July 5 – Hiroshima

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Having consulted Lonely Planet, we took the courtesy bus to the railway station and passed through it, from the North to the South exit to find Aiyu-ichiba market, a recommended cheap eating spot, which exit happened also to lead to the baseball stadium where hundreds of Carp supporters seemed to be heading. Carp of course is the local team. Red, they were playing someone in pink. I asked a taxi-door-opener, in his chauffeur hat and pristine white shirt, where is Aiyu-ichiba. He pointed to a fence surrounding a building site and in perfect Engish said, “Aiyu-ichiba. But there’s nothing there. It’s ground zero.” Where then might we find somewhere good to eat? He told us to try floors 2 or 6 of the railway station building.

Baseball fans were beginning to throng floor 2 and the okonomiyaki hotplates were warming up through the five or six places which did that and the bars were opening up and we did a quick tour to find somewhere to suit. We had good memories of the simple fare from Tsujiki, rice bowl, raw fish, so chose the place that did the closest kind of thing. This place also served oysters. Floor 6 was taken by one, a more serious looking, restaurant. We took our place in the queue for the oyster place behind four ladies of a certain age from Hiroshima who said we are a beautiful family. Poor dears mustn’t be able to tell us gaijin apart.

After a short wait, during which the diminutive waiting staff filed in, three girls, we got a table for san and very soon placed our order. First a breakfast tray arrived, with miso, rice, egg custard with mushrooms, octopus and green things, sashimi and cooked fish. Next a tray with sashimi, kimchi on rice, with a huge miso for J., then thick salmon sashimi for Z., followed by six oysters cooked in a crunchy batter, with more rice, and then garlic rice with prawns, octopus and squid, and another flavoured rice for Z. along with extra miso and extra cups of green tea. Oysters are a regional speciality, and even cooked they were good. It was a feast – a long way from ricebowl sashimi.

We rolled out in time to catch the midday tourist bus – free for JR Rail Pass-holders – pushing through the baseball fans, with their scarves and shirts, jackets and inflatable baseball bats in Carp’s red and white. Maybe a baseball game would’ve been cool. But being responsible tourists, we went to the peace museum, peace park, via Atomic Dome, one of the few structures left standing after the A-Bomb on 6 August 1945 at 8:15 am. Built by a Czech architect, the dome, in 1915, the ruins are preserved and roughly a quarter of the original building. The dome exists as skeletal remains.

The son of a survivor gave Z. and J. paper cranes and said his mother was pregnant with him when she met with the bomb. He had all sorts of sicknesses when he was growing up; she is not represented in the Peace Museum, for political reasons, he told them. We struck another political exhibition: a revisionist temporary wall of posters with clippings, information and photos. The US were here being held up for scrutiny and the point was raised, subsequently reinforced inside the Peace Museum, that the bomb was not dropped to end the war but to strategically hasten its end so that Japan fall to the Allies rather than the Soviets. 6 years the occupation lasted… Britain was given Hiroshima. … This outdoor exhibition also placed the bomb along a timeline of US intervention in the area dating back to the Sino-Japanese war, the Manchurian incident and the US bombing of Manila. This last has been laid at the feet of the Japanese but the poster pointed to the depletion of Japanese forces in Manila and their lack of fire-power; the US destroyed the place. And who, outside of Japan, thinks about the US bombardment of Tokyo as the equal to that suffered by any European city? Also confirmed inside the Peace Museum: the A-Bomb was used as a test-case and those wounded were treated as experimental subjects during the occupation rather than treated for their ailments – often they were given no medical help at all, but stripped and studied.

The scale of Peace Park and the Museum and flame – to be extinguished when the last of the world’s nuclear arsenal is destroyed – and the catafalque under the marble saddle-like arch where the names of those killed are enclosed – these all are impressive. We passed a non-descript grassy dome on the way through the park. We discovered later it holds the ashes of 70,000 people, 813 of whom remain unknown.

The museum starts with a cheesy piano-led theme-tune repeated over and over – like those forced refrains piped into shopping malls, played on train platforms to identify them or on buses – and from first to second floor we have the history of Hiroshima, the political rationale behind the bomb being (is this a euphemism?) dropped and pass without fanfare to the rebuilding: by 1958 Hiroshima had surpassed its previous size. I remarked that we’d been spared the gory bits. There’s a shop – the for-sale items looking unloved. Then a corridor with the deep rumble heard after or with the flash of detonation where a mock-up brick building with photographs in the window hills makes the corridor seem like we’re looking out on the devastation. The rumble continues.

We see the famous light-ray photos of shadows blasted onto buildings and footpaths, where people had been sitting, standing, or objects had caught the flash. We see fused objects, surfaces penetrated by flying glass-shards from the blast. We touch melted bottles, melted and fused ceramic roof-tiles. There’s a sign here saying, Safe to touch. We see hair from a boy who lost his and coughed up his internal organs. We see the charred big toenail and flakes of skin a mother kept to show her husband on his return – all that remained of their child. We see a tongue. We see a spine. We see shards of bone a wife discovered in her husband’s office chair when finally she could get in after the fires had died down. We see a tricycle and child’s metal helmet a father buried in the back garden, being unable to part with them. Later dug up, they were brought here. And we see the tiny paper cranes a dying girl folded with a needle to show her will to live.

Nuclear deterrence and a world balanced on that particular idiocy seems exactly a world away but J. and I grew up in that world. We had to visit Hiroshima some time. It’s harder to accept we are actually here than it has been in the other places we have so far visited. There is neither meaning to be got out of this history, nor message from the passing of the world to which it belonged. But I will think about this and maybe write a little more or make some work about it because something seems to be left unsaid, is perhaps unsayable – is a problem. Is it the idiocy subsequent to 1985 of world peace by global marketization?

We happened into Hon-Dori. I bought a hat. We caught the bus back to the Grand Prince and got ready to go out again for the show at Shimizu Gekijo theatre, starting at 6, finishing 9pm. Forewarned but we walked straight into the porn shop downstairs anyway and the guy probably used to redirecting foreigners steered us swiftly to the lift.

The theatre seats around 200, with wide aisles and good seats, a nice small theatre – banners on the walls for Shimizu Gekijo characters – who have loyal fans; some, as it turned out, among the audience tonight – and, oddly, a digital clock. I did check the time through the first two hours of a dialogue-heavy story. It seemed to be traditional. Set in the Edo period, with exquisite costumes and make-up and a set of nicely painted flats, these were obviously well-known characters, like panto or commedia dell’arte: a thief who turns out to be a young prince, a bumbling husband, a shrewish wife, a wise judge, an old trickster, and a love-child, possibly from the bumbling husband’s distant past come back to haunt him.

The players’ riffs and where their improvisations departed from the official version seemed – I can’t be sure, the language was so dense, and the action stop-and-speak – to get the biggest laughs. The performers are mic-ed; still, the vocal performances are outstanding – character work, with well-worked character traits and foibles. The lead matriarch is played by a male actor. She is brilliant. And the resemblance to panto continues to chase scenes, farcical in-one-door out-the-other gags, whacking with sticks routines – and a disarmingly casual attitude to corpsing. They all regularly set each other off into giggles. For us with no Japanese this offered a way in and when they laughed onstage we did too. The play could’ve been Shakespeare. Done the naïve way. The audience loved it, applauded every entrance. Many of them had brought their dinners. A few called out comments on the action.

The story resolved at the end of the third act. Intermission involved the lead still in costume and some helpers from the cast hawking merchandise from the stage and coming out into the audience to exchange fans, cards, pins, glossy magazines and other high-end items for cash. The lead, out of character, and with no preciousness about the resort to commerce, now wore yellow crocs under his kimono. A lot of the audience bought stuff. We had a look at the mag the ladies in front of us bought – mostly ladies in the audience: it featured glossy shots of characters that were not in the show. The reason was about to become clear.

Throughout the first part of the show something else seemed to be going on. Many of the ladies had brochures showing the actors we were seeing on stage but in different make-up and costumes. It was almost like they were voting on them, choosing and comparing their favourites. We attributed this to the fact that this show seems to be in repertoire, one of a series, playing non-consequetive nights, since it was clear the majority of the audience came regularly. The young woman with the two little kids was obviously a big fan, dragging her little kids in for the evening – better than television – and half of the way through the first act her husband arrived – maybe he’d been at the game? Or were all the men at a sex show downstairs, leaving the wives to indulge in this theatrical fantasy? And lust after unattainable men in frocks?

The music starts in, a mixture of trad and big beat. Curtain rises on a screen showing a trailer for … what is it? Samurai sword sequences, gorgeous kimonos and amazing cross-dressing – the frocks extraordinary and lots of posing. Posing. Posing. We wonder if the trailer is all there is to the next third of the show; we’d even considered leaving at the interval. Then the curtain falls. The vari-lights start spinning. The smoke machines and the fans make atmos. And charismatic samurai cross-dresser with naughty naughty eyes. Faux sword play. Support cast with black cozzies and fighting poles. A tightly choreographed little number. All to a massively pumped backing track, with a voice-over introducing … possibly the character, like “THE GREAT MIZAKI-DRAG-SWORD-GUY!”

This is the first. Each of the cast members from the previous ‘serious’ classical comedy has a number of personae. Each gets to wear lavish and exquisitely made kimonos, obis, wigs, with hand-props, a sword here, a paper umbrella there – and pose. Each has his and her own soundtrack – amped up high. The sound tech messes up the skinny guy’s drag entrance, so they go back in the number and start again. The make-up is flawless. It’s hyper-super-atomic drag Hiroshima style. And the costumes would make Gaultier weep.

Again, as in the dramatic section, there is audience interaction. The smise-eyes capture the ladies in their naughty twinkles and the ladies hoot and clack their clackers and every so often a character dips down so that the money-pins for sale in intermission can be put to use: somebody clips 1000 yen notes to the silk collar of the costume. The performers know who to hit with the naughty ray. And the action is lascivious and stylish. And I wonder if the women upstairs get a better deal than the men downstairs.

A full hour of incredible costumes, pumping theme-tunes, hooting, clacking, lights, smoke… The show was good at interval, now it’s great. The actors are gods, the actresses are divinity itself: what a great idea! We do a comedy-drama – and then, having shown off our wit, we unleash the full force of our beauty style and impeccable taste. What actor, what actress wouldn’t want to wear beautiful clothes, be made up to perfection, get her own theme, and feature in glossy merchandise?

It doesn’t stop. The performers are out in the foyer – after the finale with the feathers – to meet the fans, who snap their cellies, pay homage and even close there’s not an ounce of the illusion lost: the make-up is not theatrical; the costumes are perfectly finished. I shake the hands of samurai-drag. Now in white silk from the finale, he towers over me on his traditional wooden sandal heels. And even out on the street, there’s more: the matriarch-drag is back in his yellow crocs thanking the audience and being photographed with the younger cast-members arrayed around.

Unbelievable we have seen this for 1900 yen – and that with a third house there is such generosity from the performers – over 3 hours!

We dine at a nearby yakitori bar, kimo – chicken livers, basil chicken skewers – umai!, pork belly on rice and edamame. I have a cassis, sadly lacking in alcoholic punch but tasty; J. has a shochu. The taxi speeds us back to the Prince.