On August 6th,1945, the first Atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The ‘Little Boy’ bomb decimated everything within a 2km radius and within a matter of hours, 80,000 people lay dead. Four days later a second atomic bomb, the ‘Fat Man’, was dropped on Nagasaki and a week after that, the Japanese surrendered. Today, more than sixty years on, I’m standing on the Aioi-bashi Bridge, the T-shaped structure that served as a target for Colonel Tibbets, the pilot of the B-29 ‘Enola Gay’ airplane that carried the bomb. In front of me is the Peace Memorial Park, which was built on the ashes of a once vibrant residential area. To my left is the shell of the ‘Industrial Promotion Hall’, the only structure in this area to survive the bomb. Preserved and renamed the ‘A-bomb Dome’, it’s now a World Heritage Site. The scene is one of sorrow, but there is also another side to Hiroshima.
Today, Hiroshima is Japan’s tenth largest city and home to 1.15M people. The Honkawa River beside the Peace Park is packed with pleasure cruisers, while modern, high-rise buildings frame narrow streets packed with bars and shops. Hiroshima has enjoyed a spirit of renaissance and that spirit is also reflected in my choice of transport, the Lexus GS430.
In the same month as the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of VJ day, the Lexus brand was formerly introduced to the Japanese market. For months, 122 architects worked feverishly to ensure that on 30th August, 143 bespoke Lexus dealerships opened simultaneously. Their presence will have an impact far beyond the Japanese mainland. Until now, the Lexus models that we know in the US and Europe have been engineered as Toyotas and then rebadged. That’s why the original IS200 sports saloon had little in common with the ultra-conservative LS430.
Now, for the first time, Lexus models are being engineered as Lexii, with common goals and a consistent styling theme. The new GS and IS are the first fruits of this labour and they’ll be joined next year by a new LS, which debuted in thinly-disguised concept form at the Tokyo motor show. The GS, which we recently named as our Executive Car of the Year, is part of this bold new vision. It sits between the sporting IS and the luxury LS in the Lexus range. This car is billed as a Grand Tourer and the motorway trek from Tokyo had revealed the validity of this vision. There are few better cars of any description for this type of journey. To shut the GS’s door is to enter a world of serenity that’s almost surreal. It’s so quiet and refined at cruising speeds that you feel divorced from the outside world. BMW owners might say that it’s too quiet, but there’s no denying that when you’re not in the mood and there are five hundred miles to go, the hushed civility of the GS430 is hugely appealing. Since the end of the war, Hiroshima’s Memorial Park has become a symbolic focal point of campaigns for peace and disarmament.
In 1984, the visiting Pope John Paul II declared that “to remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war. To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace.” His words are writ large on one of the many memorial stones. At the centre of the park is the peace flame, with its abstract representation of two hands turned upwards. The flame will only be extinguished when the last of the world’s nuclear weapons has been destroyed. The cenotaph also lists all the known names of the Japanese victims of the bomb. Thousands of Korean slave labourers were also killed, but they were not recognised until 1970 and have a separate memorial. The park is also home to a museum and it’s here that I’m introduced to Tomohiro Makino.
In 1945, Makino was a fifteen years old who had been conscripted to work in a factory producing tiny, top-secret, Kamikaze submarines capable of attacking enemy shipping. It was 2.7km from the bomb’s epi-centre. “I can remember a blue flash,” he recalls, “and then a roof beam fell on me smashing my nose.” Two hours later he left the factory and returned to the centre of the city. “The path that I had walked to work on didn’t exist anymore. The wooden houses were burnt and there were many corpses. We had no idea what had happened. Suddenly it turned dark and started raining black rain. I had a jacket with me and protected my head, but my senior manager beside me did not. Three months later he died of radiation sickness.” Makino also suffered. “I had diarrhea and I was losing my hair, which are symptoms of radiation sickness,” he says. “There was no treatment, but I managed to recover.” Now seventy-five, Makino feels it’s his responsibility to pass on his experiences to younger generations. “At first I was angry and resentful,” he says, “but now I’m against war itself. War makes human beings irrational and is the cause of all tragedy.” I’m in reflective mood as I wander back into the heart of the city. It’s impossible not to be struck by the stark contrast between the conversation we’ve just had and the neon-infested glamour of downtown Hiroshima.
Directly opposite the Peace Memorial is a huge stadium housing that most American of sports, baseball. It seems incredible to think Hiroshima’s first baseball club was founded as early as 1947. It’s getting dark and I return to the Lexus to explore the city.
Lighting technology has improved dramatically in recent years and Lexus has done an impressive job of illuminating the GS430’s interior. Tiny LEDs cast a welcoming glow across the cabin, which looks and feels classy. The cockpit also exudes a sense of integrity. Although some of the materials used are not of the highest grade, it all feels beautifully built. This car feels like it was screwed together by people who care in a way that a Mercedes E-class used to do. Lexus tops just about every customer satisfaction survey on the planet and it’s not difficult to see why. This car feels like a nice place to be. The view through the windscreen is anything but understated.
Like so much of modern Japan, Hiroshima derives its character from the magic of neon. The area around the railway station alone looks like it would overpower the national grid of most developing states. The bedazzling array of primary colours, advertising everything from a coffee shop to an electronics boutique, is enough to trouble weary, western eyes. From time to time, I also feel like Bill Murray’s character in the Lost in Translation movie.
Here in the west of the country, even fewer people speak English than they do in Tokyo. With our guide in bed and the car parked, photographer Papior and I are left pointing at our neighbours’ food in the hope of receiving something tasty. Two bowls of sashimi later, we’re feeling more optimistic and cries of “biiru, biiru [beer, beer] onegai shimasu [please]” seem to do the trick. Estimates suggest there are more than four thousand drinking establishments in Hiroshima and most are located in the Shintenchi and Nagarekawa districts. Tiny bars, sometimes no larger than a single room, are piled on top of each other in five and six-storey buildings. It’s Saturday night and the place is buzzing.
Next morning, it’s almost a relief to step back into the Lexus. This is a great car but if it were my money, I wouldn’t choose the GS430.The GS300, which replaces the 4.3litre V8 with a 3.0-litre V6, offers almost as much performance and drinks a lot less fuel. At €64,360 at entry-level, it’s also €32,680 cheaper. The GS isn’t perfect – the low speed ride is too lumpy and there’s less room in the rear than you’ll find in an E-class – but it is a genuine alternative to an Audi, BMW or Mercedes. Its charms are subtler, but no less appealing. Charming is also a word that could be used to describe the thriving metropolis that is contemporary Hiroshima. But this city, which can trace its origins all the way back to 1589, will always be remembered for the moment when, at 8.15am on August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb exploded. Many more civilians were killed in cities across Europe, but in the history of warfare, the name of Hiroshima carries greater resonance than almost any other. The power of a single weapon to cause such astonishing destruction continues to define our present and our future.