Perched on the edge of Honshu, Yamaguchi Prefecture’s Shimonoseki possesses a wealth of history and culture entwined with the sea that laps at its shores. Busy with the hum of daily life, commuters pass over and beneath the Kanmon Straits — home to historic battles that shaped Japan and a delicacy that made the city famous. As a bright and busy port town with a thriving fresh fish market, a world-recognized aquarium and beautifully restored temples, lovers of fresh fish are indulged, history lovers immersed and casual travelers can dip their toes into the city’s wealth of experiences.
While strolling through the streets of Shimonoseki, you’ll find yourself drawn in admiration to the sea, be it through views from the mountain, the lure of the market or simply the lingering idea of an ice cream. The best sights are all along the water’s edge, with a path easily followed from the station to Mount Hinoyama, with a bus loop available too.
Not long after stepping foot in the city, you’ll notice the ubiquitous mascot appearing in myriad forms, be it a larger-than-life statue, a not-so-subtle Shrine plaque or even an embellished manhole cover. The puffer fish is a full-time obsession of Shimonoseki, and with good reason. More than 80 percent of the country’s puffer fish supply is sourced here, with some calling the city Japan’s fugu capital.
When prepared correctly, the spiky fish can be a delicious delicacy with a subtle flavor that calls for more. If prepared poorly, however, the meal will be your last. For those who live life on the edge of the fugu master’s knife, there is no better place to experience the world-famous treat — and nowhere harder to escape it. The love goes deeper than a few statues, though, and the city is dedicated to providing its visitors with a deeper appreciation for the species before even tempting you to taste it.
The best weapon in the city’s armory of persuasion is, by far, the Kaikyokan, a marine science museum with one of the most extensive collections of puffer fish in the world. More than 100 different varieties are exhibited, with detailed posters and displays. The aquarium is also home to an internationally recognized penguin pool filled with frolicking Humboldt penguins. The most impressive section, however, is the tank replicating the tides of the Kanmon straits, allowing a view into the very depths that shape the city. You can easily while away your morning under tunnels of diving penguins or admiring the unusual species that thrive just yards from the shore.
After learning all you can about the sea and its inhabitants, you may find your appetite whetted — an unusual side-effect of an aquarium. If you stroll along Kanmon Wharf, you’ll see the arched entrance of Karato Market, a bustling wholesale market with fish plucked fresh from the sea.
On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays it becomes a retail market filled with locals vying for the best deals. Trays filled with beautifully cut, glistening sushi and sashimi line the alleys and sharp elbows appear — the market is a chaotic rumble of activity, with eager fingers quickly swiping the best pieces.
Peruse the aisles while admiring the agility of vendors and customers alike, as trays are emptied and replenished at astonishing speed. Settle on a stall and you’ll be handed a box to begin your own selection, with prices better suited to the discount shelf at your supermarket. When it’s piled high, the staff will give you a pleasingly low total before you carry off your winnings for lunch. You can head outside to eat on grass by the sea, or hustle for a seat on the balconies that border the market, giving a fantastic bird’s-eye-view of the bargaining going on below.
The fish melts in the mouth with that soft and subtle flavor found only in fish as fresh as the sea breeze surrounding you. You’ll end up going back for more, without a doubt, and I thoroughly encourage your adventures into the unknown flavors of the market. There are small restaurants on the second floor as well as stalls below selling fugu, if you’re keen to try it. Once sated, you can curve back to the wharf for an ice cream, with unexpected flavors such as sweet fish available, as well as the traditional.
Having learned about and tasted the local specialty, what better way to pay your respects (and work off that ice cream) than climbing the steps to the Kameyama Hachimangu Shrine. Although not explicitly a fugu shrine, the simple, quiet grounds house an impressive statue and some adorable prayer-plaques that could easily lead you to think otherwise. With stunning views across the bay and far fewer people than the nearby Akama Shrine, it can be a great spot to let lunch settle while you enjoy the scenery.
Your next pitstop is an opportunity to step below the straits and traverse the Kanmon Submarine Tunnel all the way to Kitakyushu. Created for pedestrian commuters and tourists alike, the tunnel is a feat of engineering and allows you to hop back and forth between prefectures to your heart’s content. Whether you resurface in the not-so-distant lands of Kyushu or return to Shimonoseki to continue your explorations is up to you.
Delving into the darker past of the city is an intriguing journey into Japan’s troubled development, featuring battles between clans and countries alike. From the early 12th century to the late 19th century, blood has been spilled here, with the river bringing both fortune and tragedy.
As you continue your walk, you’ll find yourself at the foot of the imposing Akama Jingu, a shrine awarded the highest ranking of Kanpei-taisha in 1940. Dedicated to child-emperor Antoku, the unusual-looking shrine is modeled after Ryugu-jo — the mythical underwater palace of dragon god of the sea, Ryujin. After the family’s defeat at the battle of Dannoura in 1185 to the Genji-clan, Antoku’s grandmother told the young boy they would visit this palace, believing death by their own hand to be a preferable fate. My guide, a descendent of the losing Heike Clan, highlighted the importance of the battle in Japan’s transition from aristocratic to warrior rule.
If you wander further into the grounds, there’s plenty to discover, including the Shichimori-zuka — seven mounds sacred to the Heike warriors — and the brightly decorated shrine of Hoichi. The blind monk was a celebrated performer, particularly loved for his rendition of the “Tale of the Heike.” Late one night, Hoichi was found playing to an empty graveyard by concerned friends. The voices he heard applauding belonged to evil spirits and a friend quickly adorned him in protective charms, forgetting his ears in the panic. Angered, the spirits ripped them from his head and he became Hoichi The Earless — the character used to introduce the horrors of the Dannoura battle to the public by Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn.
The samurai history of Shimonoseki is plentiful, with an old quarter including traditional residences and clay walls, known as Samurai Town. On nearby Ganryu Island, the second of the three great battles took place, although it was far more personal. Samurais Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro claimed to be the most powerful and fought here for the swordsman’s crown. Although Miyamoto won, he never fought again, instead writing a book about the secrets of swordsmanship.
Further along the bayside you’ll find Mimosusogawa Park, with statues commemorating the battle of Dannoura, as well as a battle that came centuries later. In 1864, the strait was the scene of brutal bombardments, as the Choshu clan fired upon foreign ships in defiance of the Tokugawa shogunate’s open-door policy to foreign trade. Cries of “expel the barbarians” followed the antiquated cannon fire, until eventually the collective nations defeated the poorly-equipped clan. Replica cannons are now displayed on the shoreside, pointing out across the sea, serving as a reminder of the tensions of the past.
For the final stretch of your journey through the city, head to Mount Hinoyama for the “$10 million view” of the bay. You can catch the rope way to the top and look out across the bay, much as warriors did in the past. The mountain was a lookout, with its name derived from the war beacons lit here during turmoil. It’s a lot more peaceful now, and makes for an unforgettable end to your day in the city.
Getting there: If traveling from Tokyo or Osaka, it’s best to take a bullet train to Kokura on Kyushu, and then backtrack on the Sanyo Line via Moji Station in Kitakyushu. By this route, Shimonoseki can be reached in about 5½ hours from Tokyo and 2½ hours from Osaka. Backstreet Stories will appear on Dec. 9 before returning to its regular slot in the first week of each month in January.