Ghosts of battles past in Shimonoseki
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.
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.
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.
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.