Hiroshima is a modern, industrial city comprised of wide boulevards and a river. It’s a cosmopolitan town with excellent cuisine and is the home of Hiroshima’s version of okonomiyaki.

Many people know the city only due to the horrific blast 70 years ago that took the lives of some 140,000 people, killed by the explosion and radiation. It’s almost impossible to imagine that in a split second a city that had been bustling with life was transformed into a charred plain, scattered with concrete structures, with corpses laying piled up in rivers and radioactive materials filling the atmosphere and causing a poisonous “black rain” to fall.

Genbaku Dome.

People wonder if it’s safe to live in Hiroshima today and if radiation levels are still high. The truth is that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was detonated high up in the air so the radioactive fireball did not actually touch the ground. This was done to maximise the destruction of the structures within the city but dramatically reduced the radioactive fallout. As a result Hiroshima’s radiation levels today match the world average for background radiation and it’s a very safe place to live in that respect.

View over Ōta River. Right: Heiwakinen Park, left: Genbaku/Atomic Bomb Dome.

Today, life in Hiroshima is quite normal, the city has been rebuilt and has become a symbol of Japan’s post-war pacifism. Nothing was left after the war that might remind you of a pre-war Hiroshima, apart from the shell of the Genbaku Dome. Radiation dispelled the small number of surviving houses which were replaced with new ones. Those who survived the blast are the only ones who find conversations about the topic sensitive.

One truly unbelievable story is that of a Japanese man by the name of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who was in Hiroshima on a business trip the day the first atomic bomb was dropped. He was injured, but survived the blast and returned to his home in Nagasaki, to survive yet another nuclear explosion three days later.


Beppu is well known throughout Japan as one of the kings of the onsen towns.

As volcanic islands, Japan is literally dripping with hot-spring spas (onsen), but no place in the country has more thermal waters than Beppu. Gushing out enough water to fill 3,600 swimming pools daily and laying claim to be the world’s second-largest hot springs (after Yellowstone in the U.S.), Beppu has long been one of Japan’s best-known spa resorts. Some 11 million people visit the city’s 80 public bathhouses annually. They sit in mud baths, soak in waters of various mineral content, are buried in hot sand, drink thermal waters, and even eat food cooked by the thermal steam. Which reminded me of how the Taipenese used to boil their eggs in hot springs. In fact, visiting Beppu without taking a dip in the spring waters would be like taking your own food to a famous restaurant.

Illustration on a food store’s shutters.

Beppu remains hugely popular with older visitors, but has attempted to reinvent itself in a bid to attract Japan’s younger generation too. However the attempt is still a little uncertain and it’s hard to figure out as to whether it’s welcoming or just plain intimidating.

Sign on a monument: "The man called "Shiny Uncle" who loved children." Not sure what the meaning behind the naked kid holding onto his cape is though.
Tsunami warning: "In case of earthquake evacuate immediately to higher place." It must be hard living on an island constantly at risk.

The first and only time I met with Japanese nationalism in Japan was here in Beppu, when I was told by a waitress that the restaurant was “Japanese only”. I tried to figure it out, and asked a few other people about it, but finally I couldn’t explain why it happened. In front of that restaurant in the middle of the street there was this…

Pornography posters at the entrance to a building.

With a population of 125,000, Beppu is surrounded on one side by the sea and on the other by steep hills and mountains. On cold days, white plumes of steam rise up from the open springs and pipes, giving Beppu an ethereal appearance.

View of the steam from Beppu’s onsens.
View across the city from Beppu Castle.

All over Beppu puffs of hot steam billow out from the ground giving the cityscape a manufacturing or industrial air to it. However compared to most factories this kind of steam is much healthier.

Pipes spewing out hot air.

Beppu is surrounded by a number of hills and one of them is home to Beppu’s very own Castle (the “castle of the golden snake”). It’s a traditional structure built on an impressive lookout point atop a hill. Outside the building I was greeted by the former king of the castle, a huge albino snake that had died some years ago and was preserved in a formaldehyde tank. It’s believed that a white snake brings you happiness and luck and so worshippers come here to participate in a ritual for which the current castle snake is taken out of its special snake house.

Beppu Castle.

The ritual consists of gestures and phrases and is conducted by an old priest who speaks to the worshippers in Japanese, while spinning the white creature around their heads. I didn’t understand a word he said — in fact my attention was focused on the huge snake itself, I was hoping it would attack one or other of the two worshippers. The ritual lasted for about 10 minutes when the priest had finished his prayers he hastily took the snake back to its little house. From that moment my lesson in Japanese ritualism was over for good, leaving only three letters in my mind — WTF?