Confession time: I am that tourist. The one who goes to a famous place and comes away without seeing its most famous sites.
“What did you think of the cathedral?” It was early in my time in France, and we had just returned from a trip to Rouen.
“What cathedral?” I asked. Given the head shaking that went on after this display of ignorance, I knew I’d missed something major.
Later I looked it up and learned that Notre-Dame in Rouen is famed for being the tallest cathedral in France, for its three towers, each in different styles, and for having been captured in a series of 30 paintings by Monet.
I have no idea how we missed it. Likely we were too busy arguing over where to eat lunch, or looking for a working toilet.
But there was no way we were going to leave Japan without visiting the A-bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. My husband, who is far better versed in current events and recent history than I, was keen to visit the site that commemorates the destruction of a single act of nuclear warfare. And I must admit to a certain curiosity: what would the city so famous for that tragedy be like today?
The museum was everything you might imagine it to be. An imposing space with curated stories of so many lives lost and touched by the bomb, impressively documented with photographs, clothing, remnants of everyday life. It was dark, both literally and figuratively. And as someone with an overactive imagination, not to mention a fear of enclosed spaces, I was uncomfortable. The suffering of fellow humans, no matter how historically significant, makes me want to flee.
Outside, I watched a group of schoolchildren visiting the site. I wondered how it was for them, as young Japanese, whether they felt touched by the events of the past. Or if, as for children around the world, the tragedies of previous generations are too long ago and far away to seem relevant.
As for Hiroshima today, it is a modern city much like others in Japan. But it has a bit of a vibe, and a popular street-food culture. Which we enjoyed sampling for lunch. Like okonomiyaki, a delicious pancake of cabbage, noodles and oysters prepared and eaten directly off the grill.
For our two nights in Hiroshima before flying out to Okinawa, we stayed in a grand old lady of a hotel next to the main station. It was somewhat impersonal, as big hotels often are, but a welcome break after our previous nights in traditional Japanese accommodation. There was a breakfast buffet at the main restaurant, called ‘Dish Parade’, and the star of the place was this cute little cat robot. The robot acted as a busboy, moving slowly up and down the aisles with blinking eyes and friendly music as people put their empty trays on it. Until it became so overloaded it went into sleep mode and someone came to clear the dishes and reboot it.
I loved watching this funny little robot, and the way people interacted with it. To me it somehow captured all the contradictions of Japan, from intensely modern to heart-warmingly human.
What kind of tourist are you?