Have any of you ever seen the old 1980’s TV miniseries Shogun? Or better yet, read the novel on which it was based? If not, I highly recommend you do so – the story (particularly the novel) offers quite an interesting look at what Japan may have felt like to a foreigner right around the time it just started opening its borders to the outside world. Its also based heavily on historical fact, right down to the main characters themselves – an English pilot named John Blackthorne who befriends a rising warlord named Toranaga.
Well, it just so happens that Lord Toranaga’s real name was Ieyasu Tokugawa, the 15th century warlord who managed to put an end to hundreds of years of civil war and unite Japan under a shogunate that would rule continuously for over 250 years. And Blackthorne was really William Adams, a 17th century trader who did indeed come to Japan and help Tokugawa in his rise to power.
Why am I telling you all of this? Well, just a few hours outside of Tokyo lies a small town called Shimoda, on the East coast of the Izu Peninsula. Shimoda is the actual site where William Adams helped Tokugawa build his first Western warship in the early 1600s, as shown in the closing scene of the Shogun miniseries. Its also the site where over 200 years later Mathew Perry arrived in his Black Ship and signed the document officially opening Japan’s borders for trade with the West. And perhaps most importantly, its the village that was plagued by a mysterious disease in the famous Japanese anime Ninja Scroll. With so much cool history just a stone’s throw away, how could I resist?
So after spending an entire day recovering from lack of sleep over the New Year, I found myself on the road once again, sleeping on trains and snacking on eki-ben (eki meaning “train station” and ben being an abbreviation for the word meaning “boxed lunch”). I even got a chance to ride the Black Ship Train, which felt like more of a museum to Mathew Perry than a mode of public transportation.
When I reached Ito, the first major city on the Izu Peninsula, it had began to drizzle so I decided to nix my original plan of a relaxing walk along the beach. But as I had already exited the station, I couldn’t catch the next southbound for another 30 to 40 minutes. So I setup on a nearby bench and started debating my next plan of action. Should I try to find something to do here? Should I just skip Ito entirely and hope the rain stops by the time I get to Shimoda? With my face buried in my trusty Lonely Planet guide, I barely even noticed the little old lady next to me with her steaming bowl of noodles. Until she looked over and started talking to me.
“What would you like to eat?” she asked.
I was a bit confused at first, but it turned out she had indeed just offered to buy me lunch! I politely refused, but she insisted, and after only the briefest of exchanges we sat and enjoyed two bowls of Tempura Udon together. I’ve really found that the farther you get from the big cities in Japan the more intrigued locals become by foreigners’ blue eyes and light skin, and they make much more notable an effort to have even the briefest conversation…and to insure you go home with a positive impression of Japanese culture.
Not long after our short exchange, a kind-looking old man with a warm smile came up. He stood for a moment and watched two pigeons peck away at a couple of spilt noodles on the floor in front of us. Then he boarded his train for Tokyo.
Moments later another arrived. This one didn’t have as warm of a smile. He spent the next five to ten minutes swinging a plastic grocery bag at the pigeons, chasing them away, stamping his feet, trying in any way possible to prevent them from having their afternoon meal. He was acting just like a young child, except that he was probably 60 years old.
I glanced at the woman next to me with a look of disappointment, prompting her to lean over and whisper, “There are good people and bad people in any country, so please just try to remember the good.”
Somehow that little encounter really stuck with me; maybe because it so perfectly represents the concept of Zen that still remains in so many parts of Japan’s society. Of course you’ve got your hoards of fast-moving businessmen, jumping from train to train under the bright lights of Tokyo, but you’ve also got countless groups of highschool students who choose to spend their short lunch breaks chatting under a cherry blossom tree or in the shade of a 1000-year old temple. When my mom came to visit me in Kyoto last Winter, she mentioned her surprise that so many locals come to visit the temples and shrines even in their own city. Well, that’s Japan for ya. The new and the old, the fast and the slow, the appreciation for tradition and the obsession with the modern. Contradiction after contradiction after contradiction. Just one more thing to keep life over here interesting 🙂
By the time I made it to Shimoda the rain had only worsened, so I decided it would be a perfect time to sample one of the many Onsen (traditional hotsprings) for which the area has become famous. Spending an hour or two just sitting back and enjoying the hot water felt wonderful after several days (and nights) on my feet. And it killed just the right amount of time before continuing the one stop to Shimoda, grabbing a quick bite to eat, checking into the evening’s lodging, and resting up for another long day of walking.