Sometimes better known by its official name, the Hiroshima Electric Railway, the trams in Hiroshima has had a rough history: From a rocky beginning to a devastating loss to a difficult reconstruction, the tram survives today as a living, working part of the history of Hiroshima.
Before the Bombing
Before the atomic bomb, Hiroshima had an important role to play during the turn of the century. It served as the imperial capital during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and saw major industrialization during the Russo-Japanese War (1904). It was during the First Sino-Japanese War that the major railway of the time, the Sanyo Railway, connected itself to Hiroshima in 1894, beginning Hiroshima’s relationship with the rails officially.
The first trams came about from the dealings of two men: Yoshigoro Obayashi and Yasuzaemon Matsunaga. You see, both had established, independent of one another, the Hiroshima Electric Railway Company. There was conflict over who had the rightful claim to begin the railways in Hiroshima under that banner, but according to legend, the two met one night and resolved the conflict overnight. With that resolved, and much work done with the land, in 1918, the first branches of the electric tram line began opening in Hiroshima.
Hibaku Densha: Atomic-Bombed Train
When the atomic bomb detonated, everything the Japan changed in an instant. Within the city of Hiroshima itself, much of the city was incinerated instantly, given the strength of the bomb and the large number of wooden structures. Parts did survive, such as the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku Dome) and one special railcar: 653, which continues operation and has become a symbol of peace. Obama rode it when he visited the city (the only standing president to visit) and the train continues operation to this day. The wild thing is, two days after the bomb dropped, the railways were back up and running, and car 653 specifically was back up and transporting passengers a mere four months later. It has seen many refurbishments and updates since then but it is still operational and a historic part of the Hiroshima landscape.
The post-war times were difficult for the trams in other ways, too. In the 1960s, cars became more popular and were allowed to drive on railway lines, causing delays and frustration on both sides of the equation. The police administrators, after seeing the joy of street cars in Europe, decided to give the Japanese trams more protections and allowed them to run more regularly with new rules and enforcement. This effectively saved Hiroshima trams from extinction, allowing it to blossom into the longest and most-used streetcar system in the country.
Since rebuilding, Hiroshima has embraced the trolley car once more. They have such a large variety of street cars in operation because they were able to buy from overseas (before bombing) and from other cities in Japan that saw their tram systems give way to automobiles. The city touts their tram system as “a moving transportation museum” with close to 300 streetcars riding the rails.
When we visited Hiroshima, the trolley was a fantastic way to get around the city. It wasn’t too terribly crowded and allowed us to get from our hotel near the Peace Museum down to the docks in a short amount of time. They are quiet, clean, and they weren’t too terribly crowded during our visit. It is worth noting that the stations are small, narrow platforms that often times sit on the side or in the middle of the road. Be ready to squeeze up against the glass walls to allow others to disembark; I can imagine during a normal period of tourism these platforms can get very packed.
The Hiroshima Trams are a wonderful way to get around the city while experiencing a slice of the history in this truly historical city. The cost of admission to this moving transportation museum is slight, and being able to participate in the history in this seemingly small way is a wonderful addition that you can squeeze in between other attractions during your stay. I’m always amazed at how history lives all around us and seeps into every aspect of everyday life. Truly a hidden historical gem in Hiroshima!