The 19th-century Scottish novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson got it spot on about traveling when he noted that to do so hopefully was a better thing than arriving.
Should you venture forth to Hagi, whatever you may feel about the actual Yamaguchi Prefecture town you encounter, on a fine day there’s no way to make the journey there along the coast without experiencing a frisson of excited anticipation.
From my vantage point in the bus from the nearest airport (Hagi-Iwami, in Masuda, Shimane Prefecture), I see white-capped waves of a cobalt-blue Sea of Japan hammering into this out-of-the-way western tip of Honshu, creating a rugged coastline of pine-crowned headlands separated by bays of ocher sand. Linking sparse villages, the road tracks the coastal serrations as swift fishing boats veer out past sea stacks and cliff-edged islands toward Korea. Clusters of cormorants fan their wings out to dry, and since this coast has mercifully escaped pervasive development, they do so upon jagged rocks offshore rather than on dispiriting concrete tetrapods.
After a ride that takes almost as long as the flight from Tokyo, you hit Hagi, one of a small number of places in Japan that have managed, partially at least, to dodge the depredations of the modern age and present an image of a time when townscapes in this country were actually rather attractive.
Back in the early 17th century, Hagi acquired a castle, and it is the old samurai residences that grew up around the fortress hub that lend Hagi its agreeable historical air. The buildings typically feature gleaming white walls, the lower course of which is decorated with a crisscross pattern of white and dove-gray tiles known as namako-bei, which translates evocatively as “sea-slug walls.”
The central donjon of the castle that transformed Hagi from a minor fishing village into a regional power center is today no more, having been dismantled in 1874 in the aftermath of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which brought an end to Japan’s feudal era.
It was after this pivotal event that the samurai realized to their consternation that their gravy-train stipends had hit the buffers and they would actually have to work for a living. So what Hagi’s ex-samurai did was start growing natsumikan, a slightly bitter type of orange, which came to assume considerable economic importance.
Visitors seeking insight into natsumikan and other local matters should head to the Hagi Museum, located at one end of the old castle enclosure. The museum, as the official town guide helpfully points out, was “built as a center of ‘Hagiology’ ” — which presumably encompasses all things Hagi.
Here, tourists can learn all they might wish to about the orange, see how the fruit manages to find its way into just about every omiyage (souvenir) produced in the town — and also sample natsumikan ice cream, which generally comes in utterly divine vanilla scoops shot through with veins of the tart fruit. Outside the museum stands a grand old cherry-red fire engine — an REO Speed Wagon from the days when the name signified automotive excellence, not some album band that had it good in the 1980s.
Natsumikan are still grown in the town, and the sight of the bright fruit above the walls of the former samurai residences is a classic image of Hagi.
A number of those old buildings now operate as shops plying the tourist trade, and another commodity prominently on sale is also closely identified with the place. Hagi ware is one of the country’s most celebrated and distinctive ceramic genres. Largely executed in a restrained style and in muted color schemes, Hagi ware eschews elaboration to achieve simplicity of line. Perhaps the most typical form of this handsome pottery features a thick, milky-white glaze, artfully applied so that attractive unglazed patches appear in the finished work.
A different kind of fiery association is found a short distance outside town in 112-meter-high Kasayama. Japan is home to a tenth of the world’s active volcanoes, with Asosan in Kyushu having one of the globe’s largest calderas. The summit of Kasayama, though, has what the town guidebook claims to be Asia’s smallest crater — a pint-sized thing just 30 meters across that is rather charming in a hole-in-the-ground sort of way.
Kasayama hasn’t erupted in 8,000 years, but its volcanic muscle is evident at the hill’s base in the shape of Myojin Pond, an unusual inland lake created by eruptions and filled with saltwater through being connected to the sea by underground channels.
Hagi today may be a sleepy town at the sleepy end of sleepy Yamaguchi Prefecture, but back in the mid 19th century it was a hotbed of radicalism. In the 1850s, after U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry applied gunboat diplomacy to pry Japan open after more than two centuries of self-imposed isolation, some Japanese believed that the country had to transform itself into a modern state.
Among these was the scholar Yoshida Shoin, a Hagi native, who, when Perry’s squadron docked at Shimoda in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture, boarded one of the vessels so that he might be taken to the United States. Embarrassed by this guest, and unwilling to upset the Japanese, the Americans handed Yoshida over to the authorities. Undeterred by his subsequent incarceration, after his release Yoshida plotted the assassination of a senior councilor of the ruling shogun. This time he had gone too far, and the government thought it prudent to execute him for his pains. He was just 29.
And that might have been that — had it not been for the fact that, before the plot, Yoshida had opened a private school in Hagi. There, his forward-thinking ideas had a profound influence on his pupils. Among them were a handful of individuals who would later be key figures in the events leading up to and subsequent to the Meiji Restoration (of the Emperor to a position as titular head of state) in 1868.
They included Ito Hirobumi, four-time prime minister and chief architect of Japan’s Constitution, and Takasugi Shinsakuwho, who played a central role in overthrowing the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate that had ruled since 1603. They also numbered Kusaka Genzui, another prominent force in the antishogunate movement, and Yamagata Aritomo, who built the country’s modern army and was a political leader through the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-26) eras.
So, from beyond the grave, Yoshida did help Japan to achieve its modernization after all.
Quiet little Hagi these days presents a charming demeanor. It’s the kind of place where when you ask the woman in reception if the hotel rooms have Internet, she smiles benignly at your naivety — as if you’ve just asked her if it’s OK to pay in doubloons. Hagi likes to call itself a city, though a more relaxing antidote to metropolitan madness is hard to imagine.
Getting there: From Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Hagi-Iwami Airport is a 90-minute flight (one direct flight a day). From the airport to Hagi takes about 80 minutes by bus (¥1,560 one way).