Monday, 17 Jun 2019

In Cities with Ghosts

Zack Knoll


You arrive by train. Everywhere you arrive in Japan is by train. Your high school Japanese language class has organized a trip to Japan. Your group comprises roughly fifteen students, and your teacher, Sensei. You all speak Japanese well enough to understand the new world around you, and most of you are white. You, especially, are very white—and tall, with green eyes, and long brown hair. The Japanese humidity has twirled waves into your hair. Every time you exit a train you are shocked by the humidity outside. Though you have been taught to believe that Hiroshima will somehow be different because of the history attached to it, you still arrive there by train, and you still start sweating as the doors close behind you. Everything in Japan is soaked in July’s dampness—the sidewalks, the people, the air.

The air in Hiroshima is no different and is heavy with the breath of thousands of people. In your head, Hiroshima is a stagnant image from textbooks and movies: crumbled buildings, people wailing, dust cyclones sweeping through decimated streets—everything washed in black and white. This isn’t true, you realize, as you walk to your hotel. It’s not that you’re surprised—you’re unsure as to how you let yourself believe this myth. You walk under an elevated train track and emerge in front of a McDonald’s. The streets are lined with lush trees and shrubbery. People ride bikes in their business suits, flocking towards home beyond the sinking sun like seagulls. You weave through crowds of people. A man bumps you as you walk into your hotel. He doesn’t pass through you. Sumimasen, you say. He says nothing.

The only hotel you stay in while traveling through Japan is in Hiroshima. In other cities—Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone—you’ve stayed in hostels. They’ve lacked good central air conditioning. But the hotel is an oasis. It has a private shower that you don’t have to share with naked, wrinkled old men. The lobby sparkles with chandelier light. The receptionists have neat buns and dazzling white teeth. They are peppy as they welcome you. Yōkoso! Yōkoso!

Your mind trails, morbidly, to what was here before the hotel was a hotel. Perhaps, first, a lot?—rotted wood, sinews of flesh, an ocean of dust. Before that, a school, maybe. And before that? Everything was something else first.

Your pillow here feels different—softer? Firmer? You’re not sure if this difference has to due with the quality of hotel pillows, or if it has to do with Hiroshima.

It is a city marked in your head by difference—the memory of the bomb dropping lives like a dormant monster, asleep under the new shopping centers, under the tracks of modern high-speed trains, the feet of people clad in the new millennium. Do they too hear the monster’s breathing? Do they know it isn’t dead, but asleep? You listen to history’s breath tremble outside your window as you fall asleep.


You wonder how many bodies you’re sleeping on top of tonight.

You wonder why you have never wondered this before about any other place. For all you know a grocery store at home was built over a cemetery—your house over an old landfill. Everything was something else first. Everything in cycles.


Morning breaks slowly like a tide. You toss in your white sheets and breathe into the cotton, smelling in it a familiar but somehow distant fruit. Pomegranate? Blueberry? Do those grow here?

Today you will go to the Peace Museum because that is what you do when you are in Hiroshima. The streetcar conveniently picks you up outside of your hotel and will drop you not far from your destination. Efficient. You must pay for the streetcar in exact change, so you dig through your pockets while waiting. You board and allow an old woman to take the available seat. Arigatō, she whimpers. She and her three friends chatter. One cocks her head towards you and the group of Americans you’re traveling with. “Gaijin,” she mutters almost indifferently, as though that’s all we are. Just foreigners. Though her tone suggests she could spit on you. The two other women laugh. They don’t realize we all speak Japanese, though you could probably understand them regardless of the language they’re speaking. It’s in their tone, it’s in their unforgetting eyes. You wonder how living through a bombing colors the rest of your life.

You think briefly about where you were on 9/11. You remember being in school and your teachers’ announcement of an accident in New York and Washington. You thought of your aunts and uncles and cousins and grandmother. You thought of your parents—how they did not show up to pick you up around lunchtime like so many of your classmates’ parents did. You walked to the window of the classroom, peered out the window to see if the Sears Tower was still standing. It was. And your mother came to pick you up at the end of the school day like she would any other day.

You realize now, on the streetcar, that maybe it isn’t the same. You haven’t really lived through a bombing. Neither tragedy is yours.

You smile at the old women. They faintly, briefly, smile back.

When you get off the streetcar, your sensei leads the student group down a few narrow streets lined with trees to a river. A few Japanese schoolgirls run on the riverbank’s bricked path, their tennis shoes smacking as they pass by the group. They wave to the group and you all wave back. In front of you lies a dome—or a skeleton of it. The bricks are a faint red and stand partially connecting to make walls—though the interior is nearly missing. On top of some of the standing walls are gaping glassless windows and structures that look like large twigs. They bend to make the dome of the building.

Sensei explains that this is the Genbaku Dome, one of the only buildings to withstand the atomic bomb. It feels like a ghost in its own way—a visible one from another time, an almost entirely different place. You and your fellow students pull out your cameras and begin clicking away at the dome—it looks greyer in your pictures, you realize later, but you recall it being so red, so much more vibrant than anything you thought could be after a bomb. Red is a resilient color you think—you think of the Japanese flag and its rising sun. You adjust your camera’s settings to let in more light, to try and capture the color, the resiliency. But you suddenly feel dirty for turning this building into art. For participating in the culture of tourism—for documenting your time at the place of a disaster.

Sensei tells the group that the bomb was dropped less than 200 kilometers away from the dome and yet it did not crumble, not entirely. Every person inside was killed instantly. There is an unprovoked moment of silence. You notice the grass growing under the bricks, fresh green and moist with the humid summer air.


The Peace Museum is modeled to look like someone ready to embrace another. Two giant white arms of the building stretch out over a green lot lush with fountains. Nearby, behind glass cases, there are hundreds of paper cranes in every color of the rainbow, tiled together to make different patterns, or to spell out different phrases. In plain English you see the cranes strung together: peace.

The museum is mostly a blur to you. Dimly lit, quiet like a place of worship. The hush of shuffling feet echoes through the dome-like main room of the museum. It is more crowded than you could have imagined, though there is a somber silence to the crowd. People move in large clumps from section to section of the museum. Still, to read plaques and see photographs you must weave through tour groups of people of all creeds and colors, locals and foreigners, men and women and children. This is possibly the most ethnically diverse place you’ve been in your short time in Japan. Citizens of everywhere and anywhere have flocked to Hiroshima for reasons probably similar to yours: not just to see it but to feel it. You are a face in the crowd.

At each station, plaques are written in English and Japanese explaining the events of August 6, 1945. You read in English as you are too tired for Japanese. A privilege, you think, to not need these events translated to you. Somehow this brings them closer to home, makes you feel somehow allied with the American bombers. You absorb facts, re-learn the ones you already knew or forgot—about times, dates, locations, body counts. These facts feel somehow more powerful now that you’re standing on the ground that they’ve actually happened on. You watch documentaries about women with cancer and children with birth defects. Your stomach drops when the videos pan across images of their melting skin and bulging eyeballs. You bite your lip. You turn away to look at the artifacts left behind, the things that survived where people did not. A watch. A dish.

At the end of the museum’s walkway you see the gift shop and are almost shocked that there even is one. From afar, you see families buying educational comic books about the bombing. You see someone eyeing a poster of the museum’s lush grounds. You see T-shirts and videos and books and books and books and people and people. You do not go inside.


After the museum you visit the bomb’s hypocenter. Hypocenter is a word you’ve never heard before today. It is where, exactly, the bomb was dropped. A building stands on the hypocenter now. On one of its walls, low to the ground, there is a plaque that reads: Carried to Hiroshima from Tinian Island by the Enola Gay, a U.S. Army B-29 bomber, the first atomic bomb used in the history of humankind exploded approximately 580 meters above this spot. The city below was hit by heat rays of approximately 3,000 to 4,000°C along with a blast wind and radiation. Most people in the area lost their lives instantly. The time was 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945. You take a picture of this plaque.

Someone in the group asks Sensei what this building is now. Apāto, she replies.

An apartment building.


Across from the hypocenter is a mega outdoor shopping mall. Sensei says you will all have some free time to explore and to meet back at the hotel around 22:00. You and some friends wander through it and still somehow wonder how it exists—how a shopping mall can live so close to the center of tragedy, how people can come here to shop, to eat, to see movies. You look into windows where you find backpacks with huge zippers, shoes in strange colors and electronics that resemble robots—you’ve never seen anything like this in America. Children in bright shirts and plaid skirts run by you. Do they know where they are? Your feet ache on the cobblestone as you trudge, almost mindlessly, oblivious. You let the blinking neon lights above you soak into your oily skin as you wander. The signs here are almost entirely in Japanese. The day feels heavy on your face and you struggle to read your way through the shopping center. This place is not for foreigners, you realize. You wander in and out of the crowds, tall and tired, just drifting by like a ghost, or a lost soul.


You and a few friends are lost. You’ve had ramen for dinner, emerged from the megamall and have no idea where you are. Your Japanese is best so your friends encourage you to ask for directions. You approach a small woman in a grey plaid skirt who looks friendly—a librarian maybe. You ask her how to get back to the streetcar that takes you to the hotel. She nods understandingly. You are impressed with yourself for using such fluent Japanese. She walks with you and your friends to the stop. You make conversation with her, but you can’t remember what about—perhaps about why you’re in Japan, or who you are. You realize, maybe most fully for the first time, that you’re something of a rarity here—exceptionally tall, white, and green eyed.

As you walk there is an explosion in the sky. You stop, turn, gaze, all in one sweep. An instinctive reflex. Another explosion—you look up. Fireworks. Sapphire and vermilion and red, that same vibrant red. The red booms through the sky and pours down around you like a blooming flower. The woman you’re with claps as she walks. You want to ask her if this is normal, or what we’re celebrating, but that somehow would change the moment for you, so you smile and look up as you stroll.

In the distance you see the dome illuminated for a split second when another burst of red sprinkles through the heavy sky above. You think there is something ironic here, or beautiful, but it doesn’t feel like yours to name.

Zack Knoll is a recent graduate of Oberlin College and works as an Editorial Assistant at Abrams Books. He enjoys snapping photographs, admiring impeccably designed book jackets, and eating the occasional (and increasingly rarer) in-flight meal. He is a native Chicagoan but now resides in Brooklyn.

Photo by the author.