Last weekend I took myself off for a mini break in Plymouth. I’d never been to Plymouth before, and might not have considered it as a place worth visiting had it not been for Japan400 Plymouth which was taking place that weekend. As it turned out, Plymouth is a jolly nice place and I’m very pleased I went! Although I only stayed one night, I felt like I had a proper little holiday.
Japan400 Plymouth was a celebration of UK-Japan relations, with a particular focus on Plymouth and the South West. On 18th April 1611 a ship called the Clove set off from England on what was to become the first English voyage to Japan. Captained by John Saris (c. 1580 – 1643), the primary focus of the mission was to seek trade. On 11th June 1613 the Clove arrived in Hirado, Japan. Last year was the anniversary of 400 years of UK-Japan relations, based on the arrival of the ship in Japan (see my post from January 2013). This year, on 27th September, it was the 400 year anniversary of the Clove’s return to the UK, where it docked in Plymouth in 1614.
To celebrate this 400 year anniversary of UK-Japan relations, a series of events were held in Plymouth. The main event was a re-creation of the Clove’s homecoming, with Portsmouth’s tall ship the Phoenix playing the part of the Clove and a man called Gary Baird dressed up as Captain John Saris. I timed my arrival perfectly and, just as I was following the coastline into the harbour and finding my way to the Sutton Harbour, I spotted the Clove sailing in alongside me with John Saris aboard.
As the Clove came in, Devon’s Kagemusha Taiko entertained the crowds with some lively taiko drumming.
The homecoming of the Clove was marked with an official ceremony led by Professor Martin Attrill, Director of the Marine Institute at Plymouth University, featuring a number of dignitaries including the Lord Mayor of Plymouth Michael Fox, the Queen’s Representative in England Lord-Lieutenant Eric Dancer, Professor Timon Screech of SOAS University of London, and Rie Yoshitake of the Sake Samurai Association.
Also present was artist Makiko Yamamoto from 2011 earthquake-affected Mito (Ibaraki Prefecture), who brought toys and gifts from the children of Mito to the South West.
Part of the official proceedings included the presentation of two trees – a cherry tree and an apple tree – by Celia Steven. Celia Steven is the great-granddaughter of Henry Merryweather, the man who first cultivated and sold the Bramley apple in the UK in the 1800s. Apparently, more than 20 years ago a Japanese man named Minoru Arai came to England and discovered the Bramley apple. Arai found a way to grow Bramley apples back in Japan in Obuse (Nagano Prfecture), with the help of the Royal Horticultural Society. This story was presented as just one small example of how UK-Japan trade relations have developed since Saris’s voyage.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been a proper Japanese opening ceremony if there wasn’t a ‘kagami biraki’ (鏡開き), ‘opening the mirror’ sake barrel opening.
As ‘John Saris’ looked on at the events I couldn’t help but wonder what the real John Saris would have made of it all. I wonder if he realised at the time how important his voyage was, and that people would still remember him 400 years later.
Plymouth’s Sutton Harbour was buzzing with activity all weekend. In addition to Japan400 Plymouth, there was also a seafood festival happening. Connected to both events, there were some cooking demonstrations from Japanese chefs. Yoshinori Ishii of Michelin star London restaurant Umu spoke about the correct way to kill a fish – ‘ikejime’ (活け締め) – so that the fish is immediately rendered brain-dead before being drained of blood. And Dan from Plymouth’s Goto Sushi showed us how ‘easy’ it is to make sushi.
There was a chance to go on the Clove and take a look around. It was a bit scary trying to climb on in a skirt, but exciting to be on board!
Seeing the tall ship there among all the other ships in Sutton Harbour made my feet really itchy. I think I need another adventure…
The next day was a little less Japan-focussed around the harbour, but there were some activities going on in the Guildhall as part of the Global Japan Culture Showcase. I didn’t expect too much from this part of the event, and it was just as well. I arrived around 10:30am and found the hall quite quiet and stalls still being set up. The whole place had quite a young and amateur feel about it, but it was nice to see people having a go at origami and showing an interest in Japanese culture.
There was one stall selling kawaii good and snacks called Keep it Secret, which I instantly homed in on. The had a small but good selection of the usual kinds of products – Rilakkuma, Pocky, etc.
As with most events of this kind, there was a bit of martial arts. Plymouth Ronin-Kai (not sure about that name – aren’t ronin masterless?!) showed us a bit of kendo, and Ai Suzuki did some iaido.
There was more taiko on the programme, but it was a workshop rather than a full performance. Taiko Journey‘s Hannah Jasmine Brunskill showed everyone how it’s done… even whilst quite heavily pregnant!
The highlight of the Global Japan Culture Showcase for me was a kimono fashion show by Bristol-based kimono fitter Koji Fukumoto. The kimonos were stunning, and Fukumoto’s unique ways of tying the obi were really interesting to see.
I realise this is turning into quite an epic post, but I have one final thing to share with you from Japan400 Plymouth. I’m sharing this last event because I’d like to know what you think, dear reader. Personally, I’m confused by the final performance I saw. When I tried to describe how this performance made me feel to a colleague she summed it up perfectly with “some things you just can’t unsee”. Indeed. I can never unsee the performance I saw by Hachisu Okiya, the Totnes Geisha. Based in Totnes, a market town in Devon, Hachisu Okiya is a ‘geisha house’, ‘a place of empowered women following their dream of making their life meaningful through art and fun’ (according to their Facebook page). One thing I can’t deny is that these women have studied geisha culture and seem to know their stuff. They can certainly dance like geisha, presumably having rehearsed and studied hard to perfect the art. But there was something I didn’t like about it. I can’t quite put my finger on it – perhaps it was just the ill-fitting wigs – but in my mind something wasn’t quite right. They were quite entertaining though, and they did seem to be enjoying themselves, so each to their own I guess!
All in all, I had a lovely little holiday in Plymouth and Japan400 Plymouth was a fun event to attend. The Clove’s voyage is a very important part of Japanese history, and I was happy to be there to celebrate the 400th anniversary of a very important day in UK-Japan relations.