Hiroshima hopes to attract more tourists after Obama's historic visit

When President Obama visits Hiroshima on May 27, the city that was devastated by an atomic bomb in 1945 may surprise the world. Seventy-one years later, Hiroshima is a modern, vibrant city with gorgeous green parks, leafy boulevards and a bucolic riverfront.

The more than a million people who live here go about their lives much as we do: They work, they send their kids to school and they cheer for their beloved baseball team, the Carp. They cruise along the Honkawa River, they go shopping, they relax in karaoke bars in the neon-lit city center and they explore museums, including the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan’s first municipal modern art museum.

According to statistics from Japan’s national tourism agency, about 363,000 tourists visited Hiroshima in 2012. And the city is drawing more crowds each year. In 2014, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum saw a record 234,360 foreign visits to that site alone.That same year, the city saw 657,000 visitors total. By contrast Tokyo, receives well over 400,000 foreigners monthly, but Hiroshima is much smaller.

But Nori Akashi of the Japan National Tourism Organization, says Hiroshima is growing in popularity as a destination among different generations for different reasons.

“The post-war generations are very interested in that part of human history,” Akashi says. But younger generations are increasingly interested in the unique cuisine—in Hiroshima, locals add udon noodles to okonomiyaki, a type of savory pancake—or seeing how the city has evolved by visiting the Mazda Motors factory for a tour.

Making Hiroshima's world famous okonomiyaki:

But even today, Hiroshima faces the challenge of changing the worldwide perception that it is a “sad city,” tourism official Norio Shiotani told me in his office last summer. “The image people have is very different from what is here today,” he said. “Our focus is on peace.”

Lonely Planet ranked Japan as its No. 2 pick for tourists this year because of the nation’s mix of ancient and modern, which applies to Hiroshima as much as Tokyo and other cities.

Now officials hope Obama’s visit, the first by an American president in office, will encourage tourism to Japan and provide a fresh look at Hiroshima.

The area is home to the Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the small island of Miyajima whose red torii gate is often photographed at high tide, when it seems to float on the water. Miyajima, which can be reached by ferry, also has places to hike and souvenir outlets.  It’s a good counterpoint to Hiroshima’s other World Heritage Site — the Atomic Bomb Dome, which is all that was left of an industrial promotion hall after the crew aboard the Enola Gay dropped the A-bomb directly above it. The dome has been preserved as it was after the bombing, a stark reminder of the horrors of war.

Tourists typically linger longer at the several other memorials in Peace Memorial Park, including the Flame of Peace, which won’t be extinguished until the last nuclear weapon has been destroyed.

There’s also the Children’s Peace Monument, which was inspired by Sadaku Sasaki, an 11-year-old girl who developed leukemia in 1955. She wanted to fold 1,000 origami paper cranes — the crane is a symbol of longevity in Japan — during her illness, but she died before she could complete the task. Her classmates did, though, and today you’ll often see strings of paper cranes that were left by youngsters who visited on school trips.

You can learn more about Sadaku and her legacy at the Peace Memorial Museum, parts of which are undergoing renovation. Its exhibits — from a stopped watch to a tricycle, from spectacles to a child’s backpack — show how everyday life ended in a flash on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. More than 140,000 people were killed instantly, and 350,000 others were exposed to radiation. Thousands more died in the weeks and years afterward.

The museum is powerful, and – much like the 9/11 Museum and Memorial in New York City – many may find it hard to visit. But it also explains the importance of seeing what life in Hiroshima is like today.

The city is a culinary delight, offering everything from oysters to its famous okonomiyaki that includes items cabbage, pork, fish and cheese and is topped with noodles and fried egg. The delicacy is easy to find, as there are more than 2,000 okonomiyaki restaurants in Hiroshima — including more than two dozen at Okonomimura, where each has its own seasonings.

Make sure to douse with the distinctive sauce!

We experienced the lesson of Hiroshima’s haunting past when we visited kids in their navy and white uniforms at Honkawa Elementary School, where “[f]rom the first grade, we are teaching our kids how to express peace in the world,” said the headmaster, Kazunari Kono.

In 1945, more than 400 children and staff were killed instantly at the school, which was close to the epicenter of the blast, and some were buried under what is now the playground. There is a small Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum in the basement.

“We don’t want what happened here to happen again,” said Miko Uno, 12, whose family has lived in Hiroshima for generations but never discusses the bomb. “No one talks about it,” Miko said.

“Hiroshima represents peace today, added her friend, Amber Whaley, the daughter of a U.S. Marine and a Japanese woman. “Come here and think about peace,” she said.

Let’s hope that message resonates anew after President Obama’s visit.