Cleaved to the arching coastline of powdery beaches set against verdant rolling hills and craggy cliffs, is the seaside resort of Shimoda. About 180 kilometers south of Tokyo, it is linked to the capital by both rail and well paved roads, with frequent runs by buses and trains. For motorists, The Izu Skyline Parkway offers a spectacular scenic ride through beautiful mountain ranges and national parks, tranquil retreats from Japan’ congested cities.
A modern hamlet with all the contemporary amenities, Shimoda reverberates with strong undercurrents of history. A large model of a black ship, as Commodore Matthew G.Perry’s warships were known, is the centerpiece of the plaza directly outside the railroad station, a historic license, since it was Yokohama Perry’s fleet actually menaced. But there is a philosophic accuracy in this implicit claim, for here, the Shogun signed the first treaty with The Commodore simply to get rid of him. While it specified Shimoda as the site for The First Foreign Consulate on Japanese soil, The Shogun hoped to weasel out of an agreement made under duress. Regular docking by these ominous vessels of change lay in a not so distant future. But when Townsend Harris, The First American Consul and his staff were marooned ashore, they had to cope not only with an unfamiliar land, but with the dissimulations and evasions of their transparently reluctant hosts as well.
The first was being blandly informed they couldn’t stay because there were no accommodations for them, but The USS San Jacinto had already sailed, so both intruders and hosts had to make the best of a bad situation. Harris and his companions were unceremoniously dumped in an abandoned temple two kilometers from the center of town. Harassed by mosquitoes and lack of living facilities, they even had difficulty buying provisions from local merchants. Sympathetic townspeople surreptitiously supplied them with the barest necessities. They had to improvise to make their quarters habitable, to minimize frictions that usually flared when people lived in cramped spaces under trying conditions. That was only
Although it appeared deceptively close to Edo (Tokyo) on existing maps, poor roads made it an uncomfortable journey of several days. Perry had made his on one of his warships. Harris had to travel north overland frequently to defuse potential trouble between merchants, sailors, traders and the native population. That he managed to execute his consular duties was nothing short of a miracle. He even ironed out a complementary treaty correcting earlier oversights and included stipulations protecting all foreigners from persecution, including troublesome missionaries. The Japanese Shogunate was getting uneasy about religious proselytizing. The patient manner, he negotiated with them, working around obstructions they strewn in front of him, earned their trust and respect. Perhaps, as a conciliatory gesture, the town fathers sent Ofuku and Okichi, two seventeen year old Geishas as gifts.
Unable to refuse them without provoking offense, Harris was forced to shelter them in his residence, compromising their position within their own culture. His vice consul eventually married Ofuku, and a romantic legend grew around Harris and Okichi. When he had to abandon her at the end of his tour, Okichi drowned herself. But it was likely from the stigma of living under the same roof with a foreigner, particularly, a male, rather than a serious emotional attachment. Nevetheless, a temple (Hokufuji) was erected next to The First US Consulate in Japan for the repose of her soul.
Adjacent is a memorial hall, where along with the artifacts of the period, wax figures of Townsend Harris and the forlorn Okichi are encased in glass. Japanese, mostly, make pilgrimages to this site, for it is to him, they credit the end of Japan’s isolation and her emergence as a world power.
A pleasant coastal village that is a year-round vacation spot, Shimoda appears to be the private preserve of native tourists. Few signs are in English. Two major chains have opened hotels by Shirahama Beach; The Prince and Tokyu. With the current unfavorable rate of Dollar-Yen exchange, it may be advisable to seek alternatives. Smaller inns (Ryokans), recognizable by symbols of reclined figures on a hammock, underneath Kanji letters, provide good value. Minshukus, private homes, where spare rooms are left, afford intimate glimpses of native life, otherwise denied foreigners.
Since it lacks the sensuous, pulsating night life found in larger metropolitan areas, it makes up for this with a proliferation of family entertainment. A floral park, near the harbor, is a fifteen minute walk from the train station. Picnic tables and benches are available along the highway. A ropeway from the terminal leads to a lookout tower on the summit of Mt.Nesugata, where sentries once watched the maneuvers of the black ships. On a clear day, an impressive panorama unfolds to tantalize the eye.
Cape Iro is a short hop by bus, and on the southernmost promontory is The Irozaki Lighthouse, from where the seven isles of Izu can be seen. Nearby is Shimoda’s Underwater Museum, constructed along the lines of a submarine and housing 100 species of marine life. In the middle of May, Kurufume Matsuri, The Festival of Black Ships, is celebrated to commemorate the opening of Japan, with participation of naval ships from other parts of the world. It is much more elaborate than that held in Yokohama, where the statue of Commodore Perry was razed after the attack on Pearl Harbor as if to erase the national humiliation. That The Townsend Harris Memorial did not suffer the same fate is evidence of the esteem in which he is held and the contradictions of The Japanese Psyche.
(Pictures above: Wax figure of the tragic Okichi, believed to be the model for Puccini’s opera’s, Madame Butterfly, even if it was unlikely there was a romantic attachment between her and Townsend Harris.
John Wayne was an inspired casting choice for the role of Townsend Harris. They were about the same in physical stature. The only liberty taken was the actor didn’t wear mutton chops, which would have obscured his own personna.)