An elderly artist sat sketching by the riverbank. Beneath us was a heron standing in the shallows. As I stood by the artist at work, I felt a tug at my sleeve. A boy, no more than seven, wanted to practise his English. He asked me my name and I asked him his. Then he asked me the date. I told him. He shook his head. "No," he said. "In Hiroshima it is first August 6th 1945." Then he bowed, said goodbye and ran off back to his friends.
The city's peace bell was struck again and another lesson was over. The bell's deep low resonance echoed through the whole park, over the downtown traffic and all around Japan's "City of International Peace and Culture."
At 8.15am , flying in from Tinian Island, the B-6 "Enola Gay" detonated an A bomb over Hiroshima. The target was Aioi bridge on the Motoyasu River. Being T-shaped, it was clearly identifiable from the air. One kilogram (2.2lbs) of uranium 235 was dropped from 9,970 metres (32,400ft) and split at 580 metres above the famous castle city of west Honshu.
Five kilometres of the city centre, including four schools, were immediately flattened in an explosion equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. The "pikadon" fireball travelled 11km (seven miles) in 30 seconds. Some 140,000 people lost their lives. Three days later, Nagasaki was also bombed by the Americans.
Both cities rebuilt themselves. Hiroshima's street cars were running two months after the blast. Today, they rattle and bounce through a city of high rise offices, chic department stores, pricey designer shops, banks, karaoke bars, flower shops, airline offices, breweries, truck factories, shipyards, needle factories, oyster restaurants and fish shops selling sardines fresh from the inland sea of Seto. One million people live in Hiroshima.
At night, it is another Identikit, modern oriental city. Another Osaka and another Tokyo. Another nondescript noisy neon town in Japan. During the day, however, it doesn't seem to have the same teeming frenzy as Tokyo or Osaka. Hiroshima becomes bearable and what, of course, makes it bearable are its memories. "Wide Island" is a place which deserves respect.
You cannot hate Hiroshima as you might hate Tokyo. You cannot be indifferent to it as you might be towards all the other sprawling urban messes which make up a large part of Japan. You cannot compare it to the dainty, watercolour- rice-paper-Shogun atmosphere of Kyoto or Nara. Its shrine and temple count lags way behind those ancient cities.
Hiroshima is famous for just one thing. For being the right size and shape for the United States to test the effectiveness of its "Manhattan Project". Cities are not all alike. Hiroshima is not Tokyo. Hiroshima has clinics to help the "Hibakusha," the A-bomb survivors. Tokyo has clinics to help ex-patriates.
The sightseeing guides point you towards Shukkei-en Gardens modelled on the scenic lake in Hangzhou, China, and the reconstructed 16th-century castle built by the Moti clan. A speedboat ride away is the sacred island of Miya-jima and the Itsukushima shrine dedicated to the goddess Benten. But the main attraction, where everyone heads to first without fail when they arrive, is opposite the municipal ballpark where the local "Hirsohima Carps" baseball team play.
The road has been reinforced where the streetcars stop at Ochemaki because of the number of people who get out there to walk a few hundred yards to the Genbaku Dome, the remains of the former Industrial Promotion Hall, the only building still standing from 1945. It was 150 metres away from the bomb's hypocentre, Shima Hospital.
Figures in construction hats can be seen inside. Restoration and preservation work is under way and there is a fund which visitors are asked to contribute to before they walk into the city's Memorial Peace Park which has at its middle a cenotaph. Under a vault shaped like clay saddles found in ancient tombs is a chest containing the names of all the victims. The epitaph reads: "Repose ye in peace, for the error shall not be repeated."
Few people photograph it, Many stand for many minutes in front of it. Children sit at the edge of the small lake eating sweet potato ice creams. Business people sleep nearby under the shade of the Figure of the Merciful Goddess of Peace. Others choose to eat their box lunches and drink their "stamina" drinks under the peace clock. A couple walk hand in hand past the stone lantern. A family picnics beside the Fountain of Prayer. Children in white bobby-socks are everywhere. All smiles. Someone strikes the bell.
It costs 25p to enter the museum. To see actual film footage of the bomb drop. To see stopped watches and to touch the twisted remains of roof tiles. To see graphic illustrations of deformities and cancers caused by the blast. To read the pleas for peace and nuclear disarmament. To see the photographs of the devastation and the suffering. It costs pounds 5 for a "No More Hiroshimas" T-shirt from the museum gift shop.
It doesn't cost much more to take a pleasure boat cruise down the Hon- kawa river, under the West Peace Bridge, passing the second Middle School A-bomb memorial monument and on the other side of the river the monument in memory of the Korean victims before turning full circle beneath the dome into the Motoyasu-gawa to pass the memorial tower to the mobilised youth, the flower clock, the monument to the post office workers who perished, the Children's monument and the monument to the employees of Hiroshima Gas Corporation. "The Radiation Effect Research Foundation" is the other side of town.
There is more to remember about Hiroshima than anywhere in Japan. And, of the many memories, one shall always remain. It is a museum exhibit. It is a tricycle and it is buckled and blistered and blackened. It belonged to three-year-old Shinichi Tetsutana who was riding it when the Americans dropped the bomb. Her father buried the tricycle with her daughter where he found them. They were soldered together. Several years later, he dug up the grave and buried his daughter nearer her home. He donated her tricycle to the museum. That twisted piece of charred metal made me cry. There was a tug at my sleeve. It was the boy who I had spoken to earlier. He nodded and smiled up at me. And said "Thank you."
Hiroshima is a three-hour train journey from Tokyo and two hours and 30 minutes by train from Osaka.
Kevin Pilley flew with All-Nippon Airways (tel: 0171-224 8866) which flies direct from London Heathrow to Tokyo Narita and Kansai Osaka airports. Return fares to Tokyo cost from pounds 1,350 and to Osaka from pounds 1,366. The author stayed as a guest of the Radisson Miyako Hotel, Osaka (tel: 00 81 66 773 1111). A double room costs 20,000 yen (pounds 109) per night. His internal travel arrangements were organised by Japan Gray Line (tel: 00 81 23 436 6881).
Creative Tours (tel: 0171-495 1775) offers a five-night break to Japan for pounds 2,515 per person including return flights with Japan Airlines, transfers, accommodation-only (including five lunches) in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima and excursions.
Japanese National Tourist Office, Heathcoat House, 20 Savile Row, London WIX 1AE (tel: 0171-734 9638).
Hiroshima's Peace Ceremony is held on 6 August. In the evening, thousands of lanterns are set adrift by citizens on the Ota River, with prayers for world peace.