One of those moments every traveler experiences frequently is meeting someone from a country you’ve traveled through; one that stokes a personal kind of fire.
The radar in my left eardrum blipped when I overheard a conversation in Japanese, in the tropical backyard of the Tropic Days hostel in Cairns. Two Japanese women my age were chatting away, and immediately I asked them, in my resurrected high-school Japanese: “Sumi masen? Anata wa Kyoto o sun’de imaska?” (Excuse me, do you live in Kyoto?)
Naturally, a Westerner asking a question in Japanese –and one who can recognize the Kyoto dialect as well– generates a pleasantly baffled curiosity. Turned out one of the women was from Aomori –another small town I passed through — but had lived in Kyoto. Their names were Sue and Kanae.
Sharing my experiences of Japan with them was rich and heartwarming, since I’d had the opportunity to see so much of the country– from the northern wilds of Hokkaido, through both neon and rural landscapes of Honshu, and to the vibrant southwest island of Okinawa.
Growing up, I’d always wondered, with amusement, why the Japanese always flashed the peace sign when taking photos together. Back during my days at the Berkeley Karate-do Dojo, my sensei had a guest instructor bring a dozen of his pre-teen students over from Japan to train with our class. When we would all goof off after class together, exuberant at being kids again after such rigorous instruction, many of the visiting students would ask us to take photos with them.
Each time their cameras flashed, the students held up the peace sign, laughing with delight. In later years, I noticed this reflexive phenomenon wasn’t unique to any age bracket. It never resonated with me as to why, until I visited the Atomic Bomb Museum in the vibrant city of Hiroshima in May.
Japan is the only country to have experienced the horrific reality of a nuclear attack. Not once, but twice: at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese steadfastly remain the most relentless advocates of world peace, namely with regard to the abolition of nuclear weapons.
The A-Bomb Memorial Hall, whose sizable memorial screen gently flashes rows of photos of those who perished, is an emotionally overwhelming experience. Included are the names of Japanese civilians, conscripted Korean laborers, and American P.O.W. servicemen who perished in the blast. Today, the Japanese continue to search for names through the generation of hibakusha (“explosion-affected people”), to ensure that all those lost are honored.
Items that survived the explosion are on display as artifacts. Not all are intact; a child’s shoe, a burned school uniform, a corroded pocket watch stopped at the exact minute the bomb was detonated. Endless personal interviews with the hibakusha giving accounts of their experiences, are shown on multiple screens, translated into several languages.
The A-Bomb museum is laid out in an easy manner to follow, yet I found each step I took growing heavier as my eyes bubbled over, and at times I had to find a place to sit down. Choking back the tears took effort, yet my heart swelled with gratitude as I recalled my World War II class during my senior year of high school. My teacher’s name was Marsha Hebden.
Ms. Hebden’s father, Jay Hebden, was a World War II Army veteran, who served in both Germany and Japan. The significance of his service to his country had inspired Ms. Hebden to teach young people this critical aspect of history, which she continues to this day at my alma mater, El Cerrito High. Her dedication enabled my memory of what I learned in her class, twenty years ago, to remain crystal clear as I slowly absorbed every corner of the museum.
Equally moving as the tragedy itself, however, is the Japanese spirit of resolve.
In its fervent dedication to never forgetting the devastation of that day, Japan acknowledges the cruelty of its own imperial past. On a wall in the last area of the Hiroshima Museum, a stenciled statement reads to the effect of “We must never forget the horror of the bombings. But we must never forget that we, too, have caused irreparable harm to others.”
Every time a nuclear weapon is tested in the world, the mayor of Hiroshima sends a letter to the president of that country, the resolve echoing in the dedicated voices within Japan’s current energy-policy debate after the Fukushima disaster: “Nuclear energy and humankind cannot coexist”. The city of Hiroshima continues to carefully train “hibakusha successors”, stemming from the desire of ordinary citizens to inherit and share their experiences.
Shortly before I later visited the Nagasaki Memorial Hall — erected upon the very spot when the second A-Bomb was dropped –I met an American army veteran in his sixties named Avery, who had recently been there.
Avery had served in Vietnam, and was from Michigan and a family with a longstanding military tradition. His father had served in Japan. Avery’s father had once commented, when Avery was young, that it was important to somehow visit countries they had served in. When Avery stepped inside Nagasaki’s remembrance hall at the entrance, “the weight of it all just hit me, like the proverbial ton of bricks”.
Avery made his way into the next section, and “that’s when I just lost it. Seriously, I was sobbing. I don’t know for how long.” At one point, he looked up, and through his tears saw two Japanese women –one his own age, the other his mother’s– looking at him with expressions of genuine concern. The older woman –clearly of the generation that bore witness to the bombings– tugged at her daughter’s arm and spoke to her in Japanese, her kind eyes never leaving Avery’s as he struggled to compose himself.
Her daughter spoke to Avery in English, “Sir, my mother says: ‘Young man, your heart is pure. Please do not be sad.’ ” Avery was overwhelmed, and could barely speak. “Somehow,” he quietly recalled, of the Japanese mother, “she understood that I was from a military background. I have no idea how. But she knew. And there we were.”
No bitterness is present in the memorial exhibitions of Hiroshima or Nagasaki (although private conversations between octogenarians are surely another matter). Staff members at both are pleasant, their ages indiscriminate and their faces compassionate as rarely a visitor comes out dry-eyed.
At Nagasaki, thick paper chains of intricately produced origami hang everywhere. An origami folding table sits in one section, encouraging guests to fold an origami and leave it in a glass box, with patient visual instructions in English. It took me over an hour to follow half the instructions, before I tried to enlist the help of the nearby security guard to modify my clumsy efforts.
Sheepishly, he smiled and spread his hands, before clapping them together and “Chyoto mate!” (Just a minute!) He scurried around the corner, and returned with Hitomi, the smiling plump woman from the reception desk. I showed her my awkwardly folded paper, and pointed to the instructions with a look of acted embarrassment.
“Ah! Muzukashii desu!” (Oh! It is difficult!) she said, laughing kindly and adding in English: “For Japa-nese, too.”
“She is right,” agreed a voice in English from across the room. A young Japanese couple sat at another origami table across the room, holding up a few crazily folded pieces of colored paper, their efforts every bit as haphazard as mine. Everyone –including Hitomi and the security guard– burst out laughing, the echoes permeating the somber gray walls as Hitomi teamed up with me to get that little orange crane folded just so.
The little crane emerged eventually, with Hitomi’s coaching, and everyone cheered as I dropped it in the glass box. Naturally, having figured it out, I was hellbent to bust another one out on my own.
Once again, I got stuck on the exact same step as before, sending everyone into laughter again, including Sue and Kanae as the experience rang in communal delight throughout the hostel garden.
When Sue and Kanae stopped laughing, Sue asked one of the travelers at the hostel to take a photo of the three of us together. As he steadied Sue’s iPhone on us, without thinking I flashed the peace sign, pleasantly startling my friends before agreeable laughter eclipsed us again.
Dreams have a funny way of coming true, and it’s the people you meet that touch upon places you’ve always been inspired to visit, yet what you come away with is completely different. Like that unexpected flavor in the dish you thought you knew, the one that occasionally brings tears to your eyes.
Something about the rich red dawn tinting the forests of Showa Shin Zan generates a tingling nostalgia of those childhood dreams from the Berkeley Dojo days. “Land of the Rising Sun” isn’t just a cliche. That same young chord was struck by boundless wonder some thirty years ago, as I gazed longingly at photos of Isfahan, Iran, with my Persian grandmother.
Transfixed by the depths of the sapphire dusk beyond Isfahan Square that held more than the city in mystical backdrop, those same pangs reverberated through dimensions that only dreams can create, and that inspiration can solidify.
But then that’s another journey, for another time.