Japan’s (forced) dawn of modernity
or: a romantic town of southern flair
Not too many people who have no relation to Japan may contemplate the climatic conditions in the Kantō region – the area that his home to the country’s capital, Tōkyō, where cherry trees usually start to blossom in early April only (or late March, if the weather permits), which gives you a rather good indication for the assumption of the availability of a prior season that deserves the name “winter”. Even though Tōkyō is on the same latitude as Northern Africa, the missing Gulf Stream may be one of the reasons why the climate in the Kantō region is just a touch cooler than in Northern Africa.
The more one is surprised to find landscapes and vegetation that have a certain Mediterranean touch – just about 120 km air-line distance southwest of Tōkyō at the southeastern tip of the Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島 / いずはんとう) – and if you think “Mediterranean” is a bit over the top, than don’t be surprised if it rouses images of the coasts of Cornwall or the island of Guernsey. It might be the palm trees that trigger such southern impression in us “Northerners”.
Shimoda (下田 / しもだ), protected by the mountain range of Amagi (天城連山 / あまぎれんざん) in the north, and warmed by the Kuroshio (黒潮 / くろしお), a warm sea current, in the south, that has a similar effect as the Gulf Stream in Europe, is one of those winter destinations that are certainly worth a trip or a longer stay, if you live in the Kantō region. The city itself is located in a picturesque valley at the mouth of the Inōzawa river (稲生沢川 / いのうざわがわ) that flows into a wide natural harbour at the Pacific’s coast. One of the major sources of income in this area are, however, the natural hot springs. Naturally, this water is primarily not used for drinking, but for bathing. For a good reason the Japanese bathing culture is famous all over the world.
Thanks to those natural resources the area around Shimoda has been populated since ancient times. However, during the Edo period, when the Tokugawa shōgunes ruled Japan for 265 years (from 1603 to 1868) and kept the country isolated, Shimoda gained particular importance as one of the busiest ports for coastal ship traffic. Every ship that wanted to enter Edo (the old Tōkyō) had to come to Shimoda first and was inspected here.
The city really made it to the books of history when the “black ships” (黒船 / くろふね) of Commodore Matthew Perry appeared. Perry had entered the waters leading to the Tōkyō Bay on July 8th, 1853 near the present-day Yokosuka and tried to forcefully “convince” Japan to open its harbours for trade relations with the United States of America. Less than a year later (in March 1854) the “Convention of Kanagawa” (神奈川条約 / かながわじょうやく), rather euphemistically also called “Japan–US Treaty of Peace and Amity” (日米和親条約 / にちべいわしんじょうやく), was signed. And shortly after, in July 1858 is was succeeded by the so-called “Treaty of Amity and Commerce” (日米修好通商条約 / にちべいしゅうこうつうしょうじょうやく), that was concluded at the Ryōsen temple (了仙寺 / りょうせんじ) (see below) in Shimoda. The imperial powers of the world of those so-called “good old days” tried to get their hands on everything that wasn’t strong enough to resist them – Japan’s lack of development, as far as technology and warfare was concerned, was flagrantly exploited by those “unequal treaties” that brought lots of advantages for Japan’s “new friends” and comparatively little for Japan itself, but rather restrictions to its own sovereignity.
However, what may look like some outrageous imperialistic enthrallment today, was also the initiation of Japan’s unprecedented modernisation (and one should also not forget that the middle of the 19th century was a period of upheaval in Japan as well as elsewhere – it is hardly a coincidence that at this time the era of the shōguns came to an end and power was (re-)installed with the Emperor, together with a rather modern political system). That might be one of the reasons why the treaty of Shimoda is cherished by the Japanese people as a moment of glory in the development of the country, rather than a moment of dishonour imposed by a foreign power.
I guess, it is not necessary to make this posting an extended history lesson. The breathtaking speed the development the country took in the second half of the 19th century is well-known. After all, also the impressive economic rise of Japan after World War II. (not to mention its “military rise” during the war), when the whole world was holding its breath because of the sheer potential of “Japan Incorporated”, can be explained with the skills developed during the first decades of modernisation: Japanese willingly adapted foreign knowledge, modified it according to their needs and further developed it.
A lot is done in Shimoda to bring the history of the middle of the 19th century closer to its visitors. At the “Monument of Perry’s Landing” you will find a sculpture of Commodore Perry. And since May 31st 2004 also the “U.S.-Japan Friendship Flame” has been buring here – next to a memorial plate containing a message by the US-American president, George W. Bush, dated March 31st 2004 commemorating the 150th anniversary of Americann-Japanese relations. A lot more of memorablia of those historic events can be found in the “Shimoda History Museum” nearby.
One of the gems of this little and (I daresay) otherwise rather unimpressive town is the Perry Road (ペリーロード) – the road Commodore Perry and his group took on his way to the Ryōsen temple, where the Japanese-American treaty was about to be signed. The picturesque little district alongside the Hiraname river endaevours to conserve the charm of these old days. Coffee shops, restaurants and antique shops invite you to stay a while and look around.
For all those who are interested in the sacral buildings of the town, hava a look at the pictures below, showing you some of the temples and shrines of Shimoda:
The temple that was founded in 1559 reminds on the tragic destiny of a young girl in the service of the first US consul to Japan who happened to be stationed here in Shimoda. The 15 year old Okichi was heavily harassed by her fellow countrymen for working for a foreigner. In the end she couldn’t bear the taunting any longer and drowned herself in the nearby Inozawa river. In later years Okichi was very often taken as a symbol for the negative sides of Japan’s modernisation.
Hachiman Jinja (八幡神社)
The Hachiman shrine is the biggest in town and dates back about 700 years. It is best known for its summer festival (14th and 15th of August) and its parade of big drums.
This temple of the Nichren sect of Japanese Buddhism was founded in 1635 and may very well be the place most soaked in history in Shimoda. As mentioned before, this is the place where in July 1858 the “Treaty of Amity and Commerce” ( 日米修好通商条約 / にちべいしゅうこうつうしょうじょうやく) was concluded by Commodore Perry.
Dear Germans: Don’t be surprised if you see memorial plates here and there showing engraved drawings by Wilhelm Heine – who is always called “Wilhelmu Heine” on those plates (well, that just happens if one “translates” names back from the Japanese syllabaries to western alphabet without knowing the name of the respective person). And for all those who don’t know Wilhelm Heine: He was born in Dresden (Germany) and lived from 1827 to 1885. He not only accompanied Commodore Perry on his voyages to Japan, but also was the official travel painter of the Eulenburg-Expedition to East Asia in the 1860s.
Should you wish to get an overview over the whole city, the surrounding mountains and of this part of the cliffy coasts of the Izu Peninsula, why don’t you take the “Shimoda Ropeway” (下田ロープウェイ) that’ll take you 156 metres higher to its top station at the Nesugatayama (寝姿山 / ねすがたやま), Shimoda’s landmark mountain. At this stategically important point the Shōgun hurriedly had a watching place installed after an English survey ship had made its way into these waters in April 1849. As history tells us: The efford of keeping an eye on the sea traffic was in vain. The ridge of the Nesugatayama has been transformed into a strolling park that offers breathtaking views over the city, the harbour and the Pacific Ocean with the neighbour islands on the horizon.
Don’t miss the Buddhist temple, Aizen-dō (愛染堂 / あいぜんどう), and its “Love-Powerspot“!
Friends of maritime life will find a visit to the “Shimoda Aquarium” (下田海中水族館 / しもだかいちゅうすいぞくかん) worthwhile. Located at the southeast side of the Shimoda Park (下田公園 / しもだこうえん), south of the Perry Road (it’s about 1 km walk alongside the coast from the Perry Road; from the station of Shimoda it’s less than 2 km walk). The main attractions here are the dolphins living in open waters and the sharks and rays in the 600 cubic metre basin of the “Perry Aqua Dome” (アクアドームペリー号).
How to get there:
The most convenient and comfortable train ride from Tōkyō is offered by the “Superview Odoriko” (スーパービュー踊り子) – either from Shinjuku station or Tōkyō station (journey time about 2 ¾ hours; fare between 5,640 and 6,640 Yen). The station name at your destination is “Izukyū Shimoda” (伊豆急下田 / いずきゅうしもだ). The trip alongside the east coast of the Izu Pensinsula alone is worth the trip. If you bring some time with you, have some stops on the way to Shimoda to enjoy the beaches and fishermen’s villages.
And just in case you should get hungry in Shimoda:
The gastronomic choice in Shimoda is a rather modest one. That’s why I don’t want to withhold informaton on three of the establishments I tried myself. However, keep in mind, that for those restaurants at least basic knowledge of the Japanese language would be recommended.
If it is home-made soba (buckwheat noddles) you are looking for, why don’t you try the “Yabu Soba” (薮そば / やぶそば) – the place is also destribed as “Teuchi Soba Yabu” (手打ちそば 藪 / てうちそばやぶ) – at the northwest side of the station. Even beyond the usual mealtime schedules you’ll be served here (open daily, except on Thursdays, from 11 am to 8 pm).
1-4-16 Nishi Hongō, Shimoda, Shizuoka-ken
And for those of you who like it a bit more rustic, a dinner at the “Kaikoku Chūbō Bochi Bochi” (開国厨房 ぼちぼち / かいこくちゅうぼうぼちぼち) might be the approriate place: Fresh fish, grilled food, a selection of delicious sake and, of course, draft beer – and a cosy atmosphere that is dominated by posters of Japanese pop stars of the 80s. The place to dive into the world of the local people.
Open daily from 5 pm to midnight.
1-15 Shimoda Itchome, Shimoda, Shizuoka
Of the same “family” of restaurants is also the “Kaikoku Chūbō Naka Naka” (開国厨房 なかなか / かいこくちゅうぼうなかなか), where you can feel like being swept away to Okinawa. Also this izakaya-style restaurant is a rather rustic one. And should you have ever wondered what this “Kaikoku Chūbō” stands for: Very freely translated it means “kitchen of the land-opening” which may sound a bit strange, but it is in reminiscence of the cuisine served more than 150 years ago, when it was – for the first time in a very long time – confronted with foreign influences.
Open daily, except on Mondays, from 5 pm to midnight.
13-8 Shimoda Itchome, Shimoda, Shizuoka
And just in case you should stumble across a restaurant named “Kaikoku Chūbō Nami Nami” (開国厨房 なみなみ / かいこくちゅうぼうなみなみ) (which is supposed to be open daily, but wasn’t receiving guests when I was there), you’ll be able to assume what kind of culinary adventure you would engage here.