July 21, 2021

Braving a Visit To Kure

Found less than hour from Hiroshima, the port and shipbuilding city of Kure served as the headquarters of the Japanese navy during the war.

Modern Japanese Self Defense Force ships sit at the dock in Kure, Hiroshima

Let’s face it. When it comes to tourism and Japanese history, the period of World War II often gets skipped over completely. While visitors to Japan do indeed flock to Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome, rarely do you see anyone seeking out any other attraction related to Japan’s wartime past. For reasons that are far too complicated for the scope of a travel guide, it just seems like this part of history is off limits. I’ve always maintained that people should visit Yasukuni Shrine’s Yushukan to consider the other side of the narrative, yet I get the sense that locales related to World War II are taboo.

On that note, I’d like to break with the status quo and introduce a spot that rarely, if ever, is mentioned in the travel guides, Hiroshima Prefecture’s Kure. Located on the ever-beautiful Seto Inland Sea, this vital port and shipbuilding city served as the headquarters of the Kure Naval District. Throughout the entirety of the Pacific War, this now-unknown part of Hiroshima Prefecture served as Japan’s single-largest arsenal and naval base. Today, the city continues to serve as a major maritime center harboring many seafaring vessels associated with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

A historical photo of Japan’s Yamato battleship while out at sea

Historically speaking, Kure’s biggest claim to fame is that its shipbuilding facilities were responsible for creating the Yamato. Known to history as the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleship ever constructed, the Yamato was a titan on the open seas. Armed with nine 46cm Type-94 main guns, this stellar example of Japanese commitment to quality and perfection boasted the largest guns ever mounted on a warship. Though she sank in April 1945, the Yamato was a battleship designed to counter the numerically superior fleet of the United States.

Sadly, much of the Kure’s tangible legacy was lost to the ravages of war. Seeing this previously little-known naval port was quite literally the crux of the Japanese navy during World War II, it should come as no surprise that it was a target for sustained aerial bombardment. While you can still find remnants of anti-aircraft gunnery if you know where to look, much of Kure was leveled by American B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers. Tragically, I have heard that these air raids were planned in such a way as to trap as much of Kure’s population in the resulting infernos as possible…

Anyway, allow me to stop simping over Japan’s wartime past and commitment to naval perfection for a second and get back to the topic at hand. Succinctly put, while Kure is not a destination that will appeal to most readers out there, I want to ensure the city receives the recognition it deserves. When it comes to the military history buffs out there, you’d be hard pressed to find a destination more important to Japan’s involvement in World War II than Kure. Next time you’re in Hiroshima Prefecture, consider adding Kure to the standard Atomic Bomb Dome itinerary!

Getting to Kure

A train passes over a bridge while en route to Kure on the JR Kure Line

While the kanji character used to write Kure has since changed, the original Japanese meaning was something akin to “Nine Peaks.” You see, one of the reasons that Kure was selected to be the seat of the Japanese navy back in 1889 was that it was naturally defended from all sides. Nestled within the protective confines of the nine crags alluded to in its prior spelling, Kure was impervious to attack from land. Really only open to the assault from the sea, anyone foolish enough to consider invading Kure would need to meet the Japanese navy head on.

Alas, mankind would go on to invent weapons of war like the American B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers and these would render Kure’s natural defenses meaningless. What all of this means for you, the reader, though is that while Kure is indeed sheltered within the confines of its nine peaks, the journey there is surprisingly not too difficult. Thanks to the ongoing presence of the Japanese navy over the years, the government had to develop top notch train infrastructure. In fact, though deserving its own article, you’ll find that many of Japan’s train lines have deep ties with the country’s former military.

Assuming that you’re starting at Hiroshima Station, the trek to Kure should take you less than an hour. All you need to do is board the JR Kure Line and you’ll arrive without needing to make a single transfer. Honestly, the only thing that I would caution you to do would be to check the train schedules via a service like Hyperdia. The reason for this is that departures are not as frequent when compared to services within the inner city. Today, Kure’s population totals over 228,000 people; nevertheless, the city remains relatively rural.

The Yamato Museum

A 1:10 scale model of Japan’s Yamato battleship at the Yamato Museum in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture

These days, Kure is a shadow of its former self. Unfortunately, the city never managed to recover following the flat-out bombings during the final year of World War II. Moreover, unlike Yokosuka which maintains a large American military presence, you won’t find any of the normal red light trappings you might observe around other bases. With that said, a sad and somber vibe lingers over Kure. While I still can’t put my finger on it even now, there’s just something about Kure that feels worn and tired. Perhaps it’s the shadow of the port city’s past? I really am at a loss here…

Despite Kure’s gloomy vibe, there remains one redeeming factor that alone is reason to visit. Officially known as the Kure Maritime Museum, this facility is better known by its commonly referenced colloquial moniker, the Yamato Museum. Within the museum’s halls, visitors will learn about the history of the Kure Naval District. Given the barbaric nature of war, the curations tend to fall on the heavy side. However, the overall mood tends to be slightly less grievous than that experienced at Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome. If you tend to become emotional easily, you might want to brace yourself mentally before viewing some of the exhibits. Just saying…

The main draw at the Yamato Museum, and indeed the very source of its nickname, is a 1:10 scale replica of the Yamato battleship. While standing a mere tenth the size of the actual Yamato, the institution’s model spans an impressive 26.3 meters. The facsimile has been reproduced with as much attention to detail as possible. The designers who imagined the ship’s likeness referenced multiple drawings, photos, and underwater images. Frankly speaking, those who created this miniature put as much love and care into the exhibition as those who originally constructed this legendary warship.

Entry to the Yamato Museum will run you a few hundred yen. You’ll find the facility located here, directly atop the location where the Yamato itself was completed. Note that while you can walk from Kure Station, the Yamato Museum can also be accessed via the Kure Municipal Bus in just a few minutes. Of course, this will require you to figure out the buses so it might just be easier to hoof it a few blocks to the museum.

Attractions Near Kure

If you’re going to venture down to this area of Japan, I highly suggest you also budget some time to explore Hiroshima City, Miyajima, and perhaps Iwakuni. Additionally, there’s numerous smaller islands surrounding Kure that feature some World War II ruins to explore. While you’ll definitely need a rental car to scout around, the islands are undoubtedly enticing for those who are hardcore military history buffs. During my stint in the region, I ended up visiting the quaint fishing villages of Etajima and exploring the remnants of an old wartime fort atop the island’s Mt. Hodai (see the above map).

If you’re hankering for more action in central Kure, one suggestion I have is to check out the 150 year-old Miyake Honten. This sake brewery is renowned for its Sempuku, a famous local sake. Favored by the navy for its resilience to spoiling in humid climates, Sempuku played an integral role in Kure’s history over the years. At Miyake Honten, you can observe each and every stage of the Sempuku production process. Additionally, there’s also a tasting corner where you can savor several varieties of sake.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget to give the local variant of melon bread a try. Nearly bursting with cream, this sinister concoction is sure to provide you with more than enough calories to last a few days. You’ll find melon bread on sale at a number of vendors throughout Kure; the bread can also be had at one of the souvenir vendors back at Hiroshima Station. Don’t blame me for your nutritional choices.

Until next time travelers…