Western Honshū’s largest city needs little introduction. Since August 6, 1945, Hiroshima (広島) has become a byword for the devastating effects of the atomic bomb, and for this reason alone millions visit the city every year to pay their respects at the Peace Park and museum. But more than either of these formal monuments, the reconstructed city – bigger, brighter and more vibrant than ever – is an eloquent testimony to the power of life over destruction. Where once there was nothing but ashes as far as the eye could see, there now stands a modern city that still retains an old-world feel with its trundling trams and sunny disposition.
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Poised on the coast at the western end of the Inland Sea, Hiroshima is also the jumping-off point for several islands, including Miyajima, home of the beautiful shrine Itsukushima-jinja. The view out to the red torii gate standing in the shallows in front of the shrine is rightly one of Japan’s most celebrated, and although the island is often swamped by day-trippers it’s a delightful place to spend the night.
Many of Hiroshima’s top attractions – the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, the A-bomb Dome and the Hiroshima Museum of Art – are all within walking distance of the Genbaku Dōmu-mae tram stop. Hiroshima-jō, Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art and Shukkei-en lie north of the Hondōri Arcade and Shintenchi district, where there is a high concentration of hotels, restaurants and bars. The Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, the most far-flung point of interest, is best explored on foot from the station or by public transportation.
I saw, or rather felt, an enormous bluish white flash of light, as when a photographer lights a dish of magnesium. Off to my right, the sky split open over the city of Hiroshima.
-Ogura Toyofumi, Letters from the End of the World
As of March 2009 there were 235,000 hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) in Japan who, like Ogura, lived through the A-bomb, including some 73,000 still living in Hiroshima. Ogura’s poignant account – a series of letters penned to his dead wife in the immediate aftermath of the war – stands alongside many others, including the videotaped testimonies of survivors, which can be viewed at the Peace Museum.
Through the museum it’s also possible to meet a hibakusha. To do this you need to make a request in writing to the Heiwa Bunka Centre, stating the dates you’d prefer and whether you’ll need an interpreter. You’ll be asked to cover their taxi costs. The World Friendship Centre also arranges meetings and occasionally hosts discussions with experts and visiting scholars.
The most famous attraction on MIYAJIMA (宮島), officially known as Itsukushima, is the venerable shrine of Itsukushima-jinja, where the vermilion gate rising grandly out of the sea is considered to be one of Japan’s most beautiful views. The iconic Ō-torii, seemingly floating atop the water, is visible from the shore, while the peaceful Daishō-in keeps a watchful eye from its perch on the hill above.
The shrine and temples clustered around Miyajima’s only village at the northern tip of this long, mountainous island can comfortably be seen in a half-day trip from Hiroshima. If you have more time, there are plenty of other attractions, including beaches to laze on and hikes over Mount Misen, whose summit provides panoramic views across the Inland Sea. Consider splashing out on a night’s accommodation at one of the island’s classy ryokan so that you can enjoy the after-hours atmosphere with only tame deer and a few other guests for company. Autumn is a particularly beautiful time to visit, when the myriad maple trees turn a glorious red and gold, perfectly complementing Itsukushima-jinja.
As well as the regular festivals, such as New Year, there are special festivals held most months on Miyajima at both the Itsukushima-jinja shrine and the main temple Daishō-in. From time to time, bugaku (traditional court dancing) is also performed on the shrine’s nō stage; check with the main tourist information offices in Hiroshima for details.
- Kaki Matsuri (second Sat in Feb): Free oysters, an island speciality, are served to sightseers.
- Spring and Autumn festivals (April 15 & Nov 15): at Daishō-in, including firewalking displays by the resident monks.
- Jin-Nō (April 16–18): Sacred nō plays, first performed for the daimyō Mōri Motonari in 1568, are re-enacted on the shrine’s stage as part of the spring peach-blossom festival.
- Kangensai (June 16): Itsukushima-jinja’s main annual festival includes an atmospheric night-boat parade, accompanied by traditional music.
- Hanabi Matsuri (Aug 14): The largest fireworks display in western Japan explodes in front of Itsukushima-jinja.
- Chinkasai (Dec 31): Huge pine torches, blazing in front of Itsukushima-jinja, are fought over by groups of young men.