She kept waking herself up on the last leg of the flight when her neck would fall too far forward and snap back up. Each time she would notice her 2 year old daughter’s sleeping body – curled up against the arm rest, her messy head on her lap, her plush toys, blue bear, lambie and bunny, fallen to the floor or damp beneath her. Her husband and 5 year old boy sat across the aisle, both slumped in aerial slumber. As they started their descent into the Hiroshima airport she couldn’t believe what she saw out the window – scattered mountains of green, a low red sun on the horizon, the city built between the hills. It reminded her of Cuba, of Brazil, of China. Somehow it seemed impossible for this city to exist this way after it was leveled by the Little Boy so many years ago. She reminded herself to find a copy of Barthes’ Empire of Signs because she sensed that his sense of placelessness was something like this. This is Japan but what is Japan?
She had asked several Japanese people how to pronounce Hiroshima. Is it Hiro-SHEE-ema or Hir- OH-shima? She always got alternating answers.
Andy - finishing his MBA online and married to Susan who helped them prepare for this trip via email with a million useful suggestions and tips and experience - met them at the airport and drove them to their apartment. While driving through the city full of Pichinko Parlors and neon; quiet business and curving highways, he says, “They love malls here. This is a country of mass consumerism.”
When you level a city – literally destroying everything except for a couple of buildings in a city of over a million – killing 100,000 people instantly, you would leave a population wanting things – beds, clothes, their children, toys, technology, anything to hold onto. She felt guilty and just wanted to go take pictures even though everyone knows that pictures do not alleviate guilt or fix things. Photographs only show the same thing again and again, proliferating the problem or making the problem pretty. (Pictures of every building with titles of what used to be there. Pictures of flowers whose seeds are perhaps poisoned with radiation.)
She had never expected to live in a building built by the US military right after the atomic bomb was dropped - built for soldiers and American scientists to study the victims of her country’s crime. Perched on a hill overlooking the city next to the Museum of Contemporary Art, it was an old compound – a little rusty and abandoned even though plenty of people still worked there on the Atomic Bomb Casuality Commission Study. The people of Hiroshima did not like that the compound was up there – so out of the way and difficult for the survivors to get to and on such precious land. As far as she could tell, the American government had no plans to move it. Again, she felt guilty for even being here. The birds, with their deeper caws and present invisibility, woke her family up at sunrise and they ventured out onto the roof to watch the day begin. A tall blinking tower loomed over them and she knew she would be nervous about the children falling off the roof. Her daughter Harper already had a swollen lip from falling while running in her daddy’s pajamas and a black-blood-rimmed nose from her brother Guthrie accidentally whipping her with a soft Pokemon puppet.
Wild cats. Magpies the size of hawks. Bamboo, palm tree and magnolia ravines with s-curve walking paths that lead to the world’s longest and steepest escalator that takes you to SATY – a department store filled with boxes of sushi; hotdogs on a stick; seaweed wrapped around puffy triangles of rice filled with unknown things; bags of mayonnaise and ketchup; trays of cherries; aisles of snacks and clothes and households goods and flowers surrounded by windows behind which workers wear mouth masks as they prepare everything for you. She begins Cathy Davidson’s popular book 36 Views of Mount Fuji and is struck by its simplicity – basic feelings of a tourist with some of the language in a foreign land. She relates but she also does not. She is looking for something more and she knows she will have to find it herself or write it or make it or just believe it.
The Japanese woman all in folded black with wrist cuffs and a visor and green shiny patent leather heels biking up the steep hill to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation with a Hello Kitty shopping bag gets off her bike directly in front of this transplanted and dizzy family with their pink umbrella stroller, backpacks and sippy cups trying to find the playground. She tells this stranger that she is beautiful and she says something back and gestures demurely. They find the playground that was probably built at the same time as their apartment – the 1950s. It is empty but for an adult man swinging back and forth from a bar with his hands. He leaves shortly after their shrieking arrival. A man in uniformed blue with a bright orange baton comes to check the public toilet. Guthrie, her son, finds a butterfly wing and insists that she photograph it. She does. The path through the overgrown hill reminds her of the downhill serpentine path in Lyon and the cat sanctuary path in Firenze. The common denominator is her and she wonders how she can get out from under the weight of her own being. How can she just BE where she is?