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Hiroshima: hot plates and hope

Sarah Dean

Okonomiyaki is the ultimate comfort food. Cooked on a hotplate in front of you, it is a sandwich of pancakes containing bacon, cheese, egg and noodles, the whole thing slathered in sweet soy sauce mayonnaise. I had this heavenly dish for first time recently, in its city of orgin Hiroshima. Yes, that Hiroshima.

When my partner and I planned our trip of a lifetime around Japan, we were conflicted as to whether we should include Hiroshima on our itinerary. Like most people the only thing we knew about the city was its destruction by an atomic bomb during the Second World War. Was it right to visit a place made famous by horror, devastation and suffering we wondered? Was it macabre or voyeuristic to go there?

The Hiroshima chapter of the guide book listed the Peace Park with its various memorials and museum, 30-odd Okonomiyaki restaurants and not much else. However friends who had been, assured us it was a highlight, so we put a weekend in Hiroshima on our itinerary. I confess that I did secretly wonder if it might be too depressing sad a place to go on holiday.

We headed to the city museum first, to get the facts and perhaps if I am honest, to get it over with. It recounts the horrific events of the day the bomb dropped, presenting the facts via a collection of everyday objects from those who died, loaned by local families- someone's melted glasses, the scorched tatters of a school uniform, a charred watch stopped forever at 8.15am when the bomb hit. Every world leader with the power to press the button should be made to visit this museum.

The numbers are breathtaking. The blast killed 60,000 people instantly and turned five square miles of the city into a wasteland of rumble, with only a handful of buildings left standing. Thousands more died in the days after and by Christmas the death toll stood at 140,000, almost half the population. Overall 350,000people died as a result.

Because an Atomic bomb is indiscriminate, the people of Hiroshima have been forced to find unified ways to remember those who were lost, regardless of religion, politics or ideology. This process has been difficult, involving long negotiations and discussion, but an attitude of unity and a shared goal has fostered tolerance and a positive determination.

There was none the gloom I feared might exist, which is even more remarkable when you realise that if you meet a local, you are meeting someone with a direct link to the bomb in three generations or fewer. It was sobering to realise that everyone we met would have had people who died or relatives affected by radiation.

The past is remembered with dignity, but the locals are determined that their city should be known for more than the past. Despite the recession the city champions youth work, community development and the arts, and continues to be an international centre for peace. Everyone we met was delighted to see international visitors, telling us 'We hope you enjoy your stay. Tell your friends to visit.' So my friends, I do. Visit Hiroshima. You'll go, hesitantly, for the history. You'll stay for the hospitality, the hot-plates of Okonomiyaki and the hope.