Hiroshima: beyond the Memorial Museum

by Ian Cook

It's right to acknowledge Hiroshima's past – but not to dwell on it. The hectic, joyful city with a strong food culture is an hour from the Miyajima temples and accessible from Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo

A visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Park and Memorial Museum is usually the first stop for visitors to the city (see www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp for details). It’s a sobering and often uncomfortable reminder of the horrors of war and atomic weapons, and the A-bomb Dome stands as a stark visual record of the destruction caused. Much has been done to ensure that the events of World War II are never forgotten and the museum and surrounding area alone are worthy of a day’s visit.

The Memorial Museum also focuses on the the rapid rejuvenation of the city and the resilience of its people. As a result, Hiroshima is much more than a shrine to an atomic attack and, like most Japanese cities, contrasts beauty and tranquillity with hip, hectic urban culture.

It is also fairly compact (at least by Japanese standards) and travelling around is made even easier by a cheap and efficient tram network. Pick up a free tram map and guide to the city at the main train station; this also has useful information about restaurants and bars in the area (see Where to eat, below). As well as covering the city of Hiroshima, the tram network will take you out to the port where ferries run regularly to the beautiful island of Miyajima, a World Heritage site famous for its temple complex surrounded by water at high tide.

Just under an hour on the tram from central Hiroshima, and a further 15 minutes on the ferry, Miyajima can easily be done as a day trip. However, those wishing to experience a true taste of Japanese luxury should spend a night at one of the pricey ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) on the island, where you can treat yourself to some exquisite food and relaxing onsen (hot spas).

Hiroshima is easly accessed by shinkansen (bullet train) from Osaka and Kyoto, but even if you're based in Tokyo it's worth considering. While it's perfectly possible to squeeze Hiroshima into a day or a one-night stopover, with so much on offer in the city and the surrounding area, a short break of a few days could easily be filled.

Hiroshima's sad past must never be forgotten – and the Memorial Museum alone is reason enough to visit. However, there is also plenty of joy to be found in Hiroshima, with friendly and hospitable locals and a real celebration of good food. It's a reminder of just how rewarding Japan can be if you find time to explore beyond Tokyo and Kyoto.

Where to eat

As I mentioned, the people of Hiroshima take particular pride in their local cuisine. The area is renowned for its oysters – on offer throughout the city itself and on just about every restaurant menu in Miyajima. If you’re a purist who likes nothing more on fresh oysters than a squeeze of lemon, you won’t be disappointed. However, in a country famous for eating raw fish, it may come as a surprise that oysters are often served hot, either barbecued in their shells or deep-fried in crispy batter – arguably a much more pleasant way to enjoy these love ‘em or hate ‘em shellfish.

Hiroshima also has a popular local hangout called Okonomiyaki Village (from Hatchobori tram stop in the city centre, either follow your nose or look for the neon sign spanning the street). It's a run-down, multi-storey restaurant building, full of salary men enjoying a beer and a smoke after a long day in the office – but don’t let that put you off. Once inside, diners select the chef, menu and/or bar they like the look of, then sit at a long hot-plate where the okonomiyaki (or Hiroshima-yaki, if you want to keep it local) is cooked in front of them.

Difficult to describe, okonomiyaki is essentially a savoury pancake with shredded cabbage, spring onion and meat or fish toppings of your choice, found throughout Japan but a particular favourite here. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is something quite appealing about cheap and incredibly fresh food being cooked and served up as you watch.

Eating and drinking go hand-in-hand at Okonomiyaki Village, and the locals are always curious about how foreign visitors will cope with the food on offer. At the end of your meal, you might even find that you have made yourself a friend or two from among the salary men.

For those who prefer a more traditional food-on-table approach to dining out, there is no end of bars and restaurants from which to choose. You could do worse than visit the Finsbury Park bar on the edge of the city. To find it, head south along the river (on the east side) until you reach Meijibashi (Meiji Bridge). You'll find Finsbury Park on a side street close to this bridge – and if there is a Hiroshima Carp baseball game showing on the large screen at the back, you will probably hear the place before you see it.

Its friendly owner enjoyed his trip to North London so much, he decided to name his establishment after one of its tube stations. Here, you can enjoy fresh fish, tofu and a small selection of other Japanese dishes, washed down with plenty of beer and a healthy dose of Hiroshima hospitality. 

Where to stay

Hotel accommodation in Hiroshima ranges from budget to five-star. Good-value rooms are available at places such as the Comfort Hotel which has small, simple bedrooms but is spotlessly clean and throws in a simple buffet breakfast. The ANA Crowne Plaza, with its plush rooms and prime location a stone's throw from the Peace Park and central Hiroshima, is a good choice if you want a more luxurious stay.

In addition, there is a wealth of reasonably priced hostels, including J-Hoppers (http://hiroshima.j-hoppers.com) where booking in advance is definitely advisable. Remodelled from a former ryokan, the Hiroshima hostel has retained its Japanese character and is a five-minute walk from the Peace Park and Memorial Museum and a 10-minute walk from downtown. Dormitory rooms cost 2,300 yen (about £14) a night and a private room 3,000 yen. Internet access and bike hire are both available.