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Ghosts of battles past in Shimonoseki
In Shimonoseki's former battlegrounds, samurai duels, naval battles, dragon gods and other tales of bloodshed rest uneasily on the fishing town's present-day placid waters
On the southwestern tip of Honshu on the treacherous Kanmon Strait, Shimonoseki is Japan’s largest source of fugu. But this otherwise unassuming fishing town’s history is as turbulent as its waters today are calm. The best part: it's easy to take in the air of historic battles in peace.
Then (1863): Dutifully following an Imperial order "to expel barbarians,” the Takachika chan of Shimonoseki began pelting every foreign ship that sailed by with cannon fire, regardless of flag or mission. After official ceasefire negotiations stagnated, a combined fleet of cutting-edge British, French, and Dutch warships unleashed a little gunboat diplomacy, pounding the Takachika clan’s antiquated guns into submission. The resulting treaty negotiated by the American ambassador succeeded in opening additional ports and reducing trade tariffs.
Now: Once a military fortification, today it’s a tranquil park. Not one to hold grudges, in 2004 the Shimonoseki city government erected a set of replica cannons on the spot of the original battery, complete with coin-operated smoke and sound effects.
Then (1612): In the early Edo period, a pair of wandering swordsmen pledged to meet in Shimonoseki to fight what became Japan’s most famous sword duel. On the one side, “Demon of the Western Provinces” and longsword expert Sasaki Kojiro waited patiently on a tiny island off the coast of Shimonoseki. Meanwhile, his rival Miyamoto Musashi had himself rowed ashore hours late, with only a carved-down wooden oar as a weapon. Minutes later, the duel was over, with Sasaki dead in the surf; the late-arrival psych-out and brute-force bludgeon conspired to give Musashi the edge he needed to win.
Now: Renamed in honor of the Ganryu sword style that perished with Sasaki, the island is a 10-minute ferry hop from a downtown boardwalk area teeming with tourist attractions. (One wonders if Musashi might have stocked up on sports drinks had the 7-Eleven standing there today been there when he launched his rowboat.) Over on the island, a dramatic statue marks the spot, and a replica boat is permanently parked on the beach where they may have crossed swords.
Then (1185): It remains the most famous battle in Japanese history. Late in the 12th century, some 1,300 ships from the navies of two clans met in epic battle in the waters off of Shimonoseki’s coast. The stakes? Nothing less than the fate of all Japan. On the one side fought the Heike clan, with the child-emperor Antoku in their midst. On the other, their rivals, the Genji. As the battle began the Heike were outnumbered, but had the tides in their favor. Unfortunately, tides change quickly in the Kanmon Straits. Pushed backward and pummeled by the arrows of their pursuers, yet refusing to surrender, the heavily armored Heike warriors began leaping from their ships to certain death in the swirling waters. Knowing the end was near, Emperor Antoku’s grandmother clutched the six year old to her chest and said: “There is a wonderful paradise at the bottom of the sea. I will take you there.” Their deaths symbolized the end of the reign of the Heike.
Now: Dan-no-ura practically defines Shimonoseki, and a shrine dedicated to Emperor Antoku, Akama Jingu, stands just off the coast of the site of the battle. Its staircase extends from a hilltop all the way into the surf below, and its bright red design was inspired by Ryugujo, the undersea palace of the dragon god of the sea, in whose halls Antoku’s grieving mother dreamed of reuniting with her son.
Other symbols of the legendary battle abound here. Small crabs called Heike-gani (whose carapaces resemble the scowling faces of angry warriors) are believed to represent the angry souls of the defeated clan; for generations, fishermen who caught them in their nets brought them to the temple that once stood on Akama Jingu’s site to pray for the fallen warriors.
The connections don’t stop there. Just behind the shrine itself sits the graves of the Heike clan and a solitary statue of a legendary figure called Hoichi the Earless. He was a blind lute player and according to an old tale written by that king of the spooky, Lafcadio Hearn, after several nights of playing for them, Hoichi had his ears ripped off as souvenirs by the furious ghosts of the Heike warriors.
In fact, I dropped by to see Hoichi’s statue in the dead of night out of simple curiosity. The shrine has set up a spot-light to illuminate Hoichi’s face, but the rest of the compound -- including the graves -- were bathed in darkness. Within five minutes, I was chilled to the bone (even in the middle of summer) and made the decision to cut my visit short; one never knows when the Heike are on the prowl for a new set of keepsakes.