Travel

Still waters run deep in Shizuoka's ancient town of Mishima

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

It was no coincidence that my custard tart, known locally as a Fujisancho cake, had been fashioned in the form of Japan’s most sacred mountain.

The confectionery, resembling a Japanese version of a Mont Blanc but tasting a lot better, was closer to a rich egg flan. A tourist took a selfie with the cake, the real mountain behind, the slightly foreshortened perspective produced by the cellphone camera, artfully blending the peak with the edible version. It was just as well that the domesticated deer roaming around the compound of Mishima Taisha Shrine, showed little interest in the cake.

There was an earnest game of pétanque taking place on an earthen section of the shrine grounds when I arrived. Judging from their T-shirts, printed with the legend I’Espoir Petanque, the players were members of a well-organized club. Quite how this game, played in almost every village in France, made the transition to a provincial city on the Izu Peninsula, was baffling. In an essay for The New York Times Magazine, Pico Iyer wrote of Japan’s “promiscuous anthology,” its recreation of all the good things the world has to offer. A passion for imported games should have come as no surprise. It was only recently, I reflected, that I had seen our next-door neighbor, a respected pillar of the community, stepping out of her car dressed in a Brazilian samba costume, the outfit hinting at hitherto undeclared passions.

Mishima Taisha in Shizuoka Prefecture was founded by the warlord Minamoto no Yoritomo in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Tracing its origins to the Nara Period (710-794), the site’s historical credentials may be well-grounded, but you won’t, in common with similar locations in Japan, actually see much material evidence of antiquity, though the shrine does boast a venerable 1,200-year-old pine tree. For historical reconstruction, the visitor must depend on a mix of design replication and the memory of landscapes. This does not detract from the importance of the shrine as a regional center of worship, though, with it receiving over 3 million visitors a year.

A pleasant willow-lined road runs from the shrine toward the eastern reaches of Mishima Station. Stones flank the sidewalks here, their surfaces engraved with quotations from Japanese literature. A pleasant residential district, houses are accessed by crossing small private bridges, recalling similar arrangements with homes on the approach to Meigetsu-in Temple in Kamakura or Kyoto’s Kamigamo district.

Judging from the smoky aroma of broiled eel coming from restaurants near the station, the fish, served at times with a side dish of wasabi-zuke, a piquant mix of sake lees and wasabi, was a big local favorite. The inflated price for domestically bred eel, as opposed to suspect, imported ones, didn’t seem to be putting visitors off. Sakura ebi, or cherry shrimp, caught in nearby Suruga Bay, was another tasty item on the menus of a city not universally known for its gastronomy.

Depicted as the 11th stop on the old Tokaido road linking Kyoto and Edo (present-day Tokyo), Mishima is featured in Ando Hiroshige’s woodblock series “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.” The print depicts two passengers, faces discreetly hidden beneath sedge hats, being transported by horse and palanquin. The scene of thatched roofed homes, forests and hills, softened by an early morning mist is indefatigably rural, a far cry from today’s mash of shabby buildings, advertisements, traffic and cobwebs of overhead wires outside Mishima Station. Not that first impressions are entirely bad. To access the information office just outside the station, you have to cross a short wooden bridge over a shallow pond, replete with pots of well-watered flowers. The causeway is a skillful introduction to Mishima’s dominant theme — water.

An otherwise unremarkable city, Mishima’s sparkling streams and shallow gravel beds, add grace notes to the urban blandness. In the humid dog days of summer, fireflies, red-crested kingfishers and dragonflies are drawn to the cool waters. The murmur of gently coursing streams, the sound referred to as seseragi, is a companion to any exploration of the city. And flowing with the current is a good way to take in its modest sights. The sound of water drew me to a small pond close to Route 51, where white mishima baikamo, a local water flower, blooms. Even the slightest trace of pollutant and the plants will not grow. Here they were thriving, a testament to Mishima’s spring-like waters.

The shallows of Genbe River, or at least a part of it, have been turned into a pleasant green belt for strolling, with stepping-stones and wooden boardwalks placed along the riverbanks. This allows visitors to descend to the water level and children to paddle in the weak current.

Wooden tables have been positioned above the water, providing the perfect surfaces for picnicking. Some mothers had requisitioned these spaces for their kids, some of whom were painting watercolors. A natural wonderland for small children, minnow, killifish, pond snails and crayfish make these waters their home. The addition of waterwheels, statues of water sprites and picturesquely set flagstones are a little contrived, but the nostalgia appeals to a great many visitors and has helped to revitalize the town’s efforts to increase tourism.

Rakuju-en, a Japanese garden at the center of a park, is located just opposite the tourist information office. It’s a tad ironic in a town that prides itself on a plenitude of water, to come across Rakuju-en’s empty pond. The garden, it turns out, is less a model of Japanese aesthetics than an object lesson in the results of venality spurred on by a myopic vision of commercial gain. The development of industrial facilities upstream, and their insatiable demand for water, staunched the flow of natural aquifers, resulting in the sudden disappearance of water in the pond. This extraordinary occurrence exposed a bed of hardened volcanic lava, the result of deposits made there some 12,000 years ago when Mount Fuji erupted. During the month of August, when industrial production drops, the water in the pond is restored for a few days, before it once again vanishes.

The sinking of wells for industrial reasons, causing the depletion of natural replenishing water sources, is hardly unique to Mishima, but Rakuju-en provides a rare and dramatic visualization of the consequences. A group of women dressed in country bonnets were weeding the dried bed of the pond. Its weirdly configured shapes were now being promoted as natural sculptural forms, a potential object of tourist interest.

Despite the violation to its pond, the Meiji Era (1868-1912) garden remains a fine example of good taste and the new wealth of the period. Along with a number of stone lanterns, rock engravings and Buddhist statues, tall chōzubachi (water lavers) placed beside some of the rooms of the main residential building were regarded at the time as symbols of prosperity. A wooden villa built in 1892 for the use of Prince Komatsu Akihito remains, its interior — with first-rate examples of carpentry, painted fusuma panels and tastefully decorated alcoves — being a fine exercise in the application of Japanese design and aesthetics. Perhaps this explains why the author Yukio Mishima took his pen name from the city, though the writer claimed that he just happened to be passing in a train while pondering a nom de plume, requisitioning the name on the spot.

The sixteen or more acres of Rakuju-en include a cafe, small amusement park, miniature railway, with a locomotive running through a Perspex tunnel, and zoo — a fine sampling of Japanese eclecticism if there ever was one.

Trains on the Tokaido Main Line and Tokaido Shinkansen Line run to Mishima from Tokyo and beyond. A cheaper option is the local service from the hot-spring town of Atami on the Tokaido Main Line, a journey that takes just 20 minutes. The Tourist Information office is outside Mishima Station.