Following the Route of the Samurai in New York

During the weekend of October 24 and 25, The Japanese American Association of New York held their Virtual 5K Walk/Run Fundraiser. The nonprofit organization encouraged participants to complete the suggested distance of 5 kilometers (3.10686 miles) with the goal of ending at a spot that‘s meaningful to the history of the Japanese in New York or that illustrated the participants’ personal connections to Japan.

As a Vice President and the Secretary of JAA, I felt compelled to walk to celebrate our Japanese American community connections and our history in New York. I also wanted to commemorate the 160th anniversary of the first Japanese delegation’s visit to our city.

For two weeks in the summer of 1860, envoys from Japan visited with dignitaries; toured parks, businesses, and schools; attended lavish parties; and participated in parades and dinners in their honor. Using the itinerary listed in the program from Samurai in New York: The First Japanese Delegation, 1860, the Museum of the City of New York’s 2010 exhibition that detailed the visit through photographs and newspaper articles, I retraced the envoys’ steps on the first day of their arrival. New York Peace Film Festival co-founder Yumi Tanaka joined me for the adventure through our city’s history.

The Procession of the Samurai in New York

According to historical accounts, the delegation landed at Pier 1 in what is now Brooklyn Bridge Park. There was a procession up Broadway to Union Square, and then the envoys went back down Broadway to the Metropolitan Hotel at Prince Street.

We began our journey at Pier 1, but we took a few creative liberties along the way. For instance, not knowing exactly how the group made its way from Pier 1 to Lower Manhattan, we decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, even though the bridge didn’t exist in 1860 (it opened in 1883). Instead of walking back down to Broadway and Prince after making it to Union Square, we found the location of the former Metropolitan Hotel on the way. (I mean, this was only a 5K after all . . .)

Pier 1 at Brooklyn Bridge Park
Walking to Lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge

Nearing Broadway in Lower Manhattan

Two days after the delegation arrived, there was a parade to City Hall. More than likely, they strolled through City Hall Park. Maybe. In the background is Tweed Courthouse, which the delegation did not see, as construction ran from 1861-1872.

City Hall Park
Tweed Courthouse entrance (left)

In 1860 the delegation didn’t see this MUJI at 455 Broadway, but Yumi and I stopped in for a brief shopping trip.

MUJI at 455 Broadway

Finding the Metropolitan Hotel

New York City’s Japanese guests stayed at the Metropolitan Hotel. The building was demolished in 1895, but thanks to the app Urban Archive, Yumi was able to find historic photos of the Metropolitan Hotel and Niblo’s Theater.

578 Broadway, where the Metropolitan Hotel once stood
Metropolitan Hotel and Niblo’s from the app Urban Archive

Here’s the gorgeous and historic Grace Church, located on Broadway and E. 10th Street. The church gives us another Japan-New York connection: Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who was instrumental in opening Japan’s borders just seven years prior to the delegation’s visit, married Jane Slidell at Grace Church. At the time of their wedding in 1814, however, the church was still at its original location on Broadway and Rector Street. But still. Commodore Perry died in 1858, but the delegation met with his widow.

Grace Church

Finally, after walking more than four-and-a-half miles, Yumi and I completed our mission and reached Union Square. To celebrate, we had sake and bar food at Decibel in the East Village, a neighborhood that, to me, symbolizes Japan in New York. The 27-year-old sake bar has ample outdoor (and heated!) seating, adapting to the protocols of our pandemic life.

With Yumi Tanaka (left) at Union Square
Outdoor seating at Decibel in the East Village

Learn More about the Delegation

The following articles provide more context about the first Japanese delegation in New York:

The Consulate General of Japan in New York: “Japan-NYC 1860-2010: A Heritage of Friendship

The New York Times: “When Stoic Samurai Faced the Camera

Nancy Matsumoto for Discover Nikkei: “When Samurai Walked the Streets of New York

Justin Rivers for Untapped New York: “This Week in NYC History: The First Japanese Delegation to the US Comes to NYC

About JAA

The Japanese American Association of New York, Inc. is a nonprofit that builds community ties between Japanese, Japanese Americans, and those who love Japanese culture. Since 1907, JAANY has served the community through bilingual social services, educational programs, and community outreach. With a strong sense of diversity, the organization has been a collaborative forum, celebrating and sharing Japanese culture and heritage with people of all ages and backgrounds. For more information, please visit JAA’s website.