Historic port city famous for fugu

by Chris Bamforth

Located at the western end of Honshu, Shimonoseki is one of those places that people tend to travel through rather than travel to. With Kyushu only 700 meters away across the Kanmon Strait, Shimonoseki is the main access point to that island, and as visa-run veterans are aware, the Korean port of Pusan is just an inexpensive ferry ride away.

Shimonoseki certainly sees a lot of through-traffic, but there is plenty in this agreeable town to warrant the attention of any visitor. For those with an interest in history, Shimonoseki is close to the site of one of the most decisive naval battles Japan has ever seen. It was at the Battle of Dannoura in 1185 where the Taira Clan were utterly defeated by the Minamoto Clan, ending the long, bitter Gempei War and ushering in almost seven centuries of warrior government.

Dannoura is on the Inland Sea coast just a few kilometers from Shimonoseki Station, and a memorial marks the spot where the famous sea battle took place. At the memorial, two statues have been erected, depicting the rival military leaders in that battle. Many of the Taira took their own lives, and the statue of Taira no Tomomori shows him holding aloft the anchor he grabbed to speed his descent to the seabed. Adjacent to him is the statue of his nemesis, Minamoto no Yoshitsune. As well as being one of Japan’s greatest romantic heroes, Yoshitsune was a brilliant general, though the curiously effete statue of him shows the victor of Dannoura looking as if he has just wandered into the battle after a ballet rehearsal.

The Dannoura memorial stands close by the hefty span of the Kanmon Bridge, which carries the highway linking Honshu with Kyushu 61 meters above the strait. Also near the bridge is Shimonoseki’s best-known shrine, Akama Jingu. This too has links with the naval battle. It is dedicated to the Emperor Antoku, who died when his nurse leaped with him into the Kanmon Strait rather than let the boy emperor fall into Minamoto hands. The shrine, with its searing red buildings, is a surprisingly elegant, peaceful spot, for a place dedicated to the memory of a 7-year-old boy who drowned at sea.

While the Battle of Dannoura is the most famous event associated with Shimonoseki, its best-known commodity is fish-shaped. Unless you walk around Shimonoseki with your eyes jammed shut, you cannot but be aware that this city is the capital of fugu (blowfish). Around 80 percent of all the commercially traded tora-fugu, the priciest kind of fugu, passes through Shimonoseki. And it’s hard to avoid the impression that Shimonoseki does not have so much a fondness for fugu as an obsession with it. Images of the bloated fish adorn everything in Shimonoseki, from manhole covers and the sides of buses to the tops of phone booths, street furniture and, apparently, every single item on sale in souvenir shops.

As one might expect, there is no shortage of eateries in Shimonoseki that serve up the local finny favorite, but probably the most atmospheric and cheapest spot is Karato Fish Market. Located east of the city center, close by the red-brick building of the old British Consulate, this market sells everything from meter-long flounder to unsavory-looking blocks of whale meat (the product of “scientific research,” you understand). But fugu is the real attraction at the market, and at one stall, 300 yen gets you a whole fried fugu. The piping-hot fish is usually eaten while sitting on the rough stools and tables arranged in front of the stall. As you savor the delightfully fresh, melt-in-the-mouth succulence of the fish, you really begin to understand what all the fuss is about.

A few kilometers further east from Karato Fish Market brings you to the town of Chofu. The Battle of Dannoura might be the most famous historical event associated with Shimonoseki, but the former castle town of Chofu, with its old samurai quarter, is the place that best preserves the character of the past. In fact, most of the houses in the quarter are fairly modern, but the original small rivulets flanking the streets are still intact, as are the old buff, plaster walls with their stone bases, which run beside the streams.

Notable among the well-preserved spots is the Mori residence, a handsome sprawling structure of a century ago that once briefly served as the digs of Emperor Meiji, and Chofu Garden, also a former samurai residence that is daintily landscaped around its central pond. So clean is it in Chofu that the Dangu River, flowing through the samurai district, is one of the dwindling number of places in Japan where pollution-averse fireflies can be viewed in early summer.

For those who prefer a grander panorama, the place to go in Shimonoseki is the top of the hill known as Hinoyama. And the best time for that is after sunset so as to appreciate what the official tourist guide to the city describes as the “$10 million night view.” I wasn’t, unfortunately, able to witness the multimillionaire’s vista. But I did reach the heights of Hinoyama and the trip was worth every bit of my 180 yen bus fare to the top.

From other points, too, Shimonoseki is an attractive sort of city, with even a small touch of grandeur. It has the lofty sweep of its great suspension bridge. The green hills of Kyushu are visible beyond the blue divide of the strait. And the constant to-ing and fro-ing of the vessels along what is one of Asia’s busiest waterways means that there is never any lack of something to look at while you munch your fugu.