Most travellers pass through the port of SHIMONOSEKI (下関) at the southern tip of Honshū, 65km west of Yamaguchi, as quickly as possible en route to Kyūshū, or to Pusan in South Korea on the daily ferry. However, this unpretentious city is not without its attractions. The narrow Kanmon Channel, which separates Honshū from Kyūshū, is best viewed from Hino-yama, the mountain park that rises above the port. The channel was the scene of the battle of Dannoura, the decisive clash between the Taira and Minamoto clans in 1185, and the colourful shrine Akama-jingū is dedicated to the defeated Taira. If you have enough time, make the short trip to the neighbouring town of Chōfu, with its authentic enclave of samurai houses and streets, sleepy temples and lovely garden.
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Shimonoseki revels in its role as Japan’s centre for fugu, the potentially deadly blowfish or globefish, which provides inspiration for many local sculptures and souvenirs of spiky, balloon-shaped fish. It is known in Shimonoseki as fuku, homonymous with the character for fortune and wealth, in order to attract good luck and happiness. About half the entire national catch (3000 tonnes a year) passes through Haedomari, the main market for fugu, at the tip of the island of Hiko-shima, some 3km west of Shimonoseki Station.
Chomping on the translucent slivers of the fish, which are practically tasteless, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. However, it is the presence of tetrodotoxin – a poison more lethal than potassium cyanide – found in the fugu’s ovaries, liver and a few other internal organs, that make this culinary adventure both dangerous and appealing. Fugu chefs spend up to seven years in training before they can obtain a government licence to prepare the fish. Even so, a small number of people do die, the most famous fatality being kabuki actor Bandō Mitsugorō – a national treasure – who dropped dead after a globefish banquet in Kyoto in January 1975.