I had just been re-reading Paul Theroux’s African travelogue, “Dark Star Safari,” and was up to a part where he explains that he never books rooms on his journeys, just turns up and leaves the rest to chance.
I thought I would test the strategy by not bothering to reserve a bed for my stay in Hagi, but by the time I boarded the single-carriage Sanin Line train at Shimonoseki, it was already well past 10 p.m. Stopping at every station on the line, nothing seemed to stir at these lonely places, the only sign of life the frogs that sat croaking on the platforms and the gentle swell of salt air from the nearby but invisible Sea of Japan.
It was almost midnight when I arrived at Higashi-Hagi station. Even the ticket collectors had gone home. Unlike Theroux’s African townships, there were no touts waiting to eagerly press hotel business cards into my hand. The deserted plaza outside the station appeared to present several options, but it was only after knocking on many doors that I eventually found a hotel with just a single room available. I had 15 minutes, I was told, before the baths were shut down.
Hagi in present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture on Honshu’s western tip was, prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the castle town of the Mori lords of Chosu, who were so-called “outside lords” — a reference to the nobles who sided against, and were defeated by, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s army at the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 that set the stage for more than 250 years when Japan would be ruled from Edo (present-day Tokyo) by an unbroken succession of Tokugawa shoguns. Despite the suspicion and opprobrium of shogunal authorities, the Mori clan prospered, becoming one of the wealthiest domains during the Edo Period (1603-1867).
It is difficult to imagine this restful town as a political hotbed in the 19th century, but it was in Hagi that a group of lower-ranking samurai, most notable among them the young Yoshida Shoin (1830-59), plotted the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the elevation to power of the Emperor.
The young revolutionary was arrested and executed after conspiring to assassinate a shogunal official, but his followers carried on the fight, allying with Satsuma, a very powerful and wealthy southern Kyushu domain, and learning Western military techniques. With the assistance of arms brought by British ships, the Chosu-Satsuma forces defeated both the regional and government armies, marching on to Kyoto in 1867, where they proclaimed the Emperor as the supreme ruler.
The homes of several key figures from this era who were native to Hagi survive, including those of Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909), a future prime minister, and the military strategist and politician Yamagata Aritomo (1838-1922).
One guidebook asserts that “Japanese visit Hagi much the same way Americans go to Philadelphia to see the birthplace of their revolution” — a questionable claim at best. There is a certain irony concerning the conspiracies fomented here, ones that led to the making of modern Japan, in that they are of less interest to visitors than the pre-revolutionary past. This may be partly because Hagi offers that rare thing in Japan: visible history.
In the old samurai quarter, known as Horiuchi, the houses of Shusuke Aoki and Takayoshi Kido are both well worth seeing, but if you have time for only one home, it should be the Kikuya Residence. The estate belonged to a wealthy merchant family that sent the ruling Mori clan funds so its members could return to Hagi after their defeat at the Battle of Sekigahara.
Their timely gesture was not forgotten, and the subsequent home that was built for them is notable for being rather more lavish than the residences customarily allowed merchants in the Edo Period. People from the lower orders were not permitted to use keyaki (zelkova) wood, for example, in their homes. Here, the zelkova boards for the verandah were covered in cedar panels, which were removed when honored guests visited. The house is old, dating from 1606, which makes it one of the most venerable merchant homes in Japan.
You could spend a long time meandering through the byways here, with their fine residential gates, small gardens, clay walls and wooden gates. Volunteers dressed in period costumes wander the back lanes of the old jokamachi (castle-town grid), but what might have degenerated into kitsch works rather well.
Turning a corner of the old town and confronting for the first time someone dressed as an Edo Period retainer or rural samurai has the effect of suspending disbelief, as if history, albeit only for a moment, were revived.
Now, only the walls of Hagi Castle remain, since at the dawn of the modernizing Meiji Era (1868-1912) it was seen as a symbol of feudalism and torn down. The extant walls and a small guardhouse, however, are a triumph of masonry. There is a good view from the top of the castle ramparts, but a better panorama of the castle site, town and bay is afforded after a 20-minute climb to Shizuki-yama, a hill above the castle.
The surrounding parkland is pleasant, and there are a number of modern-art installations worth a passing look, as well as the rustic Hana-no-E Teahouse, where you can enjoy a bowl of matcha (powdered green tea) served in one of the town’s trademark Hagi-yaki tea bowls.
Hagi is renowned for the excellence of its ceramic ware. Korean potters captured in 1692 in the name of warlord and politician Toyotomi Hideyoshi during his ill-fated Korean campaign were brought back to Japan and settled here. The stoneware, considered among the finest used in the tea ceremony, is said to resemble the Korean Ido ware, whose rice bowls were favored by tea masters of the Momoyama Period (1568-1600).
In common with certain hardwoods such as cherry, which turns an engaging tone of dark red with the years, Hagi-yaki ripens with use, its tones softening and deepening the milky glazes as the powdered green tea gradually breaches its porous surfaces. Although one guidebook quite rightly states, “Today, tourism and the pottery boom have combined to spawn a myriad of mediocre artisans who turn out worthless junk,” you can find very fine pieces on the shelves of pottery shops.
That said, it is worth visiting at least one ceramic institution to see high-quality items. The Ishi Chawan Museum is a fine place to view Hagi-yaki, especially the wonderfully cracked dribble-glaze tea bowls that most of us can only dream of owning. The Kumaya Art Museum boasts an admirable collection of the area’s ceramic ware alongside Kano School screen-paintings and other treasures. There are several Hagi-yaki kilns in the vicinity of the castle grounds, notable among them the Shogetsu Kiln and Hagi-jo Kiln, where visitors can watch potters at work.
Just north of here, following the bicycle road that acts as a promenade for the rather attractive Kikugahama Beach, is one of the most underrated areas of Hagi. This temple district is also a preservation quarter for historical buildings, though few visitors appear to patronize it. Known as Hamazaki-cho, this once-thriving fishing port boasts many sensitively maintained, whitewashed merchant homes and storehouses.
Sumiyoshi Shrine is here, a surprisingly relaxed place, with people wandering in and out and plenty of smiles for the passing visitor. The grounds have a kindergarten, with swings, sandpits and climbing frames mixed in with the shrine buildings and a torii gate. One of the slides is a miniature JAL airplane — a wonderful advertisement for that beleaguered company.
A little south of Hagi Station, Daisho-in Temple is worth visiting for its curious tombs. Here, the wives of the feudal lords are buried beside their partners, a rare custom at the time — but then, Hagi is a place of rare exceptions. Half the Mori clan is interred here; the other half resides at a Zen temple named Toko-ji to the east of Higashi-Hagi Station. After the practice of retainers committing ritual suicide when their masters passed away was outlawed, they began to donate stone lanterns instead. Hundreds mount a gentle slope to the rear of the temple grounds.
Hagi’s main sights, admirable as they are, tend to overshadow the finer details of the town, but so do visitor numbers.
In the southern tip of Hagi’s main island, where the Matsumoto and Hashimoto rivers converge, is a small peninsula of quiet lanes, modest residences, small stone bridges spanning the Aiba Waterway, and bijoux gardens where a senior volunteer guide showed me around the childhood residence of Taro Katsura (1848-1913), a statesman who became Japan’s sixth prime minister. Tastefully designed, well-aired rooms look out onto a small but exquisite Japanese garden. It is the kind of home you would like to make your own.
It is in such minor districts of the town that we can take a moment to reflect and savor the serenity we seek but which our relentlessly active lives deny us. Hagi may not cast on you a revolutionary or reformist spell, but it will thrust you back in time.
Higashi-Hagi station is on the Sanin Line from Shimonoseki. The tourist information office in the station has maps and pamphlets in English. Bicycle rental shops are to the left as you exit the station.