Shimoda, allegedly being the real-world inspiration for Pallet Town in the Pokemon video and anime series, is at the southern tip of a Izu Peninsula some 100km southwest of Tokyo.
Upon touching down in this quaint port city, little did I realise that Shimoda was involved in resolving the political struggles Japan had to maintain its national seclusion policy in the 1850’s.
For some historical reference, Sakoku was a period of 220 years when Tokugawa Iemitsu ordered a shut down of all activity to and from all ports in Japan. This severely limited trade and relations between Japan and other countries, and nearly all foreigners were forbidden to enter and the local Japanese were kept from leaving.
This National seclusion policy ended in 1853 when the American Black Ships, commanded by Matthew Perry, forced the opening of Japan to American trade though a series of unequal treaties.
This movement became a celebration of forming a friendly bond between Japan and alliances from rest of the world, to which a statue of Matthew Perry was erected in the Port.
There is more evidence of this history all over the port, from replicas of the black ship in the bay to a stone paved road next to an attractive canal named after Matthew Perry himself.
Perry Road’s very pretty canal street has bridges of varying styles to sweet cafes and fisherman’s restaurants. It’s worth the walk down there to see the architecture, some of which differ from the traditional Japanese style kominka/ryokans.
Some of it looks quite westernised, with exposed brick very much like the stone houses I would see at home in the UK. Curious.
Some houses however have this white latticed structure on the outside. This particular structure was made from straw and mud and reinforced with the concrete lattice. There are very few buildings left standing in this town that were built like this.
The Shimoda Museum is one of them, however I doubt that the walls were built in the same time frame as the restaurant above. The museum holds a lot of information about the history of the black ships and the Russian mission related to the modernisation of Japan; and issued with an English guidebook at the door, I was all set to be educated.
I was greeted by some creepy figurines on top of replica Taiko drum carts and a huge structure of waxwork men performing Shimoda’s Taiko Matsuri.
The festival is risen by young men with a portable shrine called Mikoshi and 15 drum carts. The highlight of the festival comes when a bridge made of 11 sacred implements is carried on shoulders and then gathered in a line, at which point the two teams of men push from either side until the centre rises to form a curve.
Shimoda Drum Festival is symbolistic of the development of Shimoda, held in August every year on the 14th – 15th, the people of Shimoda are very proud of this festival.
The largest event in Shimoda however is The Black Ships Festival, held on May 20-22 this year, usually over three days which sandwich the third Saturday in May. A US Navy sponsored festival full of international colours as a commemorative official parade of Marine Corps march down the seaside streets.
Today it is highly celebrated that Matthew Perry’s warships came in to the bay with an official letter from the President of the United States urging Japan to open the country to the world. However at the time the invasion would have been quite an intimidating experience for the Japanese. Whom up until then, had been living in their own little bubble with no contact with Gaijin (foreigners) for 220 years.
One of the exhibits I found is Matthew Perry’s photograph, next to seven drawings done by Japanese people, each of them pretty hideous and goblin-like, suggesting that the Japanese were extremely fearful of foreigners…
I mean… this one barely looks human…
Another disturbing illustration suggests that the Americans circling the bay in The Black Ships for years had no access to pigs and cows so had to eat sea turtles. An animal that the Japanese pays a high reverence to and is present in traditional art, literature and shrines as a symbol of wisdom and longevity.
After Perry left, Putyatin from Russia arrived to settle boundary questions between Japan and Russia, and signed the Japan-Russia Treaty Peace and Amity in 1854. Shortly after their friendship was tested by a gigantic earthquake and tsunami that destroyed Shimoda town and Putyatin’s flagship “Diana”. They worked together to build a new ship called “Heda-go”, the first western-style structure in Japan, and may be why the buildings along Perry Road look quite westernised.
In 1856, Townsend Harris landed in Shimoda and opened the first US consulate at the Gyokusen-ji Temple.
In 1858 the Japan-US Trade and Friendship Treaty was concluded. Japan ended its Sakoku and opened several ports such as Yokohama and Kobe, and started trading. After that Japan concluded similar treaties with Netherlands, Russia, UK and France.
I wonder what Japan would be like today if The Black Ships had never appeared on the shores of Shimoda?
Shimoda History Museum: 1200yen
MoBS Museum of Black Ships: 500yen
Parking near Perry Road: 500yen