This part of Hiroshima was once where the upper class lived. It was the center of a thriving city at the northeastern headwaters of the Inland "Seto" Sea; everybody who was or wanted to be anybody in pre-war Hiroshima society lived, worked and shopped here. To most of Western Civilization Hiroshima did not even exist before that fateful day in August of 1945. It's been around since the late 1500s, first as the stronghold of a regional warlord who built for himself the Hiroshima Castle at the center of town. After the Shogun and Imperial periods and the switch to heavy industry, Hiroshima found itself to be a densely packed and buzzing urban metropolis of roughly 350,000 people.
I stepped off the T-Bridge crossing the Ota River and on to the first contemporary "Ground Zero," an island at the Ota River Delta with the Inland Sea just to the south. The clang of the streetcars behind me seemed to dim by half while the birds themselves hushed in favor of a slight breeze whistling through the trees around me. As any tourist would I looked up in to the blue sky above and tried to imagine what a resident might have thought had they seen the formation of three B-29s high overhead with no fighter escort and, more ominously, no fighter protection racing to meet them. Few in the immediate area lived to describe the sound of the explosion some 1500 feet above at 8:15am so for me, the dead calm teleported the senses to that morning of August 6th.
It would have been rush hour; crowded streets, clanging trolleys, lots of bicycles; few cars since by then what little oil made it to Japan was largely reserved for defense and government ministries. It would have been hot and sticky as any Japanese late summer day would be. It was definitely crowded as people started their day weaving in and around each other and through the city itself, some 90% of which was made of wood.
Hiroshima was first on the list as an alternate in part because the weather was supposed to be perfect for "delivering the device." The intended target city was Kyoto but heated debate in the U.S. government saved the cultural capital of the country. Despite a leaflet and broadcast campaign prior to the attack the people of Hiroshima never knew what was coming. Other Japanese cities were bombed with regularity; Hiroshima was to be left untouched, the better to measure the effects of the bomb.
As I walked through the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park, fashioned from the wasteland created by the attack, new grass, young trees and landscaped grounds were on all sides.
In nearly every nook, crook and cranny was a memorial. This one was for the minority Koreans who would have lived had their country not been brutally colonized and cheap labor imported for menial work on the Japanese home islands. Another one, the center of great ceremony every August, is the Memorial Cenotaph which contains the names of all identified victims of the attack. A mound nearby contains their collected ashes, all 70,000 of them. That one over there, at the entrance to the park, featured a "Peace Bell" which visitors are encouraged to ring with feeling for an end to all wars. The "Industrial Promotion Hall" is across the river but it is easily still the centerpiece of the park, it's skeletal dome still standing and looking as it did the day of the attack.
While the "A-Bomb Dome" draws the tourists in, the Children's Peace Memorial leaves one and all flat cold. Sadako Sasaki contracted leukemia as an after effect of the bomb. Swearing she could beat the disease through faith and hard work, she pledged to fashion 1,000 paper cranes by hand in offering to the gods who would grant her wish to be cured.
The story goes that she only made it to Number 644 and thus inspired all Japanese children since to make paper cranes in her honor and place them at the memorial in Hiroshima. This memorial is never without small children visiting and paper cranes laid all around.
Little Sadako is at the top, her arms flung wide as if launching the crane above her to the heavens.