“…that every man will do his duty.”


It says a lot about the bewildering mess that is Tokyo mass transit that I still can’t work out how many different railway systems there are. I know there are at least two entirely separate metro companies running separate networks; there’s also JR East’s system of overground lines, including the crucial Yamanote ring line which pretty much any journey of decent length will make some use of, and god only knows how many separately run private lines, like the one we took to Shimokitazawa. All of these systems operate their own sub-stations with their own ticket barriers, exacerbating the already mazelike nature of the larger rail terminals, and all require separate tickets to be bought from separate machines. With enough different services to exhaust the spectrum, some lines just reuse colours used by others; confusion is avoided on maps (wait, no it’s not) by having several totally different, non-overlapping maps up on station walls. Sometimes.

Comparing my experience in Tokyo to London and Moscow, I can safely say to anyone who thinks that public transport ought to be run by competing private concerns rather than a unified system administered by local government: fuck you.

The upshot of all this is that, knowing the train journey down to Yokosuka-chuo was long and likely to be expensive, and having saved a day on my JR East Pass precisely in order to offset this, I was annoyed but not surprised to find that the line south was run by yet another train company. So we coughed up and got on a southbound train, which wore lovely red livery and was very comfortably furnished in an old-world-charm sort of way, and it rocked and rolled (I’ve been on rollercoasters which tilted less) through miles of Tokyo urbs. The mixed skyline of low houses and tall blocks just went on and on, and never really fell away; twenty minutes out of the centre, a comparable London journey would have you looking over uniformly low terraces, and a comparable Moscow journey might still have a skyline full of blocks of flats, but they would get more run-down and post-apocalyptic-looking the further you went, until the big grim tower blocks were half-abandoned and attended by shanty towns of corrugated-iron shacks with MiG-17s in the garden.

The train stopped an awful lot, and we noticed at one station that it was waiting a very long time for a connection; after more closely examining some timetables, we realised we’d boarded the very slowest option, and as luck would have it a swish blue Limited Express appeared on the scene and zipped us the rest of the way down. Yokosuka is home to a big American naval base (when looking at the peninsula on Google Maps ahead of time, I was slightly surprised to find that the first ship I saw was not a fifteen-thousand-tonne pre-dreadnought, but a hundred-thousand-tonne Nimitz-class supercarrier), and its influence on the town was very clear – lots of places advertising foreigner-oriented services in English and with US flags, and lots of strapping foreigners with short hair, some in US Navy uniforms. A hotel with a miniature Statue of Liberty on the roof was named the “Goddess Hotel”; Fran informed me that the Japanese call her the “Goddess of Freedom”, which the owners had obviously literally translated into English in order to attract American punters, bless ‘em. We filled up on gyuudon at a Yoshinoya branch, and pushed on to Mikasa Park.

The Mikasa is the world’s only remaining pre-dreadnought battleship, the very last survivor of a breed of armoured battlewagons made abruptly outdated in 1906 by HMS Dreadnought. It and Admiral Togo occupy a very similar position in Japanese history as the Victory and Nelson do in British – flagship and admiral at their most famous victory at sea. The Battle of Tsushima Straits was Japan’s naval apotheosis, one of the great kerb stomps of naval history, and the only one in which modern battleships actually achieved anything. At Tsushima, Togo sent his own “England Expects” with the Z flag that flies now from the main mast, signifying “The Empire’s fate depends on the result of this battle, let every man do his utmost duty.” (I don’t know quite how just the letter Z conveyed all that: either Togo spread the sentiment some way ahead of time, or the Japanese navy used a very jingoistic codebook.) The exhibition made the comparison quite explicitly, with plenty of references to Nelson and the Victory – a display on the gun deck (it also referenced John Paul Jones and the USS Constitution, an entirely unwarranted sop to the Americans who presumably visit it a lot. They are not on an equal footing.)*

The ship had been gutted since; between Washington Naval Treaty requirements and WW2 desperation, the engines, weapons and most of the armour had been stripped bare, and few of the fittings are original; after the war the battleship was used as a dance hall, among other ignominies. The capital turrets with their 12-inch guns are made of plaster; the QF 12-pdrs on the weather-deck batteries had fake barrels in original mountings. Most of the internal structure is totally gone. So it’s not a preserved museum ship as I’m used to them; but, from the huge gold Imperial chrysanthemum at its bow, past the bridge’s authentic rangefinder and compass binnacles and the reconstructed funnels that tower above the armoured citadel, right back to the little 2.5-pdr guns in the admiral’s stateroom at the stern, they’ve tried pretty hard. (In the latter, next to a 1904 picture of Togo with a balloon-back chair, a similar chair sat with a typewritten sign talking earnestly about how Mikasa preservers had found it at an English antiques market.)

In a gallery on the main gun deck, a space the engines would once have filled, an excellent set of model ships, artifacts and displays told us all about the battles of Tsushima and Yellow Sea, and a Japanese staffer, a cool ex-MSDF dude, talked to us happily about it all. The history was decent, albeit with a definite jingoistic tinge; apparently, the Russo-Japanese War was one of national independence and self-defence, rather than a naked land grab by two wannabe-imperial powers; riiight. (Japan, you don’t need to feel self-conscious, everyone was doing it. It was cool at the time! Besides, you got up to far worse in the thirties and forties…) And apparently the Japanese victory at Tsushima not only directly aided Finland and Poland, suffering under the Tsar, but did something nonspecific to ease race relations in the United States. ([sic]: “in the United States, it led to the retraction activities of the racial discrimination by the black man”. Me neither.) A deck below that was full of exhibits about tsunamis, including a wave machine which you used to knock down little plastic houses, and a rather unnerving animated film about survival involving a lot of schoolchildren running uphill.

I took scores of pictures, and bought a little die-cast battleship at the gift shop; then we went back into town for our train, catching a hazy sunset glimpse of Mount Fuji along the way. A detour to Ikebukuro got another Hatoful Boyfriend book for Katy and Fran treated me to fancy ice cream at a Baskin Robbins; then it was back to Ueno for a dinner of chicken and egg on rice (BUT WHICH CAME FIRST?!) and the sad and sorry realisation that this would be our last full day together for a long, long time.

But hey, we got to spend it on a battleship.

* Nick P, if you’re reading this, no. Victory and Mikasa led battlefleets in the defining naval victories of their respective eras. “Old Ironsides” won some single-combat duels in a pointless sideshow war. Which you lost. Yes, you did, status quo ante bellum and we burned your capital down despite being up to our shoulders in an apocalyptic twenty-year war over things that actually mattered. Shut up.


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