By Olga Lexell
After my peculiar encounter with the “naughty” deer of Nara, I was pleased to find that the deer of Miyajima Island were far more docile and less interested in cookies. The island itself is home to Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and important spiritual location, and the torii gate is considered one of Japan’s most beautiful views. Luckily the tide was low enough that we were able to walk all the way up to the torii gate, which was surrounded by yen! We guessed that people must have thrown them at the gate, perhaps for making wishes or other spiritual gestures.
Miyajima Island was among the most traditional places I’ve seen in Japan. From its Edo-inspired architecture and lack of amenities like traffic lights, to the numerous people we saw in kimonos, Miyajima Island was the polar opposite of Tokyo. The island prides itself on its spirituality, and for a long time women were not even allowed to visit to maintain the island’s purity (which is luckily no longer the case). Itsukushima Shrine was beautiful. I’m always amazed at the care and effort put into maintaining Japan’s many religious and spiritual sites; there was not an inch of peeling paint in sight on any of Itsukushima’s bright red pillars. The views of the torii gate from the shrine were breathtaking as well, and I wish we had gotten the chance to see how the shrine looks at high tide.
I’d gotten used to Japan’s typhoon season rain, and luckily it didn’t rain too much while we were exploring the shrine and surrounding area. However, the sudden storm we experienced on the ferry ride back to Hiroshima was more than a little bit jarring…
After braving the storm, we moved on to the Peace Memorial Museum and Park in Hiroshima. Rebuilt after the World War II bombing, Hiroshima is significantly more modern-looking than Miyajima. The fog and rain created a solemn atmosphere for us as we entered the museum and learned about the devastating bombing of Hiroshima. As biased as American history textbooks may be, we’ve all learned about the bombing in one way or another throughout our compulsory education. However, we were never shown pictures of the aftermath: the leveled city, burn victims, birth defects, cancer. The most jarring part of the exhibit, for me, was seeing the tattered school uniforms of the children who were exposed to the blast and died shortly thereafter. The word “bomb” implies instant destruction, so as a child, I assumed that no one in Hiroshima knew what was happening as it happened. However, seeing the exhibit taught me otherwise. Unlike a regular bomb, an atomic bomb causes death through radiation exposure and most of the victims of the bomb died agonizingly.
Two victims’ stories stood out in particular. One was that of a little boy of three years old, who had been exposed to the blast while riding his tricycle. He died that same day, and his father buried the tricycle with him so that his grave would not be lonely. Several years later, he donated the tricycle to the museum.
The other story that stood out to me in particular was that of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died of leukemia ten years after the bombing due to the radiation exposure. She folded over a thousand origami paper cranes while in the hospital, after hearing a legend about someone who did so and was magically cured of their illness by the gods. She died of her disease, but her legacy lives on and has been published into a children’s book that I recall reading in elementary school.
Overall, some of the things in the museum were hard to look at (like the statues of children with their skin in tatters) and read about, but I’m glad we received the opportunity to do so.