Freeman Asia 2018 Travel Diary

25 June 2019

At the end of May, one of the WFC board members, Tachibana-san invited me to visit a social welfare center in the area that had a history with zainichi Koreans, which was one of my fields of interest in Japanese studies. Tachibana-san had worked in the daycare at the center, and he was able to arrange for the director of the center to give us a tour of the facility and tell us about its history. By the end of the meeting, my interest was piqued and I offered to volunteer at the center once a week. My first Friday at the center was a bit overwhelming and I was very nervous as no one spoke English, so I was forced to rely on my own Japanese skills. I worked with first and third-grade students in the after school program and I found that I was so nervous that I often couldn’t communicate with them in Japanese. Most of the children were shocked by my appearance and multiple students asked me whether I was Japanese and were even more shocked when I replied that I was America. They were very shy when approaching me and whispered “gaijin,” or ‘foreigner’ in small groups. Slowly, a group of girls became comfortable around me and they began to ask various questions about my family and flying on an airplane while pawing my blonde hair and staring at my blue eyes. My second Friday at the center was noticeably more relaxed as everything and everyone finally looked familiar to me. I even found that I was much more comfortable speaking Japanese as well. Granted, these were first and third-grade students, but my comprehension of their fast-face Hiroshima dialect had significantly improved.

Additionally, on the third Thursdays of both May and June, Yovana, Barb, Dannie, and several WFC board members volunteered at a hibakusha retirement home. The first day at Mutsumien was enjoyable because both Yovana and I were able to introduce ourselves in Japanese on the stage and then we were able to watch Hawaiian hula dancing by a local amateur troop. For June, the chairwoman of the WFC, Michiko-san asked us to prepare a small activity for the members of the retirement home. Naturally, Yovana and I decided on bingo, which is an enjoyable game for people of all ages. We prepared three small prizes for the winners and had a lot of fun shouting out the numbers in Japanese and cheering for the winners. The grannies were so excited when they won their WFC pens as they weren’t expecting anything as a reward.

As we began our last week in Hiroshima, Yovana and I both found it difficult to imagine going home when we were so in love with Hiroshima. The people we have met here have made everlasting impressions and the history we have learned here will continue to persuade us into peace activism in our communities back in the States. I have grown a lot during this internship and am eternally grateful for the opportunity I have been granted and I will work hard not to squander it.

18 June 2019

Since the construction work on the iconic torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima was pushed back until the 17th, Yovana and I made the journey to the scenic island for the second time in as many weeks. This time, however, we took a cable car to the top of Mt. Misen instead of touring the town and were astounded by the beautiful scene of Hiroshima and the surrounding islands on this wonderfully clear day. The cable car was stable, but my irrational fear of heights made me rattle the car and startle myself on several occasions. We had opted to purchase a one-way ticket and hike down Mt. Misen, a distance of 1.5 kilometers. Thus, after we finished our photo shoot at the top of Mt. Misen, we made the trek down Momijidani Trail. This trail is smaller than the main trail and Yovana and I were able to enjoy the hike in the relative silence of nature. The hike was steep in certain places and I fell and very nearly twisted my ankle at one point and almost tripped over my own feet on several occasions.

Yovana and I were entrusted with an important responsibility during our fifth week in Hiroshima. The co-directors had planned to take this weekend off and left Yovana and me in charge, and we were very honored by their trust in our abilities. Barb and Dannie left on Saturday morning, but Yovana and I prepared breakfast for nine people all by ourselves. Luckily, Leona and Maila, along with their mother, Mirei, were staying at the WFC for a performance that weekend and were able to help relieve our anxiety and took some of the pressure of being in charge. We were able to prepare breakfast with no problems and had incredible discussions with our Californian guests during the meal. The easy-going nature of this group of guests was a great relief for everyone, and we were able to proceed with the weekend with minimal issues. The groups’ scheduled hibakusha survivor, Soh-san gifted us with his handmade fans and handcrafted wooden pencils made from his own cheery trees. His generosity exemplifies the overall compassion and generosity everyone at the WFC has shown us. Yovana and I have taken to calling the board members of the WFC our sweet grannies because they constantly spoil us with fun conversations and stop in to give us fruits and sweet treats.

In addition to our Monday and Tuesdays at Shudo University, we also join in on a WFC English class on Wednesdays. I have been particularly impressed time and time again with the proficiency and fluency these students demonstrate every class. Their class begins with a presentation made by one of the students, which oftentimes includes a history of post-war Hiroshima or their family member’s experiences during the bombing in English. This class, in particular, maintains a mandatory break where they serve tea and they share snacks with one another. The second half of the class includes the reading of an autobiographical account of Shinzo Hamai, the mayor of Hiroshima that fought for reconstruction, again in English. I find that this type of learning is especially effective in helping students with the retention of new vocabulary and comprehension. In fact, I have become so inspired by this technique that I am planning on purchasing a couple of Japanese books and trying to translate and read these novels on my own.

11 June 2019

We’ve been in Hiroshima for about four weeks, which feels incredibly surreal. Yovana and I were confronted with the shocking reality that this was not just a few weeks in Japan, but rather a month-and-a-half. We had been in Hiroshima for so long and accomplished so much, yet we were only halfway done, there was much more to do and see. We attended a class party at a Korean restaurant in the most popular department store in Hiroshima and were able to get to know the first-year English department students at Hiroshima Shudo University. Though we had only met this class once before, we all had an incredibly fun time getting to know one another in a casual setting. Afterward, with Yovana dressed in a traditional yukata, we headed out to meet Leona and Maila Tashiro for the annual Hiroshima toukasan festival. Leona and Maila’s family has worked with the WFC since their grandparent’s generation and the fifteen-year-old students welcomed Yovana and me with open arms. Toukasan is a summer festival in Hiroshima that is celebrated by taiko drum performances at a large shrine. The festival is also the first opportunity in the summer season for men and women to don their yukata and kimono robes for the first time. Youko Mimura, one of the sweetest ladies on the WFC board was able to loan Yovana a traditional yukata for the festival. Later in the week, she brought several of her own kimono and dressed the two of us up with traditional skill and precision.

In terms of our weekly duties at the WFC, we continued to prepare and serve breakfast to our guests and sat in on over ten hibakusha survivor testimonials.

These testimonials detail accounts of the same humid early-August morning seventy-three years ago, but the experiences of each hibakusha and the lessons and challenges they confronted all manifested in different ways. Their powerful and emotional stories forced me to realize the importance of denuclearization movement. When I was learning about the Pacific Theater of WWII in high school, I was under the impression that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were irrevocably necessary to bring an end to a decade of war in Asia. During a discussion in history class, I had even taken the side of the American government and stated that the bombing had been necessary. The real problem for most Americans is that education about the end of WW2 is incredibly biased. The Japanese citizens are painted as ferociously devoted to their emperor and their militarist government that, in the case of an American invasion, the women and children would attack American soldiers with bamboo spears. America argues that millions of young American lives would have been taken in the fight for Japan and they claim that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are demonstrations of what would have happened to all of Japan. In history textbooks, there is little to no mention of the fire-bombing of the two dozen largest cities in the months leading up to American encroachment of Japan. During these bombings, hundreds of B-24s and B-29s razed cities to the ground until they resembled the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that textbooks like to point to as a demonstration of American power. The difference between the fire and atomic bombings is that the latter was carried out by a single bomb, rather than thousands of them. These history books also fail to mention that the American navy had completely encircled Japan, preventing the import and export of valuable resources for their citizens and soldiers on both sides. Though students were mobilized to farm food and other resources in the countryside and were often trained to resist possible invasion with bamboo spears, Japan was starving and women and children were dying from malnutrition at the time of the atomic bombing. Furthermore, the physical devastation of the atomic bombings, not including the unknown devastation of radiation poisoning, was almost identical to the thirty other large cities in Japan that were firebombed. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I have learned, were not as conclusive of Japanese defeat as our history books claim. The radiation, which effects come later, is the most devastating outcome of nuclear warfare and nuclear disasters.

The resilience of the hibakusha, and the rest of Japan after the war, was particularly inspiring to me. Though the bombing and its effects were harrowing, the survivors survived because they were all able to find something and someone to continue living for. I believe that such devastation is an important piece of survivors, but it does not consume their entire soul, there are many more pieces that create who they are and how they choose to live their lives. All the hibakusha have maintained that they wish for worldwide peace and for complete global denuclearization, not to compensate themselves but in order to prevent more people, more innocents, from suffering from the inevitable devastation of nuclear weapons and nuclear disasters present.

4 June 2019

We began our third week in Hiroshima by participating in third and fourth-year English classes at Hiroshima Shudo University. Our supervising professor is Jim Ronald, an English professor from East London that has been living and teaching in Japan for thirty-three years. That early Tuesday morning was stressful and busy as I woke up around six am to begin getting ready for the day before Yovana and I were expected to set up breakfast. This morning had also been the official beginning of the rainy season in Japan and the humidity was stifling and uncomfortable. While we were able to quickly help with breakfast, we ate quickly so we could make it to the Astramline Train Station in Hondori on time. Despite our hopes and wishes, the rain that had been non-stop that night did not let up by the time we were ready to leave and we were forced to walk in the heavy downpour. We only get fifteen minutes into our walk to the station before our feet were soaked and we hailed a taxi to drive us to the station. Fortunately, taking the taxi was a brilliant idea on our first day making this trip because it gave us a cushion of time to figure out how to buy our tickets. We got on our train on time, though our appearance was frazzled and our hair was frizzy from the humidity. Jim met us at the last stop fifteen minutes before our first class of the day, and we walked uphill for over half a mile before we finally arrived at the largest private university in Hiroshima prefecture. Yovana and I were impressed at the modernity of the architecture and the novelty technology available to the students, and I couldn’t help comparing it to IWU. Jim had the class separated into three groups and Yovana, Jim, and I were placed in each group to converse with the English majors about our respective family immigration histories. Everyone that I met was a touch shy at first but as we all gradually become more comfortable with one another and were able to hold great conversations. After our morning class, three students joined Yovana, Jim, and I for lunch. The night before Yovana and I attempted to hand-make maki sushi rolls, but once we tasted them at lunch we were disappointed and disgusted at the lack of flavor. However, we had purchased a few bags of sweets to share with the students, and we were both grateful for the sweet and flavor reprise we were able to end our lunchtime meal with. The afternoon class was held in a similar fashion, but the students had actually prepared notes on their senior research projects and they were able to share those with us. I was listening to the students’ informal presentations and was incredibly impressed with the diverse topics and research methods.

The weather this week has been very hot and so we avoid too much strenuous activity or walking long distances during the mid-afternoon. Our most productive and adventurous times are in the evening when we make the hike over to Hondori and Peace Park to explore cafes and the local nightlife. One night this week we wandered into a karaoke bar and Yovana had a hilarious singing competition and collaboration with a young Japanese man. They sang a beautiful rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Let It Go.” I didn’t have enough confidence in my singing ability to even think about picking up the microphone, but I may give it a go next time.

28 May 2019

Another week in Japan has come and gone, we have been able to qualm our tourist-tendencies and our exploration of our new home has quieted down. On Wednesday, Yovana and I ventured to our first Japanese fresh market. Interestingly enough, some of the items were affordable, while others were not. In one corner, this market had packaged bento lunch boxes and onigiri for 65 yen, about 70 cents, while the beef was extraordinarily expensive. On the other side of the market, the roundest, most perfect-looking melons was priced at a hefty 1000 yen, about 10 dollars.

This week we were able to seize the opportunity of a free day to make a long excursion to Hijiyama Park. The journey took us the entire distance of Peace Boulevard to reach the eastern side of the city to reach the park. I was in absolute awe of the escalators that took us up into the high hills of the park. The hour-long walk to the park had tired us out, and the escalators took us to the park twice as fast as our aching legs could have. The center of the park hosts the Contemporary Art Museum of Hiroshima and, as a result, there were sculptures hidden in between the trees in flat green spaces. We spent about two hours in Hijiyama Park before we left to walk up the river to a series of open-air cafes. There we enjoyed a cup of cool coffees each while gazing at the calm river that flows through such a large and bustling city. We continued on through the city until we came across the park and shrine surrounding Hiroshima Castle. By this time, the sun had set and the sound of drumming and traditional Japanese singing lulled us into the shrine. We ran into Barb and Dannie from the Center and learned that there was a small festival being hosted at the shrine that night. We were gifted the incredible opportunity to see shrine priestesses dance and then make a sacrificial offering before the god of the shrine. By the end of that day, Yovana and I had covered a distance of over ten miles and we had walked around 20,000 steps. This had been the most rigorous walking day of our six-week internship.

Now that we have had the time to see the major tourist sections of the city, we spent more time walking into smaller shops on the side streets. I had avoided walking through small alleys and side streets in the fear that I would get lost, but with a better understanding of the city’s layout, I was more confident in walking through minor streets. The weather this week was hot and humid, so we worked at the Center in the mornings to avoid sweating from the sweltering heat. Our afternoons were thus spent being productive by working in distant cafes to get our weekly assignments done.

Since we were able to purchase fresh ingredients, we began cooking to save our money. We’ve taken advantage of the Center’s rice cooker and have been continuing our Japanese diet in that regard. Since beef and chicken is more expensive than in the US, we have been cooking with pork and seafood instead.

This upcoming week will be busy as we will begin our assistance in English classes at Shudo University in west Hiroshima.

21 MAY 2019

It has been less than a week since I have arrived in Hiroshima, and I am in love with the city. Yovana and I set out for Hiroshima last Sunday night and after twenty hours of travel, we arrived in Hiroshima on Tuesday afternoon. Our first task after arriving at Hiroshima Airport was to find a bus that would take us to Hiroshima Station and we wandered around the small airport until we found the ticket station. After a forty-minute bus ride that gave us our first photo opportunity of the mountains surrounding Hiroshima, we found ourselves just outside the taxi depot and struggled to find a taxi large enough to fit our large pieces of luggage. Since Hiroshima is a small city, we were able to get across town within ten minutes and we finally arrived at the World Friendship Center in southwest Hiroshima. As we were getting out of our taxi, we were greeted by the cheerful chairwoman of the Board of Directors at the WFC, Yamane Michiko. After quick introductions to the co-directors and the many volunteers, we were sent to unpack, relax, and get acclimated to our new home. We both decided showers were long overdue after our many hours of travel and we took about two hours to relax and nap before heading to the main building of the Center to meet with Barbara Shenk, one of the co-directors. We sat down together in the kitchen and looked over a tourist map of Hiroshima to learn where in Hiroshima we were staying and she gave us some directions for how to move around the city based on the Center’s location.

Armed with our maps, Yovana and I set off to the heart of the city, Peace Memorial Park, that afternoon and we were in awe of the beauty that was able to grow in a place that was marred by such a devastating event. On our way, we stopped into 7-Eleven and Yovana took a risk and bought a salmon onigiri rice ball, which she ended up enjoying very much, while I bought myself a wonderful butterscotch bread roll (which I may have bought once or more times over the next several days). We took a peaceful stroll through the park and took in the powerful monuments and had a meaningful discussion on the effects of the atomic bombing on August 6th, 1945. As we continued on from the park we made it to Hondori Arcade Avenue and were astounded by the dazzling lights and sheer volume of shops and restaurants. The entryways of popular restaurants were covered in beautiful greenery that was very enticing for newbie Hiroshima tourists like us.

After our short exploring endeavor, we returned to the center for dinner. There is a sweet neighborhood okonomiyaki restaurant right next to the Center with a friendly chef that was happy to serve American tourists a local delicacy. After we returned to our temporary room, we set up our traditional futon mattresses and settled down for the night. Impressively, we had been able to last until 10 pm after starting our day at 4:30 am after landing at Incheon Airport.

Our first morning was a relaxing one as we joined a large group of guests for a simple breakfast with some much-needed coffee served at 8 am. We heard that later that morning there was to be a special annual ceremony to commemorate the victims of the atomic bombing and those survivors that had passed away in this past year. In the center of Peace Memorial Park, there is a cenotaph containing the names of hibakusha survivors that had died instantly after the bombing or from the severe radiation effects in the years since the bombing. Every year the Hiroshima regional government uncovers the dozens of thick books containing the names of the deceased and allows the air to breeze through the pages to refresh the memories of the dead. The ceremony itself was beautiful to watch and the crowd that gathered was silent as the process unfolded, I think we were all struck by the memorial of so many deceased innocents. A local woman started a conversation explaining the service to Yovana and I, she stated that those pages contained over 300,000 names and this year they had added approximately five thousand new names.

Shortly after the ceremony, we rushed back to the WFC to make it to our first English conversation class. We introduced ourselves to the senior students and briefly conversed about random topics before reading a Hiroshima history novel. The group went around the table and read aloud a paragraph each with a pause in between each person so that the group could ask vocabulary and clarification questions. I found this method of learning English to be very effective as it opened up the students to a broad vocabulary and made their proficiency stronger. The feeling in the classroom was like a casual book club, and I really enjoyed the English discussion.

Our next class the following day was a cheerful one filled with extroverted and eager Japanese ladies. This class was more casual as the class included many WFC board members, so we listened to the class talk about how they initially became involved in the Center. It was incredibly interesting to learn about the various backgrounds of the students and Yovana and I were very impressed with everyone’s English proficiency. After class, we joined Barb and a few of the students for a monthly trip to visit a hibakusha retirement home to enjoy a hula-hoop performance and publicly introduce ourselves in Japanese to the community.

Our first weekend in Hiroshima was mostly spent working at the bed & breakfast in the mornings and exploring the city in the afternoon and early evening. Although we were able to sleep in for the next few days, we helped clean out the guest house as the Center transitioned from one large college group to another one we were expecting later that week. We walked five to ten miles each day and ate far too much onigiri for lunch and enjoyed local restaurantsI was able to enjoy local soba and ramen bowls.  On Saturday we were able to attend a monthly WFC board meeting where we again introduced ourselves in Japanese. I was fairly proud of myself for being able to understand about sixty percent of the dialogue during the hour-long meeting. We were met with some heavy rain on Monday after, which we had planned out as a workday, and Yovana and I walked through the city in a torrential downpour.

On Tuesday we heard the founding story of the WFC and the biography of its founder, Barbara Reynolds. We also heard our first hibakusha story by the son of a Hiroshima government official that was working close to the hypocenter when the bomb was dropped and miraculously survived. It was a harrowing story to listen too, but we learned a great deal about the personal effects and trauma the innocent civilians of Hiroshima suffered during and after the atomic bombing. We were able to connect some of the events of the story with a book we had read during one of the WFC English classes, as rebuilding the city and people’s lives was a monumental task in the face of such disaster.

That afternoon we made the trip to Miyajima, one of the most beautiful islands on the Japanese coast and a huge tourist destination. Our journey to Miyajima meant that Yovana and I had to face public transportation for the first time in Hiroshima. We took a forty-minute streetcar ride of the ferry port that took us from the mainland to the island, it was a claustrophobic experience as we were crowded by the lunch rush. Once we made it on the ferrywhich was conveniently cheapwe began exploring the island. Our first stop was the famous torii gate that is the symbolic point between this world and the next on Miyajima. We were lucky to come to Miyajima on a strikingly low-tide day and we walked down the beach to look at the torii up close. We then toured Itsukushima Shrine before exploring some shops in town. After a much-needed ice cream break, we hiked up the mountain to see the view of the island before sunset and discovered a hidden Buddhist temple that was filled with gorgeous religious statues and lined with jizou statues.

Our first week in Hiroshima has been a wild one, filled with adventure and exploration. I cannot wait to continue to get to know the city in greater depth and learn more about its rich culture and history.