Travel Blog

Getting to Hiroshima & First Impressions

After an exhausting 20+ hours of traveling, I have arrived in Hiroshima. My flight departed from Chicago with a layover in South Korea– the final destination being the Hiroshima Airport. Even just in the airport, I noticed a plethora of differences. Though TSA is notoriously thorough in the States, I was surprised by the diligence of the customs officers here. Once my internship partner, Natalie, and I landed, we immediately had to have our photos taken and our fingerprints scanned. This is routine for anyone visiting Japan and was not specific to us, but that only eased my tension minimally. Most of the airport employees spoke little to no English, which was my first encounter with the language barrier here. I took a Japanese crash course class in the month preceding my trip, but trying to communicate with actual people instead of studying words in a textbook proved to be a challenge. At the airport, the customs officers also searched diligently through my backpack, asking about my prescription medications, only being able to use gestures between us to communicate. The officer also showed me a chart of illegal substances– mostly drugs and weaponry, and one by one, asked if I had them with me. Although everything in my bag was completely safe and normal, I was a bit thrown off by being asked if I had guns or heroin, and hoping that the officers would understand my nervous demeanor was due to the language barrier and new environment. Of course, just as I was told before I left for Japan, the people were extremely polite and helpful, evident even with the obstacle of language between us. The procedures we went through were standard protocol, and after my first few days in Japan I came to understand that the people here are diligent, respectful of authority, and detail-oriented. The airport protocol made much more sense after I understood these aspects, and I am now looking back and laughing at my anxiety at the situations. New experiences can be scary, but I’d like to think that I have gained some skills pertaining to remaining calm during travel, and turning the nerves into excitement.

Getting to WFC from the airport was much easier than I anticipated, calming me substantially. Watching the scenery as we were driving into the city was something out of a dream. For the first time in my life, I saw fields of rice paddies and traditional houses. Driving through the country gave me a wonderful insight into the majesty of the natural world in Japan. The greenery here is amplified, as if colors take on a new meaning. The trees are vivid and lush, the mountains are not speckled with trees, but enveloped in dense forestry. Noticing these differences in landscape amplified my excitement and made me feel as if though I were in the prologue of a novel– a whole story ahead of me that would have unpredictability and adventure. As we got closer to the house, I couldn’t stop smiling, and I kept trying to imagine what it would be like. Upon arrival, Natalie and I were greeted by Michiko-san, the Chair of the World Friendship Center Board. She had a warm smile, spoke English well, and laughed loudly and endlessly. The stereotype of Japanese people being quiet and shy was immediately shattered for me, and I instantly felt welcome by her cheerfulness. Michiko-san led us inside, where we met Barb and Dannie, the American co-directors of the World Friendship Center. Immediately upon arrival, I could tell that all of these people were kind, and it made me much more comfortable with being there. The next few hours were spent settling in, and the evening was spent having dinner with Barb and Dannie at a local okonomiyaki restaurant. The food was delicious and the restaurant was very close by. The woman making the okonomiyaki was skillful with the grill, making the food in front of us, her hands moving with elegance and speed. Thankfully, Natalie and I were able to refrain from taking a nap on the first day, even though we arrived in the early afternoon. By forcing ourselves to stay up, we seamlessly transitioned between the time difference, enjoying a much needed night of sleep on Japanese futons, which are foldable cushions used to maximize space.

Settling in & a Meditation on Peace & the Individual

The first day in Hiroshima was spent enjoying a beautiful breakfast consisting of strawberries, golden kiwi, banana, yogurt, Japanese granola, orange juice, and bold coffee.  One of the main duties Natalie and I are responsible for are serving breakfast in the morning, then sitting down and enjoying it with the guests. We eat breakfast around a low table, approximately two feet high, while sitting on traditional cushions.  There was most definitely an adjustment period for learning to sit so low to the floor, as well as not having back support, but lately, I have been finding myself preferring to sit on the floor rather than in a chair. There are always new guests coming in and out, meaning some mornings we’re conversing about WW2 with guests from India and Australia, while other mornings we’re talking anti-nuclear movements with guests from Palestine and France.  Hiroshima in itself is a rich city, filled with cultural depth and plenty of tourists, but the World Friendship Center specifically is flooded with international atmosphere. There is something so special about starting every day slowly, talking about peace with strangers from all over the world, and enjoying healthy, fresh food. It forces me to be calm every morning and is a stark contrast to the United States, where we rush so much that we have to get our food from a window as we drive by.  Living life slowly has taught me more about appreciating it.

The rest of the week was spent learning the routine and exploring the city.  There are seven rivers running through Hiroshima, all of the water stemming from the sea.  You can smell the salt in the air, and the river rises and falls with the tide. Hiroshima is a mixture of concrete and nature– the city itself is like a functioning peace monument.  It’s impossible to walk around the city without thinking about the prospect of peace. There are physical reminders everywhere, such as the various peace monuments, the plaque marking the hypocenter, and the Atomic Bomb Dome.  Before coming to Hiroshima, I had no idea that it was possible for a city with one of the ugliest histories in the world to become such a testament to peace. Although the city itself is peaceful, each day is heavy in a way. The World Friendship Center has A-Bomb survivors come to tell their stories.  This population is aging and dying off, and I feel extremely lucky to be able to be in Hiroshima during a time where there are still survivors to tell their stories. These first-hand accounts are heart-wrenching and gruesome, often times including graphic images and descriptions. I am still not used to waking up, having breakfast, and hearing a disturbing first-hand account on the first instance of nuclear war.  I think that is a good thing. In the United States, violence is everywhere you look. It is unfortunate, but it’s easy to become desensitized to it when there are depictions of it in all of the media, and news stories about it every night. The kind of violence that was used against the Japanese people on August 6th and 9th, 1945, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively, is a kind of violence that no human should ever get used to.  The most prominent and widely-spread message I have heard in Hiroshima is that nuclear war must never be repeated. This seems almost laughable to many of the people I know back home– for most people, it seems that the idea of nuclear war is inevitable. The World Friendship Center and Hiroshima as a city are teaching me to fight that every day. One of the survivors said something that has stayed with me: “Man created nuclear weapons, and man, in turn, can destroy them”. It seems that in modern times, we have gotten so used to being controlled by a hierarchy of politicians and militants, that we have forgotten that we, too, have voices.  That we, too, may use them.

Dannie, one of the co-directors here, usually does the story-telling. One of the first stories he told me was a story about a hummingbird who tried to put out a forest fire. The hummingbird flew back and forth, from the forest to the waterfall, filling up its beak and emptying it into the forest, drop by drop. When the hummingbird was asked, “Why are you doing that? Obviously you can’t put this fire out” the hummingbird replied, “Because it’s what I can do”. This attitude is common among Japanese people– that the efforts of an individual add up. In America, we tend to do things like litter, take up more space than necessary, or be rude to people working in service jobs because we don’t consider our personal impact a significant one.  The reality is that if 100 people think it doesn’t matter that they left a can outside on the street, instead of having a clean street, soon, it will be filled with garbage. In Japan, people carry their trash with them, they wear their backpacks on the front on public transportation so as not to unknowingly whack people with it, they leave things as tidy as they found them. The individual efforts of all of these people add up to create a beautiful society where the individual understands their impact on the collective, and I think this attitude should be translated to peace work, as well. Even if you are convinced that what you are doing won’t have a significant impact, keep doing it. You will inspire others along the way, and in due time, a team of people making change will exist.  Being in Hiroshima has allowed me to meditate on my impact as an individual, and I am catching myself thinking about it all the time. Small things do count, and I want to keep this mindset when I return to the United States, as I believe this attitude contributes to Japan’s efficiency on a national and cultural scale. I want to engage in peace every day and make my existence count toward something– even if it’s only a droplet of water within a forest fire.

The Airing Out of Names

Natalie and I were able to experience a ceremony that even most Hiroshimans have not had the pleasure of witnessing.  There is a cenotaph in the center of Peace Memorial Park, which contains a stone tomb with dozens of thick books. In these books are the hand-written names of the Atomic Bomb Survivors.  Every year on a warm summer day, these books are brought out into the sun, and each page is turned, letting the names air out in the wind and be kissed by the sun. The ceremony is conducted in silence, and the books are handled by young people wearing pristine white gloves.  Radiation is often considered the worst effect of the bombing, as it changes genetic composition, passing mutations on to later generations. Hibakusha are still dying– often from multiple cancers, and each year, new names are added to the list. This year alone, 5,000 names were added.  

Miyajima Island & Endless Thanks

Hiroshima is a big city, with many suburbs and islands within the prefecture.  One of the most popular islands is called Miyajima– an island where it is said that humans and gods coexist.  This island truly does feel divine– deer roam it freely, taking naps in the sun or gently munching on maple leaves.  Miyajima holds The Great Torii: the boundary between the spirit and human world. When the tide is low, you can walk to it and touch the structure, and when it is high, it appears as if the Torii is floating in the water.  Japan is known for its mountainous landscape, and being a proud Coloradan, I was excited to experience the mountains here. I am used to the Rocky Mountains, and the differences between them and the mountains here are vast.  The mountains here are covered in thick, dense greenery– hiking is really walking through a sloped forest. Natalie and I took a cable car to a higher point on the mountain, and the view from being suspended in the air above the mountains was ethereal.  The combination of mountains and sea is absolutely my favorite, and there were times where tears began welling because I was so stunned by the beauty.

Everything I experience here is thanks to the generosity of the Freeman Foundation’s grant to IWU, and I feel so thankful to have this opportunity.  For many students, like myself, the idea of studying abroad seems inconceivable. I associated being abroad with having to have money, and it’s such a change to not have to have finances impede experience. I have grown so much in these past four weeks, and I feel like I’ve really learned how to step outside of myself and look at the world.  It’s easy to get lost in all the tragedy and horror in this world, yet so fulfilling to focus on kindness and peace. I have been reading a manga collection called Barefoot Gen.  It is a ten part series about a boy and his family before, during, and after the atomic bombing.  Although it is a work of fiction, it is largely based off of the author/cartoonist’s own experience during the bombing.  I have heard first-hand accounts of hibakusha, and seen actual pictures of the devastation and human mutilation, yet there is something about survivor illustrations that is even more chilling.  Though the collection is a manga, it does not take away from the overall effect– I would say that it actually enhances it.  Reading about the struggles of a Japanese family, eating rice gruel and raw potatoes for years, holding on to a glimmer of hope for the war ending, only to have to watch each other get burned alive stays with you.  People died of starvation and malnourishment– pregnant women were unable to produce milk for their children, causing the death of many newborns. In the collection, Shinji, one of the young boys in the family, is constantly commenting on how he wishes that just once, he could eat a bowl of rice.  This is not fiction– this is what people lived through. Parents had to watch their children cry out from hunger, not knowing where their next meal would come from. This makes me look differently at my own bowl of rice– how accessible it is, and how I am so privileged that I not only have enough food, but choice and preferences.  At times, I feel guilty for this abundance, but the more productive thing to do is turn that guilt into activism. War is still happening. People are still starving, the threat of nuclear war is still rampant. When I was 14 years old, I read this quote by Gandhi: “Everything you do in life will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it”. I didn’t understand it then, but I think I do now.  It means that whether we know it or not, every action, every word, every intention counts for something. The idea of understanding the world and why certain things happen is an illusion. Instead of contemplating whether or not the things I do matter, I would rather do them, and watch the tiny ripples of goodness expand into the world– even if those ripples feel too small to trace. I want to come back to the United States with all of this knowledge, and make a change in the way I live.  I want to radiate peace and kindness. I want to stand up for the things I know in my heart are right. This is what I am taking away from IWU Freeman Asia.