Hiroshima is a fun town.
That will sound odd, almost sacrilegious to those who know just one thing about the 1oth largest city in Japan: that the first atomic bomb used in warfare was dropped on it at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945.
But there's more to it than that.
I admit I was one of those The Place The Bomb Dropped people. Ten minutes after I dropped my bags at the RIHGA Royal Hotel (big, swank, with pillbox-capped bellhops muscling your bags into your room) I was hot-footing over to the Atomic Dome.
Like most iconic images you've seen all your life, the building looked smaller than it had loomed in imagination. Just the shell of a small building, a 1920s trade hall made eerie by having Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped from the belly of the Enola Gay,explode 600 yards above it, so that the blast came straight down and the walls were preserved.
But after that, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, some of the quietest room I ever walked through, jarring photos and melted glass bottles presented with a musty 1950a repetition and lack of modern curatorial verve. Lots of burned uniforms of middle school students—so many so it seemed a form of special pleading, as though to emphasize their own innocence; though I did note, with grim satisfaction, that one placard actually mentioned that Japan started the war, a rare bit of historical lucidity in a country often myopic to its own past crimes.
But touring the museum took 30 minutes. And then what? Turns out, there's great shopping in Hiroshima: which boasts an endless expanse of outdoor mall, with arching glass ceilings and colorful lights. There were candy shops and stationery shops, bookstores, department stores. My wife had expressed interest in fabric, and I popped into a kimono shop, where the roll of flowered cloth I thought would look nice on our wall cost only $2,500—or would, for someone who could afford to buy it. It was so beautiful I squinted and tried to imagine that maybe it would be a noble husbandly gesture to buy the thing, and only the thought of my wife being forced to murder me when I came home and bury the body where it would never be found stayed my hand.
My brother, who is traveling with me, and I paused in front of a place offering oysters, and considered a pre=dinner snack. But then we noticed the place served "whale bacon" for 720 yen, and while curiosity made us take one step toward the place, moral revulsion made us decide we didn't want to patronize them at all, not even for oysters. A good call, as we found a branch of Ohsho, whose ethereal gyoza have ruined the crescent-shaped dumpling for me anyplace else. For dinner, my brother insisted we try something called okanomayaki, a local favorite that looked to me like glop: noodles and seafood and egg and barbecue sauce all mashed up on a grill. I resisted at first, but he prevailed.
Heading back to our hotel, we raved about how refreshing Hiroshima was after the dense chaos of Tokyo, and my brother paid Hiroshima the ultimate honor.
"It's like Chicago," he said.