Even though I had been looking forward to the Hiroshima weekend excursion, I was a bit grumpy boarding the shinkansen at Tokyo Station on Nov. 30. I had been physically ill from the culture shock of living in Tokyo for two months, and the pre-departure meeting had framed the trip in a suspiciously political manner.
The shinkansen, or bullet train, was fantastic. In Japan, you can get anywhere by standard rail or shinkansen, so there is no need to drive or deal with airport security. The shinkansen is pricy (comparable to a plane ticket), but you can get from Tokyo to Hiroshima in only four hours.
Despite being a fairly secular nation, where most are either passively Buddhist or Shinto, if at all religious, Japan has a great love for Christmas. Hiroshima was lit to the hilt with elaborate displays along the main road leading to Peace Park. Block after block of fairy tale and Christmas scenes were sculpted from what had to be a billion lights.
My trip to Hiroshima, part of a study-abroad program, came with a full itinerary: documentary showings and lectures on the atomic bombing, as well as touring the Peace Memorial Museum and adjoining Peace Park. Unfortunately, my suspicions turned out to be accurate as the discussion session held by my program's director and a lecture on the history of nuclear weapons had strong political overtones. As far as I could tell, the mission statement of the trip was essentially to make us consider the use of nuclear power and the existence of nuclear stockpiles in U.S. and Russia.
Inappropriate political aspects aside - I say inappropriate not because I don't agree but because I'm opposed to using human suffering as a way to argue politics - it was painful to learn how Japan remembers the World War II bombing.
While Americans typically associate the bombing of Hiroshima with black and white stills of mushroom clouds and barren, destroyed cities, Japan remembers it in moving, full-color stories from Hibakusha, survivors of the event.
For me, Hiroshima is no longer a black and white mushroom cloud but haggard cries of people who walked through a burning city with their skin hanging from their bloodied bodies like tattered clothing. Hiroshima is a scared 8 year-old-girl who rushed to answer their desperate cries for water only to watch them die after drinking it. Hiroshima is a charred tricycle a father buried with his son so he wouldn't be alone in his grave. Hiroshima is the shadow of a girl's footprint in her sandal - all that her mother could find of her.
But Hiroshima is also a site of rebirth. The city has been rebuilt and is as booming as any other city in the world. People run and bike on paths that line numerous rivers. Schoolchildren walk to class in giggling gaggles. On the ground where many said nothing would grow for 75 years, there is life in the trees and shrubs that guard the souls interred in Peace Park.
When I was 15, I visited Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. The ground there was left barren, and the suffering hung in the air. But in Hiroshima, there is a sense of peace in a place once rendered a wasteland.
And so the city that broke my heart with narratives of suffering also stole my heart with its story of rebirth.
Admittedly, concentration camps and atomic bomb memorials are less conventional tourist destinations. Nonetheless, these are important places that shape us, places that tell a story of mankind's darkest days. These are places where humanity has lost and not even the victors have won. When an entire people are slaughtered, all of us lose a piece of our humanity. It is only through reconciliation that we can begin to heal the wounds of the world.
In Hiroshima, a thousand suns of death have been transformed into thousands of Christmas lights that witness nothing but love of young and old couples, joy of children playing, hope for a safer tomorrow and the everlasting prayer for peace.
McMillin is a graduate of Colorado Springs Early Colleges and a student at Metropolitan State University-Denver