It’s 1854. US Admiral Perry’s fleet of Black Ships have returned to Japan to claim their prize – opening up of Shimoda Port for international trade. Just the previous year Perry had steamed into Tokyo Bay demanding at cannon-point that Japan open up, breaking 3 centuries of isolation of the Japanese capital from the outside world. The deal for Shimoda also included establishing the first foreign diplomatic mission in Japan. Townsend Harris takes up residence at Gyokusenji Temple in Shimoda as the US Consul General to Japan in 1856.
Appearance of Perry’s Black Ships, with their industrial revolution technology, startled medieval Japan. The event set off a chain reaction of discontentment with the outdated Edo Shogunate, resulting eventually in the establishment of the Meiji Government, and Japan’s own industrial revolution. A key figure in this drama was Yoshida Shoin, who famously attempted to row out to the Black Ships moored in Shimoda Harbor to join the Americans and study their advanced ways. Shoin was caught and executed by the Edo authorities, but his martyrdom inspired a generation of reformers. Shoin is memorialized in a monument on the Shimoda foreshore.
1854 was an eventful year for the citizens of Shimoda. Magnitude 8.4 Ansai Tokai earthquake on December 23 generated a tsunami which claimed 122 lives and destroyed the town, necessitating a rebuild. Some of these late Edo Period buildings are still in use on Shimoda’s streets use today, characterized by checkered black and white plaster walls. Hot on the heels of Perry, Russian Admiral Putyatin’s flagship Diana was moored in Shimoda harbor at the time of the tsunami. Diana was so badly damaged by the waves that she later sank in a storm.
Shimoda is a small town near the southern tip of Japan’s Izu Peninsula. Its natural port, surrounded by volcanic outcrops, has made it an ideal anchorage for centuries. Today, most people reach Shimoda either by road down Izu’s pretty east coast, or by train – Odoriko Express comes direct from Tokyo and allows visitors to travel in style. But prior to the 20th century development of this land transport infrastructure, sea was the access route to the Port. So Shimoda developed centuries before centers that are actually much closer to Tokyo in the northern part of Izu Peninsula.
Shimoda’s ancient history is best represented today by Shirahama Shrine, Izu Peninsula’s oldest shrine. A classical Japanese bright red wooden bridge directly off main highway 135 draws worshippers into the contemplative shrine grounds, boasting a 2,000 year old tree with claimed spiritual powers.
Shimoda Port also played a key role in one of the final battles of the 16th century Warring States Period. Osaka’s Toyotomi Hideyoshi joined forces with the soon-to-be Edo founder Tokugawa Ieyasu to defeat the Hojo clan’s control over Izu from their base in Odawara Castle. Shimoda Castle was a southern outpost of the Hojo empire. It clung precariously to the Shimoda volcanic cliffs and put up a strong defence to the Toyotomi land and sea forces. Eventually Shimoda Castle surrendered to the invaders. The subsequent fall of Odawara Castle itself completed Toyotomi’s reunification of Japan as a single nation under one central Government.
Visitors come to Shimoda today not only to enjoy its colorful and significant role in Japan’s history, but also its pretty beaches. Shirahama, literally ‘White Beach’, is its most famous beach, popular with swimmers and surfers. Sotoura is a smaller beach tucked into the coastline between Shirahama and Shimoda township. Outside the peak summer season Sotoura provides a welcome peaceful coastal retreat.
So, summer or otherwise, why not take a trip down to Shimoda and soak up the atmosphere of the making of a nation? Some quiet time on a pretty beach is also always welcome.