The entire world knows what happened in Hiroshima on the morning of August 6th, 1945. Today, the events that occurred on that date and in the following days are one of the main reasons that Hiroshima receives such a disproportionately high number (for a city its size) of visitors.
You should know, then, that the first two weeks of August are peak season for travel to Hiroshima, despite being the hottest days of the year. If you’re in Hiroshima on the 6th itself, it’s more than worth braving the heat and crowds to be part of a communal act of memory that speaks so directly to the heart of the the city’s modern history. Here’s a brief rundown of the main schedule for the Peace Memorial Ceremony and surrounding events.
Thousands attend the Peace Memorial Ceremony, which is still televised nationally and in some locations overseas. One section of seats is reserved for survivors, their guests, and dignitaries. Unreserved seating (some of it beneath canopies) opens to the public at 06:30, while those who don’t arrive early enough to claim a seat end up standing as close as they can manage. There are tables near the entrance to the Peace Memorial Museum where assistance is available in a range of languages. You can also pick up water and cold towels in this area.
At 08:00, the ceremony begins, focused on the famous cenotaph, which contains the known names of all whose deaths have been connected to the bombing. At present, the number stands at roughly a quarter million. At 8:15, the moment of the bomb’s detonation above the city, sirens sound and a minute of silence is observed. Despite the passage of years, the weighted suspension of those sixty seconds is still a palpable force.
The city’s mayor takes the podium before the cenotaph and delivers a speech calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and other words are offered depending on the year and attendance. After a release of doves and a song written for the day, the ceremony concludes at 09:00. Crowds remain in the area until well after dark, however, when the lantern floating is finished.
From 10:00 to 12:30, you have a chance to hear, firsthand, the stories of people who were present on the day of the bombing. The testimony is given in English, and speakers change from year to year. Some survivors have been doing this for decades. Others have only recently begun, feeling the rush of time and fearful that their experiences, often kept secret from all but closest family, will be entirely forgotten. Go if you have a chance. This generation is vanishing quickly, and their stories, awful as they are, bear hearing. The speakers will appear in the Cosmos Room of the Hiroshima International Conference Center (the west wing of the building housing the Peace Museum), and seats are unreserved and free of charge.
Many visitors will have seen photographs of the crowds of colorful paper lanterns, each bearing a handwritten message of peace, released on the surface of the Motoyasu River as it flows through Peace Park. In recent years, the event has taken on a slight carnival atmosphere, which troubles some older residents of Hiroshima. But there’s no turning back. From 18:00, people from around the world pack the park as the sun begins to set (in fact, this year the sun won’t set until shortly after 19:00) and linger until the last of some 10,000 lanterns is set on the water at around 22:00. There is a 600 yen charge to receive a length of colored paper, and people linger over them singly and in groups writing their wishes for peace and reconciliation. The lines to the water’s edge are long, snaking through the park, and it can take an hour to before you light your candle and hand the lantern to an attendant. People crowd the bridges and riverbanks as well, taking in the scene or seeking a perfect photograph.
Throughout the day, you’ll find other things going on in and around the park. Over the years, I’ve seen live music, political demonstrations from all points of the ideological spectrum (though none of these are allowed within the confines of the park itself), films projected on the sides of buildings and small circles of various countercultural groups making their own observances of August 6th.
A final word. I’ve heard visitors express concerns that they will be unwelcome, or a target of blame, however veiled. This simply isn’t true. Or rather, if there are individuals who bear animosity toward citizens of countries that fought Japan, such sentiments are drowned out utterly here in the calls for peace, harmony and a permanent cessation of war.
Plan on a long, hot and emotionally exhausting day. But one you’re unlikely to forget.
Hours: August 6th. Events mentioned above will run from 08:00 until the morning hours of August 7th.
For the Peace Memorial Ceremony, unreserved (and free) seating opens to the public at 06:30. The ceremony itself begins at 08:00 and will be finished at 09:00. Information desks with English speakers on hand.
A-Bomb Survivor Testimony, in English, will take place from 10:00 to 12:30 in the Cosmos Room of the Hiroshima International Conference Center, in the west wing of the building housing the Peace Memorial Museum.
The Lantern Floating Ceremony begins at 18:00 and runs until approximately 22:00. If you plan to float a lantern yourself, rather than simply jockeying for the best photo location, allow an hour to purchase and decorate your lantern and wait in line to reach the release area.
Price: All the events listed above are free with the exception of the Lantern Floating Ceremony, which is free to watch, but costs 600 yen if you wish to float a lantern.
Location: Peace Memorial Park, in downtown Hiroshima City.