While in Vietnam we convinced ourselves to backtrack and add Japan to the itinerary. There were two deciding factors: The first was we wanted to visit my friend and former co-worker, Charlie Reed, who lives outside Tokyo. The second reason was that Dave Barry recommended it.

Yes, I’m referring to Dave Barry, the former Miami Herald humor columnist and sometimes presidential candidate. Him and I listened to his hilarious book, “Dave Barry does Japan,” during a car trip last fall and were enthralled by his tales of “plastic food districts” and Yoyogi Park greasers. We became determined to “do” Japan as well and so engaged in further research amounting to re-watching “Lost in Translation” on YouTube (free for viewing in Japan. Not so free in the U.S.) and Googling the lyrics to the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese,” (whose meaning, somewhat disappointingly, is not nearly as sexually suggestive as you might think). We couldn’t wait for the marathon bowing sessions and battles with too-short shower fixtures to begin!

For us — and I assume many western tourists — Japan’s allure is the paradoxical facets of its culture. The country is fascinatingly foreign yet simultaneously unthreatening, the bizarre (role-playing restaurants) casually mixed in with the traditional (immaculately groomed geishas really do still exist).

And everyone is so incredibly friendly!

“You could be walking around Tokyo, drunk as a skunk, with cash falling out of your pockets, and a complete stranger will stop, stuff your money back into your pockets and pay for the cab to take you home,” Charlie said.

Her anecdote was one we would find ourselves repeating again and again to friends back home because we believe it’s true.

We entered Japan through Hiroshima and feared how the locals would regard citizens of the country that destroyed their city. But we soon realized Japanese hospitality extends to Hiroshima as well – and to how the country presents its role in World War II. Despite the horrors the city endured, the tone of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (JPY50 per person) seems to express the humble concession that they were provoked.

“In 1941, with a surprise attack on the U.S. army and navy bases in Pearl Harbor, Japan started the Pacific war against the U.S. and its allies,” states one of the museum’s opening placards.

I don’t think I’ve ever come across a museum that was so matter-of-fact and (to my eyes at least) unbiased.

Among the reasons the allies selected Hiroshima as their target was that they didn’t believe the city contained any allied POW’s at the time. In addition, the operation required an urban area of at least three miles in diameter with thus-far minimal air raid damage to allow for thorough observation of the devastation. Good weather over Hiroshima ultimately sealed the city’s fate. The B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped the 5-ton “Little Boy” at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945.

Within 1/10,000 second after Little Boy detonated, the explosion extended 28 meters, reaching a temperature of 300,000 degrees Celsius. The super-high pressure at the explosion’s epicenter generated a shockwave followed by a powerful blast wind that destroyed 90 percent of the city’s buildings.

But as artifacts from the aftermath show, the devastation to human life was unprecedented. The tattered scraps of school uniforms are all that remain of countless children obliterated by the explosion. The museum presents each uniform with the story of the girl or boy who had worn it: Nobuko Oshita, 13, who proudly sewed her dress herself; Miyoko, 13, identified only by the sandal strap made from her mother’s kimono; and Noriaki Teshima, the first-year student who became so thirsty he drank the pus pouring from his wasted fingernails.

One of the most heartbreaking stories is that of Sadako Sasaki, who was just 2 years old at the time of the blast but seemed to escape unscathed. Ten years later, however, she contracted leukemia.

There is a Japanese saying that one who folds 1,000 paper cranes will have their wish granted, so Sadako began folding her own. With help from well-wishers, she managed to craft 1,300 cranes – some so small she had to use a needle to fold the paper.

“For Sadako, the number of cranes was less important than investing each one with the wish to live,” according to her exhibit.

Although Sadako ultimately succumbed to leukemia at age 12, paper cranes have carried on her memory, becoming a symbol of peace in Japan.

After the bombing, experts said no plants would grow on the scorched earth for at least 75 years. But they were wrong. Grass appeared not long after, and today Hiroshima is a beautiful city with lush green parks and vegetation. Without knowing the history of the city, you wouldn’t believe radioactive rain once soaked the earth.

It was sleeting by the time we left the museum to explore the rest of the Peace Memorial Park, including the Memorial Cenotaph, the Children’s Peace Monument, the skeletal A-Bomb Dome and the paper crane-strewn memorial to child workers.

The small pillar marking the A-Bomb’s hypocenter, the surface spot 580 meters directly below where the bomb detonated in the air, is located on the sidewalk of a narrow street just east of the park. After visiting the other war monuments, I was surprised by how insignificant it seemed, though in retrospect I can understand why: What purpose would emphasizing the source of such destruction and death serve?

I paused in front of the pillar and looked up, imagining a monstrous mushroom cloud filling the sky. But it was no use. The sleet had subsided, and all I could see was blue, blue sky.