WITH up to 30 million participants from 50 countries joining in more than 70,000 events, the annual programme of European Heritage Days (known in Northern Ireland as ‘European Heritage Open Days’, or EHOD) is the most widely attended public event on the continent of Europe.

It’s happening again next week, with our local EHOD programme for 2021 downloadable in an E-brochure from discovernorthernireland.com.

The 260-page brochure’s introduction highlights the benefits of “exploring our rich cultural heritage through the stories of our buildings and monuments, as well as the beautiful natural environment which surrounds us and within local villages, towns and cities”.

There’s a huge variety of online events between September 6 and 12, and free entry to more than 250 heritage properties in Northern Ireland during the weekend of September 10 to 12.

Many of the events and visits need to be pre-booked and as some of the locations aren’t normally open to the public, this is a wonderful opportunity to explore the legacy of our historical past.

County by county, there are 43 listed places, activities and events in Antrim, 30 in Armagh, 42 in Down, 24 in Londonderry, 24 in Tyrone and 71 in and around Belfast.

Closer to home, and Fermanagh’s list of 19 unique, world-class, historic buildings and scenic locations fills pages 190 to 209 in the brochure.

Local features listed include Castle Coole, Florence Court, Crom Estate, Portora Castle, Headhunters Barber Shop and Railway Museum, and an online and guided walking tour of Enniskillen’s west end, hosted by Enniskillen Castle, and evocatively entitled ‘West Side Story’.

So get your brochure now at discovernorthernireland.com!

Moving on, and an intriguing memento from the opening of Belfast Harbour Airport in 1938 was reproduced here a fortnight ago.

It was the original souvenir programme from the day the airport opened, belonging to Chris McFerran, and passed on to the Impartial Explorer by author and historian Robin Masefield.

Robin has been researching Irish folk who’ve made a significant mark on countries such as China, Japan and Korea.

One such person – Dr. William Willis, a Fermanagh-man with a fascinating story ¬– was probably the first Westerner to climb Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest peak.

It’s such a remarkable tale that I’m sharing the first part of Robin Masefield’s research here today, with more to follow in the near future.

Two valuable sources on the extraordinary life of Dr. Willis are his letters, and the biography written by Sir Hugh Cortazzi, a 20th Century British ambassador in Japan.

William was born near Maguiresbridge on May 1, 1837, the youngest son of George Willis and Hannah Waugh – her father was the Governor of Londonderry Gaol.

With the help and support of his older brother, George, William studied medicine at Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

In 1859, he wrote a paper on the ‘Theory of Ulceration’ which he deemed “of great scientific and practical importance”.

Initially he worked at Middlesex Hospital in London, where he fathered a son with Maria Fisk, a maidservant, before being accepted for a medical post in the British Consular Service in Japan.

Willis travelled to the newly re-established British Legation in Tokyo, then called ‘Edo’, in May, 1862.

A Legation was a diplomatic representative office of lower rank than an embassy. The latter was headed by an Ambassador, whereas a Legation was headed by a Minister.

Dr. Willis experienced a violent incident against the British Legation on the night of June 26, 1862, then housed in Tozenji Temple in Shinagawa.

During the terrifying attack, ronin (wandering samurai) killed two British Marines.

Willis wrote: “I was suddenly aroused by strange and alarming cries like those of an infuriated wild animal, the beating of Japanese drums, and other evidences of an attack.”

He jumped from his bed. Joined by a British soldier similarly awoken, he faced his attackers with his “revolver at full cock”.

The soldier fired his gun with Willis “expecting every moment to be attacked and cut down”.

He survived, and the legation was “prudently relocated” to Yokohama, where he remained from 1862 to 1867.

As well as his clerical duties, he opened the first pharmacy there, where he also treated patients.

He attended the scene of the murder of British merchant Charles Lennox Richardson in September, 1862, the so-called Namamugi Incident.

Later that year, Willis was promoted by the British Minister, Sir Harry Parkes, to be First Assistant at the Legation.

On March 23, 1868, he was attacked again, while travelling with Sir Harry to meet the new young Meiji Emperor in Kyoto.

Fortunately, there were no casualties.

Willis experienced many more adventures in the Far East (which will be recounted here soon) before returning to the UK.

He died on January 14, 1894, in Moneen, near Florencecourt, and was buried at St. John's Church, Florencecourt