There’s something about a port city. Perhaps it’s the busy-ness—always people, ships, and goods coming and going. Or perhaps it’s the diversity—people and goods from far-flung places.
The Port of Shimizu in Shizuoka is just such a polyglot place of perpetual motion. Sitting in the northwest corner of Suruga Bay, sheltered by the hook of the Miho Sandspit, it’s a busy place that sports both modern entertainment and relics of a checkered past.
Although Shimizu became one of Japan’s open international trading ports in 1899, its shipping history goes back much further, perhaps even as far back as the 7th century. But its true importance as a port began during the early Edo Period (1603-1867), when the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, decided to retire to this area. As a result, a naval garrison was stationed in Shimizu, which also saw an increase in trans-shipping. Shimizu’s importance as a domestic trading port continued throughout the Tokugawa Shogunate.
In fact, it was during the middle decades of the 19th century, as Japan was transitioning from Tokugawa isolationism to Meiji modernization, that one of Shimizu’s most colorful characters made his appearance. Shimizu no Jirocho (1820-1893) was the adopted son of a Shimizu rice merchant. He gave up the family rice business in favor of gambling and soon found himself involved with local gangs, which grew in prevalence as the power of the Tokugawa government waned. Jirocho seems to have been a natural-born leader; he developed his own private army and often helped resolve disputes between underworld gangs and among legitimate businessmen. At the same time, he had a strong sense of community, working to improve education and health care in the district.
Jirocho was a religious man who built a number of shrines and helped restore an old temple; he also helped to recover the corpses of sailors killed in a naval battle between shogunate and imperial ships and to arrange proper funerals for them. He was especially admired for this because he made no distinction between the dead based on their side in the battle.
After the establishment of the Meiji government in 1868, Jirocho became a police officer responsible for harbor security, got involved in land speculation and helped arrange for the expansion of the harbor. In keeping with the opening of the country to trading with the West, he also arranged for English language lessons for people in Shimizu. In his twilight years, he opened a seamen’s inn called Suehiro, which continued to operate long after his death in 1893. It is said that more than 8,000 people attended his funeral.
Jirocho became a legendary figure partly because his exploits were chronicled by his adopted son. He has also been the subject of movies, television shows and even anime, ensuring his fame even today. While his image is that of gangster/mob boss, the local tourist office was quick to assure me that he was not “yakuza.” Hmm.
There are three main sites in the harbor area related to Jirocho. They provide a great introduction to both the man and the history of Shimizu as a harbor.
Baiin Zenji is the Buddhist temple where Jirocho and his wife are buried. There is a large statue of Jirocho and a small “museum” of items associated with his life. Interestingly, there is a sign on Jirocho’s grave asking visitors not to chip off pieces of the gravestone. Apparently, gamblers had been helping themselves to small pieces in the belief that it would improve their luck. To get there, take a bus from JR Shimizu Station bound for Yambara Baiinji and get off at Baiin Zenji. The temple is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Less than half a kilometer from Baiin Zenji in the direction of the waterfront is Jirocho’s birthplace. This house is a great example of a Tokugawa period merchant’s house. It is long and narrow with an atrium containing a well and providing light to the innermost rooms; it has frontage on two streets, one being the shop and the other the residence. The street in front of the shop end of the house is called Jirocho-dori. The house contains the furnishings of an Edo-period merchant, as well as displays on Jirocho and his life. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays (closed Tuesdays); 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends and public holidays.
Across the river--which is often full of small fishing boats--and slightly upstream from Jirocho’s birthplace is Suehiro, the seamen’s inn founded by Jirocho and reconstructed on this site in 2001 using materials from the original structure. Here one can find insights into the transitory lives of seamen, as well as displays on Jirocho’s many contributions to Shimizu’s development. On the upper floor is an arrangement of mannequins showing a foreigner teaching English to locals.
From Suehiro, it’s just a few hundred meters to S-Pulse Dream Plaza, which sits on the waterfront.
On your way, stop at the Verkehr Shimizu Port Terminal Museum to learn more about Shimizu’s shipping history and role in Japan’s fisheries industry. Open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day except Monday.
S-Pulse Dream Plaza, opened in 1999 to commemorate the centenary of Shimizu’s opening as an international trade port is multi-story mall packed with entertainment facilities. The complex is named for the Shimizu S-Pulse soccer team, a J-League team based in Shimizu. The road between Suehiro and S-Pulse Dream Plaza, known as S-Pulse Dori, is decorated with soccer balls, hand and footprints of S-Pulse team members, and colorful statues of Palchan, the S-Pulse mascot.
Besides shops, restaurants and a movie theater complex, there are also four museums in the complex.
• The Shimizu Soccer Museum honors Shizuoka’s strong soccer history.
• The Shimizu Sushi Museum is said to be the first sushi museum in Japan. In case learning about sushi makes you hungry, there is an entire mall of sushi restaurants as well.
• The Kitahara Teruhisa Toy Museum displays various 1950s and '60s vintage tin toys and early robot toys.
• Finally, there is Chibi-Maruko-chan Land, a museum dedicated to an anime created by Momoko Sakura, a native of Shimizu. Visitors can interact with displays of Chibi-Maruko-chan’s home, school and neighborhood, placing themselves firmly in her world. Chibi-Maruko-chan also has her connection to Shimizu’s passion for soccer, since one of her classmates, Kenta, is the alter-ego of Kenta Hasegawa, current manager of Shimizu S-Pulse.
On the pier outside of S-Pulse Dream Plaza is a ferris wheel and other outdoor amusements.
There is a free shuttle bus running between JR Shimizu Station and S-Pulse Dream Plaza. From the nearby pier there are also ferries across Suruga Bay to Toi on the Izu Peninsula, sightseeing cruise boats, and ferries to the Kashi-no-Ichi, Shimizu’s fresh fish market (also just a one minute walk from JR Shimizu Station). Since it’s a port, taking some sort of boat ride is highly recommended. In fine weather, the sightseeing cruise affords spectacular views of Mt Fuji.© Japan Today