Part I: A Couple of Thoughts
After three days in Kyoto, I’m back on the Shinkansen, this time absolutely bombing across the countryside, bound for Hiroshima. Well, I say countryside, but those of you who have experienced the bullet train before will be more aware than most of the existence of the Taiheiyō Belt. For those who don’t know, Honshu – Japan’s ‘main’ island – has a belt of settlements across most of its southern coast from Tokyo to Fukuoka, around 700 miles. As you blaze through them on the Shinkansen, you realise that they all kind of bleed into each other with very little space (if any) in between. It’s like one giant, giant city. To put this into perspective, we left Kyoto 19 minutes ago and we’ve just stopped at Kobe, having also already stopped at Osaka. I mean this is a fast train but it’s not that fast – these cities are extremely close to each other, and are fairly seamless.
There have been destinations on this round-the-world trip that I have gotten extremely excited about, but I have to admit that none of them have conjured up as much anticipation as Hiroshima. Realistically, no matter how much you want to try sugar-coating it, it goes without saying that the dropping of the atomic bomb Little Boy is what made Hiroshima a universally-known city. And while visiting the site of the single-most destructive weapon ever detonated is a fairly macabre reason to be excited, I think we’d all be lying if we attempted to convince ourselves or others that the historical significance of the event wasn’t the focal point of our trip. Hell, I’m not even trying to hide it; I’m going one step beyond and taking the train to Nagasaki two days later.
What can I say? I’m fascinated by WWII, and that is perhaps what makes me so excited about these next two cities – the war from a different perspective. Many people will be aware of Japan’s often questionable attitude toward some of its wrongdoings during the war (most notably the country’s foray into human experimentation at Unit 731 and the brutality of its occupation of China). After decades of silence, pacifism and shame regarding its behaviour during this time, Japan has more recently seen some state schools reportedly alter or cover up parts of Japanese WWII history within its syllabi, or in some cases drop it altogether. I have been told on many occasions that the museum in Hiroshima dedicated to the bomb is extremely impartial and balanced, and treats the event as a course of action that could have been avoided had both sides done things differently in the months prior. While undoubtedly Japan and its never-surrender attitude needed to be put out of the it and everyone else’s misery by mid-1945, I hope Hiroshima will acknowledge the endlessly-debated morality of the bomb as a means of forcing Japan’s hand. While I believe the bomb was an unfortunately brutal way to bring the war to a close, I also believe it was the only choice left; Japan had made it very clear that it was not willing to give in, and an Allied land invasion would of course have been far more costly in terms of life and money.
For me, the dubious morality lies in two aspects of the endgame of WWII; the first is the bombing of Nagasaki, three days after Hiroshima. After just having a nuclear weapon unleashed on its population, the US gave Japan very little time to comprehend what had just hit it, considering up until that point the existence of the atomic bomb had been top-secret. We will never know if Japan would have surrendered after the first bomb given more time, but it seemed premature to suddenly drop another – even more powerful – bomb on Nagasaki. I guess the Americans wanted to make absolutely sure.
The second aspect is something I recently discovered about the first bomb that struck me as rather dark. Original US discussions about the use of the first bomb had tabled Tokyo, Kyoto, Yokohama and Hiroshima as possible targets. The US military decided against Tokyo, as they did not want to destroy the entire high command and risk killing the emperor, for reasons I’m not entirely sure on. Kyoto was, rather compassionately, spared because of its cultural significance and the presence of hundreds of shrines dating back to well over a thousand years. So why Hiroshima? Up until that point, it had been an important city militarily (it featured a large army base nearby), and yet had been left completely untouched. In a display of major overkill, the Americans wanted to showcase the full force of their invention by reducing an entirely functional, pristine city to ruins in one go. (This is also the reason Yokohama was shelved as a target – it had been heavily damaged by firebombing campaigns before this point). This, of course, means Hiroshima was fully populated at the time of detonation and was given absolutely no warning to facilitate evacuation.
In all honesty, I can cut this history lesson short now and just say you’re a hopeless idiot if you can’t understand both sides of the argument about whether the bombing was carried out in the most appropriate manner. If you believe one belligerent or the other was 100% in the wrong, you haven’t done enough research. And really, that is what makes it such a fascinating event; WWII in Europe featured hundreds of fairly black-and-white incidents of good vs. bad (that is if you ignore most of the USSR’s involvement), but the dramatic conclusion of the Pacific Campaign is so steeped in philosophical debate that it’s difficult not to find it a catalyst for interesting discussion.
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Part II: Cones & Cones & Cones
Kyoto is spectacular. There’s no real getting around it. I’m going to go all out and say it and balls to how offensive some may find it; it is superior to Tokyo in every way. For me, Tokyo is not somewhere you enjoy – it’s somewhere you experience. It’s eye-wateringly bright neon bullshit can’t really mask the hostility of a city so wrapped up in Japan’s infamous work-until-you-die attitude that it never really feels like somewhere a sane person would want to find themselves for any extended period of time. While I can’t say I actively disliked Tokyo, I can’t say I liked it either – the week I spent there felt like an extreme sport that never stopped. The absurdity of the Tokyo lifestyle lends itself to hilarious stories, amazing urban landscapes and a real ‘I can’t believe I’ve been there’ feeling, but Kyoto… well where to start?
First things first; Kyoto locals are frighteningly different to Tokyo-ites. On my first night in Kyoto, I headed to the east of the city to check out the city’s ‘old quarter’ Gion which, aside from being absolutely stunning, is also teeming with people. But this wasn’t Salarymen pushing past each other to leave work at 11pm, this was groups of men and women of all ages, hanging out, drinking, eating good food, laughing and relaxing. The people in Kyoto are some of the cheeriest I’ve ever come across, like every day they wake up and thank God they don’t live in Tokyo. Instead, they grab a beer and maybe some sushi, head down to the river bank and just sit and socialise. It’s great. A small observation that I think speaks massive volumes about Kyoto too; I saw one face mask during my three days there. That is the difference between Kyoto and Tokyo – you get on a subway train in Tokyo and 80-90% of people will be wearing face masks, a facet of the city’s lifestyle that, although I’m an outsider, I find really stupid and paranoid; as far as I can tell the most threatening epidemic in Japan is suicide, not airborne disease.
I hit up a few temples on my first day and then headed to an onsen – a sort of Japanese bathhouse with hot springs. After the little old lady at reception almost had a heart attack as I stepped inside still wearing my shoes, I made my way into the baths where – unfortunately – I discovered swimming costumes were not allowed. But I guess if everyone’s doing it then whatever. Long story short, the baths were hot, the sauna was even hotter, and then an old guy disgustingly attempting to clear his nostrils on the floor accidentally snotted all over himself, then sneezed so hard that his dentures fell out. A dignified moment.
Next day I headed to the excellent Fushimi Inari Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site compiled of thousands and thousands of gates winding up a mountain. For some reason I ran to the top, then ran all the way back down, then got on my bike and headed over to the amazing Daigo-Ji Temple, which, flanked by cherry blossoms, was just about the most Japanese thing you could ever wish to see. I sat for a while before heading back on my bike, at one point stopping next to a bus. I peered inside, and it was full… but it was just cones. Literally traffic cones. The bus was full of just cones and cones and cones. And it was a regular commuter bus going to the station. I looked to my left as we pulled away from the traffic light, and in the lobby of a building I saw two children, one with a baseball bat, being thrown badminton shuttlecocks by the other. There were maybe 70 shuttlecocks littered across the floor. Why not do it outside? Why shuttlecocks?
Add to that the fact that I went past a restaurant advertising ‘not filling steam bums’ (unfilled steamed buns I assume), and you have a weird and wild coupla days in Kyoto. Onto Hiroshima!