Wednesday, December 30, 2009


(PICTURE: Someone's watch which stopped the moment the Atomic Bomb was dropped.)

As an American, it would have been irresponsible not to visit Hiroshima during my time in Japan. When I told some Japanese people I was going there on my travels, they often questioned why I would go so far away just to see Hiroshima. I would always be honest and say that I wanted to visit the Atomic Bomb Museum. This usually got an, “I understand” reaction of some sort.

I arrived in Hiroshima at 3PM and decided it was too late to go to the museum since it closed at five and I didn’t want to feel rushed. Instead, I checked into my hostel and went for a walk. I was pretty tired from a long bus ride and had planned on only taking a small stroll around the city. After a few minutes I saw a park in the distance and thought it would be a good place to relax and read a book. Plus, the park was up a hill so I assumed it would give me a good vantage point to look over Hiroshima.

It turns out that at the top of the park was the Hiroshima Modern Art Museum. The museum was going to close in forty five minutes so I didn’t bother to go in. Instead I just wandered around and looked at the outdoor exhibitions. Immediately one sculpture –or I should say a lot of sculptures—caught my eye.

My gut instinct new right away that the sculpture was about the Atomic Bomb dropping on Hiroshima. I wasn’t 100% sure but it looked to me like a whole bunch of human torsos melting. I couldn’t find a placard for the piece until after I walked around them. It was called "Hiroshima: Space of Becalmed Beings."

I stared at the sculptures for a couple of minutes as the sun set behind them. In the distance, the city of Hiroshima went about its business below. A hollow, eerie feeling began to form in my stomach as I thought of how 64 years ago the city was eviscerated by one bomb. I soaked in this thought as I left the museum grounds and passed a bunch of elderly Japanese people talking on the park pathway. The people I saw were definitely of the age to have been alive when the first Atomic Bomb was dropped and I assumed they were probably living somewhere near Hiroshima when it happened. One thing that I have learned in Japan is that Japanese people, especially elderly people, are very territorial about where they are born. Most people spend the majority of their lives in the same place that they were raised. There was little doubt in my mind these senior citizens had personal stories to tell about August 6th, 1945.

I was feeling pretty depressed as I took a meandering route back to my hostel. On one street I passed, I saw a little alley that had about ten tiny restaurants inside of it. Each restaurant was probably only twenty feet long and seven feet deep. There was only counter service and from what I could tell, only locals eating inside of each place. I wasn’t hungry but decided that I would come back in a couple of hours.

A few hours later I went back to the alley and tried to go to the restaurant that looked the best to me. Fortunately there was no room for me since it was filled to the max with eight people already. Instead of waiting, I went to the next busiest restaurant. When I opened the sliding door and took a seat everybody inside looked shocked and erupted with laughter. Clearly a few drinks had already been had, as they should have been; it was Christmas Eve.

(PICTURE: From left to right: the owner/cook/bartender, her daughter, her son-in-law, a regular patron, the local biology teacher.)

One of the people inside the restaurant was a fifty-ish year old Biology teacher who had spent some time in America. This is to say, his English was pretty good. Over the next couple of hours everyone inside the restaurant befriended me. Each costumer who came brought a bottle of wine to celebrate Christmas. It didn’t take me long to realize that this tiny restaurant was like a real life Cheers. Everybody literally knew everybody’s name. I was the only stranger. From what I could piece together, all the men who came into the restaurant were middle aged and single and in love with the divorced owner/chef/bartender. Most of the men came every single night to eat and drink and talk with Miwah, the owner.

Those facts came pretty quickly. What took longer to figure out was that this was not a Japanese restaurant. The owner and her daughter and son-in-law were all of Korean descent (I will post soon about what it means to be Korean in Japan). I had gone to the restaurant for a quick bite but ended up being there for over four hours. By the end of the night everyone was drunk and Pec (the son-in-law) and I were best of friends. We were like a match made in heaven: we’re both 30, play defense in soccer and we like beer and sake. I think for the last hour that I was in the restaurant Pec had his arm around my shoulder and told me a hundred times that he liked me. And the truth is, I really liked him too.

When it was finally time to leave, Pec asked me what I would be doing the next day. I told him my plan to go to the Atomic Bomb Museum and he mentioned to me that, “My Grandma is in a video at the museum.” Immediately this sobered me up and a thousand questions went through my mind. Pec elaborated -- as much as a non-English speaker can elaborate -- that his Grandma was interviewed by the museum about her experience on August 6th, 1945. I asked Pec to write down his Grandma’s name and vowed to watch her video the next day at the museum. I also promised everyone I would come back the following night to eat and drink with them again.

The next morning I woke up early, rented a bicycle and headed towards Peace Park and the Atomic Bomb Museum. The museum wasn’t open yet so I rode around Peace Park, looking at the different memorials, including the Atomic Bomb Dome.

(PICTURE: This early morning photo shows the modern skyline behind it.)

(PICTURE: This picture shows the dome and the area shortly after the bombing.)

The same thought kept coming into my head: how could a whole city disappear in a flash. It is one thing to study about World War II and the atomic bomb, it is another to stand on the spot below where the bomb was detonated while looking at buildings and civilians all around you. Lets not forget that the majority of people who died in Hiroshima were civilians. This really hits home when you see there were a few schools in close vicinity of where the bomb was dropped.

Eventually when the museum opened, I was one of the first people inside. I looked over the exhibits with a careful, skeptical eye, expecting the displays to have a pro-Japanese angle. There is a controversial museum in Tokyo that honors Japanese war dead and talks about how the USA basically forced Japan into bombing Pearl Harbor. At the Atomic Bomb Museum the exhibits were honest about how Japan attacked America. From reading the exhibits though and seeing the pictures many questions formulated in my head. I’m not a World War II scholar by any means but these are some things I began to ask myself:

1. Was the Atomic Bomb absolutely necessary? Would Japan have eventually surrendered with the continued fire bombing campaign that was already so effective in decimating the country?

2. Even if the argument is made for Hiroshima, did we really need to drop a second bomb on Nagasaki or was that simply a knee jerk power-play reaction to Russia declaring war on Japan? My gut tells me it was sadly the later.

There was also a lot of new information about the atomic bomb dropping that I never remember learning in school. For example, one reason American chose Hiroshima was because there were supposedly no Allied POWs in the city. They were wrong. Allied POWs were also victims of the bombing. Furthermore, thousands of Koreans and Chinese were killed in the bombing who were in Hiroshima doing forced labor. And this brings us back to Pec's Grandma:

I walked around the museum searching for a video with Pec's Grandma. There were only a few videos in the whole museum and none had his Grandma in them. I felt like a failure as I came to the end of the museum when right by the exit were a few video booths with personal testimonials of people's experiences. Immidietly I found Pec's Grandma and videotaped the first twenty seconds or so to show him:

Pec's Grandma was 15 km from where the bomb was dropped. Both of her children died from the bomb. Her husband died a week later from the radiation.

My stomach dropped when I watched this video and well, I felt like total shit. The night before, the grandson of a woman whose whole innocent family was killed by Americans had befriended me. Let me emphasize again: they were not only civilians but they were forced laborers. I sat watching this video and felt a strange daze come over me. I got up and ended up writing a short essay in a book by the exit that was placed there to record people's reactions.

Later that night I went back to the restaurant as promised. I told Pec that I saw his Grandma and asked him a couple of questions. After the war his Grandma remarried and had more children. Pec is the Grandson of that remarriage.

I've got to say, this was one of the saddest experiences I've ever had. However, there is some good to be seen from this. I think it is pretty amazing that two people can sit together and become friends despite the terrible past that links them.

Japan does not have any nuclear weapons and they are the foremost country on pushing towards a nuclear-free world. The Atomic Bomb and nuclear weapons were initially justified as a deterrent that would eventually end wars and cause peace in the world. We now know this is not how it turned out. The world needs to stop developing technologies that are aimed at destroying one another. Yes, this is a huge and perhaps naive statement. However, today is December 31st and there is a new year ahead. Lets all vow to try to be a little nicer to one another this year and do what we can to end conflict in the world.

Here's a start: Sign this online petition for CANT (Cities Are Not Targets). If everyone who reads my blog signs this that will be people speaking up from over one hundred nations. The more voices heard, the better...

Happy New Year! I hope 2010 bring health and happiness for everyone!


Osaka Okonomiyaki vs. Hiroshima Okonomiyaki

There is a great debate in Japan: Osaka Okonomiyaki or Hiroshima Okonomiyaki.

You may recall that a couple of months ago I wrote a post about okonomiyaki. What I didn't include in the post, although I had heard grumblings of it at the time, is that every Japanese person has their own preference on which style of okonomiyaki they like. The big difference in style is that in Hiroshima they make the dish with soba noodles mixed in. In Osaka there are no noodles. Sure, sure, sure, that doesn't sound like a big deal but trust me it is. In Japan, choosing your okonomiyaki is like saying you prefer Chicago pizza over New York Pizza or vice versa.

Since I was traveling to both cities, I decided to put my two cents in this classic debate. When I arrived to Osaka I asked a local where the best okonomiyaki place was. She didn't just tell me, she took out a book, showed me and then photocopied the page so I could find it when traveling around the city.

After getting close to the restaurant I had to ask directions a couple of times. The places was located in like an underground city of restaurant that happened to be under a major railway line. I'm usually golden with finding places but this one was tricky since the address said it was on the second floor. It was on the second floor but the door to it was on the first floor. When I finally found the door at 11:40 AM-ish there was already a line. The place didn't open until noon. When twelve finally came around I was the sixth person out of about 30 in line.

I took my place at the bar and watched in awe as the chef took everyone's order and simultaneously prepared nine okonomiyaki (I don't know the plural but am treating it like deer or beer) at one time. The okoniyaki was delicious despite my brain telling me it was the single most unhealthy thing I have ever eaten. It had bacon, mayo, eggs and a few other things that I'm sure my cardiologist in 2045 will tell me never to eat again.

CONTESTANT #2: Hiroshima Okonomiyaki

I arrived in Hiroshima with the name and address of an okonomiyaki place in my hand. When I was in Nara I met a guy from Hiroshima who insisted he had the single best okonomiyaki place in the city. We pulled up mapquest and he pointed out roughly where the restaurant was. He told me four things about this restaurant:
1. It was way off the beaten path.
2. It was run by an old woman.
3. The okonomiyaki was huge there.
4. The okonomiyaki was only 550 Yen.

When I arrived at my hostel in Hiroshima I asked the girl working the counter if she had ever heard of the place. She said no and that there was no okonomiyaki restaurant in all of Hiroshima that sold okonomiyaki for 550 Yen.

Well, I found the place and the guy didn't lie to me. There was an old woman who was the only person working there:

The woman looked very surprised to see me when I walked in the door. Clearly foreigners don't go to this place. She looked even more surprised when I showed her the paper I had been carrying in my wallet. The paper had my order on it and she got cooking. Ten minutes later I ate a huge, delicious, soba noodle filled savory pancake:

(PICTURE: Please note that the finished Okonomiyaki picture is actually the one with the old woman in it. This picture was about five minutes and 3,000 calories from being done.)
The winner by unanimous decision: Hiroshima.

Oh, and New York pizza is way better than Chicago pizza.