The atomic bomb and Hiroshima are often uttered in the same breath, but the devastating attack that reduced the then-thriving transportation hub located on Japan’s Honshu island in the Chugoku region to rubble during the second World War is anything but taboo to bring up when you are there.
Today, the Peace Memorial Park, located near the hypocentre of the blast which took place on that fateful morning of August 6 1945, is one of the first stops for most Hiroshima visitors. Designed by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange and opened in 1954 to commemorate the 140,000 lives lost in the bombing, it remains one of the prefecture’s top tourist attractions.
Exhibitions in the two museums document the horrifying aftermath of the attack, while drumming home the message for disarmament. The park is also where you will find the often-photographed A-Bomb Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The building’s charred skeletal ruins serves as a grim reminder of what the city experienced during World War II. To see its transformation, one only needs to head east to the newly-opened Hiroshima Orizuru Tower (HOT).
Named after the folded paper crane which symbolises peace, HOT features an open-air observation deck where youget a bird’s eye view of the city which has risen from the ashes to transform itself into a buzzing metropolis to rival the likes of Tokyo or Osaka.
And with its tree-lined boulevards, there is no better way to explore Hiroshima than on foot. Start at Hondori near the Peace Memorial Park, where you’ll find a pedestrian-only shopping strip stretching for about half a kilometre .
The route will also lead to Okonomi-mura, which translates as Okonomiyaki Village and is a standalone complex with more than 20 stalls spread over three floors serving the popular Japanese savoury pancake.
A common street snack in Osaka, the crepe is served differently in Hiroshima where the ingredients are layered instead of being mixed together on the hot grill. Each stall owner has his or her own unique recipe, so no two okonomiyakis will taste alike and one visit to Okonomi-mura is never enough.
Hiroshima’s other specialty is oyster, which is hardly surprising given the fact it faces the Seto Inland Sea. It is Japan’s biggest producer of the salt-water bivalves, accounting for over 60 percent of the national total.
There are various oyster farms like Shimada Suisan which offer bumboat rides to see the harvesting process before ending the tour with a meal of grilled oysters and oyster porridge.
Leave your hotel before the crack of dawn as you would in Tokyo for Tsukiji Market and arrive just in time to catch the sunrise on camera while out in the water; then head back to shore to tuck into some freshly shucked oysters for breakfast.
Going early in the morning also means beating the hoards of daytrippers on the ferries bound for Miyajima nearby. The island, with more than 2000 free roaming deer and the famous floating O-Torii gate which greets visitors as they approach, is Instagram-friendly, to say the least.
Miyajima is also home to another World Heritage Site: the Itsukushima Shrine which is built on water. When the tide goes out, it’s a 200m stroll to the O-Torii gate for a selfie or two.
The island is also the birthplace of momiji manju, a sweet Japanese confectionery that is shaped like maple leaves and is typically filled with red bean paste.
There are various flavours including a deep fried variety but save some room for a bowl of conger eel rice at Fujitaya. The restaurant has been awarded one Michelin star so expect to queue at meal times.
Like Miyajima, Takehara is another popular daytrip destination for Hiroshima vistors. Located midway along the coast of Honshu, it’s about 90 minutes away by car or train and you’ll find yourself in a different world altogether when you arrive.
It is nicknamed Little Kyoto because many of the warehouses, which double as residences for the business owners, have wooden lattice frontages; and Takehara’s most famous resident is Masataka Taketsuru, the man who founded Japanese whisky and made his name with the Nikka brand.
Its main industry was initially salt-making up to the Edo period but Takehara has since turned its focus to bamboo which the residents use for everything from meals to handicraft and even street art found in the Special Historic District near the city centre.
The town also became a hit with the younger generation on social media in recent years after it became the setting of Tamayura, a hit anime series about a young girl who returns to her hometown of Takehara to set up a photography club.
Before leaving Hiroshima, be sure to catch a Kagura performance. This ancient Japanese theatrical art form – which predates Noh – mixes theatre with dance and has its roots in the Shinto faith.
The Kagura scene continues to thrive in Hiroshima where about 150 groups comprising volunteer actors and musicians take part in competitions and perform regularly at downtown venues like the Kenmin Cultural Centre.
Lavish costumes and elaborately painted paper masks take centrestage. And when the final act is over, you’ll find yourself whipping out the camera once again – if you haven’t already done so many times before while in Hiroshima – for a photo opportunity with the cast.
Story first appeared on The Business Times.
HEADER PHOTO Kimon Berlin