In the Footprints of James Clavell: “Shogun” Settings in Izu

In the 1970s and 1980s James Clavell’s Shogun captured the Western World’s imagination. Japan was asserting itself as the engine room of global economic growth, and Western readers were eager to better understand this mysterious nation. Clavell provided the perfect tool to do that – a fast moving, historical romp that also explained Japanese Culture 101 to those that didn’t have the time or inclination to take the University paper.

Clavell cleverly sets his novel in the year 1600, for Japanese instantly rememerable as the year of the battle of Sekigahara (which you can glimpse through the windows of the Tokaido Shinkansen shortly before it zooms into Kyoto). This battle ended the Warring States Period and was the beginning of the legendary Edo Period, during which the capital was relocated from Osaka to Edo (now called Tokyo).

You can imagine that the territory between the old capitals of Kyoto and Osaka, and the new capital in Edo, played a pivotal role in this part of Japanese history. This is not lost on Clavell, who strategically places his story on the Izu Peninsula, in between and easilly accessed from all the capitals by Tokaido, but just far enough away from all to be influenced by all.

The first couple of hundred pages of Clavell’s epic are set in Ajiro, the southernmost part of the modern town of Atami, and just 10 minutes on the Ito local train line from the Tokaido Shinkansen. Clavell cleverly changes the spelling of names slightly in his piece of historical fiction, just enough so we can still recognise the originals, but also enough to emphasise that whilst the geographic and historical settings are real, the detail of the story is fiction. So Edo founder Tokugawa becomes Torunaga in Clavell’s classic, Osaka Lord Ishida becomes Ishido, and the tiny fishing port of Ajiro becomes Anjiro. Clavell’s detailed placement of Anjiro on Izu’s eastern Pacific coast leaves us in no doubt of its true identity. Ajiro possibly hasn’t changed a lot in four centuries – it remains a quaint fishing port where visitors can enjoy the hot springs, the beach, and today’s catch straight from the ocean.

Ajiro, with Oshima (Japan's "Big Island") on the horizon
Ajiro, with Oshima (Japan’s “Big Island”) on the horizon

The second half of the novel moves about 20km to Mishima, the next stop on today’s Tokaido Shinkansen (Kodama) heading westward after Atami. Mishima is perhaps most famous for its shrine, known as a Taisha because it a very important shrine. Clavell’s novel talks of a castle there for the local Lord. Today we can enjoy the ruins of Yamanaka Castle, which is also an excellent viewing spot for Mt Fuji when the weather is good. In fact, by 1600 when Shogun is set, Yamanaka Castle was already in ruin, having been destroyed about a decade earlier by the powerful western forces.

Fuji from Yamanaka Castle Ruins
Fuji from Yamanaka Castle Ruins

So what are you waiting for? – head out to Izu and wander in the memories of Clavell’s great classic novel.

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