Hiroshima, Japan– The rice has been harvested and hung to dry, and chestnuts have been gathered and baked into cakes and candies. The air is getting cool, but the colors of the trees are getting warm. Fall has arrived in Hiroshima, albeit a little later than usual, perhaps an effect of the warmest October on record, according to NOAA reports.
Japanese autumns are renown for their beauty and Hiroshima holds no exception. People come from all over the world to watch the endless hillsides slowly change leaf by leaf to blankets of yellow, red and orange. In Japan, much like Hanami, the viewing of the spring blossoms, Koyo, the viewing of the fall leaves, is a cultural pastime. In Hiroshima, some of the most important historical monuments and World Heritage Sites transition into beautiful viewing points for the seasonal transformation, while still offering a meaningful place to reflect on history.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
Some of the best fall views can be seen at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. The park may be forested and blanketed with multicolored trees today, but it didn’t used to be. The park filled with Chinese parasol, maple, oak trees and monuments used to be a marketplace and the most densely populated part of Hiroshima City before the bomb exploded directly overhead. When the park was established after the war, it was decreed forbidden for anything to be sold on the premises, out of respect for the dead. Some of the trees in the park survived the atomic blast, and are protected by the UNITAR initiative with the NGO Green Legacy. Visitors can watch the seasons change at the Peace Park, but they can also learn about the history of the trees, and offer a prayer to the victims of the atomic bombings.
The maple leaf is a symbol of Hiroshima. Maple leaf-shape cakes called momiji manju are sold throughout the prefecture; even manhole covers over the city’s sewers are decorated with the emblematic leaf. There is perhaps no better place for viewing the bright red and yellow Japanese maple trees than Miyajima. Along with the maples, Miyajima also has Ginko trees, pine trees, and cherry trees, to name a few. All of them make for a wonderful seasonal show. Miyajima is famous for Itsukushima shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Torii gate that appears to float in the water during high tide. The island is a short ferry ride off the coast of Hiroshima in the Seto Inland Sea. It is also one of the best three views of Japan, and during the fall season it’s easy to see why.
Mitaki, or three waterfalls in Japanese, is one of the least known places to visit in Hiroshima. The water of the falls is used as an offering to the victims of the atomic bomb at the peace memorial ceremony every year. The main fall is accentuated by the Shingon Buddhist temple dating back to the 9th Century. No matter the season, Mitaki is one of the most tranquil and picturesque temple grounds in Hiroshima.
Mitaki is probably most famous for its Tahōtō two-storied pagoda on a hilltop that was relocated from Wakayama in 1951 to memorialize the victims of the atomic bomb. Further into the park is the final resting place of the ashes of human remains from the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. In the early 1960s, a set of Buddhist Monks traveled from Hiroshima to Auschwitz mostly by land. Along they way they heard the stories of war, and shared their own stories of tragedy as well. In a statement released by the organizing committee, they said that “We Japanese, as both aggressors and victims of the war, should have a special duty in calling for world peace. We, who are of young age, went through the bomb and occupation…but at the same time must reflect on the sin of aggression that we committed.”
Hiroshima Castle Grounds
During World War II, Hiroshima Castle was converted to the Army headquarters in preparation for the incoming invasion of the Allied forces. The entire compound, much like the rest of the city, was incinerated by the Atomic bombing. Underneath the grounds rested a bunker where young girls from Hijayama Girls High School were mobilized as communications officers. Yoshie Oka was one of those girls. Her station chief had detected the Enola Gay at the last minute, and had just pushed an order for her to call out for an air raid warning. A minute later the bomb blast went off. Only a few people inside the bunker survived, including Oka-san.
In 1958 the castle was rebuilt. Oka-san told me that in place of ponds that used to rest on the grounds, which dried up in the heat of the atomic blast, trees were planted. Oka san took me to the location of her former dormitory where she and the rest of her female classmates would come the night before their shift. A few years after the bomb blast, she and a few other surviving classmates planted the tree there. “We didn’t want to remember the death and destruction, we wanted to remember the life that used to be here,” she told me. The park surrounding the castle is one of the most beautiful places to view Hiroshima’s fall, not only offering a view of the foliage, but of the life of a city that has grown since the dropping of the atomic bomb.
Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Using photo essays, videos, and articles, Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings. Follow him on Twitter @Aribeser, and Instagram @AriBeser and @HibakushaTNF.