The fascinating Gyokusenji Temple in Shimoda is a must-see for visitors to this historic town situated in Tokyo Bay on the Izu Peninsula. Located a little distance from Shimoda Station, the temple was chosen as the site of the first US consulate that opened in Japan in 1856.
Originally a small Shingon sect temple dating from the 14th century, Gyokusenji Temple was enlarged after it became a Soto sect place of worship in the 1580s.
The main hall dates from 1848 and it was on the grounds of this scenic, tranquil temple that members of Commodore Perry's delegation to Japan in 1854 were allowed to stay during the negotiations to sign the Shimoda Treaty. Bodies of dead American sailors from Perry's squadron were buried here, along with Russian sailors who were killed in a tsunami off the coast in 1854.
In 1856, the first American consul general Townsend Harris and his secretary-interpreter Henry Heusken took up residence as the Stars & Stripes were raised and the temple became the first ever foreign consulate established in Japan.
A plaque commemorating this historic event displays these prescient words from Harris: "At last get a reinforcement from the ship, flag staff erected. Men form a ring round it, and half past two pm of this day I hoist the first Consular flag ever seen in this empire. Grave reflections, ominous of change, undoubted beginning of the end. Query - if for real good of Japan."
Harris and Heusken stayed for just under three years before the consulate moved to Edo (Tokyo), where Heusken was later assassinated by swordsmen opposed to the country's opening to the West.
The Townsend Harris Museum (400 yen for entrance) preserves everyday articles from Harris and Heusken's stay at the temple, including a pipe, a broken wine glass and numerous pieces of furniture, wax models of Harris and his maid Okichi, plus daguerreotypes and documents from the period.
The grounds of Gyokusenji Temple contain the gravestones of the Russian sailors drowned in 1854, a monument to the visit of US President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and a sign detailing the milking and later slaughter of the first cow in Japan for human consumption.
31-6 Kakizaki, Shimoda, Shizuoka
Tel: 0558 22 1287
Walk approx 25 minutes east from the station along Route 136 or take a Suzaki/Tsumekizaki bound bus and get off at Kakizaki-jinja-mae.