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Visiting Hiroshima

Stay at the World Friendship Center

Fumiko Sora-san saw a flash of yellow light and thought there had been a short circuit in the electrical system. But the flash was soon followed by a loud, rushing sound. It wasn’t a power outage.

It was 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, and the U.S. had just dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Sora-san is a habakusha, an A-bomb survivor, and she retells her story to visitors of the World Friendship Center’s bed and breakfast in Hiroshima. Her visit, as well as a personal tour of the Peace Park with English-speaking guides, were two of the very personal amenities we experienced through our stay at the center.

The World Friendship Center is a nonprofit organization run by a Japanese board of directors and operated by two American volunteers. It was founded 38 years ago by Barbara Reynolds, the wife of a doctor who was studying the effects of radiation on A-bomb survivors. The center arranges peace exchanges, offers English language classes, and organizes a peace choir.

“The World Friendship Center is a place where people could come together from all over the world and get to know each other,” said Evie Bertsche, center co-director. “The thought is maybe they’d care about each other instead of fighting each other.”

We discovered the center through a guidebook, which listed it as a possible place to stay in Hiroshima. What the guidebook failed to mention is that center is the best way to experience Hiroshima.

Though Hiroshima is only a 5-minute ferry ride from the island shrine of Miyajima, considered to be one of the “three beautiful spots in Japan,” the city itself is not a traditional tourist destination. Americans travel to Hiroshima not to enjoy the natural beauty or to take in the sites but instead to understand the terrible history of the first city to ever experience atomic warfare.

Most tourists to Hiroshima visit the Peace Museum and walk through the Peace Park. The museum itself is touching. The two watches that stopped exactly at 8:15 a.m. are an eerie reminder of the devastation that followed, and who can see the little tricycle and helmet worn by a 3-year-old boy who was killed and not be moved? But though the museum presented a balanced and moving portrait of the city’s tragedy, it was the least memorable part of our visit.

We began our day in Hiroshima by meeting Chizuko-san and Yoko-san, World Friendship Center volunteers, who walked us through the maze of memorials at the Peace Park. We visited the popular sites such as the eternal flame, which will only go out when there are no more nuclear weapons in existence, and the memorial to Sadako, the young Hiroshima girl who thought she would live if she folded 1,000 paper cranes.

But we also were taken to less known but equally moving monuments. We saw a tree that had almost been reduced to ashes when the blast shook the city; today, its branches are lush and green, and as it recovered, it gave hope to survivors, who believed that no plants would grow for thousands of years. We visited the memorial to indentured Korean workers, a monument that up until recently was not even permitted to be in the park because of racism. We were escorted to a small cemetery, hidden by a new building, where headstones still bear evidence to the explosion. We never would have been able to find these sites on our own, and we never would have learned their specific history without our guides’ generous sharing of knowledge.

Their personal tour was capped off by our conversation with Sora-san, or Sora-sensei, as she is also called because she is a teacher by profession. Sora-sensei was 15 at the time the bomb fell. The Japanese government had indentured many children during the war and she was working the morning shift at the time of the blast.

“Blue sky was suddenly there instead of building,” she said. Sora-sensei was trapped under debris for several hours before she managed to free herself. Her head, face, and arms were bleeding, and she lost one of her eyes, which had been punctured. Her father, who lived with her mother outside of Hiroshima, rushed to the city after hearing the news to search for her and her brother.

Sora-san and her brother survived. After the war, Sora-san visited many doctors, but sight never returned to her left eye. She became a teacher because she knew she would have to support herself: many women who survived the blast never married because of the fear that they would give birth to deformed babies.

“Today’s nuclear weapons are 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima,” Sora-sensei said. “It is a very difficult task, but we wish to convey the idea of abolishment, to never cause a nuclear war again.”

Sora-san’s sentiments were echoed at the World Friendship Center, which has an entire library of books and movies that visitors can borrow during their stay. Visitors sleep on futons on tatami mats in private rooms, with a bathroom just down the hall. An authentic western- style breakfast (bacon, eggs, pancakes, etc.) is included in the 3,500 yen per person cost (about $30). They do not accept credit cards or checks so it is necessary to pay them in yen. It also is nice to bring gifts for your volunteer guides and for the habakusha. They are all volunteers, and it would be insulting to offer them money, but thoughtful gifts are always appreciated.

For more information, visit homepage2.nifty.com/wfchiroshima/.

JEANETTE HURT is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.