It was time to use our Japan Railways Passes and head south for Hiroshima. This was our first experience of the iconic bullet train. At Tokyo Central Station, people were forming up within lanes marked on the platform indicating where their specific coach would come to a halt.
When it did arrive, the train was not disappointing. With a huge aerodynamic nose like a duck-billed platypus, you could tell this was in a different league to Thomas the Tank. There didn’t appear to be any visible space between it and the track, so perfectly was it designed for reducing air resistance and drag. Entering on board, the carriages were more akin to airline cabins but with bigger windows - appropriate for what was effectively low-level flying at an altitude of 5 feet.
Before taking off, platform staff go through a strictly choreographed routine of checking that the signals, doors and all other safety essentials are all in place - just like a flight crew would. They point to the item they are checking whilst voicing out loud its state of readiness. Only when all is in place is it thumbs-up and chocks away. Despite the huge technological advancements in the 40 years since bullet trains first appeared in Japan, most of the safety systems are still manual rather than computerised. This, and the natural Japanese adherence to discipline might explain the exemplary safety record of the railways there.
By the time the last carriage is clearing the station, it has already reached 90 mph. Speeds of up to 180 are achieved between stops. Speeding down the south-eastern coast and past Mount Fuji, the track hardly ever seems to leave the succession of cities squeezed into the narrow plains between the mountains and the sea. Housing is cleverly packed into every available space. Exquisite Japanese gardens typify the way this country excels at miniaturisation. Even in cities, where gaps in buildings do appear, there are rice fields and tea plantations tended by farm workers in wide-brimmed hats working by hand. It is this paradox of traditional and ultra-modern co-existing side-by-side which makes Japan so fascinating.
From Tokyo to Hiroshima is about 500 miles - the distance from London to Aberdeen. Our train covered this effortlessly in just under 5 hours, including stops, and the super-quick services do it in just over 4.
We came out of the station to the bright lights of modern Hiroshima which has risen from the ashes of the devastating atom bomb detonation of over 50years ago. We spent the whole of the following day going round the wonderful memorial park and museum which tells the story of this horrific landmark in mans’ destructive powers. It was a mixture of awful stories, as told by the survivors, and the miraculous way in which Hiroshima in particular, but Japan in general, picked itself up and overcame such terrible adversity.
A-bomb Tower - preserved as one of the only buildings left standing after the blast
The Japanese authorities, failing to admit that the tide had irretrievably turned against them, refused to surrender to the allied forces in early 1945. This gave Britain and America the opportunity to put to the test the A-bomb which had evolved from atom-splitting German technology. Three potential Japanese targets for this “experiment” had been identified. All had been deliberately spared the bombing dealt out to other similar cities so that an accurate assessment of the effects of the A-bomb could subsequently be made. On the fateful day, 10th August 1945, Hiroshima was chosen for mainly two reasons. One - there were no POW camps in the area; two - reconnaissance flights over the city showed the skies to be clear over the city that day for more accurate targeting. A B29 bomber from one of the allied-occupied Pacific islands to the south of Japan took off in the early morning carrying the bomb, ironically code-named “Little Boy.” It was unleashed just before 8.15 am and exploded a few minutes later at an altitude of 1500 feet. Most city inhabitants were already at work or on their way there. A radioactive fireball vaporised almost everything within a kilometre directly below and caused devastating damage to structures and people for some distance beyond. 80,000 people died instantly. It’s this spontaneous factor which separates the A-bomb from any other form of man-made slaughter, even though many more died elsewhere in Japan over a longer time.
Someone's watch - stuck at the time the A-bomb struck
The museum told graphic accounts of survivors’ experiences of literally seeing the city disappearing in seconds and the awful aftermath of those who survived, who either succumbed quickly from horrendous injuries or years later through radiation-induced illnesses such as leukaemia. More powerful than any verbal or photographic evidence were the drawings and paintings which, some years later, survivors were encouraged to produce as a form of art therapy.
Despite the forecast that no living plants would regrow for years afterwards, shoots and buds began to appear the following spring, mirroring the regrowth of the city into the modern thriving one it is today. The museum and Memorial Park were packed with schoolchildren from all over Japan visiting the place as a reminder of what happened and could easily happen again. They were the future and, hopefully, their leaders wouldn't ever contemplate using such weapons. Living survivors talked to them about what it was like first-hand. Seeing our western faces, they would cheerfully greet us and practice their English, saying "Hello- how are you?"
That the museum kept us absorbed all day is testimony to its brilliant conception. Despite the awfulness of the story, it portrays human dignity and adaptation to a remarkable degree. But it also leaves you wondering how anyone could ever have contemplated such an act, whatever the provocation.