It’s 1853. US Admiral Perry is pressuring Edo’s Tokugawa Shogunate at canon-point in Tokyo Bay to sign up to an unfavorable trade treaty. Hasty preparations are made for the defense of the capital. The plan is to place cannons in the harbor at Odaiba, literally meaning honorable site for placements.
First the cannons need to be manufactured. Enter Egawa Hidetatsu who organizes the building of smelting furnaces, hansharo. The location of these needs to be handy enough to Tokyo Bay to enable quick coastal transport of the finished cannons to Odaiba, but also obscure enough that the Americans won’t know about them. So Egawa builds the furnaces in his tiny hometown of Nirayama, on Izu Peninsula’s north-western coast.
Cannon manufactured at Nirayama for the defense of Tokyo
Fast forward to 2015. After years of careful preservation, Nirayama Hansharo is awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Nirayama can be reached by car from Tokyo in about 3.5 hours, take Izu Skyline from Atami. The site is quite small so it only takes about 30 minutes to walk around for a good look. The nearby souvenir shop has an interesting animated video showing how the furnaces were fired with a combination of coal and charcoal, and how water-wheels provided 24/7 power to lift the heavy cannons through assembly-line like production phases. The Furnaces are a classic example of Japan’s early efforts to introduce modern technology and rapidly industrialize to counter outside threats from the Western powers. They set the stage for the mid-late 19th century Meiji Period industrial revolution, which enabled Japan alone in Asia to beat the colonizing Western powers at their own game.
World Heritage Nirayama Hansharo
After the Furnaces, a visit to Egawa’s nearby residence is highly recommended. This officially recognized Important Cultural Property is a great example of an Edo Period mansion, although its origins date back at least 700 years. It was used as a set in filming the very popular 2008 NHK TV drama series Atsu Himei, which relates the story of Perry’s showdown with the failing Edo Shogunate through the eyes of Princess Atsu. Tucked modestly at the back of Egawa’s residence is a small museum which reveals more ancient history of the region, the Yamamoto village of Japan’s Stone Age 3rd century Yayoi Period. Humble lifestyle of the period depicted through artifacts and dioramas is a reminder of just how young the Japanese race and modern developed nation is, in comparison with neighboring China. The museum also has some nice examples of Jomon Period pottery from 5,000 years ago.
But there are more sights to this history tour of cute Nirayama Village. A short distance from the Furnaces is Hirugashima, where 12th century Minamoto Yoritomo was banished to from the Kyoto capital. Yoritomo went on the become Japan’s first Shogun and establish the Kamakura Period, with his capital close to modern day Tokyo. Egawa Hidetatsu was a descendent of Yoritomo. Visitors might initially be confused because ‘shima’ means island, but Yoritomo’s site is clearly on Honshu’s mainland. Apparently the site was originally an island in a river, which subsequently has been reclaimed for agriculture.
Important Cultural Property Egawa Hidetatsu's Edo Period Mansion
Close by also are the remains of 15th century Nirayama Castle. This castle was established by Hojo Sou-un of Odawara fame as a western protectorate of his realm during the Warring States Period. The Hojo’s were finally defeated a century later at Odawara by Osaka’s Toyotomi Hideyoshi, supported by the soon to become even more powerful Edo Period founder Tokugawa Ieyasu.
So why not make a day trip from Tokyo, Nagoya, or even Osaka to the tiny town of Nirayama, resplendent in its display of 5,000 years of Japanese history and now with World Heritage status in acknowledgement.