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Running in Hiroshima

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Hiroshima in 2011, a city built upon several islands of the Ota River delta. (AE, NGS)

It’s OK to wear black socks with white running shoes in Japan. That’s what I tell myself as I tighten my laces and head down the hall of my hotel. It’s not like I’m going to blend in anyway. The elevator agrees with me, chiding in Japanese soprano, mocking my last clean pair of socks.

I want to go running early—before it gets too hot; before the sidewalks get too busy with morning commuters—but already, I am too late. The workers appear like raindrops in the street—first one, then seven, then seventy-seven and then suddenly, a torrential flow, all dressed the same. There is an unwritten uniform in this country—dark pants, crisp white shirts. The office soldiers march daily in these same clothes, and all of them with ink black hair.

Then there’s me, a good foot taller then the moving mass, “blonde” and curly-haired, a foreign monster in sweaty shorts and mismatched t-shirt, always moving against the direction of pedestrian traffic, terrifying women and their tiny timid dogs, dodging old men with canes.

I wanted to see Hiroshima and I did. I traveled to the city whose infamy lies in school textbooks the world round. The history of places motivates us to move—to see where things happened and I wanted to see where it happened.

It happened one morning high above a doctor’s office. Ironically. I went to that office, I read the plaque that says, “This is where it happened,” I looked up at the blue sky right overhead and imagined how it happened.

I saw the atomic bomb dome—the skeletal remains of the city that was blasted away. Once the only landmark in a gray ash desert—today, it’s a green park plastered with UNESCO signs and surrounded by high gates to prevent grave robbers from stealing bits of atomic brick souvenirs.

A security guard paces back and forth, a man who makes living selling quotes to journalists, holding a fluorescent placard in English, that reads “In-Utero Survivor.”

I did not want to talk to him.

Now I’m running past all of these listed sights and memorials, my second time sightseeing, only much faster and more efficient. One foot hits the path, and a half-second later, the other. Hiroshima is a city of extra-wide boulevards and extra-large parks—a city perfect for running. I consider this as I wipe sweat from my face and push on—how of all the cities in Japan, Hiroshima might be the best one for running.

I sprint the length of Peace Park, my pulse quickening as I pass one memorial to the dead, then another.  As a runner, I am nonchalant and irreverent.  I think up a tour guide script to myself, “The official tourist sites of Hiroshima now suffer the long-term after-affects of the unfortunate architectural period that occurred in the mid-1950s.”

The most horrid of these memorials is a kind of empty concrete tower, plastered with glitzy shards meant to shine in the sun. I run past it in two seconds but remember the day before.

As part of what might be the world’s most depressing walking tour, my guide had taken me to that spot and shared the story of the 8,000 junior high school students who were out laboring on the morning it happened. 6,000 of them died, many of them instantly, others far too slowly.

She had many facts to share, but in my mind I only saw innocent 12- and 13-year-old children. I got teary. I couldn’t talk anymore. In her very Japanese way, my guide politely turned away and let me, a grown man, cry.

But now it is a new day and I am running through the city. I must shower and shave and dress and eat breakfast—I need to catch a train. I stop at a traffic light and catch my breath, hiding my eyes from the sun. I check my watch: 8:11 a.m.

I realize it’s morning, almost the same time. I run four minutes longer, then stop at another traffic light and check my watch again: 8:15 a.m. That’s when it happened. 66 years ago. That’s when the sky turned red and the whole world changed.

But now the light’s green and I jog the last few blocks to my hotel. All the buildings are impersonal—the window washers have made them sparkle, but they are identical and forgettable.

I realize then, only after running, that Hiroshima is entirely unremarkable as a city. It is Anytown, Japan, just like anywhere else in the world where anything might happen any day of the week. Only this is where it happened and why Hiroshima became remarkable overnight.

I take the talking elevator back to my room and grab a towel. I scrawl two words in my notebook: Hiroshima. Unremarkable.

There is nothing special about Hiroshima. It is a city with cars and buildings and people. It is a city where every day, people go to work in the morning.

And it’s the city where I went running.

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Hiroshima shop girl makes the sign for peace. (AE, NGS)

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