Books / Reviews | ESSENTIAL READING FOR JAPANOPHILES

Lafcadio Hearn's 'Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan': Reveling in the remote and mystical — review

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

In this 1894 collection of his earliest essays on Japan following his arrival in 1890, we discover Lafcadio Hearn’s first impressions of being surrounded by bewildering ideographs, his first visits to temples and shrines in the Kanto area and his fascination with the strange gods, myths and customs he found there.

Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, by Lafcadio Hearn.
608 pages
TUTTLE PUBLISHING, History.

Hearn soon left Tokyo and set off across the mountains of Chugoku — described like the expeditions across the tropical hinterland of Martinique where he had lived for two years before arriving in Japan — to arrive in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, a land where the natives were often “half-naked,” where prices were “absurdly cheap” and where the traditions and beliefs of the previous centuries remained largely intact.

Hearn exulted in being the first European to visit some of the region’s remote shrines and coastal villages and took boat trips along the wild coast to view caves teeming with folk myths and ghost stories. He could often barely restrain himself from flinging himself into the sea to cool himself.

When he wasn’t throwing himself into his surroundings, Hearn was carefully weighing the meaning of unique aspects of Japanese culture, writing enlightening essays on topics such as the cult of Japanese fox myths, still perhaps the best thing ever written on the subject.

This is an unmissable book that offers a visceral, firsthand experience of a world now largely vanished, a mystical Japan that feels as remote today as accounts of pre-modern Tibet.

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