The return of an old classic: fresh fish and soccer for all

by Anne Pepper

Shimizu, a port city in Shizuoka Prefecture, is back in fashion again. In the Edo Period, Shimizu was a popular post town on the Tokaido Highway. Travelers liked its fresh fish and tasty Oiwake yokan bean paste. But the inauguration of train service between Tokyo and Kyoto spelled doom for Shimizu, as it did for many towns on the Tokaido Highway.

Local trains still stopped in Shimizu, but travelers could buy their Oiwake yokan through the train window; few people got off to spend the night. When the Shinkansen line opened in 1964, the tracks bypassed Shimizu altogether, and a city that had been known to travelers for 300 years found itself being dropped from guidebooks.

As Shimizu approached the 21st century, the city fathers decided it was time to turn things around again. They set out on an imaginative program to put Shimizu back on the map, and their efforts are paying off.

The city once known for its fresh fish and tasty bean paste is now known for its fresh fish and professional soccer team. Travelers are again flocking to Shimizu, this time to watch the S-Pulse team play. Oiwake bean paste is still sold, but today’s visitors are more interested in buying soccer tickets and S-Pulse merchandise.

In addition to acquiring a popular spectator sport, Shimizu acquired a facelift as well. The once-grungy commercial waterfront district has been totally transformed into a trendy area for shopping and dining. The hub of the rebuilt central waterfront district is S-Pulse Dream Plaza, which opened last October.

This four-story complex contains almost everything a tourist could want except a soccer stadium and observation tower. There are restaurants and shops galore, a cinema and entertainment hall, a marketplace with plenty of fresh fish and sushi shops, and some mini-museums, including a toy museum and a soccer museum.

Outside, for those who prefer open spaces to crowds, a new walkway curves along the waterfront. The tall building across the way, named the Romankan, has an observation deck on the 14th floor with a sweeping view of the port. From here, you can see Shimizu’s giant container terminal, as well as some of the city’s other commercial wharves. One wharf is a major importer of tuna; another is a major exporter of automobiles.

Another new building in the waterfront area is the Verkehr Museum, which tells the history of the port. (Verkehr means “transport” in German.)

The curving spit of land that divides the harbor from the ocean is Miho no Matsubara, famous in centuries past for offering a beautiful view of Mount Fuji across the water and for its thick pine groves. The pristine view of the pre-industrial era has given way to a view of Mount Fuji rising over Japan’s seventh busiest port, and some of the pine groves have given way to contemporary tourist attractions such as Miho Culture Land and the Marine Science Museum.

But there is still a gnarled old pine tree called Hagoromo no Matsu (The Pine Tree of the Feathered Robe), named after a famous noh play that recounts the legend of a Miho fisherman who found a magic robe which a goddess had left hanging on a pine tree. A noh stage is set up here every October (second Saturday and Sunday), and “Hagoromo” is performed by torchlight.

Shimizu’s other well-known attraction from the past is Jirocho, a colorful gangster/Robin Hood figure whose life spanned the turbulent years that saw the transition from the feudal Edo Period to the modern Meiji Era. Jirocho’s home is a museum, there’s a Jirocho Street, Baiinji Temple is dedicated to Jirocho and displays some of his possessions, and items depicting Jirocho line the shelves of souvenir shops.

Visitors to Shimizu who want to get out on the water have a variety of choices, depending on the season. The Ocean Princess, a 30-meter-long motorized sailing vessel, has lunch and dinner cruises, and can be chartered for party cruises. The Bay Promenade has lunch, dinner and harbor cruises. For details, call (0543) 53-2222 (English spoken).

The most unusual ship to ply these waters is the TSL, an experimental “techno-superliner” named Kibo (Hope). This large ship was purchased by the Shizuoka Prefectural Government to serve as rescue ship in the event of a natural disaster. During the summer tourist season the TSL Kibo operates as a car ferry between Shimizu and Shimoda, on the tip of the nearby Izu Peninsula.

Shimizu’s biggest festival is the Port Festival, held annually in early August. Nowadays, this once lackluster city has a lot to celebrate.