Wednesday 1st March
Koya-san is home to over one hundred temples, some of which you can stay in but we decided to stay in Eko-in, not only because it was number one on TripAdvisor but also because they invite their guests to a morning prayer ceremony which is followed by a fire ceremony. This was one of our most eager anticipated early starts and at 7am we found ourselves huddled in the cold morning air of the main temple, listening to four young monks reciting a variety of prayers and chants. Watching the monks in a state of meditation, completely absorbed in their sacred task was a very calming experience and I can certainly see the appeal.
From the main temple we made our way to a slightly smaller temple where the fire ceremony takes place. A monk sat in the centre of a much more intimate room and to his left another began chanting while a third drummed along. I can hardly find the words to describe this experience. Watching the fire dance higher while the monk performed a variety of complex rituals all accompanied by rhythmic chanting and the constantly varied beat of a drum was incredibly powerful and almost primal. It is an experience I will never forget and I am so glad we decided to stay in this temple and attend both the prayer and the fire ceremony!
Returning to our room, slightly smokier and perhaps a little bit awestruck, we were greeted by a vegetarian breakfast which was surprisingly delicious! While I do love my Pop Tarts and sugary breakfast cereals, I am quite a fan of an early morning bowl of rice! Feeling very full and incredibly satisfied by our short stay, we checked out and began our journey towards Hiroshima. The irony of leaving a place of such peace and tranquillity, founded on Buddhist values, to go to a place where one of the worst wartime atrocities took place certainly wasn’t lost on us.
We made up some time on our journey and after checking in to our hotel, which had the most amazing view, we paid a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. You don't need to be an historian to know what happened here but for those who slept through GCSE history, on the 6th of August 1945, President Harry S. Truman gave the order to drop the first atomic bomb which he described as "a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth."
The museum is currently undergoing renovations so only a small area is open to the public. The exhibition begins not by explaining why the bomb was dropped but rather, by explaining the immediate effect of what was an unprecedented and in my opinion, entirely unnecessary act of aggression.After this brief description of what happened on the 6th of August 1945, the exhibit becomes strikingly more personal.
Each item displayed belonged to a victim of the atomic bomb and a brief history of who they were, what happened to them on that day and how they died is included. The amount of personal effects that were on display was astounding – many of these treasured possessions were donated by bereaved family members and I couldn't help but feel moved by that sacrifice. I was also struck by how many of the victims were children – on their way to school, in the uniforms that their mothers had lovingly sewn, cleaned and pressed. For one woman all that they found of her child was a sandal, identified by the fabric straps that her mother had made from the fabric of her own Kimono. A lunchbox, with the charred remains of a young boy’s lunch is displayed near to the pocket watch, given by a son to a father who never came home from work. Many of these people died instantly but many more did not and some of these children, not much older than my niece, made the long journey to the Japanese countryside, covered in burns so severe that their skin fell as they walked, only to die surrounded by their loved ones. This part of the museum was heart breakingly fascinating and Rory and I read each and every story, trying, I suppose, to remember the innocent people that were victims of a war that they had no part in.
The museum then goes on to explain the effects of the atomic bomb on those who survived. For years after the devastating effects of radiation were seen in the province. From birth defects to cancer that took decades to appear, the effects of dropping an atomic bomb went far beyond the death toll of the day. One such story was that of Sadako Sasaki who was two when the bomb dropped but survived and grew in to a healthy young girl who loved athletics. When she was eleven she developed leukaemia and in an attempt to recover, began folding 1000 paper cranes. Cranes are a symbol of longevity and happiness and while she did not recover, people all over the world still fold cranes and send them to the Children’s Peace Monument.
The final room contains video testimony of survivors, many of whom were children at the time, and just before you leave, a picture of Barack Obama on his 2016 visit to Hiroshima where he stressed the importance of achieving world peace. From here we entered the Peace Memorial Park and caught a glimpse of the cenotaph, where the names of all known victims are engraved. Set against the backdrop of the Pond of Peace is the Flame of Peace, which is set to burn until all the world’s nuclear weapons are destroyed. Given our current political climate, where fear dominates and the struggle for power seems to be more important than the value of human life, I wonder if we will ever see that day. Perhaps the world leaders who are so eager to parade and preserve their nuclear prowess should come to this park and look across the Pond of Peace, through the cenotaph and beyond the Flame of Peace until they finally catch a glimpse of the Atomic Bomb Dome. The former Industrial Promotion Hall, is a symbol of the city and was one of the few buildings left standing after the bomb was dropped. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it acts as a stark reminder of that day and having seen it close up, knowing that the bricks, concrete and twisted metal barely survived, while the workers within perished, I cannot think of any justification for dropping that bomb.
We finished that day by going to an American style restaurant. We had onion rings, fries and burgers while listening to Bob Dylan. I found it highly ironic and a little bit unsettling. This city was devastated by American actions and yet they have American bars and museums dedicated to pursuit of peace. I can’t help but think that if the roles were reversed, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave wouldn’t be so forgiving.