URAGA SHIPYARD

Then there were ghosts

by Burritt Sabin

Uraga Station, on the Keikyu Line, deposits passengers at the end of a narrow valley. The road ahead bifurcates.

I took the right fork and noted that Uraga wears its nautical heritage on its sleeve. Steel utility poles sport tops in the form of sails. Sidewalk bollards deter illegal parking. From a wall a caricature of Commodore Matthew Perry welcomes visitors.

Behind the wall, rust the buildings of the defunct Uraga Shipyard. The local town office arranged for a shipyard cognoscenti to show me around.

Haruo Saida took me to the slip. A ship slid over softball-size bearings into the water. A large vessel splashed with a force that sent a mini tsunami crashing against the harbor’s eastern shore. Residents were placated with invitations to ship-launch galas.

Looking at the rusted ribbon of iron in the slipway, I had difficulty conjuring up the smash of champagne bottle against hull and the huzzahs of swells.

Saida guided me to the dry dock, where a freshly christened vessel was fitted with engines. I was startled by its scale. It stretches 140 meters, nearly half again the distance from home plate to center field in Tokyo Dome.

The tall crane along the southern side of the dock was called the tonbo (dragonfly) for its resemblance to the insect. The boom, removed for safety reasons, lay with bilge blocks, rolls of cable, anchors, and other flotsam in an expanse of pampas grass on the dock’s southern side.

I saw at the bottom of the dock objects standing in rows like the terra-cotta warriors near Xi’an in China’s Shaanxi province. Saida led me to the bottom. The objects turned out to be keel and bilge blocks, on which a ship sat.

The walls were of brick, the dock being one of only two brick docks in Japan. Saida mentioned the dock was completed in 1899.

From the dock we followed rails to the voluminous outfitting building for ship engines with its high ceiling and door near the top of the eastern wall.

The building is a hybrid, its eastern half, made of riveted girders, dating from 1938, and its western half, six years younger, of wood and mortar. The floor of the western half was planked to provide a more pliant surface for engine parts.

The building is used for events four times a year, said Saida. Next is the Kanrin Maru Festival on April 26, which marks the voyage of the corvette that sailed from Uraga in 1860 with the first Japanese mission to America. A flag-bedecked Kanrin Maru float was ready in the northwest corner.

The last ship to slide down the Uraga slipway was the Maritime Self-Defense Forces destroyer Takanami (4,450 tons) in March 2003. The yard that had launched a thousand ships closed on the last day of the month.

The shipyard is beautiful. The brick has turned colors difficult to mix on the palette, the graveyard of dock equipment has the feel of installation art, the rusted walls are sabi rendered large, the cascade of peppermint-green roofs looms like the Emerald City from across the harbor. Plans for the shipyard are rife.

The shipyard was locally known as “the company.” Befitting the importance implied by the epithet, the Uraga Museum of Local History displays in its entryway a 1/100 scale model of the 46,264-ton tanker Patria, launched by the shipyard in 1959.

Company memorabilia in the second-floor exhibition room include Art Deco-ish booklets commemorating launchings, and a platter of the company song recorded by popular singer Koichi Miura.

But most of the museum is devoted to Uraga precompany history. There are dioramas of godown-studded Uraga in the Tokugawa days and fanciful prints of Western barbarians who braved Japanese waters in violation of the shogunate’s seclusion policy. Commodore Perry, whose Black Ships called at Uraga in 1853, is depicted as a Chinese mandarin seated in a high-backed vermilion chair. I caught my reflection superimposed on a print of the Black Ships’ Captain Henry Adams rendered as a werewolf, and shuddered thinking about how I might have appeared to Japanese a century and a half ago.

I descended the hill to the faux earthen godown that serves as a waiting room for the Atagomaru. The ferry arrived and I paid the ¥150 fare. The ferryman, Mitsuru Sakurai, wearing a watch cap and a goatee, had been a salaryman until retirement four years earlier.

The ferry reached the eastern shore of the fjordlike harbor in three minutes. I’d a question to ask, but someone had pushed the buzzer on the western shore, and Sakurai began another of the 70 trips the ferry averages a day.

I walked south to the restaurant Marine Port Kochiya for lunch. I ate flounder while watching gulls wheeling over the breakwater and tankers passing in the strait against the low-slung mountains of the Boso Peninsula. I asked the waitress about the lanternlike object on a spit of land at the extremity of Uraga Harbor. “That’s the Cape Tomyodo lighthouse,” she said. “The cape was once an execution ground. They say it’s haunted.”

Temples and shrines nestle against the hills near the eastern shore. I backtracked along a lane between homes with minicars in driveways and bonsai in tiny yards.

Toyo Inari Shrine sits at the top of a flight of stairs accessed via a cinnabar torii beneath beetling saso palms.

The shrine is noted for the elaborate carvings in the ceiling and the transom. On the right and left corners of the roof are decorative tiles in the shape of Ebisu, the god of commerce, and Daikokuten, the god of wealth, reflecting the age when east Uraga flourished as a center for the wholesale of dried sardines.

I returned to the ferry slip and asked Sakurai the question: “Do you tire of going back and forth?”

“Damned right I do.”

I walked south past the L-shaped Rikugun (Army) Pier, where 560,000 Japanese disembarked from repatriation ships in the aftermath of World War II.

Condominiums built on former company land gave way to pampas grass. The road curved upward and ended at Cape Tomyodo.

A replica of the lighthouse, built in 1648, glowed persimmon orange. A man pulled up on a motorbike, its basket brimming with oysters and agaragar. I asked if the cape was haunted. “Well, it was an execution ground,” he laughed, then disappeared.

From a vantage point below the lighthouse I watched the surging waves break against the rocks and the lights dance along the Boso coastline. Ferryboats, blazes of white light, crisscrossed the strait. A destroyer stood down the bay, its gray profile vanishing in the darkness.

Transfixed by the seascape, I had forgotten the specters.

Uraga can be reached from Shinagawa Station in 70 minutes. Transfer to a local train at Horinouchi. Total cost is ¥760