Time Beings

“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.” – A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

It’s been quite the whirlwind since we wrote our last post just a few days ago. We’re in the midst of our heaviest travel period in Japan, and in the last few days have gone from Fukuoka to Hiroshima and Miyajima to Naoshima, Osaka, and now, a small farming town near Nagoya. And in doing so, I’m sure that we’ve actually experienced some type of time travel as we’ve traversed vast landscapes on Japanese shinkansen, climbed a mountain, biked through a wonderland, and floated on ferries through multiple bodies of water. Japan is a beautiful country for time travel.

The quote above is from a book (written by a Japanese-American author) that both Cole and I read during this leg of our travel, and it came to mind when I thought about how we have bobbed back and forth between the past and present over the past few weeks. Japan is that kind of place: in a seemingly endless stream of video game arcades, you can turn a corner to stumble upon a Buddhist temple from the 1200s. In some sense, everything—and nothing—is sacred. In Miyajima, we hiked a mountain that offered views as far back as the 6th century with the Itsukushima-jinja shrine and its “floating” torii from the 12th century. In Naoshima, also known as “Art Island,” we traipsed among traditional Japanese houses that contained modern art that beeped and twinkled and awed— a juxtaposition in itself that caused us to question our current era. Were we in the present, the 70s, or the 30s? Perhaps somewhere in between? In Osaka, between voracious bouts of eating all the amazing food in sight, we found ourselves at Tsuten-kaku, which is a tower originally built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1969. According to our guidebook, “it once symbolized everything new and exciting,” but it was clearly rundown and pretty unimpressive. Just a short walk, however, brought us to a stunning Buddhist temple with its original shrine gate from 1294.

And then there was Hiroshima. It’s hard to talk about Hiroshima. It’s hard to write about Hiroshima. But it’s the city that has thus far spurred the most dramatic time travel for Cole and me, and most connected us with beings from other points in time. Like most American kids, I learned about the atomic bombings in various history classes throughout my education, but nothing could have prepared me for the shocking reality that we uncovered in the memorials and museums throughout the city of Hiroshima. As someone for whom the events of September 11th were too close to home—literally, I could see and smell the smoke from the hilltop near my school, I knew people who were in the building or who miraculously didn’t go to work that day—I felt a strong sense of connection with the people whose stories we heard throughout our time in Hiroshima. I also had to catch myself—the events of August 1945 resulted in nearly 100 times the fatalities as September 11th. Knowing what New York, the tri-state area, and the US went through after 9/11, I couldn’t help but wonder: how could the Japanese people, and the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in particular, move on from this? How could we be standing in what is now a vibrant city (our Airbnb was within a couple hundred yards from the center of the nuclear blast and in a vibrant, fun part of the city), a mere 70 years after such a catastrophic event?

“Catastrophic” doesn’t seem like a strong enough word to describe the horrors that took place when the US detonated the a-bomb in Hiroshima in August 1945. An entire city literally brought to the ground in one instant; blown over like matchsticks by a single gust of radioactive wind, killing most in its wake and leaving others with devastating, unimaginable injuries from which many would never recover. Tens of thousands killed in one moment.

We wandered through Peace Memorial Park, the large park in the center of Hiroshima with multiple monuments dedicated to a-bomb victims and museums committed to the propagation of peace. At the Museum, we saw countless personal artifacts decimated during the bombing—the only remnants of the victims who once possessed them—and horrific photographs of victims and a city completely destroyed. At the Children’s Peace Monument, we learned that the origami cranes that our friend on the train (from our last post) gave us are a Japanese symbol of longevity and happiness. The cranes became a national phenomenon after a young girl developed leukemia a decade following the bomb (as a direct result of radiation poisoning) and decided to fold 1000 paper cranes. She reached her goal, but she died shortly thereafter. Her classmates folded more cranes, which her family buried with her. We walked by the Atomic Bomb Dome, the building just above which the bomb was dropped (and detonated 600 meters off the ground). Everyone inside was killed, but parts of the building still stand—though with vast amounts of help from 21st-century supports. Perhaps most moving was an exhibit on The Children of the Atomic Bomb at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. There, we read incomprehensibly horrifying testimonials from children who survived the a-bomb (many of whom lost everything) 6 years following the bombing. Out on the park, we watched as a-bomb survivors told their stories to young Japanese schoolchildren, and I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them had shared their stories in the exhibit. If not, whatever became of the children who shared their stories?

In my three years in NYC I could never bring myself to walk to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (just a short trip from my apartment) because it felt like my whole world changed that day. My childhood assumptions that war was something found only in history textbooks, my notions of “good” and “evil,” my understanding of safety—everything transformed. My heart is with Hiroshima and its people—with Japan—forever changed that day in August 1945, to a degree I can’t begin to comprehend.

- Alex


Pictures to come! We are currently at our WWOOFing host family’s house (more to come on that later) and their wifi doesn’t have the bandwith for photos at this time. Stay tuned. And we’ll try to be more upbeat next time.