We had left the hustle and bustle of Yokohama where, as in most of modern Japan, it is lit up like a pinball machine and where schoolgirls in precariously short skirts and boys sporting brilliantly coloured hairstyles jostled with staid men in business suits armed with transparent umbrellas.
We were more than ready to experience the Japan of Shogun and The Last Samurai. And what better place to visit for a taste of Old World Japan than the city that had first opened Japan’s doors to the world one-and-a-half centuries ago. Shimoda lies at the tip of the Izu Peninsula on the island of Honshu. It was here that the first American naval ships were welcomed by the Shogunate. Led by Commodore Matthew Perry (not the actor), the Black Ships sailed into the Shimoda Harbour in 1854.
We, on the other hand, zipped into Shimoda on the Odoriko Superview, a train named after Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata’s short story, Izu No Odoriko (The Dancing Girl From Izu). Through its panoramic windows, we watched the scenery change from sky-effacing buildings and massive factories, to sprawling farmlands of green and gold. The train sped through dark tunnels cut into the hillside to emerge onto a view of the aquamarine Sagami Bay on one side and tree-covered slopes on the other. The coastline was interspersed with little towns with hot springs spouting steam.
Two hours later, we disembarked at the Shimoda railway station, a simple one-storey building with an old-world charm. A distinctly fishy smell hung in the air. It was no surprise as fish – fresh, dried, preserved – was sold at many of the shops here.
A short distance away, we found the Ryosenji Temple, an oasis of serenity set amid shrubs of American jasmine which, when in full bloom in May, exude an intoxicating fragrance. This is where the US-Japanese friendship treaty was inked between Perry and the shogunate in 1854. Scrolls and prints housed in the adjoining Hall of Treasure showed amusing, often hilarious, encounters between the Japanese and the foreigners.
Leaving the temple, we came upon Perry Road, a cobbled stone street on which Perry had marched down with his men for the signing of the treaty. Willow trees swayed romantically in the dulcet breeze, overhanging the Hiraname River that gurgled along the edge of the street.
A winding path up a gentle hill led us into the Shimoda Shiroyama Park. In June, the park is over-run by millions of hydrangea blooms. But this was September, and we were treated to a peek-a-boo of the colours of fall, teasing us through the mostly green leaves. From atop the park, we took in a breathtaking view of Shimoda Harbour with ships afloat. It appeared as a canvas of aquamarine, dotted by sea-faring vessels, buoyed at their anchorage by foamy waves lapping at their hull.
Descending the leaf-strewn trail, we reached the Wakano-Ura Promenade, where Perry landed. His bust, along with an anchor presented by the US Navy, marked the spot.
On an alley nearby, we found the restaurant Anchukuro. Legend has it that when the first American consulate was set up, a young girl named Okichi was sent to keep house for the consul, Townsend Harris. She had to part from her lover, Tsurumatsu, a ship’s carpenter. After Townsend returned home, the locals shunned her for her alliance with him. She set up this restaurant but sadly, Okichi ended her life by jumping into the Inozawa River.
Anchukuro now houses Okichi’s personal mementos. As we walked away, quietly contemplating the tragic tale, we chanced upon a building where the unique architecture of Shimoda is still retained. Called “namako” walls, the facade is formed of black tiles criss-crossed on white plaster. There was an old bus painted with 1970s-style graffiti and converted into a pizza joint, parked incongruously among the old buildings. Nearby, on the aptly named Dried Fish Lane, the catch of the sea was spread out to dry under the sun.
As we tucked into a delectable bento meal at a cosy restaurant, it finally dawned on me how Shimoda had retained its charm. It was in no hurry to get anywhere.
The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own.