The past comes alive in Izu


Japanese and foreign residents of the Kanto region head for Izu to seek that elusive thing, “the real Japan.”

Only two hours southwest of Tokyo, this slender peninsula seems a world away from the modernized, Westernized environment of the capital. It is a region of hot springs and isolated fishing villages, rice fields, forested hills and beaches of white sand. Visitors stroll along streets lined with traditional wooden or tile-and-plaster houses, which, in small towns such as Matsuzaki on Izu’s west coast or Shimoda on the peninsula’s east, have not yet completely given way to concrete; and no doubt, being near the sea, they sample that most Japanese of dishes, fresh sashimi.

But Izu has not always been the backwater it is today. In the mid 19th century, it was at the heart of Japan’s burgeoning relations — after 200 years of isolationism — with the outside world. And the relics of that era are numerous. Visitors can explore the pretty Meiji Era Iwashina School in Matsuzaki, with its Western-style balcony and banisters; they can attend Shimoda’s weekend-long Black Ships Festival in May, which commemorates the “opening up” of Japan by Commodore Matthew Perry; and they ought to abandon sashimi for steak, since it was events in Izu that first gave meat a significant place in the Japanese diet.

Shimoda has profited from its long history of relations with the United States. This was where Perry’s Black Ships first landed in 1854, and the town became one of the few Japanese ports open to foreign trade. It was Perry’s successor, Townsend Harris, the first U.S. Consul General to Japan who, resident in Shimoda between 1856 and 1859, negotiated the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which established trading rights for the United States in Japan.

A temple, Gyokusen-ji, was converted into a makeshift embassy. Today, it houses a Harris memorial hall and contains the graves of American sailors who died while serving in Shimoda.

‘Mountain whale’

One of the more unexpected consequences of Harris’ tenure is commemorated by another monument at Gyokusen-ji. Opposite a plaque recalling former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 visit to Shimoda stands the relief image of an ox being prepared for slaughter.

Until the end of the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868), the Japanese diet consisted almost wholly of fish and vegetables. Historically, Buddhism frowned upon meat-eating, and even those who worked in leather-making were considered “unclean” and part of the buraku underclass. But Harris wanted meat, and at his request, an ox was slaughtered. Gradually, this alien custom spread into cosmopolitan cities such as Yokohama and Kobe, and later nationwide.

At first, the idea of eating land animals was so startling to Japanese that restaurants advertised beef as “mountain whale.” But, by the 20th century, meat had become a substantial part of the Japanese diet. In 1931, the butchers of Tokyo paid for the erection of the Gyokusen-ji monument to commemorate the man who first enabled their trade to prosper in Japan.

A year or two earlier, another international drama had unfolded in Izu. A Russian warship, the Diana, captained by Adm. Evfimii Vasilevich Putiatin, had arrived in Shimoda in 1854 to negotiate a treaty with the Japanese. In December, a tsunami caused irreparable damage to the ship. This was the era of the Crimean War, and the Russians, fearing attack by British or French ships patrolling Japanese waters, could not remain in Shimoda.

Instead, with the shogunate’s permission, they headed to Heda, a secluded village of 3,000 people on Izu’s west coast. Here, the 586 Russians boarded in specially built barracks while they worked with Japanese shipwrights for several months to build a new ship — the Heda — in which Putiatin and a skeleton crew would eventually return to Russia. The new ship being small, the rest of their compatriots had to wait until a foreign vessel could be chartered to carry them home.

Quaffing ‘blood’

Again, cultural differences were underlined by culinary ones. The Japanese, used to clear sake, were horrified by the color of the red wine the Russians drank; their guests, they imagined, drank blood. Suspicion and misunderstanding, however, gradually gave way to affection. Villagers went hunting for wild boar in the mountains to feed the Russian sailors, and one of the objects preserved in Heda’s Museum of Shipbuilding History attests to the international friendship that eventually developed between the Japanese and their guests. This hanging scroll depicts a Japanese poem written by a villager, and a drawing of flowers and butterflies by one of the Russian sailors, who signed his name “K. Grigorioff” in Roman letters. Just how close relations became is a matter for conjecture. Residents of nearby Numazu told me that, until recent years, some of the older villagers in Heda were visibly paler in complexion than most Japanese.

In 1861, Harris returned to New York, where he resided for the rest of his life. But until his death in 1878, Japan continued to occupy his thoughts. In old age, when he met those who had recently visited the country, he would always ask, “What do the Japanese think of me?”

Putiatin left Heda stating that “my heart shall remain here forever.” Back in St. Petersburg, he continued to promote Russo-Japanese relations, hosting Japanese students who visited Russia and supporting the efforts of his Tokyo-based compatriot and missionary, Archbishop Nikolai. After his death in 1883, an island off the Russian coast was named Putiatin Island in his honor. Appropriately, it is near Vladivostok in the Russian Far East — far from Putiatin’s hometown, but close to Japan.

In the 20th century, Russo-Japanese relations faltered. Meanwhile, at least after 1945, ties with the United States strengthened. It’s a salutary reminder that political milestones are often less lasting than subtler cultural shifts. Putiatin’s love for Japan was replaced by mutual enmity, and his evangelism never brought Christianity wide acceptance here. But even though Harris’ treaties are long gone, Japan’s postwar Westernization has led its citizens to accept many aspects of American culture as their own. Baseball is the national sport; beer, not sake, is the national drink; and “mountain whale” is on the menu in restaurants nationwide.