The locals only want to know one thing when you’re a gaijin (foreigner/outsider) in Hiroshima. They ask the question, lean in a little too closely with a look of deep intrigue on their faces, waiting to nod along with a positive answer. Waiting to affirm, that indeed this lonely gaijin knows the truth of this fair city. So I tell them my answer, and it’s the only one they want to hear, ‘The okonomiyaki is delicious’.
Perhaps you were expecting a different question? One a little more awkward shall we say than, ‘What do you think of okonomiyaki?’ Ok, well, let me explain the joys of this local delight first and I’ll get back to that elephant in the room.
Okonomyaki is a kind of Japanese pancake, which in Hiroshima takes on Jenga like proportions. First the batter is poured onto a hot teppan (an iron plate), then topped with four times as much cabbage as the recipe usually suggests, it’s the Hiroshima way. After this, scallops, pork and any other meat they feel like is flung in and topped with noodles, egg and okonomiyaki sauce. When the cook is happy with their towering creation the whole thing is flipped and squashed flat. Leaving you to eat a densely packed, yet immensely tasty bit of grub straight off the teppan.
Of course there is another question in Hiroshima that is far more difficult to answer. I knew it was coming. I could feel sweat forming on the back of my neck, hairs standing on end and a nervous flutter in my stomach where previously the delights of okonomiyaki had lain undisturbed. The question was coming. I could feel it and I’d have to give a diplomatic answer. It’s really a very sensitive topic you know. So with what knowledge I had garnered in the course of the evening I did my best to answer. I took a deep breath and said, ‘The Hiroshima Carp were alright, but the atmosphere was great.’ They sighed at the sad truth and nodded in agreement. They know their baseball team sucks.
Ok, maybe you were expecting something more taboo, perhaps on nuclear weapons? The thing is these really were the questions I was asked first and most frequently. Obviously Hiroshima is always going to be associated with that tragic day in history. However, to focus on that moment alone, which countless historians and witness testimonies have articulated far better than I ever could, would do a great disservice to what the people of Hiroshima have achieved since that fateful day.
The city is a vibrant, welcoming place and like any place with such a harrowing history it is more interested in displaying its achievements than rehashing wounds with anyone of a foreign persuasion who happens to walk by. They live contrapuntally with the scar, they know it’s there and do not seem to see much need in reminding themselves of it beyond the already incredible efforts they have made in constructing a moving and eloquently realised museum and peace park that balances the difficult task of conveying the breadth of the tragedy without editing an uncomfortable history for all nations involved. The facts are presented, the written, pictorial, audio and video testimonies line every inch and the physical traces remain. No one who visits this place could be left in any doubt about what occurred. But if you wish to visit, please do not let the sad history of Hiroshima overshadow the present and future achievements of its people and friends.
And those people are wonderful, if just a touch mad.
On my second night in Hiroshima I found myself just a little cold and sitting in the one year old Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium, the home of the Hiroshima Carp. Their name ought to have told me what to expect really. The Yomiuri Giants, The Chunichi Dragons, The Hanshin Tigers, The Hiroshima… I’m sorry, did you say Carp? Actually, not quite. Thanks to the joys of the Japanese writing system, with loan words being written in katakana the actual word is carpu. Which when sung en masse by the crowd is pretty fantastic. Have a listen, minus (unfortunately) the gloriously mad crowd.
I love the chorus and yes… I did sing along.
That, for those of you had a listen is the Hiroshima Fight song from the Seventh Inning. Just before this song the fans all start preparing for the grand finale. Strangely I didn’t notice this build up until it reached the, ‘what the f…’ stage. I had already spotted the opposing team’s, the Hanshin Tigers, fans blowing up some long yellow balloons and thought nothing of it. At least until I suddenly realized I was surrounded by very pink, very long, somewhat phallic pink balloons. Which were released at the climax of the song. Make of that what you will.
I’ve no idea why I think this, but in my mind there’s something a little defeatist about having a Carp as a mascot. Almost as bad as having a cuddly Terrier as your mascot I soon discovered. Sat in a bar after the game, I was asked if I watched the Premier League. Revealing that there is more than one level of football in England, and that my team, Huddersfield Town, currently reside in the third tier of it seemed to be a large enough surprise in and of itself. Explaining that in addition to this, that our fearsome mascot is a waddling ball of fluff known as Terry the Terrier elicited more than a little giggling and a substantial cry of, ‘Kawaii des ne!/It’s cute isn’t it!!’
Evidently I’m in no position to mock a Carpu.
It’s hard not to feel a connection with this city. It has a bustling and friendly nightlife. Trams that rattle up and down its roads. Tiny okonomiyaki restaurants run by old women, seemingly just to cook for friends and have the occasional natter with the odd gaijin. A devoted yet mildly deluded set of baseball fans (I can certainly relate to fans like that) and complete strangers willing to pull up a stool and chat about the subjects you least expect; Iron Maiden and fine bourbons one evening. You start to feel more welcome than in the big crush of Tokyo, or the beautiful yet tourist centric Kyoto. That is at least until you look up from that first sip of beer at the baseball and think, hold on, that lone white guy sat by himself, with glasses and a beer on the big screen looks awfully familiar…