Every May, locals and visitors dress the part for the annual Shimoda Black Ship Festival // (c) Shimoda City Tourist Association
Just three hours south of Tokyo, on the southern coast of Japan’s Izu Peninsula, visitors will find sunny Shimoda City. Although the city is home to just 25,000 residents, Shimoda has become very popular with Japanese travelers, who revere the area for its pristine beaches, its high-quality hot springs resorts and its surfing. Despite the high volume of annual visitors, the area retains a small-town charm, with cobbled pedestrian pathways and annual re-enactments of key moments in the city’s dramatic history.
History of Shimoda City
For most of its ancient history, Shimoda City was a sleepy fishing village — but when the Tokugawa ruled Japan during the country’s Edo Period (1603-1868), the city’s strategic location between Tokyo (Edo) and Osaka catapulted it into service as a popular seaport.
The city’s claim to fame, however, occurred in 1854, when it became the key player in Japan’s hotly contested debate on whether or not to abandon its national isolation policy after U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry demanded that Japan open to foreigners. On March 31, 1854, the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Peace and Amity was signed in Shimoda, which became the first Japanese port to open to Americans.
On that day, Commodore Perry sailed seven enormous Black Ship vessels into Shimoda Bay. The massive vessels were unlike any the Japanese had ever seen, and the largest was some 24 times heavier than any ship the Japanese had ever constructed.
Seven Attractions to Visit in Shimoda City
Originally founded in 1635, Ryosenji was the site of negotiations leading up to the signing of the U.S. Treaty of Peace and Amity. Today, the temple bears the nickname “the Hall of the Opening of the Nation.” The temple houses nearly 3,000 Black Ship artifacts, as well as a varied and colorful collection of Japanese and Western maps, texts and paintings depicting the cultural differences between the Americans and Japanese.
Every May, Shimoda opens its doors to costumed Samurai warriors and 19th century merchants, as locals and visitors dress the part for the annual Shimoda Black Ship Festival, hosted by the temple.
The tragic side of early U.S.-Japan relations is chronicled at Hofukuji Temple, which is the final burial site of Tojin Okichi. At 17 years old, Okichi was pressured to serve as a maid to Townsend Harris, America’s first consul to Japan (and the first American to live in the country).
Stories of exactly which services Okichi were required to provide vary, but she became largely shunned by the local community after Harris left the country. Eventually, she turned to alcohol and ultimately ended her own life by jumping in the river. Although there are multiple versions of Okichi’s life story, she is legendary among the Japanese people, and her life is the subject of much poetry, manga and even movie plots.
Gyokusenji Temple became the site of the first U.S. Consulate in Japan after Townsend Harris was assigned here. Reportedly, part of Townsend’s agreement was that he be provided milk and beef, something never before heard of by the Japanese people. Today, the temple contains a memorial with an image of a cow, the first of its species to be slaughtered for human consumption in Japan.
Shimoda Shiroyama Park
Even if history isn’t your thing, a peaceful walk along picturesque Perry Road will lead to Shimoda Shiroyama Park, which is home to several winding pathways and an observation platform that features stunning views of the port area and Shimoda’s beaches. In summer, the park is home to millions of hydrangeas, camellias and azaleas.
Shimoda City Beaches
While history has its place in Shimoda, Japanese visitors are largely drawn to the area because of the city’s beautiful beaches. The Japanese Environment Agency added Shimoda’s Shirahama Chuo Beach and Sotoura Beach to its list of Top 100 Japanese Beaches, a list which requires the beach maintain a track record of “AA” water quality for at least two out of three years.
Getting to Shimoda City
The limited-express Super View Odoriko, operated by JR East Japan Railway Company, runs along the Izu Peninsula between Shimoda City and Tokyo. The entire ride from popular Shinjuku Station in Tokyo takes less than three hours.
As the name suggests, the Super View Odoriko was designed to maximize views during the train’s scenic journey, and each train car features raised floors and large windows to increase passenger enjoyment.