Hiroshima emerges from the shadow of its past to forge a new identity
Every year, Hiroshima’s A-Bomb Dome, a World Heritage Site in the city’s Peace Memorial Park, attracts 1.2 million visitors. As the only downtown building to have survived the atomic bombing of 6 August 1945, it has been preserved both as a reminder of the bombing and as a symbol of peace.
Nevertheless, Hiroshima – the self-styled City of Peace – snuggled between the Chugoku Mountains and the Seto Inland Sea, has plenty more to offer the visitor, being rich in natural beauty, art, ‘shop-ortunities’ and delicious eats.
Downtown Hiroshima has all the hi-tech bustle you would expect from a Japanese city, but within minutes of travel, you can be sipping matcha in a teahouse beside a waterfall in a maple forest, or cruising the misty islands of the Seto Inland Sea. “It's Tokyo minus the stress,” says schoolteacher Hide Nakamura.
Above all, Hiroshima is a city that welcomes visitors with its friendly, laid-back charm. To get the most out of your stay, after you’ve visited Peace Park, try the following must-sees for a complete Hiroshima experience.
THE CITY OF WATER
Six rivers carve Hiroshima into a cluster of islands, earning it the nickname City of Water. These waterways give the city a spacious, open feel, offering a great way to explore the place. A 30-minute river cruise takes you past Peace Memorial Park, Central Park, Temple Town and other downtown sights. Or hop aboard a Gangi Taxi speedboat and let it take you wherever you please. Simply hail one from any of the 300 gangi (stone steps leading down to the river). Or how about a World Heritage Cruise? These boats sail between Hiroshima’s two World Heritage Sites, the A-Bomb Dome and the island of Miyajima. Feeling weary? Relax and watch the world go by from Caffe Ponte, opposite Peace Park.
The island of Miyajima is one of Japan’s Three Most Beautiful Views, with its huge red torii gate rising out of the sea and the ‘floating’ 12th-century shrine of Itsukushima, framed by the dark backdrop of Mt. Misen’s primeval forest. Omotesando Street brims with souvenir shops and restaurants. The rest of the island is all temples, semi-tame deer (careful – they’ll snatch your snack if they can!) and nature – as a sacred island, its natural beauty has been left intact. Stay at a ryokan to experience the magical serenity of Miyajima after dark, when the day-trippers have left. Ride the ropeway up Mt. Misen for spectacular views of the Inland Sea’s myriad islands.
Locals also love Miyajima for its scrumptious food. Must-eats include the local oysters and momiji-manju (maple-leaf shaped cakes filled with chocolate, custard or adzuki bean paste).
ART & NATURE
An art museum in the middle of a forest! Ride the Skywalk elevator up Mt. Hijiyama to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which rises above the surrounding forest at the eastern end of Peace Boulevard, “reflecting the development of civilization from the past to the future,” say the curators. Opened in 1989, it was Japan’s first public Modern Art museum. Designed by Kisho Kurokawa (co-founder of the Metabolist Movement), it won the 5th World Festival of Architecture’s grand prize. Outside, Henry Moore’s massive bronze Arch frames a panoramic view of the city. Past shows have highlighted Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono.
Dense woodland, three waterfalls, a 16th-century pagoda and a 9th-century temple – just two stops from Hiroshima Station. The Pagoda by the entrance was built in Wakayama Prefecture in 1526 and donated to Mitaki in 1951 to comfort the souls of the A-bomb victims. From there, follow the steep path up to Mitaki Temple, and continue up the trail beyond the temple into a forest of towering bamboo – you may even spot some wild boar. On the way down, chill out in the rustic Kūtenan Teahouse, near the entrance. Half-hidden among the maples, it’s built on wooden stilts overlooking a koi pond. Inside, masks and old curios abound. Sit by the window and order matcha green tea and warabi-mochi (cakes made from bracken starch).
Steve Jobs called the gardens around Kyoto “the most sublime thing I’ve ever seen.” He might have said the same about Hiroshima’s Shukkeien Garden. This city centre oasis was built in 1620 by Ueda Soko, a samurai warrior who became a Buddhist monk, tea-master and landscape gardener. He designed it for Asano Nagaakira, feudal lord of Hiroshima. Shukkeien is a “shrunken scenery” garden – creating a miniature version of the landscape of Xihu (West Lake) in Hangzhou, China in a space of just 40,000 square metres. Around Takuei Pond, with its hump-backed Rainbow Bridge, you can lose yourself along winding paths through mountains, valleys, rice fields, bamboo groves and tea plantations. Monthly tea ceremonies are held, to celebrate the changing foliage and flowers. The adjacent Prefectural Art Museum is also worth a visit.
This colourful covered arcade is Hiroshima’s shopping heart. Over half a kilometre of 200-plus stores: trendy boutiques, traditional kimono shops, jewellers, electronics, video-game arcades and eateries, including multi-story malls at either end. Great for people-watching too, with young shoppers decked out in the latest J-fashions. Visit Yume Plaza for typical local produce souvenirs, from dried fish to okonomi sauce. Take a break at Andersen’s fabulous Danish-style bakery, gourmet delicatessen and restaurant, full of imported wines and cheeses, and scrumptious pastries. Sit in the window for a front-row view of Hondori life.
WALK ACROSS THE WATER
Just 90 kilometres east of Hiroshima lies the charming port town of Onomichi, gateway to the Shimanami Kaido, a stunning 65-kilometre road and bridge route that joins Honshu, Japan’s largest island, with Shikoku. It spans six smaller islands, traversing the beautiful scenery of the Seto Inland Sea National Park. There are cycle lanes all the way, making it one of the world’s most incredible bike routes. Don’t leave without trying Onomichi’s legendary ramen.
Okonomiyaki: Hiroshima’s most iconic dish: a griddle-cooked pancake topped with a mountain of cabbage, pork, fried egg, bean sprouts and noodles. Choose extra toppings, like prawn, squid or the renowned local oysters. “It’s a complete meal, and the okonomi sauce is amazing!” says Swedish student Michelle Norberg. Sit at the bar to watch the cook prepare it, then eat it directly off the hotplate with a metal spatula. Hiroshima boasts over 2,000 okonomi restaurants. Try Okonomi-mura, near Hondori – 27 okonomi bars in one building!
Oysters: Hiroshima produces 60 percent of Japan’s oysters – 25,000-30,000 tonnes a year. Known locally as sea milk for their nutritional value, they are eaten boiled, fried, grilled, with rice, in stews, or raw. Cultivation involves suspending oysters from floating rafts – you can see hundreds of them dotted all over Hiroshima Bay.