Why Hiroshima is Japan’s most underrated city

Hiroshima is a vibrant, friendly and charming city. Of course, Hiroshima is best known for the atomic bomb which destroyed the city. But there’s a lot more happening in this city than just a tragic past.

Hiroshima is amazing for foodies. Long shopping arcades seem to be endless. There’s a castle to explore, a museum dedicated to the world’s mightiest battleship, even a great day trip to Miyajima, the shrine island.

Here’s why Hiroshima should have a well-deserved place on your Japan itinerary.

Drawing of a super Nintendo on a table with Garfield toys
Playing retro video games in a department store

A city with its own character

When I think of Hiroshima, I think of rattling trams dinging their bells as they trundled down main streets. I think of a sunny, glittering bay filled with boats, and a city intersected by canals, inlets and bridges.

I think of escaping a freezing winter’s night by heading into a lively restaurant, windows dripping with condensation, smoky and fragrant, crammed with people eating hot Hiroshimayaki. It’s Hiroshima’s version of okonomiyaki, a cabbage-based pancake dish, with mayonnaise, sweet barbeque sauce and a frosty mug of beer (sorry, i’m getting distracted).

Sketch of an okonomiyaki restaurant
Okonomiyaki chefs at work

I had a great time waking up early to buy a can of hot vending machine coffee in a little backstreet. I loved playing vintage video games in department stores, spending half an hour on Mario Kart before realising I was supposed to be shopping. I loved the day trip to neighbouring Miyajima, one of Japan’s most wonderful islands.

I enjoyed the tiny studio we stayed in, shivering in our winter coats as we tried to figure out the characters on the heating remote. We sat on tatami mats, huddled under blankets, surrounded by supermarket sushi, instant ramen, and apple tea, enjoying Studio Ghibli movies on a laptop.

These are the great memories I think of after having visited Hiroshima.

Is it safe to visit Hiroshima?

Almost any visitor to Hiroshima will inevitably ask the same question before arriving – is it safe?

Very safe.

The radiation levels in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are considered no more than the natural background radiation anywhere else on earth, and no danger to human health.

But what about all the Uranium-235 that exploded over the city less than a century ago, with a half-life of 700 million years? Why is Chernobyl uninhabitable, but Hiroshima is safe?

The Little Boy bomb exploded with about 63kg (140 pounds) of nuclear material. However, it was so inefficient that less than 1kg actually underwent fission. Chernobyl, by contrast, had at least 7 tons of material undergo fission.

Secondly, at a detonation height of 600 metres (2000 feet), it’s believed that most radioactive material simply dispersed in the wind, scattered and carried off to the ocean or elsewhere. Meanwhile, Chernobyl took place at ground level, contaminating surrounding soil and water.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Drawing of the destroyed a-bomb dome in Hiroshima
A-bomb dome, Hiroshima Peace Park

The first thing a visitor to Hiroshima should do, to understand the gravity of the atomic bomb and its aftermath, is to visit the Hiroshima Peace Park.

We were curious to see how the city recovered, what it looks like today, and to listen to the message of peace the city promotes. The Hiroshima Peace Park at ground zero (and the fantastic Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum), is the place to explore these questions.

The Peace Park

The Peace Park is huge – over 120,000 square metres. The area used to be the city’s administrative district, which is why it was targeted. When it was time to rebuild, the area was nominated not to be rebuilt, but devoted to memorials.

The A-Bomb Dome

The most iconic symbol of resilience in the face of overwhelming tragedy is the poignant Atom Bomb Dome. The skeletal remains of the incredible ruined building is surrounded by broken bricks and dry, crispy leaves.

In 1945, it was the administrative town hall, located at the epicentre of the blast. Somehow, miraculously, the building still stands despite having been swallowed by the mushroom cloud. It’s thought that because it was directly under the detonation, and with thick walls, the main structure survived.

You can’t go inside, but you can walk around, and try and imagine that the lives were like of the people who were working inside on that fateful day.

The Cenotaph for the A-bomb victims

The main stone cenotaph, looking down a quiet water feature, contains the names of all the victims (over 290,000) of the bomb and the aftermath. It is inscirbed with the words “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil“.

Children’s Peace Monument

Another cenotaph memorial is dedicated to the children. On top is a statue of Sadako Sasaki, lifting a huge paper crane above her head.

Surrounding the monument are hundreds of paper cranes displayed in glass displays. Anyone can come and add a paper crane,or even post them to the city from overseas.

Peace Memorial Museum

The Peace Memorial Museum explains the events of the bombing, as well as the aftermath. There are melted metal items and fragments clothing that were in the blast, making the museum is a very touching and important visit.

Other monuments

There are dozens of other monuments to see, and you can spend all afternoon exploring them. Some monuments cover other buildings which stood on the site (The post office, and the Hiroshima Gas Corporation, which crumbled instantly under 4000-degree heat).

Others cover certain groups (Korean victims, the volunteer army corps), or notable figures (such as Tamiki Hara, known for his atomic bomb literature). You can even see trees which were scorched on one half by the bomb, and regrew on the other side.

Downtown Hiroshima

I was contemplating the city as we walked away from the Peace Park and wandered around shopping arcades. The shopping area is just adjacent to the peace park.

Hondori shopping arcade

Hondori street is one of Hiroshima’s network of lively shopping streets. Closed to cars, the indoor arcade stretches for half a kilometer, and is packed with restaurants and shops.

We bought some T-shirts from one store; then wandered into an expensive art gallery to admire the pottery there. Next up was a department store full of displays of plushes and video games.

Okonomiyaki village

Okonomimura is the name of an area in Hiroshima devoted entirely to serving hiroshimayaki, a variation of okononiyaki.

The hiroshimayaki is an okononiyaki made with soba noodles, and cooked in layers instead of mixed together. A hot hiroshimayaki with a beer, inside a toasty warm restaurant on a cold winter’s night is a perfect way to spend an evening in Hiroshima!

Hiroshima Castle

Hiroshima’s castle dates to 1589, and was the seat of the feudal lord Mori Terumoto. He ruled over Hiroshima, then a castle town, establishing the city as an important western Japanese power.

Although the castle survived the Meiji Restoration, it was ultimately destroyed in the atomic blast. Today, a reconstruction stands in its place.

Inside, the new castle is a museum about its history, and has panoramic views over the city.

The Yamato Museum

War history buffs will love checking out the Yamato museum (or Kure Maritime Museum), at the shipbuilding yard that launched many of Japan’s warships in WW2.

It pays special tribute to the Yamato, the heaviest and most heavily armed battleship ever built (with her sister ship, Musashi). With the war effort slipping, and fuel scarce, Yamato was sent on a one-way mission to Okinawa in 1945, where she was eventually sunk with over 3000 crew.

There is a 1/10 scale model of Yamato to explore, plus a zero fighter, naval guns and naval ammunition.

Hiroshima at night

Having finished our hiroshimayaki, we wandered to the lively Ebisu-cho area.

Skyscrapers shone down on us with neon billboards, taxis picked people up and dropped them off, businessmen filed into crammed trams on their way home after a long day. It was clear that Hiroshima is a city determined to move on from past tragedies, and move forward into the future.

I recommend Hiroshima for everyone, not just to learn about its past, but also to explore this young, vibrant, up-and-coming place.

Have you been to Hiroshima? How did the Peace Park make you feel, and seeing the way the city has recovered today?