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.