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A Morning at Peace – Nagasaki, Japan

A Morning at Peace

Nagasaki, Japan

Nagasaki - The One Legged Torii of the Sanno Shinto Shrine
Nagasaki – The One Legged Torii of the Sanno Shinto Shrine
I walked to the peace area in Nagasaki from the main train station, avoiding the crowds on the trolley and exploring the side streets. The first place I came across was the Sakamoto International Cemetery. Its a delightful place, if you’re into 200-year-old gravestones. Hebrew, Chinese, British, Portuguese and French, men, women and children are buried here. This mix of cultures shows the important role foreigners played in Nagasaki. The only open port during Japan’s isolationist years, the foreign influence is unmistakable. The desired omiyage (obligation gift, or souvenir) from Nagasaki is castellas, a Portuguese cake. Chinese temples with their authentic Ming architecture stand in stark contrast to the muted tones of the Japanese temples. The oldest church in Japan, Oura Catholic Church, was built by French missionaries in 1864. Thanks to the Dutch settlement here, beer was introduced to Japan.

The gravestones are fascinating, each one providing just enough information to start my imagination. Name, age, country of origin, occupation. What was life like for these pioneers? Even now I get stares from people shocked by the blonde-haired and blue-eyed figure in front of them. In 2006 the foreign population in Japan is at 0.6%. In the 1800s I bet they had to round that number up to zero. Every tombstone here has a story, and its amazing to see that some graves have fresh flowers.

A little further past the cemetery is the One Legged Torii (a gate for a temple). The temple was destroyed by the atomic bomb, and all that’s remaining is one half of the gate. I’m only 600 m from the hypocentre, and yet there are trees, backyard gardens and kids playing. The radiation damage was estimated to last more than 75 years, but thankfully that’s not the case. The lop-sided torii stands tall, and I touch it, trying to realize that it was here when the atomic bomb was dropped. There’s not much else to see there, its a normal residential street with people going about their Sunday morning routine, and I move on to the museum.

The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum has one goal, to make sure its visitors never forget what happened on August 9th, 1945. There are three areas of exhibits, Nagasaki before the bombing, the immediate devastation of Nagasaki and its recovery, and the history of nuclear weapons and aspiration for world peace. Nagasaki before the bombing is a dark room with pictures of Nagasaki during the war. A ticking clock emphasizes the silence of the reflective visitors, until you are confronted with a broken clock stuck at 11:02, the time the bomb exploded. This image is shown throughout the museum, from pocket watches to grandfather clocks, all frozen at the same time. 11:02. Its simple, but has a strong impact, and I catch myself glancing at my own watch as it nears 11:00 a.m., holding my breath as it passes.

Nagasaki - Peace Statue in Peace Park
Nagasaki – Peace Statue in Peace Park
Many of the displays in the museum are intense images. There are English explanations, but they are unnecessary, the artifacts say more than enough about the heat, pain and horror of what happened. Six glass bottles melted together. A military helmet with skull remnants. Clothing shredded on one side. Shadows of a ladder and a person on a fence. Tiles bubbled from the heat. Whole teacups embedded in rock and concrete. And worst of all, images of the survivors. I want to turn away from the lesions and cancerous growths outside the body, but feel obligated to look. They are victims, and I am here to pay tribute to them and to pray for them whether they are alive or dead. Testimonies from survivors are incredibly moving, whether they’re written or part of a video. Water is a common theme, having been evaporated by the heat, and victims begged for it in their last moments. Bathers were boiled in rivers and streams. Nagasaki is the only Japanese city I’ve been to where I’ve noticed the drinking fountains; other cities just don’t have them.

It only takes an hour to walk through the museum, but it feels like longer. The sunshine is bright when I exit the museum, and after the dismal interior its nice to be outside. If the museum represents the horror of the past, then the Peace Park represents the hope for the future. Full of sculptures donated by artists from around the world, its more like an outdoor gallery. The peace fountain, in the shape of doves wings, was built to appease the victims with the water they never received. The large, blue peace statue was sculpted by Nagasaki native Seibou Kitamura, and represents the divine love and mercy of Buddha. It is the main attraction in the Peace Park, but I found it imposing. More moving was the thousands of paper cranes placed on either side of the peace statue. A rainbow of colours in all different sizes, its a beautiful way to say that the victims of the bomb are not forgotten.

Origami Cranes in the Peace Park
Origami Cranes in the Peace Park
Although the museum was deeply disturbing, and the park was touching, its at the hypocentre that I truly felt what happened. A tall black obelisk sits at one end of the park, marking the place where the bomb was detonated. Concentric circles of alternating grass and concrete spread away from it. To the left is a large statue of a woman, a mother, cradling an infant in her arms. The agony on her face is excruciating. Miraculously, trees encompass this little park, a designated prayer area. It is here in the quiet setting that tears fall for the 74,000 who died and more for the 75,000 who survived. I can’t imagine the horror of that time, despite the images from the museum. I came to Nagasaki and was afraid that I would be too jaded to feel anything, but the emotions are too strong. Settled on a bench, I watch the few people walk through the hypocentre. It’s much less crowded here than at the Peace Park or museum, and has the feel of a church. Visitors move reverently, slowly and are visibly moved by the simple marker of the Hypocentre.

For all the horror in Nagasaki’s recent past, it has grown into a lively city. The city has a courageous core that is uncovered in only a few hours, but after three days I leave wanting more. How, in 60 years, did Nagasaki transform itself from a nuclear wasteland to a modern city? In the days following my morning to the peace area, every corner I turn, temple I enter, and bridge I cross it hits me. I am in Nagasaki, site of the second atomic bomb dropping. Nagasaki has cured my cynicism and pessimism. No matter how bad life seems, it can always get better.

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