Wandering – Photographing Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park

Atomic Bomb Dome

Some places demand silence. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. The endless rows of military graves in Europe. The remnants of the World War I trenches in France. The 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Others I haven’t seen or even heard of, equally important as the ones above to people touched by the events they evoke.

And there’s Hiroshima, synonymous with the unbelievable destruction mankind is capable of. Apart from one’s historical and political notions about the atom bomb that was first used in this city, a visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and Museum is something you won’t easily forget, even if you don’t take a single picture. Combine it with the excellent novel Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse to get a sense of what the bomb wreaked.

Yet, modern Hiroshima is also very much a city risen from the ashes, a tribute to the resilience of mankind in the face of utter destruction and terror. Around the park you’ll find a bustling city, not much to look at but vibrant and forward-looking.

So, you might find yourself in deep awe looking at the A-Bomb Dome one moment and sipping coffee in a coffeeshop adorned to the hilt with Beatles memorabilia a little later, with Beatles songs playing in an endless loop in the background. Or shopping for unique Japanese goods in one of the many stores along the tram line that took you to the park in the first place.

Still, this is a photography website. As expected, virtually of all Hiroshima was build after the war, is modern and not very appealing to look at. While there are a few other noteworthy places, you’d visit Hiroshima for the park and the museum.

The Place

You’re most likely to arrive by Shinkansen (Japan’s excellent bullet trains) at Hiroshima’s central station. We made it a day trip from Kyoto, where we stayed for about a week. On a previous visit, we stopped for a few hours on our way from Kyoto to Fukuoka. From the station, you take tram line 2 or 6 to Genbaku Dome-mae (Atomic Bomb Dome). They’ll announce the stop in English.

Once you step outside of the tram and cross the street, you’re right in front of one of the most recognizable structures in the world, one that features in countless history books: the Atomic Bomb Dome, virtually the only building that wasn’t completely flattened by the bomb, despite being only about a 110 yards (100 meters) away from the explosion’s hypocenter.

From there, you cross the river and enter the rest of the park. It’s filled with monuments, most importantly the eternal flame, the arch and the cenotaph containing the names of the more than 200,000 victims. There’s also the Children’s Peace Monument, adorned with colored paper cranes.

At the far end of the park is the museum, which houses scale models showing the city before and after the devastation, documents and historical artifacts and – most movingly – belongings that were wrecked in the explosion, including a twisted children’s tricycle.

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When to Go

We were there in early summer, when Hiroshima is hot and humid. The park and museum can be visited throughout the year (with the exception of the museum closing for a few days around New Year). Weather-wise, spring and autumn are the best times to visit. In spring, you’ll get the added benefit of blossoming cherry trees in the park. The museum’s opening hours vary by season.

Shooting There

This is one of those places where what and how you shoot really depends very much on what kind of photographer you are. After the snapshots – a bit eerie considering the place – you can go for documenting the monuments, their details, the cityscape beyond the park and wide or narrow views of the park. In short, you can try to capture the sense of the place as an enormous memorial. Its essence, in a way.

To do this without having other visitors interfere with your shots, you will most likely need to come early or late in the day, espcecially if you want wide shots, because the place can be crowded. Or you use telelenses to zero in on details and ignore the people.

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My own habit, as you might have guessed by looking through a bunch of images on this site, is to shoot upward over the heads of others. I like clouds, I believe part of photography is the art of leaving things out, so I just point my camera to the sky and isolate the subject from its surroundings. I generally take multiple images with varying exposure value settings, so I can later decide which is the best combination of good light on the foreground and proper exposure of the background, without blown highlights. I don’t do HDR, but I guess you could if you’re so inclined.

That’s one way of shooting here.

The other one is to document what the place is actually like today, not merely on what it evokes about the past. Of course, these approaches aren’t mutually exclusive.

In my case, this latter approach was almost thrown into my lap. There were Japanese schoolchildren all over the place, filling the museum with their yellow caps and notebooks, seriously taking notes of the exhibits. There was a rock band shooting a video across the river from the Dome. How could I not use these to attempt to link the horrendous past with the optimistic present?

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Gear

As such, you can shoot here no matter what gear you brought. Your phone will be fine, if you want. Of course, if you want detail, a tele is better. If you want to cover the width of the park, a wide angle does the trick. That’s elemental.

Couple of small points, though. If you want to do the classic shot of the arch, cenotaph, flame and dome lined up, a pretty long tele is better. I’ve included an overview shot taken out of the museum to give you a sense of the place.

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In the museum, it’s helpful to have a camera with good performance at higher ISOs and/or a lens/camera that’s image-stabilized. The use of a flash is not allowed (although there was a professional Japanese photographer accompanying one of the school trips who had a permit to use flash). My outdoor shots were taken at various apertures and ISOs. My indoor shots were taken at ISO 1600 and f/2.8.

I had brought my Olympus OM-D E-M1 with the Olympus 12-40mm/f2.8 zoom and the Olympus 75mm/f1.8 tele (the equivalents of 24-80mm and 150mm in full frame). This combo worked well and wasn’t too heavy to carry in the humidity of Hiroshima in the summer.

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Wrap Up

Even if you don’t plan to take a single picture, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum should be on your itinerary for Japan. Put it on your bucket list, if you have one (I don’t).

If you go, first give yourself enough time to both take in the museum and the history of the place without wondering too much about the images you’ll take home. Next, wander around to your heart’s content and capture that what makes the place stand out for you.

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This is one of a series of ‘Wanderings’ postings about photographing in various locations. Please feel free to add your own experiences in the comments.

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