Okonomi-yaki, Oysters, Momiji manju, Itsukusima Shrine and Atomic Dome or one can reverse the order when visiting Hiroshima. The first three concern cuisine, the third a shrine and the last a reminder of the trauma the city had experienced.
We had flown into Hiroshima from Tokyo late November 2010 and the drive from Hiroshima airport to the city meandered through mountains resplendent with flaming autumn colors and grey roofs of settlements peeping through thick foliage in valleys. Hiroshima city situated south of Hiroshima Prefecture in Chugoku region spreads around the delta formed by the Ota River, flowing out to the Seto Inland Sea earning the sobriquet of ‘City of Water’ as six rivers flow into it.
On first look…a bustling metropolis with wide boulevards, bridges, concrete structures, the ubiquitous McDonald, stores displaying the latest gadgets and fashion, people rushing around along the Aioidori …..I had to re-confirm from our guide whether we were in the right city. Somehow I had expected a city that might be still struggling with its past, of destroyed buildings and bleak landscape. Hiroshima had been an important pre-world War Two industrial town when at 8.15 a.m. on August 6, 1945 an atomic bomb dubbed ‘Little Boy’ obliterated this status. The structures, mostly of wood, burnt down with few concrete ones remaining and some still preserved as testimony to the senseless day. The 70,000 dead, the maimed and suffering, had no idea of what had hit them.
Little did we know that few months later Japan would be Hiroshima-ed again by a killer 9.0 earthquake and 23 foot high tsunami. The country was once again caught unawares on March 11, 2011 and this time by natural forces. Surreal images of the waves and earth swallowing cars, houses, trains, ships and whatever came in their way were unbelievable Hollywood. The worst was still to follow when the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station rattled the country with radiation worries.
Japan is not new to natural disasters, a sitting duck for the 10% of the world’s volcanoes hidden in its fold and avoidable human errors. But somehow it has had the advantage of century’s old inclusive culture and lifestyle evolving in harmony with its environment and natural boundaries to help deal with wars, fires and economic recession. The Buddhist and Shinto shrines and the gardens spread across the country reflect this oneness with nature.
The 120, 000 square meters Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park rebuilt on land that was once the political and commercial hub of the city is a green haven with reminders of the fateful day. ….the former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall or the A-Bomb Dome (Genbaku Dome), a model of which is inside the museum; the Cenotaph; the Children’s Peace Monument and the Peace Flame burning continuously from the day it was lighted in 1964. One consolation while walking the expanse of the Peace Memorial Park is that this was a man-made tragedy and rectifiable.
We entered the Peace Museum to find the young and old, connect with disbelief, awe, indifference and pain to the reminders when their city’s luck ran out. At the Museum cafeteria a Japanese teenager, engrossed in a beauty magazine ‘do not know anything about the war’. She had come with friends to understand something that had happened a long time ago. Outside the Museum the half burnt and still blooming Chinese Parasol tree, supplanted to the present site in 1973, portrays the silent resolve to rise and shine again. The banks of the two rivers flowing alongside the Park, afloat with bodies on the fateful day, feature walking trails, river cruises, monuments, cafeterias and Cherry blossom lined avenues.
From the Peace Memorial the drive past the 16thcentury Hiroshima Castle or Ri-jo (carp castle), destroyed and rebuilt and converted into a museum of Hiroshima’s culture and history, is a reminder of huma error. Cherry trees, still to blossom, planted in the grounds create a colorful ambience to forget and forgive.
Any visit is incomplete without trying out the Hiroshima Okonomi-yaki or oysters. I am not a Japanese cuisine person and was a wee bit skeptical when our Guide announced that we were going to try a special Hiroshima dish, at least better than trying out oysters. We walked into a noisy eatery with surround sound of sizzling elongated girdles and people sitting around waiting to be served. ‘Okonomi’ means ‘what you like or want’ and ‘yaki’ means ‘grilled’ and it is fascinating to watch the individualistic pizza or American pancake facsimile being prepared according to taste. The cooks work in fast motion: layer the girdle with flour batter and pile it up with cabbage, onions, ginger, sausage, tenkasu, and pork, Soba or Udon noodles then toss it upside down. Once done, flip back and top it with fried eggs and optional items such as octopus, squid and cheese with generous dollops of okonomiyaki sauce, fish flakes and dried seaweed. One could literally hear the slurps of eaters anxiously watching each step, mesmerized, till the hot concoction slid from the girdle to the mouth.
The Hiroshima ‘Okonomi-Yaki’layered and stuffed needs an empty stomach to finish the entire serving. No wonder it is considered ‘conventional’ or common man’s food and could be followed by one or two Momiji manju, the maple leaf-shaped sweet cake with a choice of custard, cream chocolate, cheese and sweet bean paste fillings.
Somehow got saved from trying out oysters though oyster aficionados vouch for Hiroshima oysters eaten raw, baked in the shell, stewed, or deep-fried with different sauces or in a hot pot with miso called dote nabe. Hiroshima Prefecture produces 25,000 to 30,000 tons of oysters per year with nearly 80% exported to other regions and countries. It is a panoramic view along Hiroshima Bay speckled with bamboo rafts on floats that have replaced traditional branches with twigs to entrap oyster larvae to be harvested when of a certain size. The Hiroshima oyster farming history dates back to 16thcentury.
Different images from different perspectives and we move on to next leg of our journey with a last glance at a city, sumptuous, assorted and reticent like the many layered Hiroshima Okinomo-yaki and the edible Oyster: a city that decided to evolve than indulge in eschatological reverie.