KITAKYUSHU, Fukuoka Prefecture — If you stand on the waterfront at Moji Port in Kitakyushu, you can take in the city’s finest view: More than 1,000 ships and boats pass through Kanmon Strait each day, against the backdrop of Kanmon Bridge, whose elegant lines connect Honshu with Kyushu.
Taking that all in, you can’t help but try imagining what Kanmon Strait — flowing between Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture and Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture — has witnessed over the centuries.
Make your way to the Kaikyo Dramaship, a minute’s walk from Moji Port, and you’ll find you needn’t imagine. This high-tech, waterfront exhibition center is an eye-catching introduction to the historic events that played themselves out here, changing the course of Japanese history.
The chief attraction here is the tableaux of historical scenes depicted using figures crafted by Japanese and Czech puppet artists, including Kihachiro Kawamoto, Michaela Bartonova and Antonin Muller.
Among the episodes shown is the Battle of Dannoura (in 1185), which finally put an end to a five-year conflict between the Taira and Minamoto families, the two most powerful warrior clans of the time.
The tableau re-creating this battle is dramatic: The opponents are locked in combat, brandishing swords and leaping up in mid-air, while ships full of archers, bows raised, are buffeted by the waves.
It was after this battle that the chief of the Minamoto clan, Minamoto-no Yoritomo, went on to conquer most of Japan and to establish the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192.
The rule of warrior governments continued for nearly seven centuries until the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867 and at that time, yet again, the Kanmon Straits played a part in Japan’s turbulent history.
The Choshu domain in present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture was a stronghold of anti-foreign sentiment. Its leaders had protested against trade with the West ever since commercial relations began in 1858. But after the 1864 bombardment of the domain by the joint naval forces of the United States, the Netherlands, Britain and France — in retaliation against Choshu’s attack the previous year on Western ships passing though the Kanmon Strait — the Choshu domain called a halt to the hostilities.
The domain eventually became a major force in bringing about the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and opening Japan to the world.
While these events centered more on Honshu than Kyushu, Kitakyushu became one of Japan’s most important cities after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. With Japan’s industrialization, the city’s Moji Port — one of three that compose present-day Kitakyushu Port — began operating in 1889 as an export center.
By the 1920s, Moji Port began to welcome cargo ships carrying goods into Japan as well as passenger ships from overseas. Soon, it was large enough to be compared with other international port towns such as Kobe and Yokohama.
Coal and iron manufacturing were among Kitakyushu’s largest industries, spurring its growth till it became one of Kyushu’s largest cities. But with the decline of the iron industry in recent decades, among other things, Kitakyushu needed to look elsewhere to survive. The city decided to promote itself as a tourist center by protecting and conserving its historical heritage.
In 1995, the waterfront area was renovated. The old Western-style offices of major Japanese businesses were saved from dismantlement, repaired and some of them relocated. Today they form part of a prime tourist area, evoking the glory days of Moji’s prominence.
Among the buildings is the Old Moji Mitsui Club, which served as a social club for executives of the former Mitsui zaibatsu. The charming, gray and brown half-timber facility, designated as an important national cultural asset, accommodated Albert Einstein and his wife on their visit to Japan in 1922 — because it was the only facility in Fukuoka Prefecture with Western-style beds for the couple to sleep in.
Other structures of historic interest include the Old Moji Customs Office, a red-brick building that now hosts art exhibitions and music concerts. The JR Mojiko Station, another important national cultural asset, boasts glamorous white wooden architecture and a Renaissance-style bronze roof.
It’s not just buildings that evoke nostalgia here, though. On weekends, in front of Mojiko Station, visitors can enjoy a demonstration of banana no tatakiuri, a unique street performance that originated with the street vendors of Moji Port.
Bananas were introduced to Japan in the early 1900s, with Moji Port being one of the major banana-importing ports. Some of the cargo would inevitably ripen on its way to Japan, before it could reach the marketplace. These bananas were sold at bargain prices by street merchants.
Vendors would, in a rhythmic sales patter almost like rapping, tell the story of how bananas were harvested in Taiwan and brought to Moji, and exhort customers to buy them. The price of bananas got beaten down as the song progressed, the last ones being sold at almost giveaway prices.
The tradition of banana no tatakiuri faded away during World War II. Now, it is being preserved by a group of Moji locals who hold seminars to teach the performance technique to others.
Like its history and its traditions, Kitakyushu also shares its cuisine with nearby Shimonoseki. Fugu, although considered a specialty of Shimonoseki, is also widely available around Moji Port — in delicious sashimi form, as sushi, fried, or served in a pot.
Kitakyushu doesn’t boast the attractions of a big city like Fukuoka, but it’s definitely worth making a day trip here, to get a feel for how exciting times were when the port was booming.
Recently, Kitakyushu City was permitted to designate Moji Port a special deregulation zone, allowing it to operate round the clock. This might bring about brisker trade for the port once again.
But no matter how busy the port becomes again, there will always be something about the waterfront area that makes you feel like you’ve turned back the clock.