Exploring Hiroshima

Ben Shewry and Stephen Corby go from devastation to delight in the modern Japanese city with a storied past.
City scape of Hiroshima, Japan today

Honolulu is fortunate enough to be famous for more than just one bloody day; the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But Hiroshima is a city that will always be synonymous with one devastating date.

It is impossible to visit this bustling, modern city – the eleventh largest in Japan, with a population of 1.1 million – without considering its painful place in history, as the location of the most shocking, truly unprecedented crime against humanity, the dropping of an atomic bomb on a civilian population, an attack that killed as many as 100,000 people on August 6, 1945, with at least another 80,000 dying more slowly by the end of that year, from burns, injuries and radiation poisoning.

It also completely flattened, or torched, 70 per cent of all the buildings in Hiroshima, as its vast fireball burned to almost 4000 degrees Celsius. Pretty much everything you see in the city, then, is much younger than the rest of Japan. Even the beautiful Hiroshima Castle, originally built in the 1590s, was painstakingly rebuilt to look like its former glory, back in the 1950s.

Genbaku Dome at Hiroshima Peace Memorial was the only structure left standing in the area where the first atomic bomb exploded.

Among the many incredible things you are reminded of in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – a place you really must visit and one dedicated, most obviously, to ridding the modern world of nuclear weapons – is that the unfeasible, inhuman toll of the atomic bomb was not enough to scare the Japanese into ending the war.

Three days later, the US dropped another fire storm of fission on Nagasaki but it took another six days after that for Emperor Hirohito to announce Japan’s surrender.

I ask our guide, Nobu, whose father was an atomic bomb survivor, if the Japanese people were angry about that, or more so with the US, but she has no fury to offer. “There is no anger, we just want to learn the lessons of history, and for this never to happen again.”

Hiroshima’s approach to remembering is right there in the name of its moving museum – other countries would call it a War Memorial, but theirs is one of Peace.

Nobu is keen to change the subject to another the locals are passionate about, food, and in particular the local specialty that was a surprising side effect of the bombing – Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.

“After the war, as people were rebuilding, there wasn’t much food, or much to cook on, so this way of putting whatever they could find together and making it as a pancake was born – ‘okonomi’ means ‘whatever you want’ and ‘yaki’ means ‘grilled’,” she explains.

You could think of it as a kind of Japanese bubble and squeak, a suggestion that amuses Nobu, who reveals that local English speakers also call it “economy-yaki”.

The dish is everywhere in the city – indeed our travelling companion, Attica chef-owner Ben Shewry, manages to find one five-floor-high food court selling almost nothing else.

The multi-layered dish of noodles, egg, pork (or calamari), thick brown and luscious Peking-duck-like okonomiyaki sauce with a vast choice of toppings, is generally served on a hot plate so you can keep it warm while slicing and dicing it. For the ultimate immersion, though, we visit the Otafuku’s Okosta Okonomiyaki Experience at Hiroshima Station, which promises “Borderless Happiness”.

Chef Ben Shewry making okinomiyaki at Otafuku’s Okosta Okonomiyaki Experience in Hiroshima

Shewry looks delighted as we are dressed in gaudy orange aprons and chef’s hats and gather around a vast grill plate to be taken through the various, and necessarily dexterous steps of making our own okonomiyaki.

Definitely more of a generous soul than a show-off, Shewry decides to make two at once so that our photographer doesn’t miss out on lunch, and makes it look both easy and tidy (his obsession with keeping his workspace clean is obvious, as is his ability to touch hot things without seeming to feel any pain), while certain journalists who shall remain nameless turn their first pancake attempts into something chapati-like.

I’m happy to report that my okonomiyaki tasted better than its ragged looks, as it combined a multi-storey combination of flavours into something rich and filling.

Clearly taken by getting his hands dirty, if only very briefly, Shewry is keen to further explore the single-minded devotion to perfection of Japanese chefs. As he points out, it’s far less common to find a restaurant serving a full menu of native dishes in Hiroshima, where small – and I mean quite often standing room only, with elbows tight to your sides – venues specialise in just one thing.

“I love Japanese food and what I admire about Japanese cooks is their ability to focus on one thing and do it just so incredibly well,” Shewry enthuses as we wander along streets packed on either side with windows proferring plastic versions of their food offerings.

“In western society, we don’t really have that laser-like focus to submit completely to being excellent at just one thing, whether it be cooking rice, sushi, okonomiyaki, just dedicating your life to be elite at that one thing.

“So you can go to a restaurant that just does yakitori, or just sushi, and you’ll know they’ve been working to perfect that dish. Another thing you notice is that they respect their ingredients immensely.”

Chef Ben Shewry in Hiroshima

Eventually we settle on Sushi-Rindo, a restaurant slightly smaller than a mini-van and with just six seats at the bar, where Shewry somehow manages to talk the non-English-speaking chef and owner, Mr Ito (who explains through our interpreter that he had to do a three-year apprenticeship before he was allowed to make sushi) into letting us make our own dinner.

Rolling the rice ball in your fingers, like a spin bowler, is even harder than it looks and can lead to dropping some on the floor, unless you’re a chef and just naturally good at that kind of thing.

The next day we head to stand inside a postcard on Hiroshima’s Miyajima island, a day trip that every visitor must take to let their eyes drink in “one of the top three iconic scenic spots in Japan” as you’re told on the ferry.

Brushed with forest and adorned with temples and very tame wild deer, the island’s torii gate draws all eyes and cameras, particularly when the tide is in and it seems to float, part of the ocean itself and truly majestic.

Miyajima is also famous for its oysters, but you may have to queue to get the most popular ones. It’s an apt preamble to our kaiseki dinner at top-notch restaurant, Mitakiso, where seafood is the star.

Deer on Miyajima Island

Our final stop is a slightly unusual one, also linked to the city’s bombing. Jujiro Matsuda, the founder of Mazda, was born on August 6 and had just driven away after having a haircut for his 70th birthday when the bomb dropped, obliterating the barber shop and hurling him from his car.

He survived, as did most of his factory – it was protected by a mountain – and just four months after his city was flattened, Mazda production was back up and running.

Today, one in 10 Hiroshima residents work in the car industry, and it’s very much a one-brand town. Shewry was keen to visit the Mazda Museum, which is filled with vehicles that make you realise how old you are, because you may have learned to drive in a model that’s now considered worthy of preservation.

The museum saves its best surprise until last, however, when you are invited to visit and walk above the company’s final assembly line – a true taste of local life.

Far from the robot-filled factory you’re expecting, what is truly mesmerising to watch are all the humans at work in a show of “mass craftmanship”.

We stare for quite some time at one worker as he leaps from one kind of car to another performing different bolt-tightening, part-attaching tasks, all with incredible speed and concentration.

Whenever you visit Japan it’s impossible not to marvel at their dedication to task, whether it’s cooking, creating art or producing incredibly complex modern cars.

They’re also a calmly optimistic people, who really hope that one day the rest of the world will work out how to run a train system that’s fast, clean and always on time.

In front of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum there is a Flame of Peace, cupped by a sculpture of two hands, that’s been burning since 1964. It will only be extinguished when the rest of the world, like Japan, reaches the point of having no nuclear weapons. It’s still burning right now.

Vintage Mazda models at the Mazda Museum

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