Hiroshima: The Oleander Blooms

We are here, in Hiroshima, because of a solitary speck of time in the history of our world. It was 8:15 on the morning of Monday, August 6, 1945. The Little Boy atomic bomb exploded. 70,000 died immediately. Within three hours, a firestorm cloud would rage overhead, with an estimated energy 1000 times more than the bomb itself. By year’s end the death toll would rise to 90,000-160,000. 70% of the city would be levelled. Hiroshima, 1945. The first city on our planet to be targeted by a nuclear bomb.

Today, the hypocentre of the initial explosion is but an easily-missed plaque sitting alongside a modern commercial building. Mushrooming off to one side, much like the bomb itself, is a cultural landscape defined by that singular moment. Numerous memorials dot the treed grounds of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the Children’s Peace Monument and the Flame of Peace being two of the more evocative sculptural and architectural examples. Off to one side is National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. Visitors wind their way down to the partially submerged Hall of Remembrance, a spare, quiet space to reflect on that fateful event.

Further on, and much less reflective, is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Within it’s orderly early modern stone walls, the bomb explodes once more with explicit details, personal accounts and to-the-point melted and charred artifacts. The Golden Week crowd fills the aisles but it is not hard to imagine that the museum is always well-attended.

The most visually iconic site lies not more than a few steps away from the hypocentre. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, more popularly known as the Atomic Bomb Dome, is the remains of the 1915 Product Exhibition Hall. The concrete shell of this evocative ruin has been carefully stabilized to reflect its 1945 post-bomb appearance. That it survived at all is a matter of fate and chance, the result of the bomb missing its intended target, the adjacent Aioi Bridge. Instead, it detonated directly over the Product Exhibition Hall, minimizing the horizontal force of the blast on the concrete walls and columns.

On this sunny day, crowds gather on the grounds. Books with the stories of survivors and those lost to the bomb, sit on benches and curbs, wanting to be picked up and perused by interested visitors. Trees surround the site, softening the harsh, grey ruins. Around the edges, purple blooms add comforting colour. Oleander blooms. The first flower to bloom in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. The official flower of Hiroshima.

And bloom the city did. Away from the memorials, today’s Hiroshima is a bustling, modern city. People work, shop, eat and drink with the same gusto as people in any other Japanese city. And we follow that lead.

Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is on our list. We head to Okonomi-mura (Okonomi Village), a collection of 25 food stalls tucked into the upper floors of an anonymous-looking commercial building. We pick one stall, more or less randomly, and set ourselves down at its counter-side stools. The counter top is not something you want to rest your arms or hands on. It is, in fact, a very hot stainless steel cooking surface on which the chef deftly prepares our feast. Crepes are cooked. Then pork, eggs and cabbage are layered between the crepes. Magic sauces are added. The show ends with the chef sliding our finished concoctions across the stainless steel counter, handing us the unique palette knife cutlery we will need to dissect this tasty mound of food.

A brief train ride from downtown Hiroshima is the small town of Saijo, “The City of Sake”. These are magical words to this budding aficionado of sake (or, more accurately, nihonshu). Gail is much less the sake-lover but wandering the tight streets, touring historic industrial buildings, lunching once more on okonomiyaki makes for an enjoyable outing.

Saijo has seven sake breweries within easy walking distance of the station and most are open for tasting. Kamotsuru was the most tourist-centric with good displays of the sake-making process and a wide range of the company’s sake varieties, all free for unrestricted tasting. But my mission was a bottle or two of Saijo’s finest to take back to Winnipeg.

The first bottle was a junmai daiginjo from Sanyotsura brewery.

For the uninitiated, the junmai designation means that the only ingredients are rice, water and kōji (mold). Non-junmai sake will have added alcohol and possibly other ingredients. Daiginjo refers to a class of fine sake where the rice has been polished to at least 50% of its original volume. My Sanyotsura uses rice polished to a very small 35%. But this is a rough-and-ready way to describe a good sake. Much more goes into the process – rice variety, water source, the magical kōji, for example –  all of which contributes to a delicate balance of fragrance, flavour and umami unique to each brewery.

I find my second bottle at the Kamoizumi brewery. It too is a junmai daiginjo and the rice is similarly polished to 35%. But it wins on the packaging front. While the Sanyostura is handsomely packaged in an elegant paper box, the Kamoizumi bottle, complete with red tassel about its neck, is cushioned in its own beautiful wood box.

We return by train to Hiroshima and our final dinner before departing for Tokyo next morning.

It is a hard place to reconcile, this Hiroshima. We came because of a bomb. We finish by sipping sake. I can only think of the oleanders carpeting the grounds of the Peace Memorial, purple blooms of hope rising from ash and leading us to a better place.

 

 

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2 comments

  1. Another wonderful post. I am surprised to hear there is non-alcoholic sake. I wonder if it is available in Winnipeg, or do I have to travel to Japan to find it? More photos of Gail eating – how DO you stay so slender?

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    1. Thanks again Sandra. Sorry for the confusion but sake is definitely alcoholic, about 16%. Koji and a yeast starter is used to ferment the mash. “Non-junmai” sake contains added distilled alcohol to increase production yields. Yikes!

      Like

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