Finding Serenity on Japan’s San-in Coast

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

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)
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Hearn's former house and the museum next door, at the base of the castle hill, are located in an old samurai neighborhood. At the Hearn Museum, as at Izumo-taisha, we again find ourselves among pilgrims. Only this time they are fellow pilgrims. A steady parade of Japanese visitors files reverently past vitrines containing a range of memorabilia, from the suitcase Hearn carried with him to Japan to handsome copies of first editions of his books, photographs of his family, his pipes and the conch shell with which he allegedly called his servants to relight his pipe, letters in his idiosyncratic handwriting and tiny cages in which he kept pet birds and insects. What seems to inspire particular interest and tenderness among his fans is the high desk that Hearn had specially made to facilitate reading and writing because he was so short and his vision so poor (one eye had been lost in a childhood accident). Beginning writers everywhere might take a lesson from Hearn's working method: when he thought he was finished with a piece, he put it in his desk drawer for a time, then took it out to revise it, then returned it to the drawer, a process that continued until he had exactly what he wanted.

Hearn's image is everywhere in Matsue; his sweet, somewhat timid and melancholy mustachioed face adorns lampposts through the city, and in souvenir shops you can even purchase a brand of tea with his portrait on the package. It is generally assumed that Hearn's place in the heart of the Japanese derives from the fervor with which he adopted their culture and attempted to make it more comprehensible to the West. But in his fascinating 2003 book about the relationship between 19th-century New England and Japan, The Great Wave, literary critic and historian Christopher Benfey argues that Hearn, who despised the bad behavior of foreign travelers and deplored the avidity with which the Japanese sought to follow Western models, "almost alone among Western commentators...gave eloquent voice to...Japanese anger—and specifically anger against Western visitors and residents in Japan."

"Hearn," notes Benfey, "viewed Japan through an idealized haze of ghostly ‘survivals' from antiquity." Fittingly, his former residence could hardly seem more traditionally Japanese. Covered in tatami mats and separated by sliding shoji screens, the simple, elegant rooms are characteristic of the multipurpose, practical adaptability of Japanese homes, in which sitting rooms are easily converted to bedrooms and vice versa. Sliding back the outer screens provides a view of the gardens, artful arrangements of rocks, a pond, a magnolia and a crape myrtle, all of which Hearn described in one of his best-known essays, "In a Japanese Garden." The noise of the frogs is so perfectly regular, so soothing, so—dare I say it?—Zenlike that for a moment I find myself imagining (wrongly) that it might be recorded.

In his study, Hearn worked on articles and stories that got steadily less flowery (a failing that dogged his early, journalistic prose) and more evocative and precise. In "The Chief City of the Province of the Gods," Hearn wrote that the earliest morning noise one hears in Matsue is the "pounding of the ponderous pestle of the kometsuki, the cleaner of rice—a sort of colossal wooden mallet....Then the boom of the great bell of Zokoji, the Zenshu temples," then "the melancholy echoes of drumming...signaling the Buddhist hour of morning prayer."

These days, Matsue residents are more likely to be awakened by the noise of traffic streaming along expressways bordering the lake. But even given the realities of contemporary Japan, it is surprisingly easy to find a place or catch a glimpse of something that—in spirit, if not in precise detail—strikes you as being essentially unchanged since Hearn spent his happiest days here.

One such site is the Jozan Inari Shrine, which Hearn liked to pass through on his way to the school at which he taught. Located not far from the Hearn Museum, in the park at the base of Matsue Castle, the shrine—half-hidden amid the greenery and a bit difficult to find—contains thousands of representations of foxes, the messengers of the god (or goddess, depending on how the deity is represented) Inari, who determines the bounty of the rice harvest and, by extension, prosperity. Passing through a gate and along an avenue of sphinxlike foxes carved in stone, you reach the heart of the shrine, in a wooded glade crowded with more stone foxes, pitted by weather, covered with moss, crumbling with age—and accompanied by row after row of newer, bright, jaunty-looking white and gold ceramic foxes. Inari shrines, which have become increasingly popular in Japan, are thought by some to be haunted and best avoided after dark. When we reach the one in Matsue, the sun is just beginning to set, which may be part of the reason we are all alone there. With its simultaneously orderly and haphazard profusion of foxes, the place suggests those obsessional, outsider-art masterpieces created by folk artists driven to cover their homes and yards with polka dots or bottles or buttons—the difference being that the Inari Shrine was generated by a community, over generations, fox by fox.

It's at points like this that I feel at risk of having fallen into the trap into which, it is often claimed, Hearn tumbled headlong—that is, the pitfall of romanticizing Old Japan, the lost Japan, and ignoring the sobering realities of contemporary life in this overcrowded country that saw a decade of economic collapse and stagnation during the 1990s and is now facing, along with the rest of us, yet another financial crisis.

Our spirits lift again when we reach Hagi. Though the population of this thriving port city on the Sea of Japan, up to five hours by train down the coast from Matsue, is aging, the city seems determined to preserve its history and at the same time to remain vital and forward-looking, to cherish what Hearn would have called the "savings" of an older Japan and to use what remains of the past to make life more pleasurable for the living. So the ruins of Hagi Castle—built in 1604 and abandoned in the late 19th century—have been landscaped and developed into an attractive park enjoyed by local residents.

Long established as a center for pottery, Hagi has nurtured its craftsmen, and is now known for the high quality of the ceramics produced here and available for sale in scores of studios, galleries and shops. Hagi boasts yet another lovingly restored samurai district, but here the older houses are surrounded by homes in which people are still living and tending the lush gardens that can be glimpsed over the whitewashed walls. Sam Yoshi, our guide, brings us to the Kikuya residence, the dwelling of a merchant family dating from the early 17th century. Perhaps the most complex and interesting of the houses we've visited in this part of Japan, the Kikuya residence features a striking collection of domestic objects (from elaborate hair ornaments to an extraordinary pair of screens on which a dragon and tiger are painted) and artifacts employed by the family in their business, brewing and selling soy sauce. Yasuko Ikeno, the personable docent who seems justifiably proud of the antiquity and beauty of the Kikuya house, dem­onstrates an ingenious system that allows the sliding outside doors—designed for protection against the rain—to pivot around the corners of the building. She also takes us through the garden in which, as in many Japanese landscapes, the distance of just a few paces radically changes the view, and she encourages us to contemplate the flowering cherries and ancient cedars.

Our visit to Hagi culminates at the Tokoji temple, where the young, char­ismatic Buddhist abbot, Tetsuhiko Ogawa, presides over a compound that includes a burial ground reminiscent of the one at Gesshoji. The crows, I can't help noticing, are almost as loud as those in Matsue. But the temple is far from deserted, and while rows of the stone lanterns attest to the imminence of the dead, in this case the Mouri clan, the living are also very much in evidence. In fact, the place is quite crowded for an ordinary weekday afternoon. When I ask the abbot what constitutes a typical day in the life of a Buddhist priest, he smiles. He wakes at dawn to pray, and prays again in the evening. During the rest of the day, though, he does all the things other people do—grocery shopping, for example. And he devotes a certain amount of time to comforting and supporting the mourners whose loved ones are buried here. In addition, he helps arrange public programs; each year the city stages a series of classical chamber music concerts within the temple precincts.


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