Look down on the Kanmon region from above and you’ll see the islands of Honshu and Kyushu reaching towards one another, nearly connecting. There are mountains facing one another across the banks of the Kanmon Straits, as if jutting out into the sea. From there, you can look out onto a streetscape of retro-modern buildings and a view of the straits plied by a steady stream of large tankers and passenger ships. Both shores of the Kanmon Straits rapidly developed from the Meiji period (1868–1912) to the early Showa era (1926–1989), and the modern buildings constructed at that time using state-of-the-art designs and techniques still stand carefully preserved on the streets today. Ferries and undersea tunnels can be used to readily explore the port towns on both banks of the straits, which are connected by a closely linked transportation network.
Since ancient times, the Kanmon region has linked government roads and major highways travelled by many people and goods. The Kanmon Straits is the juncture between the Seto Inland Sea and the Sea of Japan, and forms a crossroad between land and sea routes. At the end of the Edo period (1603–1868), ships from Western countries also began passing through the straits due to pressure to allow foreign diplomacy and trade. Loyal subjects of the Choshu Domain who understood the importance of this sealed the straits and expelled foreigners. This caused the Shimonoseki War, which resulted in Japan changing direction and opening up of the country to foreign trade. It became a turning point that altered the course of history.
The Choshu Domain, which suffered a crushing defeat in the Shimonoseki War, appointed Shinsaku Takasugi as an envoy to establish peace, and effectively opened Shimonoseki Port in 1864. In accordance with the Osaka Treaty (1867) concluded between the shogunate government and Britain, Western-style lighthouses were built in the Kanmon Straits, which became a gateway to the outside world. A group of British technical experts led by Richard Henry Brunton designed Mutsurejima Lighthouse on the western side of the straits and Hesaki Lighthouse on the eastern side. Both were first lit in 1872 and became guiding lights for the Kanmon Straits and Japan’s civilization and enlightenment. Guarded by the light of these twin Western-style lighthouses, Shimonoseki Port and Moji Port were both designated as special ports of export and ports of call for regular shipping services to the Continent. Shimonoseki Port had been a port of call for the kitamae-bune cargo ships since the Edo period (1603–1868), and Moji Port was bolstered by the large supply district of Chikuho Coalfields and the coal stopover of Wakamatsu. The area began garnering attention as an international port city. It all began with regular services between Yokohama/Kobe and Shanghai in 1875. Later, after being designated a trading port with Korea, the recently established Osaka Shosen Kaisha (Osaka Mercantile Steamship Co., Ltd.) and Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha entered the market. In 1889, Moji Station (present-day Mojiko Station) was established along with the opening of Kyushu Railway, and Kanmon Port became a bustling trading center for land and sea cargo. A British Consulate was set up in Shimonoseki in 1901 based on a proposal by Ernest Mason Sato, the British Minister Plenipotentiary to Japan, who early on recognized the international importance of the Kanmon region. Five years later, the brick British Consulate in Shimonoseki was built.
From the late Meiji period (1868–1912) to the Taisho era (1912–1926), financial entities such as the Bank of Japan, trading companies such as Mitsubishi and Mitsui, and a cluster of food factories through capital provided by Suzuki Shoten (Suzuki & Co.) successively established bases along the Kanmon Straits. Streetscapes began to feature rows of modern buildings with stately structures and state-of-the-art design. In addition, after Hirobumi Ito lifted the ban on eating fugu (pufferfish) at the Japanese-style restaurant, Shunpanro, the local area came to be known and loved for pufferfish cuisine, which is said to bring good luck. Pufferfish is eaten in a variety of ways, including raw, in a hot pot dish, deep fried, as soft roe, and in hot sake flavored with grilled pufferfish fins.Furthermore, as overseas ship routes expanded, the tatakiuri auctions of bananas imported in large quantities from Taiwan became famous in this area. These have been handed down to modern times.
In the Showa era (1926–1989), plans were made to construct the Kanmon Railway Tunnel, the world’s first undersea tunnel, that would connect both shores of the straits through the seabed. The outbound line opened in 1942, and the inbound line in 1944. The two characters for kanmon mean “barrier” and “gate”, and now there was a land route that broke through the barrier and threw the gates wide open.. A car tunnel and pedestrian tunnel were opened later, and the completion of the Kanmon Bridge created a diverse transportation network across the Kanmon Straits called Kaikyo Shichiro. The Kanmon region that until then had undertaken the role of a juncture for land and sea traffic became a passage point between Honshu and Kyushu, and stately modern clusters of buildings constructed from the Meiji period (1868–1912) to the early Showa era (1926–1989) still remain, frozen in time. In the Kanmon Straits, imported cultures brought by foreign ships took root, and groups of period buildings from the age when Japan launched into the modernization of its nation are still carefully preserved today amid a landscape of foreign ships coming and going on the narrow straits. If you explore both banks using the Kaikyo Shichiro, you’ll discover a nostalgic streetscape that seems as if it belongs to a movie set.