The 7:14 Shinkansen to Hiroshima

I almost have nothing to say. I’m used to writing about all the trials and tribulations associated with travel to far-flung and difficult places. Japan may be far away, but it’s far from being a logistical challenge.IMG_8156

So is that the simple story of this trip? A relaxing jaunt across ancient landscapes with modern conveniences? Read on, dear reader. Nothing is ever what it seems, especially in the Far East or the Middle East — which is precisely why I travel to these locations.

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I must say that, for once, I actually did enjoy Zen moments while on a trip overseas. No infectious diseases to avoid. No food-borne illnesses to fear. No crime with which to contend. There is an ever-present concern about earthquakes in Japan, but there’s an app for that.

Plus, everything is so pristine and clean. You can get a very good onigiri (rice and fish wrapped in seaweed) breakfast at the 7-11 for about $3; and, a spotless bathroom (with heated seats) is never more than a few yards away.  The trains run on time, with nary a fleck of dirt in any coach or on any chair. Everyone is quiet and respectful in public. I did not see one piece of trash that wasn’t in a bin.

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And, there’s no tipping so you’re not 1) angst-ridden over what to fork over or 2) putting dirty cash in anyone’s hands. Even the store clerks don’t take money directly from you. Payment either goes in a tray on the counter or into a machine. People wash their hands before putting anything in their mouth — and after, and throughout the day, and maybe even throughout the night. People who are sick wear masks over their faces so as not to spread germs.

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David and I covered a lot of tidy terrain on our six-day trip. Two days in stunning Kyoto. Three days in sleepy Fukuoka (where I attended a higher-ed conference). One day in towering Tokyo. Every minute of the 1000 miles we traveled by the Shinkansen bullet train was efficient and enjoyable.

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With one single exception in the enjoyable category: Hiroshima, where the burden of history hangs over the city and all who enter it. Even though Hiroshima has been rebuilt beautifully since that fateful day when the Enola Gay dropped the first nuclear bomb on humanity, it will forever be exactly 8:15 a.m on August 6, 1945.

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The story of that day is told with alarming visceral acuity in the remains of the Atomic Bomb Dome – which had been beautifully designed exhibition hall and was full of people on the morning of August 6, 1945. The building remained standing despite the 3000-degree-Fahrenheit explosion a mere 200 meters above it. The very sight of this skeletal structure still brings people to tears — and to their knees.

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But how did the structure endure when everything else in Hiroshima was decimated? The answer lies in the particular horror of atomic bombs: a downward vertical force that spreads horizontally upon hitting the ground. The people inside were incinerated instantly as the uranium fire fell from the heavens and blew out the doors — leaving the walls intact — and then accelerated into a massive radioactive wave that destroyed all in its path.

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The nearby Hiroshima Museum tells more stories of a day that killed 80,000 in an instant and 100,000 more in the days that followed. David and I could barely look at the exhibits of burnt clothing and scorched remains. Nor could we bear to read quotes from those writhing in pain as the flesh fell off their bones. Of the hundreds of people in the entire museum, none spoke a word out loud. Absolute and terrifying silence as we stared at the carnage together. Americans and Japanese standing face to face with history.

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On the way out, there was a guest book for visitors to leave a message. David, who has been studying Japanese for 7 years, wrote one word: sorry. 

In the end, it’s not that I actually have nothing to say, but rather, what else is left to be said?

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