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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As it happens, it's not an ordinary afternoon after all. It's the Buddha's birthday—April 8. A steady procession of celebrants have come to honor the baby Buddha by drinking sweet tea (the abbot invites us to try some—it's delicious!) and by pouring ladles of tea over a statue of the deity. While we are there, Jusetsu Miwa, one of Hagi's most famous potters, arrives, as he does each year on this date, to wish the Buddha well.

Just before we leave, Tetsuhiko Ogawa shows us a wooden bell, carved in the form of a fish, that is traditionally used at Zen temples to summon the monks to meals. In the mouth of the fish is a wooden ball that symbolizes earthly desires, and striking the bell, the abbot tells us, causes the fish (again, symbolically) to spit out the wooden ball—suggesting that we too should rid ourselves of our worldly longings and cravings. As the sound of the bell resonates over the temple, over the graves of the Mouri clan, over the heads of the worshipers come to wish Buddha a happy birthday, and out over the lovely city of Hagi, I find myself thinking that the hardest thing for me to lose might be the desire to return here. Even in the midst of travel, I have been studying the guidebooks to figure out how and when I might be able to revisit this beautiful region, this welcoming and seductive melding of old and new Japan, where I understand—as I could not have before I came here—why Lafcadio Hearn succumbed to its spell, and found it impossible to leave the country, where, after a lifetime of wandering, he at last felt so fully at home.

Francine Prose's 20th book, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, will be published this month. Photographer Hans Sautter has lived and worked in Tokyo for 30 years.


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