Fun, Sun, and Black Ships

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Last Sunday, the bride and I went down to Shimoda at the bottom of the Izu Peninsula to stay at a fancy old onsen for a brief mini-honeymoon. Upon first glance, Shimoda has a low-rent tacky charm common to all small beach towns, whether Cocoa Beach or Lagos in the Algarve. But what sets Shimoda apart is its place in history: It is the location upon which U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry landed his infamous “black ships” in 1853 and opened up Japan with a little so-called “gunboat diplomacy.” (Wait a minute — it’s not! It’s the location of a 1854 treaty that opened it as a port.)

Perry and his crew set up a consulate, opened up some ports, and forced Japan to sign what would become known as the “unfair treaties.” The shame of Perry’s strong-arm invasion helped to dissolve the remaining legitimacy of the Tokugawa government, and one could claim that the hang-ups about the treaties snowballed into the inferiority complex behind Japan’s 20th century imperial aggression. Looking back, the Perry episode could be viewed both as a cause for celebration — Japan was finally opened and started down the road towards modernity — or as the unwelcome entrance of arrogant, light-skinned cast members — things were a lot more “Japanese” before Perry barged in and ruined the party. Everything evens out at this point to something more “neutral” — a piece of colorful history and an excellent differentiating point (tourist-trap) for Shimoda. The greater conflict has nothing to do with interpreting history, but with challenging Kurihama for the title of the Most Important Perry-Related Town in Japan.

I ask the wife how the Japanese feel about Perry now: “He is just an interesting visitor to Japan — like Tama-chan.” Tama-chan, of course, is the seal who mysteriously showed up in the Tama River some years ago. Perry in his current super-deformed state is about as cute as a pinniped, and the mean ole’ black ships which once struck fear and terror in the hearts of 19th century Japanese have transformed into design patterns for leisure buses, cruise boats, and candy boxes. The great Commodore has gone from delivering stern letters from Millard Fillmore to delivering serious fun to the renkyu vacationers.

Shimoda’s high-point is “Perry Road” — a strip of land along an old canal preserved from the mid-19th century. The ten-minute walk to Perry-land from the station is uninspiring and forgettable, but the actual historical area is fantastic. Many South Izu buildings share an interesting design pattern of white diagonal lines on black, and some of the old buildings have unique Western-inspired stone frames topped with traditional Japanese roofs that you rarely see in other places. Perry Road feels a bit like a tropical Kyoto, with sea crabs in the narrow canals and white cranes upon telephone wires. The irony is that the Japanese only preserved the old “Japanese” part of town in order to remember the history of an American who lived there.

Later staying in a creaky second-floor room in the Kanaya Onsen, I could not help but think about the high price premium we pay to experience “Japan” in Japan. One night for two in these ancient wooden buildings — where you can hear every movement of every single person in the complex at all times — would get you a super-deluxe room at a first-rate hotel in Tokyo. Sure, they throw in a king’s feast of local seafood, but you are paying mostly for the ability to experience “the real Japan” — opposed to the soulless plastic of modern Japan and crisp bed sheets. As a pop culture fan, I always resented the automatic “Kyoto > Tokyo” logic of most tourists, but I have come around in recent years to enjoy a nice soak in a traditional onsen, comfortable slumber on the floor with simple futons, an afternoon nap on the tatami mats under the soft glow of natural daylight. We flock to Shimoda to experience the Japan that Perry encountered in 1853 and then head reluctantly back home to the Japan that Perry ended up creating in the years after his exit.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
October 12, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

9 Responses

  1. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    Sounds entirely charming! Have to add it to my agenda for the future. If you are into oddly preserved historica, try visiting Kobe. The Ijinkan will make you feel like you are visiting your great grandmothers place back in the USofA. Theres lots of good beef to be had and you can find comfortable lodgings at a business hotel in the Motomachi/Sannomia area for far less than onsen rates.

  2. James Says:

    Next time, try the Kurofune Hotel: it’s got charmingly tacky black ships all over the its carpets.

  3. Adamu Says:

    Was it really that expensive? I’ve dreamed of visiting every prefecture before, but perhaps I’d have to hitchike and dine and ditch if I really wanted to enjoy them all and still think about retiring comfortably.

  4. joey Says:

    I really like Iritahama beach in that area, its got the high class (http://www.toutei.co.jp), Proust class (http://www.inashichi.com/index2.html), no class menshikus, and its not as absurdly crowded as the other beaches.

  5. Klas Senatus-Sjogren Says:

    I have come around in recent years to enjoy a nice soak in a traditional onsen

    Going to Tokyo early November and we’re thinking of doing an Onsen and Healthy Food tour, if possible (no shopping). Are there any particular Onsen you could recommend, preferably ones where women and men can bathe together, if such places exist?

  6. marxy Says:

    Was it really that expensive?

    Maybe not that bad, but I keep hearing about the 40,000 a night/per person onsen becoming pretty standard. Remember: all the pricing structures have to change to accommidate the New Rich. There are enough of them to fill up most of these tiny places.

    I get frustrated every time I think about going anywhere outside of Tokyo. It’s 12,000 round trip per person to Izu, and gets worse the farther you go. If you are just going for a weekend, that’s pretty high transportation fees. I’d love to go up North, but I don’t have the discretionary income at the moment. I miss the Chinatown bus for $15 between Boston and New York.

  7. nate Says:

    there’s a night bus to aomori for as low as 8000 round tri~ip… But the overnight onsens of any quality up there are in the WOODS, not quaintly fake/fakely quaint little tourist towns.
    We can’t afford those towns up there.

  8. 小切手 Says:

    夜行バス, bro. 超 安い。

  9. Luke Smith Says:

    Pardon me, but but the REAL Perry is far more interesting than his wannabe kid brother. Oliver Hazard Perry saved my home state of Ohio from becoming part of Canada (although it would be nice to have some socialized medicine going on out here). They built him an obelisk and everything. Nothing says winner like a giant phallus–everyone who’s been to Washington knows that.