Two years ago, I took a gap year to travel abroad, and was unsure where I wanted to visit. I’ve always been a student of history, and Japanese history has long been a passion of mine: My mom’s side is fourth-generation Japanese and many of my friends in San Francisco where I grew up were Japanese, so it’s close to my heart.
I decided to spend six months abroad in Japan, researching very different periods of Japanese history in three different cities.
My first two months were in Kyoto, the next two in Himeji and the final two in Hiroshima. My first four months in Japan were incredible, and I immersed myself in Tokugawa Shogunate-era history, visiting the Himeji Castle and poring over treasure troves of old documents, in great preparation for my college History Studies at UCLA. But my last two months in Hiroshima?
That’s when I saw something I still can’t explain.
I arrived at Hiroshima by bullet train in late July, and arranged to stay on CouchSurfing with a local University student who, for the sake of anonymity, I’ll call Hideki. Hideki took me back to his place and I practiced my Japanese with him.
We sat on his balcony sharing a Vape, talking about girls and university and our share love of history when I carefully asked him a question I’d been quietly dreading posing: “Did your family lose anyone? In the war, that is.”
Hideki paused, staring back at me and pondering how to answer that. He took a stuttering drag on the vape, blowing out vapor that masked his face in a swirling cloud of grey. “Almost all of them,” He said. “My grandmother and grandfather were the only survivors of their families when the bomb fell.”
The vapor cleared, and I saw a tear disappear down his cheek. “What about you?” He asked, voice surprisingly steady. I told him my great-grandad on my mom’s side fought with the Japanese and died on Saipan and my great-great grandad fought with the Americans in World War I, and we cautiously discussed our family’s military exploits.
It’s much more sensitive in Japan than it is back home to talk about this, and it was a big show of trust for Hideki to tell me this. After a while I told him I’d go to bed, as it had been a long day.
But as I got up, Hideki asked – “Do they ever visit you?”
I paused, frowning. “What do you mean?”
“Your grandparents – do they ever come to you?”
I paused again. “No,” I said, feeling weirded out. What was he driving at?
“They visit me,” he said solemnly, taking a draw on the vape and staring at the passing lights of the city.
“Especially at this time of year.”
There was nothing I could say to that that wouldn’t be disrespectful: Was Hideki telling me he was visited by ghosts? Japanese was my second language, after all, so maybe I was misunderstanding him.
I shook my head, and went to bed.
Fast forward a few days, and the annual ceremony to commemorate the victims of the August 6th bomb were out on the streets in the evening. Hideki and I were going to celebrate it together, and we were walking along an old street down to the river, where lanterns are set adrift to commemorate the seventy thousand people who died here.
As we were moseying along in companionable silence, I looked down a side street – and froze.
At the end of the street there were a pair of figures, dancing. They were waltzing together, as if there were old-fashioned music playing in the background.
Dimly, I could almost hear it: an American tune that would have had to have been smuggled in, maybe from the 1940s. But what would this music be doing here, now? I was only dimly aware of this, however, as the figures seemed to be waltzing – zig-zagging – in my direction. As they came closer, I felt a hypnotic sense of horror as I realized these two figures were not just black – they were charcoal.
Moving, seething masses of charcoal, their blackened bodies jerked awkwardly as the danced together, all discernible features other than outline scorched to ash. I opened my mouth to scream for Hideki and the figures vapourized, turning to a harsh, fast-moving cloud of ash as if blown away by a terrifying wind beyond and comprehension that exploded towards me, blowing me back flat on my butt.
This time I screamed as the dark ash cloud passed right by me, filling my senses with ash and a foul smell of burning flesh. When Hideki came running to the sound of my screams, he found me curled in a fetal position, sobbing – laying right next to a pair of Hiroshima shadows, the permanent burn marks of people vapourized in the burning bright blast of the Hiroshima Bomb.
To this day, I have no logical explanation for anything I saw that night – other than what Hideki told me after: “Now, you have been visited too – haven’t you?”