to do so and what to do once there. 

K does all the research on our trips while I spend my time eating and blogging and posting I confess.

The Shinkansen or bullet trains are very steady despite the high speeds at which
they run. The have very clean toilets, no wifi. Great leg space even in general class.
Not much food so you should pick a Bento box. A JR pass covers most.
It is advisable to reserve your seats for rides longer than an hour, especially if you
have suitcases


So off we went to Hiroshima on our second day at Osaka. We took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from  the Shin Osaka station  and used out JR Pass. The journey takes a bit more than an hour. 

The first thing that strikes you when you reach Hiroshima is that its station is as modern as it gets. It is packed with malls, restaurants and amenities and can compete with those in Tokyo, Kyoto, et al, but looks newer and even more polished. Anything but the ruins that you might have expected given the history of the place. 

We picked up our cappuccinos at the Starbucks at the station after we reached Hiroshima. Here they do not write your name on the cups. You place your order and then stand in a queue and the young and friendly staff members ensure that you get the exact cup that you have ordered. 

We stopped at Starbucks on the way back too as we had to wait
for an hour for the train back. Do check the timetable
for your return


Interestingly, the folks manning service places in Hiroshima, or even Osaka and Kyoto for that matter, seemed to be more conversant with English than those at Tokyo. The 'arigatos' were often replaced by ‘thank you’ here, but the spirit of hospitality was very Japanese still.

Using the pointers given in the ‘Earth Trekker’ blog which K had referred to, we hopped on to the red sightseeing bus and managed to get seats before it got packed. The JR pass worked here too and soon we were off towards the Hiroshima memorial.

The Hiroshima Memorial


The Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima. September, 2018


We got off at the bus stop for the Atomic Bomb Dome. I wryly remarked to K that the name seemed to be typical of the some of the very direct translations that we had seen in Japan and that it could have been worded a bit more subtly. A short while later, we realised that significance of the name in this case went beyond Google translate follies. That the bluntness was intentional in this case.

The Atomic Bomb Dome refers to one of the rare buildings in Hiroshima that was not completely razed to the ground by the bomb. The citizens of Hiroshima later decided to preserve it as a reminder to the world about the devastation that nuclear weapons can cause and with the hope that this message will eventually lead to nuclear disarmament. That they would use misfortune that had befallen them to ensure that no one will again have to suffer what they did.

Standing in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome, a short distance away from the epicentre of the blast, was a sobering experience. It was as if the words of my grandfather's stories, and those in the books that I had read later on the subject, whizzed past me and fell into the starkness of the ruins that lay in front of one. I looked on trying fathom the extent of the devastation and the misery that had happened here. Even the thought of it left one numb. I realised that I was not the only one who felt that way. There was a hushed silence among all gathered around the dome.

The cenotaph at Hiroshima


We then walked on across the Hiroshima Memorial Park. A park that lies today in place of what were once densely populated lanes which had been wiped out when the bomb fell on that faithful day in 1945. We saw the cenotaph there and the flame that the citizens of Hiroshima had pledged to keep alive till every nuclear bomb in the world is dismantled.


The Hiroshima flame


Then there was the memorial put up in honour of a young girl, Sadako Sasaki, who had died a few years after the bomb fell when she succumbed to the effects of radiation which spring up out of nowhere. It is a memorial dedicated to the children who were among the 140,000 people who had lost their lives in their tragedy. A grim reminder that it is the innocent who suffer the most in the war games that generals play. 

As we walked by, I saw a stream of Japanese school kids enter the park. Some scampered to the monuments and took notes in their copy books. Then I saw a group of them, led by their teacher, go up a western couple. They stood in a neat line facing the couple read out the following words from their exercise books in tandem, with bashful smiles on their faces.

“We are grateful to you for sparing your time and coming to our country. Thank you very much”

They were practising their English it seems and making friends in the process. That is when I got the answers I sought when I stood in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome earlier. 

Yes, generations have screwed up things in this world as have we too, but there is always hope as one saw in the eyes in the children of today’s Hiroshima. One can always look up to future generations to do a much better job than we have and that we owe it to give them all the help that they need.

If the starkness of Atomic Bomb Dome challenged my powers of imagination, then the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum is where I came to face with the abject reality of what had happened here 73 years back. Through its visual exhibits and holograms, the video recordings of the survivors and their accounts of what had happened (recorded later after the end of the American post war censorship) and the belongings that had been left behind those who had lost their lives, the memorial told you inch by inch the story of the calamity that had happened when the atom bomb fell here on 6th August 1945 and the despair that followed. 

Not a natural calamity, mind you. Japan has seen many of those. 

This was hundred percent man made.

From the Hiroshima Museum exhibit. A tale of how Hiroshima rose like
a Phoenix after it was levelled to the ground


Tucked away in the stories displayed in the museum was one that I had read about recently in an account of post war Japan and the life of Josei Toda, the second president of the Soka Gakkai International, a lay Buddhist organisation devoted to peace and nuclear disarmament, of which I am a member too. It was written by Dr Daisaku Ikeda, the current president of the organisation.


When life returned to the scorched soil of Hiroshima.
It reads: "That autumn in Hiroshima where it was said
"for seventy five years nothing will grow"
New buds sprouted
In the green that came back to life
Among the charred ruins
People recovered
Their living hopes and courage


I am talking of the story of the first shoots of grass that had emerged in the barren soil of Hiroshima, a few months after the city had been ravaged by the bomb. A piece of news which seemed to have galvanised the citizens of the city and of the whole of Japan back then. A message from nature that there was still life and hope hidden in the ruins of Hiroshima. Something that gave them the inspiration to keep living, one day at a time, after the catastrophe that had befallen them.

After all, there is no force that is as strong as that of faith and hope.

Food for thought


The story of the Hirsohima Okonomiyaki


Towards the end of our visit, we went to the souvenir shop at the museum and picked up a few fridge magnets and books.  That is when I saw an illustration on display that seemed to be about food and whose chirpiness seemed in contrast to the grimness around.  I asked the lady at the shop what this was about.

Okomoniyaki recipe,” she replied.

“Oh, I had this at Osaka last night,” I said.

“The one in Hiroshima is different,” she replied and then after thinking a bit added, “it's in layers and not mixed.”

Nagata Ya, just outside the Hiroshima Memorial Park


Intrigued, I told K that I wanted to try one. We went to a restaurant called Nagata Ya which is in the lane just outside the park. There are two restaurants located beside each other and this was a bit less packed. The restaurant was manned a by a group of young Japanese and the clientele consisted of fellow tourists. The staff was friendly and helped us place our order comfortable and somewhat confidently. The menu was in English and made everything clear, including how to eat an Okonomiyaki (cut pieces with a spatula and then have them one by one). Okonomo means 'anything you like' and yaki means 'to grill', says Ahona Gupta, a follower of the Finely Chopped Facebook page.



Hiroshima Okonomiyaki at Nagata Ya

The looks of concentration on the faces of the young chefs, standing by the long flat teppan (grill) at Nagata Ya, as they layered on the flour mix, your meat of choice (we chose pork and they have vegetarian ones too), noodles of choice (I went for udon which I learnt was more traditional while soba was the other and more modern option), sauces, vegetables, eggs and spices, and then covered this with a cloche till the okonomiyaki took shape, was palpable. The process took around ten minutes or so.


Once done, a waitress came and placed okonomiyaki on the hot plate on our table. The dish got crunchier with each bite one took as it continued to cook on the hot plate. 

I loved the textural contrasts in what I had here. The dish felt as if it was a lovely hot udon noodle dish and I preferred it to the rather dense and monochrome grilled cabbage, flour and egg dough, Okonomokiyaki, topped with mayo and thin slices of indeterminable pork that I had tried at Dotonbori in Osaka, the previous evening. 

In the battle of Okonomiyakis, Hiroshima was clearly the winner over Osaka in my books. 

Osaka okonomoiyaki at a Dotonbori restaurant

I must add that K was a fan of neither version and preferred the orange juice that we had at the cafe by the river located just opposite Nagata Ya.

It would be fair to say that our time at Nagata Ya was just the relief that I needed after witnessing the bleakness of the story of Hiroshima.

Orange juice at Hiroshima. The cafe offered a cocktail called
Hiroshima sour


Now, before you say, “there he goes, talking of food again,” I would like to request you to hear me out.

The thing is, that in the buzz of the restaurant that we had walked into, the warmth of the people inside, the spirit of enterprise that we saw in the youth that run it…and later in the gleaming skyscrapers that one passed by as one headed back in a tram to the wonderful train station of Hiroshima…and in the station itself ... lay a message from the people of Hiroshima.

A message that said, “if we could do it, then no matter what happens in your life, so can you. Never give up hope.”

The new generation of Hiroshima at Nagata Ya, doing their
ancestors proud with their spunk I am sure

On repaying debts of gratitude


One should never forget what had happened in Hiroshima and be lulled into a sense of complacency of course. One should not let the sacrifice of so many lives go in vain. 

Which is why the citizens of Hiroshima had set up the Hiroshima Memorial Complex, I read, when they realised in the 1960s that with the city developing into an urban centre, future generations would not remember what had happened. 

They wanted to remind us through the memorial that we should never take our lives, or the peace around us, for granted. That we should fight to protect every human life with every breath that we take. 

For me, the visit was the closing of a loop which had begun when I had first heard the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sitting on my grandpa’s lap as a kid in Kolkata.

I realised that there are shades of grey in every aspect of life and I am sure that historians, politicians and spin doctors would find many in what happened in Hiroshima.

Yet, what is as clear as black and white, is that every human life is precious and that no one has the right to take that of another.

It was as if in the stories of the lives lost there, that I had found my life's purpose. 

Hiroshima, was indeed the life changer that people had predicted what Japan would be for me.

Coincidentally, we happened to be in Tokyo on the day that Dr Daisaku Ikeda completed last instalment of the New Human Revolution. The series is an expression of commitment to the ideals of peace and nuclear disarmament that had driven his mentor, second SGI President, Josei Toda and  byDr Ikeda himself. 

At a personal level, I felt that going to Hiroshima at the end of our trip made the purpose behind their mission clear. A mission I hope to live up to through my writing and my life. A mission dedicated to achieving peace and happiness in this world






Hiroshima travel trips:

  • It is perfectly safe to go to Hiroshima. It is a thriving city today with no traces of radiation.
  • You can go to Hiroshima using the Shinkansen from both Osaka and Kyoto. If you have a valid JR pass then you can use it here
  • The trains do not have a very high frequency so do refer to the time table
  • The sightseeing loop bus is free
  • Entrance to all the sites at the Hiroshima Memorial Park are free barring the museum where the tickets currently cost 300 yen
  • There is a lot of walking involved. Wear comfortable shoes. Carry umbrellas. Umbrellas cost around 400 yen in super markets in Japan so don't bother carrying yours for overseas
  • The complex has clean toilets. Restaurants are there in the lane outside
  • The Okonomiyaki cost us about 1300 yen and the cappuccino at Starbucks around 400


Okonomiyaki pics from Nagata Ya

Layer on

Stack

Cut

Feed



And here's how to eat


Videos from the Finely Chopped TV by Kalyan Karmakar YouTube channel. Please subscribe to the channel to catch more such slice of life videos

Okonomiyaki at Nagata Ya



Travelling by the Shinkansen to Hiroshima and the joys of bento box munching


References:


The blog post from Earth Trekkers that K referred to while she planned the trip.

Link to the SGI Tweet 

The lines 'opening of the eyes,' 'changing poison into medicine' and 'on repaying ones debts of gratitude' are from the writings of Nicherin Daishonin, a Buddhist monk who lived in 14th century Japan
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