The strategically located Kanmon area has played an important role throughout Japanese history. Long a gateway from Asia, the Port of Moji bustled in the heyday of Japan’s modernization. Learn about the origins of rail travel in Kyushu at the Kyushu Railway History Museum and experience Kitakyushu’s industrial heritage on a factory nightscape tour. If you want to step further back in time, then pay a visit to Kokura Castle in Kitakyushu and Chofu Castle Town in Shimonoseki. At the same time, you can enjoy all of the amenities of a modern Japanese city—don’t forget to pick up some souvenirs at Aruaru City or Riverwalk Kitakyushu.
Smack in the middle of central Kitakyushu sits Kokura Castle. It was originally built by the Hosokawa clan in 1602 but was burnt down in 1866 by the castle lord himself to help secure safe passage of the young feudal lord ahead of an encroaching enemy army. The current building dates back to 1959. Kokura Castle has been known for its cherry blossoms since the 17th century, which is rare because the planting of trees, especially highly flammable cherry trees, on castle grounds was forbidden to prevent the risk of fire and keep enemies at bay. To this day, it remains the city’s preeminent spot for cherry blossom viewing in the early spring. The fifth floor of the castle tower affords great views of the urban landscape, and there is barrier-free chair lift for those unable to walk up five flights of stairs. At night, the castle exudes an air of mystery when lit up.
Address: 2-1 Jonai, Kokurakita-ku, Kitakyushu
Open: Apr. ~ Oct.: 9:00~18:00, Nov. ~ Mar.: 9:00~17:00 (doors close 30 min. prior)
Admission: General ¥350, JHS & HS ¥200, ES ¥100
*Combo ticket for Kokura Castle, Kokura Castle Japanese Garden and Matsumoto Seicho Memorial Museum: General ¥700, JHS & HS ¥400, ES ¥250
Japanese Garden and Tea Ceremony
Just east of the castle itself sits the Kokura Castle Japanese Garden. Here you can enjoy views of the castle beyond the traditional garden from a reconstructed feudal lord’s residence. The views are especially beautiful when the cherry blossoms are in bloom in the spring and when the leaves change in the fall. You can also experience tea ceremony, but don’t worry: there are tables and chairs so you don’t have to kneel.
Kokura Castle Japanese Garden
Address: 1-2 Jonai, Kokurakita-ku, Kitakyushu
Open: Apr. ~ Oct.: 9:00~18:00, Nov. ~ Mar.: 9:00~17:00 (doors close 30 min. prior)
Admission: General ¥300, JHS & HS ¥150, ES ¥100
Address: 1-3 Jonai, Kokurakita-ku, Kitakyushu
Admission: Mon. ~ Fri. (w/ moist sweets): ¥500, Sat., Sun. and hol. (w/ dry sweets): ¥300
• 15 minutes on foot from JR Kokura Station
• 10 minutes on foot from JR Nishi-Kokura Station
• From Fukuoka or Yamaguchi: 2 minutes by car from the Otemachi Ramp on the Kitakyushu Urban Expressway
• From Tobata or Wakamatsu: 2 minutes by car from the Katsuyama Ramp on the Kitakyushu Urban Expressway
As a key port that supported Kitakyushu’s industrial rise during Japan’s rapid modernization, Mojiko was a gateway to the rest of Japan and the world. As the name Mojiko Retro implies, the area is dotted with old buildings from this era. These include the Old Mitsui OSK Line Building (1917), the Old Moji Mitsui Club (1921)—a guest house where Albert Einstein and his wife once stayed—and the Old Moji Customs Building (1912). Performances by lively banana vendors are a modern take on an old practice. Bananas were once imported from Taiwan in late 19th century, and it was up to the vendors to sell the ones that were overripe. If you miss the banana auction, you can still get your photo taken with the Banana-man statue. Romantically inclined visitors will enjoy the nighttime lights—the vista from the 103 m Mojiko Retro Observation Room is especially breathtaking!— and trying to find the Kanmon Hearts. There are seven in total, four on the Moji side and three across the Kanmon Strait in Shimonoseki, which were installed by the cities of Kitakyushu and Shimonoseki to make the Kanmon area more enjoyable for couples.
Just 650 meters at its narrowest point, the Kanmon Straits are the body of water separating the main island of Honshu from the southern island of Kyushu. A passenger ferry connects Mojiko on the Kyushu side with Shimonoseki on the Honshu side in just five minutes, and the impressive 712 m Kanmon Bridge carries the Kyushu Expressway over the waterway. You can enjoy a commanding view of the bridge from Mekari Shrine on the Kyushu side. Founded around 200 AD according to shrine lore, Mekari Shrine is the northernmost shrine on Kyushu and home to the god of sea travel.
Kanmon Tunnel Footpath
If you’d like to be under the sea, then all you have to do is walk! You can walk the 780 m undersea pedestrian tunnel that connects the prefectures of Fukuoka and Yamaguchi. Snapping a photo along the dotted line denoting the border is a popular pastime. Open year-round, the tunnel takes about 15 minutes to walk end to end. You can also take a bicycle or motor scooter with you as long as you push it.
Japanese history buffs (and maybe even some video game enthusiasts) may know of Ganryujima as the site of the duel between the legendary swordsman and author of The Book of Five Rings Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro over 400 years ago. Visitors can take a 10-minute ferry ride from either Mojiko or Shimonoseki to see a statue depicting this epic duel. (The island is officially known as Funashima.)
10-minute ride via Kanmon Kisen ferry from either Moji Pier (3 minutes on foot from Mojiko Station) or Shimonoseki Karato No. 1 Pier (next to Shimonoseki Grand Hotel)
083-231-1350 (Shimonoseki City Tourism and Sports Division, Tourism Policy Section)
093-331-0222 (Kanmon Kisen Co.)
Shopping in Kitakyushu
Like any modern city, Kitakyushu has a plethora of shopping options. There are several department stores in and around JR Kokura Station, so even if you are on the hunt for luxury brand items, you do not need to make a special trip to Fukuoka.
Nowadays, 24-hour convenience stores are commonplace, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, Kokura is home to Maruwa, which holds the distinction of being Japan’s first 24-hour supermarket. Opened in 1946, it began operating 24/7 in 1979. Maybe you’re a night person, or maybe you just realized it’s late and you need to pick up something before the morning. In either case, it’s nice to know there is someplace open if you need to do some late-night shopping for groceries or other necessities.
One place you can stop after seeing Kokura Castle is Riverwalk Kitakyushu. This multipurpose cultural and commercial facility, which won the 2001 American Architecture Award, features shops, restaurants, performance halls and a movie theater. It also houses the Zenrin Map Museum.
Located behind JR Kokura Station, Aruaru City is a shopping and entertainment center that is a must-see for fans of anime, manga and cosplay. Specialty shops span eight floors (including a basement floor), and deal with all manner of pop culture and otaku subculture. Events featuring “idols” and voice actors are held on weekends in the dedicated event space. In addition, the Kyushu Manga Museum exhibits artworks related to Kitakyushu City including the works of Leiji Matsumoto on the 5th and 6th floor.
Once known for its “sea of death” and “seven colors of smoke”, Kitakyushu tackled its pollution problem head-on in a public-private effort that resulted in international recognition in the form of the United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Award and designation as a Green Growth City by the OECD. Embracing its industrial heritage while learning from its past struggles, Kitakyushu now offers some unique and enjoyable sightseeing experiences centered on the many factories that call the city home. Several factories offer tours, but long-standing ferry operator Kanmon Kisen will take you on a nighttime cruise to view the city’s factory nightscapes. One of the more popular sites is the Iron Tower, a 205 m smokestack that towers above Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal’s Kokura Steelworks backlit by powerful colored spotlights. Light up will finish by the end of December 2018. Don’t miss it!
Kanmon Kisen Factory Nightscape Cruise
Open: Only operates on weekends
Departure time: 19:00 (Apr. ~ Sept.) / 18:30 (Oct. ~ Mar.)
Departs from: Kokura Port (1st, 2nd, 3rd & 5th weekends): 110 min., Moji Port (4th weekend): 90 min.
Fee: Adult ¥2,500, children (12 y.o. and under) ¥1,250
Capacity: 90 seats
In 2015 world-renowned sanitaryware manufacturer Toto opened the Toto Museum. The sleek modern building features a showroom on the first floor and exhibits on the second floor outlining the visionary company’s history and the evolution of toilets in Japan. Although most of the information is in Japanese, you can use your smartphone to scan the QR codes at each display and bring up a detailed explanations in multiple languages. Be sure to stop by the shop and pick up some original souvenirs.
Wakamatsu once flourished as coal port, but now the area, which is still home to retro buildings like the Old Furukawa Mining Building and the Ueno Building, is coming back into vogue. You can stroll leisurely along the bay or stop by one of the new cafes that have started to set up shop in the old buildings. The Golden Gate-esque Wakato Ohashi suspension bridge dominates the skyline, and the night view of the bridge and surrounding neighborhood from nearby Mt. Takato is considered one of the best in the city.
Once a key transportation hub, the Mojiko area is now famous for all the old buildings that hearken back to the area’s heyday. One such building is JR Mojiko Station, the northern terminus of the Kagoshima Line. Built in 1914 under the supervision of German architect Hermann Rumschöttel, the station employs a Neo-Renaissance design featuring a bronze sheeted roof, stately pillars and bronze water basins. When you enter this Important Cultural Property, you will feel like you’ve stepped back in time. As of 2018, the structure is currently undergoing renovations and is covered in scaffolding.
Kyushu Railway History Museum
Housed in a brick building that used to be the headquarters of the old Kyushu Railway Company, the Kyushu Railway History Museum is a must-see for both railroad buffs and families with children. Before you enter the main building, you pass through an outbuilding housing nine retired train cars, including two steam locomotives. You can enter some of the cars, sit on the seats and imagine what it must’ve been like to ride in them. The main museum features a popular train simulator, historical displays and a diorama. Stop by the shop for original rail-themed souvenirs, like JR Kyushu train masking tape available in six varieties. For an additional ¥300, you can end your visit with a ride on mini train cars modeled after real trains currently active in Kyushu.
Kyushu Railway History Museum
Address: 2-3 Kiyotaki, Moji-ku, Kitakyushu
Open: 9:00~17:00 (Last entry 16:30)
Closed: Every 2nd Wed. (except in Aug.) , 2nd Thu. in Jul. *or the following day if holiday.
Admission: Adult ¥300, JHS and under ¥150, free for 3 y.o. and under
In between Mojiko Station and the Kyushu Railway History Museum sits Kyushu Railway History Museum Station, where you can take a ride on the Shiokaze Moji Retro Tourist Train. Dubbed the Kitakyushu Bank Retro Line, the train follows a decommissioned harbor train route to Kanmon Kaikyo Mekari Station at the leisurely pace of 15 km/h. This is why it is sometimes called the “slowest train in Japan.” The train operates on weekends and holidays (and some other days during the spring break, Golden Week and summer vacations) between spring and fall. Group reservations are also possible, so please inquire before visiting.
Shiokaze Moji Retro Tourist Train
Inquiries: 093-331-1065 (Heisei Chikuho Railway Co.)
Chofu Castle Town
Chofu Castle Town is a must-see for Japanese history buffs, and the Chofu Tourist Center is a convenient place to start your visit. The Center offers free parking, a gift shop on the first floor, and a restaurant serving fugu on the second floor. Bicycle rentals are also available. Walking or cycling around the town will make you feel like you’ve stepped back into the Edo era (1603-1868), as you can enjoy historical samurai homes, gardens, earthen walls and Kozan-ji Temple, a designated national treasure.
Chofu Mori Residence
The region’s history is most exemplified by the Chofu Mori residence, once a family home and now a historical site open to visitors. It was built in 1903 by a descendant of the Mori samurai family and once played host to Emperor Meiji. For ¥400, you can enjoy matcha and Japanese seasonal sweets. You are encouraged to explore the garden and the different rooms of the house. The scenery is especially beautiful in the fall. Free kimono are available if you would like to get a photo of yourself in traditional Japanese garb.
Chofu Mori Residence
Address: 4-10 Chofu-shoshamachi, Shimonoseki
Open: 9:00~17:00 (last entry 16:30)
Closed: Year-end/New Year holiday (12/28~1/4)
Admission: Adult ¥200, JHS and under ¥100
Retro Style Cafes
If you want to enjoy more refreshments and shopping, stop by one of the retro cafes dotted around the Chofu Castle Town area. One such cafe, Antiques and Oldies, is an antique store and cafe rolled into one. Here you can sip tea and sample homemade baked goods while using antique tableware. There are many foreign and domestic high-quality antiques for sale, including clocks, jewelry and other collectables.
Tsunoshima Island and Toyota
Tsunoshima is an island in the Sea of Japan connected to the mainland by the 1,780 m long Tsunoshima Ohashi, one of Japan’s longest toll-free bridges, making for an enjoyable day trip from central Shimonoseki or Kitakyushu.
During the summer months, you can enjoy two beautiful white sand beaches, the Tsunoshimaohama beach resort and the Cobalt Blue Beach. Rental bicycles are another great way to leisurely enjoy the island’s sights.
On the way to Tsunoshima, you will pass through the Toyoura district, where you can stop and enjoy the soft, soothing waters of Kawatana Onsen. And Toyota district is near by Toyoura district, which is also famous for its fireflies and hot springs.
This end of Shimonoseki is also a hop, skip and a jump away from the Akiyoshidai limestone highlands and Akiyoshido Cave, Japan’s largest limestone cavern. The cave, which is open to visitors year-round, has many beautifully textured formations and an impressive underground waterfall.
To learn more about Kitakyushu, Shimonoseki, and the Kanmon Straits, click on the following links
Originally written in Jun. 2018.
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NOTE: The information presented here was gathered and summarized by the Fukuoka Now staff. While we have done our best to check for accuracy, there might be errors and details may have changed. If you notice any errors or changes, please contact us. This report was originally written in Jun. 2018.