It was 10:24 PM by the time I made it to the Dome. It was a less than 15-minute walk from my hotel. The streets were still lively and loud, the neon signs advertising karaoke joints and okonomiyaki restaurants were welcoming and friendly. Oneesan, spend your money here! But the closer I walked to the Dome, the flashing lights twinkled and faded, and the hustle and bustle of car horns, tram engines, and general revelers subdued to murmurs. By the time it was 10:24 PM there was nothing but silence, like slipping underneath the ocean one wave at a time.
You can’t miss the Dome. Whether it is daylight or nighttime, the Dome invades the skyline, reminding you of its ugly history like a hungry tumor that refuses to be expunged or die. As unnerving as it was during the day, it felt like a suffocating nightmare at night. Everything was quiet, and still, the theatrical lights illuminating the building from the inside out highlighted its garish features cruelly and honestly.
I’d brought my camera to take pictures but immediately felt like a CSI or – even ruder and invasive – a paparazzo at the scene of a horrible meltdown. I snapped a few shots. Adjusted my lens. Changed perspective. I moved around to the well-lit river side to escape the nightmare watching me from the darkness. I took a few more shots, still feeling incredibly paparazzi-ish. Then I saw it.
A mass was sitting atop one of the massive lights inside the belly of the Dome. At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me; then I was startled – I’d seen a few maintenance workers walking the perimeter of the Dome and thought one had gone inside. However the more I watched I came to realize it was a visitor of the feline sort.
A cat, trying to find the warmest spot he could find, had settled down on top of the light to bunker down for the night. I thought of alerting someone. Should a cat really be in there? Is it safe in there? What if he knocks over some bricks or something falls on him and gets hurt? But then I realized: This cat has probably gotten up close and personal with the Dome many times before. Besides, who would I alert? It was already well after 10:30 at night.
Admittedly, I watched this little cat for an embarrassingly long amount of time. I’d come all this way to see the Dome at night, and I let myself get side-tracked by a cat. He didn’t do anything. He sat perched on the light as if it were his throne, and the Dome his castle. He was lounging, completely relaxed. His little heartbeat was beating inside his own chest as he sat inside the empty cavity of the building that once was. It was once the site of industrial promotion within the prefecture; now it stands as the Genbaku Dome, a memorial to the 140,000 people who died in the flash of an explosion. And his little heart was still beating. The dichotomy between this cat’s behavior and how I felt because of Hiroshima was nearly maddening.
It is easy to be overwhelmed. It is difficult to imagine how the metropolitan city thriving under your sneakers was once a desolate graveyard. It is difficult to imagine the sheer number of souls that were lost that day, and the many, many more lost in the following days, weeks, months and years. It is difficult to stomach when you see the tricycle a little boy had ridden that day rusted and sad, and then read the placard beside it telling you its full story and how it came to be a part of a collection in a museum. It is difficult to understand the complex story behind all of the artifacts, stats and quotes from key players trying to explain “why” it happened. Twice. It is difficult to envision standing up again were I in the same situation.
But all living things have the inherent will to survive, to struggle against death and spit in its eye. It’s how we’ve evolved. It’s what Darwin predicted. If you are a religious man, it’s the desire to protect the most precious gift He has granted. And in spite of all things, Hiroshima is living. It’s a living, breathing organism that continues to move forward every day. But far from accepting the explainable, easily asinine “moving on” sentiments, Hiroshima will never forget. Even in the nearly 70 years since the bombing, the scars are still fresh – you can tell every time you look at the Dome. At its warped iron like broken bones, its drab and gray concrete walls like rotting flesh. The broken brick-organs spill out of the windows and doorways. The vaporized human remains are enshrined there forever, chasing the rainwater out of the lifeless building and onto the lawn to help the grass grow. It gives a home to a little cat trying to stay warm on a chilly February night.
When it comes to Hiroshima, nothing I say will be adequate. I can’t reason or explain away the events of that day. I can’t be stretched across sides and choose what’s right and what’s wrong. All I know is that Hiroshima has left me with incredible a weight of loss and longing, but also a sense of hope I’ve never experienced before. It is my sincerest hope that I never know what it is like to face the brute force of an atomic weapon at my doorstep. It is my sincerest hope that none of you ever experience such a thing in your lifetime. Nothing I say will ever be adequate. Hiroshima has given me something that pangs in my chest like a heartbeat and won’t let go.
This was originally written after my first trip to Hiroshima, Japan, in February 2013.