Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

  - darkometer rating:  10 -
A large museum that forms the very heart of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, one of Japan's most visited sites, and certainly one of the darkest in the world (see top-20). It is also overall one of the best museums that I know of. Not to be missed! 

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


What there is to see: lots, lots and lots more … Beginning at the beginning, chronologically speaking, you should first head to the entrance in the East building ... although you may want to change the order and do the old main building first if you're splitting your visit into two sessions – see time required.
Before you even enter the exhibition as such you could go and see the films screened in the video theatres on the ground floor. Alternatively you could just as well come back for them later – they're outside the exhibition and free of charge. Two documentaries are offered, one is entitled "Hiroshima, a Mother's Prayer", the other "Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Harvest of Nuclear War". Screenings of the former start at 9:30, 11:00, 13:00, 14:30 and 16:00; the latter is on at 10:05, 11:35, 13:35, 15:05 and 16:35 (no late showings in the winter season).
[UPDATE: the exhibition in the east wing is currently undergoing refurbishment, possibly also an upgarde. It's scheduled to open some time in 2018]
The exhibition rooms in the East building start chronologically, beginning with Hiroshima's history before the war. Next a brief account of Japan in WWII is given. Remarkably the Massacre of Nanjing is covered here as well, albeit briefly. But unlike at the revisionist Yushukan in Tokyo the word "massacre" is actually mentioned here, though it's also noted that there is some controversy about its assessment, e.g. the death toll. Indeed there's a considerable discrepancy between the figures given by Japanese nationalists and those more commonly accepted or those quoted in China (300,000)
Life in wartime Hiroshima is covered next, including the mobilization of school pupils for demolition works in an effort to prepare the city for the incendiary bombings that were feared may be coming. After all, that had happened to Tokyo and other cities before. But of course nothing could have prepared Hiroshima for what was actually about to hit it.
Because air raids were expected many people, especially youngsters, had been evacuated to the countryside. However, because of the preparatory work being undertaken there were still large numbers of schoolchildren in the streets of the city when the bomb hit. Hence the high death toll amongst the very young.
A clock that stopped at 8:15, the time of the bombing, marks the next section. In the centre of the room a ca. 7/10-scale reconstruction of part of the A-Bomb Dome dominates the exhibition. Under it two dioramas show Hiroshima before and after the bomb, while panoramic photographs and videos give further impressions of the devastation.
The outer walls of the mock A-Bomb Dome are lined with etchings onto silver metal plates of all the protest telegrams that the successive mayors of Hiroshima have been sending after every nuclear test since 1968 to the relevant countries together with an expression of hope that it may have been the last one. They still have to keep going – even though the rate of tests may have gone down significantly since those Cold War days, the days of atomic testing are not, yet, completely over … … in particular North Korea has repeatedly given Japan cause for grievance in recent years in this respect (as well as in other respects – the old arch-enmity between the two countries is very still much alive).
The section about the development of the atomic bomb, features a replica of Albert Einstein's famous letter urging the US government to undertake such a research development ahead of Germany. As we know Hitler did not get the bomb (cf. Vemork), whereas the decisive research did materialize in America, namely as the Manhattan Project. Pieces of trinitite from the very first A-bomb test in the New Mexican desert, "Trinity", are on display in the museum – one piece is placed under a magnifying glass so that the substance's surface can be studied more closely!
Detailed coverage is given to the reasons for dropping the bomb – see under Hiroshima for my own summary. It is quite remarkable how balanced the exhibition tries to be and how little overt blame is put on the USA. That doesn't mean, however, that the voices that were speaking out against the bombing(s) are not given space. For instance there's a replica of James Franck's famous warning that if the USA were to be the first to drop the bomb, a) its reputation could be forever damaged, and b) it could trigger a nuclear arms race.

As part of the section outlining the actual bombing mission, a noteworthy exhibit is some of the equipment that was dropped by parachute together with the bomb to measure heat and air pressure (i.e. the blast).
This is followed by a section on the devastation caused in Hiroshima and the plight of the survivors, who are called hibakusha. One concrete exhibit (literally) is a piece of wall scarred all over from flying glass blasted against the wall by the bomb. There's some coverage of medical effects too, together with relief fund measures – all of this is covered more graphically and in more detail in later sections of the museum, in the old wing …
The next section in the East building leaves the specific topic of Hiroshima and moves on to the subsequent development of the Cold War and its nuclear arms race. Accompanying this are sections about the worldwide peace movements, especially in the 1980s. More specifically underscored are the efforts made by the city of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) to promote peace and calling for an end to all nuclear testing/weapons, including international educational programmes.
[UPDATE: parts of the above may be redundant/outdated now, since this part of the museum has undergone a revamp, to be opened in 2018]

In a connecting lobby to the older main building there is a large book and gift shop. Do have a look here now, as you won't pass it again – unless you go back after finishing the whole circuit, or go on a second visit the next day.

While the sale of T-shirts, key rings and the like may appear a bit dubious to some visitors, the range of informational material is undoubtedly quite impressive. I walked away with five books/brochures. Ones to look out for in particular include: the "Hiroshima Peace Reader" (98 pages, 800 Yen), which not only has sections about the history and the devastation caused in Hiroshima, but also a detailed gazetteer of (nearly) all the monuments in the Peace Memorial Park – which can be of tremendous assistance when visiting the Park! Also useful to pick up is the book called "Appeals From The A-Bomb Survivors" (175 pages, 1000 Yen) – its main section of eyewitness testimonies can supplement or even replace the viewing of the eyewitness video testimonies at the end of the exhibition. That's useful because at that point one may be just a little too exhausted to view them and keep following the subtitles … I was certainly struggling at that point and was glad I had the book to read up on this afterwards. It also contains an account by foreign victims of the bombings, something that is rarely given coverage, as well as a glossary. There are some b/w photos in these books, but for those who want more graphically photographic accounts, there are a few slimmer booklets focusing on just that. The newer (2006) one is simply called "Hiroshima"; it has the cenotaph and register-tomb on the cover and the A-Bomb Dome visible in the background. It is a decent deal at only 380 Yen, and it does include some very graphic images of gory injuries (be warned). All of these are published by the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation. Another picture book entitled "Days to Remember" also covers Nagasaki, but is a bit older (1981) and more expensive at 500 Yen. However, it also has some rarer colour photos of the ruins. One booklet to stay clear of is the one with the (already dodgy, and misleading) title "Witness of A-Bomb – Scens of an A-bomb City. Diary of Hiroshima" [sic!].
Walking onwards into the older, main part of the museum, you first see a series of blown-up photos of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima taken from various points, some scarily close to the explosion. Then the circuit leads through a passage made of mock bricks, to resemble city ruins ... even though brick buildings were very much the exception in Hiroshima at the time.
Just round the corner is a gory life-size wax figure diorama of badly burned victims with skin hanging of their arms trudging through the glow of the burning city. It's the most graphic display of this kind that I've ever seen. It would be even more shocking if the wax figures were more realistic, but still …  
In the centre of the room you're now in is another large diorama of the flattened city – a red ball hanging over it indicates where the bomb exploded 2000 feet (600m) above the hypocentre (similar to the one also to be found at the Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum).
A series of artefacts on display along the walls include carbonized/charred/melted glasses, lunch boxes, watches, other personal effects – and a particularly icky exhibt: the label says "nails and skin left by a junior high student". He too was so badly burned that his skin came off in tatters – and apparently his mother kept this specimen for his father … its display here is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Then comes what is probably the most famous exhibit – a rusty child's tricycle and helmet. This was buried for 40 years next to its then 3-year-old owner but later dug up by his father. The remains of the child were properly buried in the family grave and the tricycle and helmet were donated to the Peace Museum. Compared to all this, the model of the actual atomic bomb, ironically named "Little Boy", almost pales into insignificance. A chart explains how it worked – it was a surprisingly simple design (in contrast to the Nagasaki bomb).
However, the next section has another particularly infamous exhibit in store: the doorsteps of a bank onto which the shadow of a man is projected. This was the effect of the heat rays colouring the stone white except for where the man, who must have been incinerated instantly, had been sitting, thus leaving a black "shadow". The real shadow has faded over the years, though it's still just about visible, but a photo next to it dating from when it was found shows the full effect as it looked at the time. There are other exhibits demonstrating this "photographic" shadowing-effect too. Also in this section is the only hands-on exhibit of the museum: a couple of roof tiles with a kind-of bubbly surface. This was caused by the bomb's heat, which turned the outer layers of the tiles into boiling bubbles that later solidified. It's eerie to feel them ... but quite safe – like the rest of the exhibition; no residual radiation to be feared.
There are loads of other charred and/or melted objects on display, as well as a piece of wall with glass particles embedded in it. These demonstrate the power of the blast well. If glass blown out of windows could penetrate concrete then it could certainly penetrate skin – indeed some of the worst injuries sustained by those who survived the thermal rays and fires were caused by flying shards of glass. To this day, survivors have to have fragments of glass surgically removed from their bodies. Some of these pieces of glass are now on display in the museum.
The effects of radiation may not be so immediately visible, but the next section on this topic still has some shocking exhibits. Not only were people exposed to direct radiation from the bomb's explosion, there was also the fallout. An especially nasty form of fallout came as so-called "black rain": soot mixed into the radioactive mushroom cloud which rained off 20-30 minutes after the detonation in big black oily drops. A particularly tragic aspect was that survivors desperate for water drank this evil cocktail. Thus they exposed themselves to radioactivity from the inside, which is infinitely more harmful than external exposure only. And more tragically still: this also happened in parts of the city that were further away from the explosion as such and thus sustained less direct radiation. There's a section of wall on display that shows black stripes from the rain that had poured down it. Once you know what it is, it's a very poignant sight to behold.

The  various physics charts accompanying this are quite informative too, but when it comes to the longer-term medical effects, it gets quite graphic again. There are photos and specimens of various deformities, cancers and such things. It's certainly something for a more scientifically and esp. medically minded clientele. I found it a bit hard to stomach.  

On a more sentimental note, towards the end of the main exhibition special space is given to the story of Sadako Sasaki, the girl who died from radiation-induced leukaemia 10 years after the bomb and who had folded thousands of origami paper cranes as a symbol of hope. Even though it did not in the end save her, her story started the tradition of origami cranes being so associated with Hiroshima and its peace movement. There's also a special monument in the Peace Park dedicated to Sadako and her cranes.
Following the main exhibition there's still more: firstly a gallery of drawings made by survivors. Some of these are no less shocking than some of the photographs and artefacts in the museum.
There's also a photo of the messages that survivors left at the former Fukuro-machi Elementary School, whose burned-out but still standing concrete shell served as a relief station. Messages scribbled on soot-blackened walls with chalk were to notify fellow survivors of each others' whereabouts in the chaos after the bombing.
Finally, there are several video stations at which survivors' videotaped testimonies can be viewed (with English subtitles).
Labelling in the museum is in Japanese and English throughout (mostly of very high translation quality – with just the odd exception). In addition there are stations with monitors at which some of the information provided can also be viewed in a range of other languages. The same applies to the audio-guides available at the ticket counter. Before leaving the building visitors have to hand those audio-guides back to an almost over-officious museum guard.
But before leaving you can also take a look at the guestbooks (and maybe leave a comment yourself). Some comments left in it, especially those by Americans, can be quite revealing, interesting, moving or, occasionally, shocking.
From here stairs lead out through the bottom of the floor back out into the open, i.e. you emerge from under the main building, which sits on stilt-like columns. If you now want to see the special temporary exhibition, or view the films shown in the video theatre rooms next to the foyer, you have to go back to the main entrance.
The temporary exhibitions in the basement of the museum's East building are freely accessible. At the time of my visit (April 2009) there was a special exhibition about the film material shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombing, and the odyssey this apparently went on before finally being returned to Japan.
One photo I found particularly interesting was one taken at the A-Bomb Dome during the US occupation of Japan after WWII: it showed evidence of early "dark tourism" at the site, as it were. On the fence around the ruined building English-language signs can be seen that offer memorial stamps and souvenir pieces of "Atom struck" tiles to "visitors to Explosion Center"!
Also on display in this temporary exhibition section of the museum are further artefacts collected or donated in more recent years (which may eventually find their way into the permanent exhibition), plus a gallery of pictures painted by survivors on the topic of the A-bombing.
The museum offers guided tours as well, including tours of the Peace Park. It also has a substantial educational department (for organizing school fieldtrips, or providing exhibition materials for loan). For the ordinary tourist, the museum is perfectly self-explanatory, though.

In sum, then: the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is without any doubt one of the most absorbing experiences that can be had in the area of dark tourism anywhere in the world. Top-notch. Absolutely unmissable!
Location: right in the middle of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, north of the Peace Boulevard.
Google maps locator:[34.3915,132.4528]
Access and costs: easily accessible and virtually free.
Details: for directions see Peace Memorial Park. From the Peace Boulevard you can already see the long low structure of the museum behind the Fountain of Prayer, coming from the A-Bomb Dome you pass through most of the Park first. I recommend starting the day's visiting itinerary at the museum, however; that way you can use the Park afterwards to unwind a bit.
The museum charges are rather symbolic 200 Yen admission fee, which is is an almost ludicrously small amount considering what you get for it. Audio-guides are available at the entrance for 300 Yen – and these come in an impressive range of 17 (!!!) languages, including English, Chinese, French, Korean, Russian, German, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi and Urdu.
Opening times: daily 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (to 7 p.m. in August, only to 5 p.m. December to February – closed 29 December to 1 January). It makes sense to go as early as possible, preferably to be there when the museum opens, in order to beat the worst of the crowds. The rushed tour groups may still come catching up with you at some point, but they will quickly overtake you too ... just be patient and let them pass.
Photography, astonishingly, is permitted inside the exhibition rooms.
The museum is wheelchair accessible, only you have to deviate from the regular circuit in order to get to the lifts to the upper floors. And since the regular exit is by stairs under the main building, you'd need to make your way back to the lifts instead in order to be able to leave the building.
Time required: a lot – do not underestimate this museum! It's one of the most absorbing museums I ever encountered. Allow half a day for it … or else you have to be selective and even skip whole portions of it (which you may regret later). Many tour groups do just that, some I observed did so to excess, hardly allowing adequate time for any exhibits at all, and zooming through the rooms in as little as 30-45 minutes or so. Don't do it like that. That short amount of time does not do this excellent museum justice!

Myself, I spent over four hours in the museum's exhibitions – including the temporary/special exhibitions in the basement. I still felt that I had rushed it a bit and hadn't quite seen all there would have been to see (especially of the testimonies), but unfortunately I had quite a tight itinerary on my Japan trip in 2009 and wanted to see as much of the rest of Hiroshima as possible too.

Yes, long hours in a museum can be taxing and emotionally draining, but this museum realy does demand and deserve such serious time-investment. If you don't have so much time or don't think you can take it all in at once you may have to skim or skip sections, according to your relative interests (e.g. if the medical side isn't your thing, skip that bit; if you're already familiar with the historical background, you can skim through that part quickly).

But what should definitely not be skipped are the classic exhibits in the old main exhibition. Note also that there is a little repetition, i.e. aspects already covered in the East building are picked up again in the older main exhibition building. But some of the most famous artefacts are in that main exhibition, towards the end of the long circuit. So do make sure you save sufficient time and stamina for that latter part. If you need to hurry, rather do so in the earlier sections.
If you can and want to give the museum all the time it deserves, then have a good breakfast beforehand, as you may not necessarily feel like lunch straight after the long and harrowing circuit through the museum. Afterwards, the surrounding Park offers plenty of tranquillity to unwind amongst the trees and the many memorials. This helps in finding your feet again emotionally, as it were, and switching into a more contemplative mood for the memorials (see Peace Memorial Park).
You may even want to consider splitting the museum visit and spreading it over two days – the admission fee is so low, it almost invites such a strategy. That way you could also start on day one at the older part, i.e. go straight up to the 3rd floor (= 2nd in British English) and to the main building in the centre of the complex. Then come back for the more recent additions in the East building on the second visit the next day to take in more detailed background info. The additional, temporary exhibitions and the films can be slotted in on either day, depending on how much time is left on each/either day.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see Hiroshima – obviously enough a visit to the museum will be part of a visit to the Peace Memorial Park and its focal point, the A-Bomb Dome; but the other, much smaller museums are worth it as an add-on if you have the time: Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum and Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum. You should also seriously consider seeing Nagasaki's Atomic Bomb Museum too - in my view it's even better than its equivalent in Hiroshima and there's less overlap than you'd think.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see Hiroshima.
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 01 - in Peace ParkHiroshima Peace Museum 01 - in Peace Park
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 02 - central  main building wingHiroshima Peace Museum 02 - central main building wing
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 03 - inside the first exhibition hallHiroshima Peace Museum 03 - inside the first exhibition hall
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 04 - Trinitite - donated to the museum by Akihiro Kamizuka and Raymond WilsonHiroshima Peace Museum 04 - Trinitite - donated to the museum by Akihiro Kamizuka and Raymond Wilson
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 05 - beforeHiroshima Peace Museum 05 - before
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 06 - and afterHiroshima Peace Museum 06 - and after
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 07 - model and photo of the destructionHiroshima Peace Museum 07 - model and photo of the destruction
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 08 - schematic representation of the desctruction radiusHiroshima Peace Museum 08 - schematic representation of the desctruction radius
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 09 - stopped at the moment of the detonation - wristwatch donated by Akito KawagoeHiroshima Peace Museum 09 - stopped at the moment of the detonation - wristwatch donated by Akito Kawagoe
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 10 - exhibition hall with scale model of the A-Bomb DomeHiroshima Peace Museum 10 - exhibition hall with scale model of the A-Bomb Dome
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 11 - concrete wall scarred by flying debris - donated to the museum by Hiroshima Red Cross HospitalHiroshima Peace Museum 11 - concrete wall scarred by flying debris - donated to the museum by Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 12 - charred glasses - donated to the museum by Ayano HarigakiHiroshima Peace Museum 12 - charred glasses - donated to the museum by Ayano Harigaki
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 13 - closest photo of the mushroom cloudHiroshima Peace Museum 13 - closest photo of the mushroom cloud
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 14 - entering the horrorHiroshima Peace Museum 14 - entering the horror
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 15 - graphic reconstruction of the horrorHiroshima Peace Museum 15 - graphic reconstruction of the horror
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 16 - another diorama wiith red ball over the hypocentreHiroshima Peace Museum 16 - another diorama wiith red ball over the hypocentre
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 17 - replica of Little BoyHiroshima Peace Museum 17 - replica of Little Boy
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 18 - famous tricycle exhibit - donated to the museum by Nobuo TetsutaniHiroshima Peace Museum 18 - famous tricycle exhibit - donated to the museum by Nobuo Tetsutani
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 19 - shadow of man who was sitting on these steps - exhibit donated by Sumitomo Bank Hiroshima BranchHiroshima Peace Museum 19 - shadow of man who was sitting on these steps - exhibit donated by Sumitomo Bank Hiroshima Branch
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 20 - photo of the photographic effect of the atomic flashHiroshima Peace Museum 20 - photo of the photographic effect of the atomic flash
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 21 - roof tiles exhibitsHiroshima Peace Museum 21 - roof tiles exhibits
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 22 - surface melted in the heat - exhibit donated by Hiroshima UniversityHiroshima Peace Museum 22 - surface melted in the heat - exhibit donated by Hiroshima University
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 23 - various objects welded together by the heatHiroshima Peace Museum 23 - various objects welded together by the heat
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 24 - flying shards of glass were embedded in walls and people - exhibit donated to the museum by Morihisa SuzukiHiroshima Peace Museum 24 - flying shards of glass were embedded in walls and people - exhibit donated to the museum by Morihisa Suzuki
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 25 - photos of destroyed buildingsHiroshima Peace Museum 25 - photos of destroyed buildings
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 26 - before the destructionHiroshima Peace Museum 26 - before the destruction
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 27 - measuring radiationHiroshima Peace Museum 27 - measuring radiation
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 28 - traces of black rain - exhibit donated by Akijiro YashimaHiroshima Peace Museum 28 - traces of black rain - exhibit donated by Akijiro Yashima
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 29 - leukemia-stricken marrow - specimen donated by Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital and Atomic-bomb Survivor’s HospitalHiroshima Peace Museum 29 - leukemia-stricken marrow - specimen donated by Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital and Atomic-bomb Survivor’s Hospital
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 30 - new exhibits hallHiroshima Peace Museum 30 - new exhibits hall
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 31 - charred suitcaseHiroshima Peace Museum 31 - charred suitcase
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 32 - evidence of very early dark tourismHiroshima Peace Museum 32 - evidence of very early dark tourism
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 33 - cenotaph with museum building in the backgroundHiroshima Peace Museum 33 - cenotaph with museum building in the background
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum 33 - guest booksHiroshima Peace Museum 33 - guest books
  • Hiroshima Peace MuseumHiroshima Peace Museum

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