Shimoda: Japan’s Gateway to the World
People who first travel to the Tokyo region might find difficult to believe that merely 100 km from the megalopolis lie some of the most beautiful beaches in Japan. The Izu Peninsula (Izu Hanto) is located south-west from Tokyo and it has a lot to offer in terms of scenic mountain and coastal landscapes, paradise beaches and traditional holiday resorts such as ryokan (tradiout of stional Japanese inns) and onsen (hot springs). Obviously, this makes it a destination of choice for the Tokyoite during weekends and spring or summer breaks. Apart from these considerations, the Izu peninsula has counted very little in the unfolding of Japanese history is until quite recently. When Izu finally did come into play through Shimoda, one of its most southern cities, it changed the whole country and its people forever. The events that took place there in 1854 are nothing less than Japan’s first opening of the outside world after more than 200 years of Sakoku policy of isolationism. It also provoked the subsequent fall of the millenarian military regime of the Shogun, and the uncanny return of the Emperor as ruler of the country during the Meiji restoration (1868).
- Shimoda Town
- The opening of Japan to the West
- The consequences of Commodore Perry’s success
- Today’s Shimoda
- Shimoda’s most notable museums
- Practical information on Shimoda
- Further reading
This fundamental change operated in a small fishing port called Shimoda (下田市). The earliest records of human activity in this region nested amongst the hills date back to the prehistoric period, some time during the Jomon period (14,000 to 300 BC). Nowadays, Shimoda counts a little over 25,000 inhabitants, and it is located at nearly 200 km from Tokyo at the tip of the Izu peninsula.
Before the ground-breaking events of 1854, Shimoda had not been heard of much except for its function from 1616 to 1721 as the Shogun’s inspection post for all ships sailing from Osaka to Edo. During that time, it greatly benefited from the increased maritime traffic and the city grew as a rather prosperous trade platform. This prosperity was not to last for long however and from 1721, Shimoda was soon to return to more humble proportions and a quieter activity after the inspection post got moved away from the area to a location closer to Edo (present Tokyo), the capital of the Shogun.
Until Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s arrival, Japan had been under over 200 years of the Sakoku (鎖国, “locked country”) policy established by the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu. This policy regulated very strictly the contacts and commercial exchanges occurring between Japan and the rest of the world. Holland was the only European country allowed to trade with Japan and its zone of exchange was limited to the port of Nagasaki. Other similar arrangements were also in place with China and Korea. The lock down of Japan was decided in reaction to the ever-increasing influence of the Portuguese and Spanish delegations, especially through their missionaries diffusing their monotheist religion, which was starting to gather followers rather quickly, and proved a source of social and political unrest. The Sakoku led to the expulsion of foreigners and the interdiction for Japanese people to travel abroad. Of course, during the time of the policy, several attempts had been made by Europe, Russia and America to seek opening of the Japanese archipelago but all proved ultimately unsuccessful.
Matthew Calbraith Perry (April 10, 1794 – March 4, 1858) was an American US Navy officer who played a significant role in the opening of Japan to the West. He is also credited for being one of the strongest forces behind the modernization of the US Navy. Often referred to as “The Father of the Steam Navy” he was instrumental in developing and operating the Navy’s steam frigate. Upon his return to America, Perry was given $20,000 by Congress to reward his work in Japan.published in 1957 a three-volume report called Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan. Matthew Perry died in March 1858 in New York City.
Commodore Perry arrived in Edo bay on July 8, 1853 on board of the East India Squadron, a fleet that was constituted of 4 massive black steam ships whose size was up to 24 times the size of the largest Japanese war ships. As many before him, Matthew Perry carried a letter on behalf of his government, written by President Millard Fillmore addressed to the Emperor of Japan but this time, he would not take no for an answer and he anchored his ships close to the town of Uraga, pointing their formidable canons towards the city, stating that he would not leave until his request was answered and that Japan would have no other choice but to capitulate if he was to use his superior fire power. It was actually the very first time that the Japanese saw steamboats and the black ships made great impression on those who saw them. Upon agreement from the Japanese authorities to acknowledge reception of the letter, Perry relocated to the Chinese coast and guaranteed that he would return to hear the reply of the Japanese government.
Representation of the Black Ship
Perry’s return occurred in February 1854 with almost twice as many ships than the as first time (7 vessels carrying a total of 1,265 men) and even though the Japanese had consolidated their defenses in the Edo Bay in the meantime, he was notified that most of President Fillmore’s requests (peace and friendship between the United States and Japan, assistance to any American ship wrecking on the Japanese coast, sale of necessary supply for sailing to American ships in Japanese ports, and the opening of two out of five requested ports for trading), had been accepted by the Shogun. These agreements were formally recorded in the Convention of Kanagawa, which Perry signed on March 31, 1854. Interestingly, Perry was not aware at the time that although President Fillmore’s letter was addressed to the Emperor, the agreement he made was with the Shogun’s representative because of the fact that the country had been under Bakufu (Shogun ruling) since 1192. Also, although Perry first arrived in Edo, the negotiations and signing of the treaty took place in Shimoda and it is Shimoda that was agreed upon as one of the port opened to trade rather than Edo. The Shogun was obviously concerned about having the foreigners’ superior fire-power too close to Edo and he decided on a more distant location as setting for their discussions and future exchanges. In addition to that, one has to remember the pivotal role that Shimoda had once played as an inspection post for the Shogun and it therefore seem to make perfect sense for this choice. In spite of these events that were perceived as a humiliation the Japanese now commemorate Perry’s arrival, hence celebrating the opening their country to the world. The event takes place every year in July during the “Black Ship Festival”.
Namako-kabe wall typical of the second half of the Edo period
After the singing of the Treaty of Kanagawa, the first American consulate was established at the heart of Shimoda itself, in the Gyokusen-ji temple. The consulate was placed under the direction of Consul General Townsend Harris. It is Harris who, in 1858, negotiated the Treaty of Amity and Commerce which resulted most notably in the opening of five new ports; Edo, Kobe, Nagasaki, Niigata, and Yokohama to foreign trade. In the year 1855, Shimoda also hosted the signature of the Treaty of Shimoda officializing the commerce and navigation between Japan and Russia. Once again, the city of Shimoda benefited greatly from this increase of maritime traffic and it started to grow in size once more. But just as what happened over two hundred years before, this prosperity was short lived and the opening of the port of Yokohama in 1958 resulted in the closing of the port of Shimoda and the relocation of the American consulate to Edo.
Out of Shimoda Station
Following these events and during the Meiji restoration, the administration of Shimoda changed hands several times and what is known now as Shimoda Town was formally attached to the Kanto district in 1876. Since then, the city of Shimoda took once more a step back in the unfolding of the Japanese history even though the city that was once only accessible by sea is now well connected to the rest of Japan through a dense network of roads and railroads for the greatest pleasure of holiday makers. Perhaps the most notable event to occur during that time was the construction in 1870 of the Mikomotoshima Lighthouse by Richard H. Brunton, an engineer from England. In spite of the heavy bombings that Shimoda had to sustain during the Second World War, the lighthouse stood and it is now the oldest functioning lighthouse in Japan. After the war, six neighboring towns were merged with Shimoda which increased its size quite substantially.
The “Dancing Girl of Izu” (1926) was the first published work of popular author Yasunari Kawabata. The vegetation of the Shimoda surroundings quickly becomes the main character of this short novel and it gives a good idea of what Shimoda might have looked like nearly 100 years ago. Kawabata received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968 for his subsequent work
The economy of Shimoda relies heavily on two sectors, commercial fishing and tourism. The region is blessed with gorgeous beaches that attract a great number of sunbathers at the weekends and during spring and summer holidays. Historians often wonder what Shimoda must have looked like a hundred years ago and there exist quite a few accounts of its wild beauty, the main one being the short novel “The Dancing Girl of Izu” by Yasunari Kawanata.
Seafood restaurant in Shimoda
The main beaches to be found in the Shimoda area are Tadadohama, Ohama, Shirahama and Iritahama, the latter being considered as the most beautiful in Japan. Shimoda city itself is a very pleasant, small size town which carries a nice, quiet and quite laid back atmosphere. You can probably stroll around it in an afternoon and see most of what there is to see but it might also be worth is to take your time and enjoy its many souvenirs shops and cafes. Surprisingly for such a popular beach resort, the town of Shimoda does not contain much bars and as far as I know no nightclub, so you can be sure to have a decent night sleep, even if you opt to stay in the budget accommodations closer to the beach. The downside of this is perhaps that the relatively few restaurants are often full so you must make sure that you make appropriate reservation before the evening. It is well worth it for the seafood there is obviously of the freshest quality.
This beach is one of the closest to Shimoda and it is definitely the most popular of the area. It has all that one could hope for, white sand, crystalline water, impressive landscape, and numerous hotels, pensions and restaurants. It is also probably the most popular beach with youngsters thanks to its pop music and surfing vibe. It can therefore be a little bit too animated for the people seeking a resourcing break or for the amateurs of a calm afternoon reading a book by the sea. No need to be alarmed however, Shimoda’s atmosphere is very far from the hectic vibe which can be found in beaches closer to Tokyo like the ones in Enoshima Island or even Kamakura. It is still pretty harmless fun and the place remains very familly-friendly. By night, I was actually surprised by how quiet the place became and even wondered where all these kids went partying for the night.
For all the reasons cited above, I tend to prefer going with the bus a little further down the coast towards the less frequented Tadadohama Beach. It has all the wonderful characteristics of most of the beaches in the region but in addition to that, the atmosphere in Tadadohama is much more quiet and family-oriented. It makes it a perfect spot for a quiet afternoon by the sea in order to take a break from the hectic life in Tokyo. Personally, I also prefer the view, because the enclave is slightly narrower than the one at Shirahama Beach, it gives it the aspect of a sheltered paradise, out of civilization. Conveniently, hotels, ryokan and pensions are also available at walking distance from the beach (some actually on the sea front) but you will probably have to head back to Shimoda (10 min by bus) in order to find a proper restaurant outside of your hotels.
The Suzaki Hiking Trail runs from Suzaki Kaigan to Tsumekizaki. Tsumezaki is accessible from Shimoda by bus and it runs for about 2,8 km along the cliffs, allowing you to enjoy every bit of the fantastic ocean view.
Gyokusen-ji main temple
This Zen temple hosted during three years the first American consulate in Japan. The consulate was then transferred to the capital Edo. It is interesting to note that what is currently the Hondo (main building) was only built in 1848, just a few years before the westerner’s arrival. Upon Shogun’s order, it was turned into a residence for foreign visitors including Commodore Perry’s own men. American and Russian sailors are actually burried in the temple’s cemetary. The museum contains several artefacts that belonged to Consul General Townsend Harris as well as photographs taken during that time. Interestingly, a monument dedicated to milk was also erected and it seems that it is the Consul himself who started the trend of drinking milk in Japan where it had never been part of the Japanese diet until then (entrance fee: ¥ 400).
Hofuku-ji temple and museum
This little museum is dedicated to the Geisha Okichi Saito and her tragic yet elusive story. Legend has it that the Japanese authorities felt that the negotiations with US consul Townsend Harris could be facilitated if he could enjoy the company of a mistress. He had apparently been much impressed by the sight of Okichi Saito, a 17 year-old geisha, and she was therefore asked to serve the American diplomat as a service to her country. She was already engaged to a fisherman of Shimoda whom she had known since childhood but he was promised the rank of Samurai if he accepted to let her go. Eventually, after much requesting, Okichi accepted to serve her country and went with Harris. The treaty was signed and soon, Harris was dispatched to other duties outside Japan. Okichi was left alone by Townsend who had always considered her nothing more than an employee. Toshin Okichi (the foreigner Okichi) as she became named by the local population was treated as an outcast since she was now a rashamen (sheep; the name given to the Japanese women who compromised themselves with Westerners). She soon started to drink heavily and although her ex-fiancé accepted to take her back and marry her, their relationship did not last long. She ended her life in wandering and misery, finally drowning herself at the age of about 49. Her family never reclaimed her body and it is a local priest who took pity and gave her a decent burial.
Now, other evidence suggests that much of this story was either fabricated or exaggerated over the years, mainly through gossips and works of fiction. In fact, according to the Kodansha Encyclopaedia, it appears that Okichi only worked for Townsend as a housekeeper for three days although author Gary P. Leupp, giving much more details and what looks like extracts of correspondence between Harris and the Japanese authorities, suggests that she did have duties of a more private nature
Okichi Saito’s grave in Hofuku-ji
Whichever way you look at it, the truth is now quite hard to separate from the myth and the city of Shimoda has rather opportunistically made a very profitable business out of her tragic story. All across the town you will find shops selling all sorts of merchandise ranging from mugs, pen, scarves or even sweets with pictures of the young girl (some actually argue that the picture itself is not even her at all based on technological advances in photography that were not available at the time of her youth). The museum dedicated to Okichi’s story is located in the sixteenth-century Hofuku-ji temple where her grave remains (entrance fee: ¥ 400). A number of items having belonged to her or to the occupants of the house are displayed there as well as numerous illustrations. Numerous books and movies dealing with the story have been produced over the years, most notably in the West, the 1958 movie “The Barbarian and the Geisha” starring John Wayne as Townsend Harris.
This temple is where Commodore Perry and the Shogun’s representative Hayashi Fukusai signed the Treaty of Kanagawa on the 25th of May 1854. A guided visit is led by the loquacious monk Daiei Matsui (fluent English speaker) and the museum contains over 3000 documents relative to this period, including unflattering caricatures showing how Japanese saw westerners with their big noses and red faces (entrance fee: ¥ 500 – ¥ 1000 including guided tour).
This museum traces back the evolution of Shimoda after Commodore Perry’s visit, it is very detailed and it uses pictures and models to show the adaptations of the city to increased naval traffic (entrance fee: ¥ 300).
If you like quiet and beautiful walks, Perry Road is by far the most pleasant place to visit. The Commodore Matthew C. Perry walked the very same path along the Hiraname River while he was on on his way to Ryosenji Temple for the signing of the Convention of Kanagawa. Of all notable places in Shimoda, it is probably the one that has managed to preserve most of the feel of what it must have been some 150 years ago. The old traditional houses, the freshness provided by the willow trees, and the peaceful stream of the Hiraname water make it quite a very special place, almost reminiscent of old European cities. In this timeless surrounding, one can almost, for a moment, grasp the feelings that the Commodore must have felt while walking this way. You can easily spend a few hours or even a whole afternoon on Perry Road itself, browsing through its many shops or taking a break at one of its lovely cafes and restaurants.
The Shimoda Konai Meguri (Shimoda Harbor Circuit) is an attraction that allows you to discover the Shimoda harbor by sea on board of a replica of Commodore Perry’s Black Ship for about an hour (¥ 1000).
View from the Mount Nesugata
The Mount Nesugata, although it culminates no more than 200 meters above the sea level offers a very picturesque view of the Shimoda Bay. The mount owes its name Nesugata, which means “the sleeping form”, to the fact that when it is seen from Shimoda, it inspires the view of a woman resting. Mount Nesugata is accessible easily either by foot or via a cable car which offers a nice view during the ascension (¥1200 return ticket). In addition to the fantastic view it provides, Mount Nesugata also possesses a small temple dedicated to Ragaraja, the Buddhist deity of love. There is also a lovely little park, the Nesugatayama-sancho, whose entrance fee is included in the ropeway ticket price and where you can admire several tree and flower species. At the top of Mount Nesugata is also located a reconstructed copy of the watchtower that was especially built in order to watch the “Black Ship” while it was anchored in the bay during the negotiations with Perry. Don’t forget to print out the discount ticket available at the official Shimoda Ropeway website before you go and present it at the office.
Island Avenue Pension
- Yamane Ryokan is a cheap but very well kept traditional inn at the center of Shimoda. It is run by a charming old couple. 1-19-15 Shimoda-shi 0558/22-0482
- Pension Sakuraya is located in front of Shirahama Beach and has been run for the past 26 years by a very nice family, fluent English speakers. The price is very reasonable and the place is welcoming and quiet at night. Both western and Japanese type rooms are available.
- Island Avenue is a mid-priced pension located near Tadadohama Beach. The building is an impressive white wooden house. The rooms are of a western style and they are all en suite.
- Toutei Beach Inn is a high standing ryokan located right in front of Tadadohama Beach, it has its own onsen. Of all places in Shimoda, it is to me the most desirable for its location and high service.
The port of Shimoda
Nishindo is one of the most interesting and uncanny places to eat in Shimoda. It hosts a lovely bakery at the ground floor and an Italian restaurant (Ristorante Porto Caro) on the first floor. Both are run by mother and daughter Shigeko and Ikuyo Yokoyama who are well known in the region. Ikuyo is the author of a biography of the famous author and film director Yukio Mishima (who committed seppuku, the Japanese ritual suicide, in contestation to what he saw as a perversion of traditional Japanese values because of Western influences) and she is always more than happy to discuss with tourists about the region and the famous author whom she has met several times since he was apparently very fond of the madeleines baked downstairs. I have tasted them, they are indeed wonderful!
- From Tokyo, the simplest way is to take the Odoriko (踊り子) train from Shinjuku or Ikebukuro. For a better view, make sure you opt for the Odoriko Superview which has wider windows.
- If you are pressed for time, the Tokaido Shinkansen will lead you to Atami where you can change for the Odoriko line.
- Kathleen S. Kitao, History and Legend in Shimoda, Japan (includes an extensive part on Okichi’s story).
- Gary P. Leupp, Interracial intimacy in Japan: western men and Japanese women, 1543-1900; Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003
- The Pension Sakuraya has a very detailed website with lots of information about Shimoda
- Japan Visitor’s guide to Shimoda
- Japan Guide: Shimoda
- A great resource on Commodore Matthew Perry and his journey to Asia.
- A very detailed history of Shimoda and the opening of Japan to foreign trade
- An account of Japan’s opening on the US Navy Museum website
- Matthew Calbraith Perry, Japan opened: compiled chiefly from the narrative of the American expedition to Japan, in the years 1852-3-4, Religious Tract Society, 1858. Available for free as an e-book.
- This page reproduces the letter of President Fillmore addressed to the Emperor of Japan along with the response of the latter.