Finding Serenity on Japan's San-in Coast | Travel | Smithsonian
All that remains of Hagi Castle are its ruins. Built in 1604, the castle is located in the peaceful Shizuki Park at the northwestern tip of the city. (Hans Sautter / Aurora Select)

Finding Serenity on Japan's San-in Coast

Far from bustling Tokyo, tradition can be found in contemplative gardens, quiet inns and old temples

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At the Buddhist temple of Gesshoji, on the western coast of Japan, the glossy, enormous crows are louder—much louder—than any birds I have ever heard. Crows are famously territorial, but these in the small city of Matsue seem almost demonically possessed by the need to assert their domain and keep track of our progress past the rows of stone lanterns aligned like vigilant, lichen-spotted sentinels guarding the burial grounds of nine generations of the Matsudaira clan. The strident cawing somehow makes the gorgeous, all-but-deserted garden seem even further from the world of the living and more thickly populated by the spirits of the dead. Something about the temple grounds—their eerie beauty, the damp mossy fragrance, the gently hallucinatory patterns of light and shadow as morning sun filters through the ancient, carefully tended pines—makes us start to speak in whispers and then stop speaking altogether until the only sounds are the bird cries and the swishing of the old-fashioned brooms a pair of gardeners are using to clear fallen pink petals from the gravel paths.

Gesshoji dates from the late 17th century, when an older structure—a ruined Zen temple—was turned into a resting place for the Matsudaira aristocracy, which would rule this part of Japan for more than 200 years. Successive generations of aristocrats added on to the complex, eventually producing a maze of raised mounds and rectangular open spaces, like adjacent courtyards. Each grave area is reached through an exquisitely carved gate, decorated with the images—dragons, hawks, calabashes, grapefruits and flowers—that served as the totems of the lord whose tomb it guards. Ranging from simple wooden structures to elaborate stone monuments, the gates provide a kind of capsule history of how Japanese architecture evolved over the course of centuries.

On the April morning when my husband, Howie, and I visit Gesshoji, the cherry blossoms are just beginning to drop from the trees. The pointed foliage in the iris bed promises an early bloom, and the temple is celebrated for the 30,000 blue hydrangeas that will flower later in the season. It is also famous for the immense statue of a ferocious-looking tortoise, its reptilian head raised and telegraphing a fierce, rather untortoiselike alertness, positioned in front of the tomb of the sixth Matsudaira lord. According to one superstition, rubbing the turtle's head guarantees longevity, while another claims that, long ago, the beast lumbered off its stone slab each night, crawled through the gardens to drink water from the pond and wandered through the city. The tall stone pillar that rises from the middle of its back was put there, it is said, to discourage the turtle's nightly strolls.

Leaving the temple, I see a sign, noting that the writer Lafcadio Hearn was especially fond of the temple and that he wrote about the tortoise. The quote from Hearn, which the sign reproduces in part, begins with a description of certain sacred statues reputed to have a clandestine nocturnal life: "But the most unpleasant customer of all this uncanny fraternity to have encountered after dark was certainly the monster tortoise of Gesshoji temple in Matsue....This stone colossus is almost seventeen feet in length and lifts its head six feet from the ground.... Fancy...this mortuary incubus staggering abroad at midnight, and its hideous attempts to swim in the neighbouring lotus-pond!"

Sometime in the early 1970s I saw a film that so haunted me that for years I wondered if I might have dreamed it. It didn't help that I could never find anyone else who had seen it. The film was called Kwaidan, and, as I later learned, was directed by Masaki Kobayashi, based on four Japanese ghost stories by Hearn. My favorite segment, "Ho-ichi the Earless," concerned a blind musician who could recite the ballad of a historic naval battle so eloquently that the spirits of the clan members killed in the fighting brought him to the cemetery to retell their tragic fate.

Subsequently, I grew fascinated by the touching figure of the oddly named writer whose tales had provided the film's inspiration. The son of a Greek mother and an Irish father, born in Greece in 1850, Hearn grew up in Ireland. As a young man, he emigrated to Ohio, where he became a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer—until he was fired for marrying a black woman. The couple ended the marriage, which had never been recognized, and he spent ten years reporting from New Orleans, then two more in Martinique. In 1890, he moved to Japan, about which he intended to write a book and where he found work as a teacher at a secondary school in Matsue.

Tiny in stature, nearly blind and always conscious of being an outsider, Hearn discovered in Japan his first experience of community and belonging. He married a Japanese woman, assumed financial responsibility for her extended family, became a citizen, had four children and was adopted into another culture, about which he continued to write until his death in 1904. Though Hearn took a Japanese name, Yakumo Koizumi, he saw himself as a foreigner perpetually trying to fathom an unfamiliar society—an effort that meant paying attention to what was traditional (a subject that fed his fascination with the supernatural) and what was rapidly changing. Though his work has been criticized for exoticizing and romanticizing his adopted country, he remains beloved by the Japanese.

I had always wanted to visit the town where Hearn lived for 15 months before career and family obligations led him to move elsewhere in Japan, and it seemed to me that any impression I might take away about the traditional versus the modern, a subject of as much relevance today as it was in Hearn's era, might begin in the place where Hearn observed and recorded the way of life and the legends that were vanishing even as he described them.

In the weeks before my departure, friends who have made dozens of trips to Japan confess that they had never been to the San-in coast, which borders the Sea of Japan, across from Korea. The relative scarcity of Western visitors may have something to do with the notion that Matsue is difficult or expensive to reach, a perception that is not entirely untrue. You can (as we did) take an hour-and-a-half flight from Tokyo to Izumo, or alternately, a six-hour train journey from the capital. When I tell a Japanese acquaintance that I am going to Matsue, he laughs and says, "But no one goes there!"

In fact, he couldn't be more wrong. While the area is mostly unexplored by Americans and Europeans, it's very popular with the Japanese, many of whom arrange to spend summer vacations in this region known for the relatively unspoiled, rugged beauty of its shoreline and the relaxed pace and cultural riches of its towns. It offers a chance to reconnect with an older, more rural and traditional Japan, vestiges of which still remain, in stark contrast to the shockingly overdeveloped and heavily industrialized San-yo coast, on the opposite side of the island. The Shinkansen bullet train doesn't reach here, and a slower private railroad line wends its way up a coast that features dramatic rock formations, white beaches and (at least on the days we visited) a calm turquoise sea. During the tourist season, it's even possible to travel through part of the area on a steam locomotive.

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