The Story of Shimoda | How Japan Was Forcefully Opened

An artist's rendition of Commodore Matthew C. Perry's black ships sailing into Tokyo Bay.

In 1853, on the 8th of July, the American navy steamed four of its mighty warships into the bay of the shogun’s capital city. The crew carried an ultimatum for Japan to open up for trade. Though not the first foreign ships to appear off of the coast of Japan, the country had then been largely closed to outside influences for over two centuries. Commanded by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the arrival of these so-called “black ships” marked a huge turning point in the course of Japanese history. No longer able to maintain a position of self-isolation due to the impending presence of superior military might, the failing shogunate would have to come to terms with its inferiority.

Now, as any student of Japanese history can easily imagine, the sight of four steam powered monstrosities sailing into the harbor instilled terror in those who saw them. Due to the shogunate’s self-imposed policy of near absolute seclusion, any and all seafaring vessels were at the time quite miniscule in comparison to America’s modern behemoths. Left with little other recourse, the local authorities were forced to acquiesce to Commodore Perry’s gunboat diplomacy and allow the Americans to land. While this concession ensured that the capital of Edo (present day Tokyo) wasn’t leveled, Perry’s arrival was indicative of a necessary renegotiation of the balance of power.

After delivering their initial missive that detailed their trade demands to the shogunate in 1853, the Americans headed back home. In the following year though, Commodore Perry would again set sail for Japan. This time, he brought with him a fleet of eight warships in case the Japanese needed a little bit more… “convincing” shall we say. Surprisingly, this turned out to not be necessary as the shogunate realized just how out gunned it was in comparison to the West. Following roughly a month of negotiations, the officials acting on behalf of the Tokugawa shogun presented the Americans with an acceptable treaty and Commodore Perry soon thereafter departed.

Though the initial landing of the “black ships” was actually a locale near Kurihama, the spot that is most associated with his name is actually known as Shimoda. Found at the tip of the Izu Peninsula, Shimoda was the site where Commodore Perry came ashore on his return trip to Japan. Moreover, following the conclusion of his strong-arm negotiations with Japan, Commodore Perry also left behind the first ever American consulate here. Thanks to this landmark’s historical significance, today Shimoda is rife with all sorts of references to this critical junction in Japanese history.

How to Get There

The town of Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula at dusk as seen from Shimoda Park

While Shimoda doesn’t look all too far away from Tokyo on the map, the journey there takes a surprisingly long amount of time. By far, the fastest means of getting to Shimoda is to take one of the Odoriko limited express trains. Alternatively, it’s also possible to take the bullet train down to the popular hot spring town of Atam. From there, you’ll want to board the local JR Ito Line and take it to the final stop. As always, just let a service like Jorudan do all of the heavy lifting when it comes to calculating trains for you. Your final stop will be Izukyu Shimoda Station.

Once you get to Izukyu Shimoda Station, you’ll want to make a choice to either commit to walking or to navigate the buses. Longtime readers will know which of the two I opted for but those preferring to take modern transportation will rejoice to know that there’s an all-you-can-ride bus pass available. Known as the Minami Izu Free Pass, this convenient offering will only set you back 2,790 yen. That said, many of the main attractions in Shimoda can be reached within 20–30 minutes so hoofing it is definitely a viable option, even for weaker walkers.

Note that though the trip to Shimoda does indeed take well over two hours, the views of the Izu Peninsula along the way more than make up for it. Once you get past Atami, this rural region of Japan features some of the best coastline vistas around. Characterized by its rugged rock formations, the final portions of the ride to Izukyu Shimoda Station is one of the most scenic that I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying. Be sure to look up from Instagram every now and then while en route!

The Town of Shimoda Today

Hydrangeas line the canal that passes through Perry Road in central Shimoda

Seeing as it’s a bit difficult to get to Shimoda, I do suggest you plan to spend the night down there. As wonderful as the historical sides of the town are, they alone are not enough to warrant a trip for all but the most hardcore historians. Instead, the connections with Commodore Perry are a solid excuse to make an excursion down to what is otherwise an extremely pleasant beachside town. While many of the attractions are indeed related to the arrival of the black ships, it’s the laidback Shimoda lifestyle that is the real allure.

While in the neighborhood, I suggest overseas travelers check out any of the following spots. During my two-day stint in Shimoda, I managed to squeeze all of them into a very aggresive day but you, the reader, might do better to spread them out over a longer adventure. As always, I’ll include some links to Google Maps to help you get your logistical bearings…

  • Ryosen-ji
    While a comparatively small compound, the Shimoda Treaty was signed in 1854 at this very temple. This act would usher in a new age for Japan and signify the opening of the country to foreign trade after nearly three whole centuries of quasi-isolation. If you’re looking to peruse some historical artifacts related to Commodore Perry, the treaty, and the black ships, be sure not to miss the nearby MoBS Kurofune Museum and the Shimoda Kaikoku Museum!
  • Perry Road
    This picturesque road runs parallel to a canal that passes through the center of Shimoda. Allegedly, Perry Road exists to connect Ryosen-ji to the nearby Shimoda Park. On either side of the bucolic waterway, you’ll find an eclectic host of cafes, boutiques, and willow trees. What’s more, many of these Perry Road vendors sell various souvenirs and delicious edibles that are related to Commodore Perry.
  • Shimoda Park
    Essentially the reason that I elected to visit when I did, Shimoda Park is an attractive wooded space that’s located on a small bluff outside of the town’s center. Originally home to military fortifications, Shimoda Park now hosts the Monument to the Opening of US-Japan Diplomatic Relations. While somewhat interesting, the real allure of Shimoda Park is that it is home to thousands and thousands of hydrangeas. If you’re a fan of sealife, consider also checking out the Shimoda Underwater Aquarium!
  • Sail on a Black Ship
    If you want to travel back in time and experience what Commodore Perry might have, you really ought to take a short cruise out on Shimoda Bay. These sightseeing ships are designed to look exactly like Commodore Perry’s now iconic black ships. For the cost of a mere 1,250 yen, you too can experience what it would have been like to open up Japan.
  • The First Consulate
    Located a little ways past where you can board the noted black ships, the temple complex of Gyokusen-ji was where Commodore Perry set up the first American consulate in Japan. If you opt to visit, be sure to not miss the Townsend Harris Museum. Here, you’ll find a number of artifacts related to the opening of Japan.

In addition to the above historical attractions in central Shimoda, the adjacent Shirahama is also worth checking out. Widely considered to be one of the best white sand beaches near Tokyo, Shirahama is known for sunbathing as well as surfing. The only downside to Shirahama is that it’s over 5 kilometers from Izukyu Shimoda Station. Most sane people opt to take the bus but if it’s a good day and you got some tunes to listen to, it’s not an arduous walk either (don’t ask me why I know…).

If you do make it all the way over to Shirahama, be sure not to miss out on Shirahama Shrine. While the small seaside sepulchure is indeed charming, the shrine also has a vermillion torii gate that is definitely worthy of the Gram. You’ll find this on a rock that juts out over the ocean.

The Best Time to Visit

The beautiful hydrangeas of Shimoda Park during the month of June

If you’re wondering when you should visit Shimoda, know that there is simply no better time than June. Alluded to in the previous section, the sixth month of the year is when Shimoda Park’s hydrangeas reach their peak. As can a bit in the photograph above, the entirety of the space comes alive with vibrant hues. Honestly, visiting Shimoda Park during this time of the year is like stepping into hydrangea heaven. Never in all my adventures have I seen a spot that features so many of these early spring flowers.

One downside to visiting during June (and hydrangeas themselves) is that this period just before summer actually kicks off is Japan’s rainy season. Known as tsuyu (lit. “plum rain”) in the local tongue, the month of June often sees a lot of rainfall. While nothing like the monsoons of Southeast Asia, tsuyu can be wet. While this does bring with it the hydrangeas, you’ll need to brave the rain and then the subsequent humidity. Thankfully, the sultry heat of summer does not arrive until after tsuyu ends for the year.

By the way, while Shimoda Park is the real all star, know that you’ll find collections of hydrangeas all throughout the town of Shimoda. Personally, I found the ones that line the canal passing through the center or Perry Road to be particularly charming. To see what I mean, check out the image at the start of the previous section!

Other Nearby Attractions

Japan’s earliest blooming cherry blossoms, the Kawazu-zakura line a river near Shimoda

The entirety of the Izu Peninsula is an off of the beaten path adventure unto itself. While I’ve not yet been to all of the locations listed below, I do hope that the following smorgasbord gives you some additional inspiration to do your own digging in Google…

  • Kawazu
    This part of the Izu Peninsula is home to some of the earliest blooming cherry blossoms in all of Japan. They regularly bloom in early February.
  • Cape Irozaki
    Found at the southernmost tip of the Izu Peninsula, this extremely rugged yet beautiful coastline is a great add-on to Shimoda for nature enthusiasts.
  • Cape Tarai & Toji
    Located near Cape Irozaki, here you’ll find the magnificent Ryugu Sea Cave that looks like a heart when seen from above.
  • Jogasaki Coast
    Seen on the way to Shimoda, this beautiful section of coastline can be found along the Izu Peninsula’s eastern coast.
  • Mt. Omuro
    This oddly shaped former volcano is found near the aforementioned Jogasaki Coast and looks somewhat like an upside down rice bowl.
  • Shuzenji Onsen
    Definitely deserving of its own article, Shuzenji Onsen is one of the oldest and most famous hot spring resort getaways on the Izu Peninsula.
  • The Inatori Hosono Highlands
    Hidden away in the mountains of the Izu Peninsula, the Inatori Hosono Highlands are home to one of Japan’s most epic fields of tall silver grass and are at their best in autumn.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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