If the Yamaguchi post office were looking for an image to place on a commemorative stamp of their prefectural capital, they would probably choose the city’s magisterial five-story pagoda, built on the grounds of the Ruriko Temple. Made from Japanese cypress, the pagoda is typical of the Muromachi Period Kyoto style. It is strikingly situated beside an ornamental pond graced by bushes and topiary, the effect only slightly marred by a twittering tape recording that gives you an account of the building’s history.

The bullet train does not number Yamaguchi among its stops, sparing the city some of the “development” blight which has vulgarized so many Japanese cities. Its best-known form of transport is a 1937 locomotive, one of the few in Japan to remain in regular service. Operating on weekends and holidays, the gleaming steam engine, called the SL Yamaguchi-go, runs between the castle town of Tsuwano and Ogori.

The statue of St. Francis Xavier looks out over Yamaguchi.

During the Warring States Period (1482-1573), Japan’s century of anarchy, much of the cultural and political life of the country shifted to the provinces. Of the dozen or so self-styled “little Kyotos” dotted around Japan, Yamaguchi, which describes itself with some accuracy as the “Western Ancient Capital,” has a visible legacy of the Imperial city.

Lord Ouchi Hiroyo, who founded this small castle town in the 14th century, had modeled the design and cultural aspirations of his new city on Kyoto. With Kyoto in ruins from the Onin War that raged around the capital in the late 15th century, many of its literati, noblemen and their retinues sought refuge in Yamaguchi, bringing with them the sensibilities and taste of the capital.

Several of Yamaguchi’s temples and shrines date from this period and the century or more of cultural flourishing the city enjoyed thereafter. The Ima Hachimangu epitomizes Yamaguchi-style shrines, with a complex set of roofs fusing the main hall, gate and oratory into a single sculptural form. Commissioned by Lord Ouchi Yoshioki in 1520 as both a branch of and surrogate for the Imperial shrines at Ise, where the tradition of rebuilding every 20 years had been disrupted by warfare, the Yamaguchi shrine is built of the same unfinished timber as Ise.

Japan’s first Christian missionary, the Basque priest Francis Xavier, stayed in Yamaguchi for two months on his way to an abortive audience with the Emperor in Kyoto. By the time Xavier arrived, Yamaguchi was already a prosperous and refined city. The Ouchi family, aware that Xavier’s journey to Japan had begun after the completion of his mission in India, took Catholicism for some sort of new sect of Buddhism and was curious to know of the priest’s doctrine. Tolerant but shrewd, their eyes less on baptism than the Portuguese cargoes from Macao, they granted the Jesuit permission to preach.

The uncompromising Xavier took to the streets of the city denouncing, among other things, infanticide, idolatry and homosexuality (the last being widely accepted at the time). Misunderstandings were inevitable.

Despite the subsequent persecution of Christians in Japan, however, Xavier is still remembered in Yamaguchi. The late Alan Booth, arriving here on foot, observed in “The Roads to Sata” that “the twin green towers of St. Xavier’s Cathedral rose above the city like the upraised arms of a surrendering foe.”

The Sesshu-tei garden

That church, a memorial to Xavier’s mission, was destroyed in a fire in 1991 that took everything save its bell, now hanging from a frame in a copse of trees nearby. The building’s replacement, the gleaming St. Francis Xavier Memorial Cathedral (Sabieru Kinen Kyokai), situated in Kameyama Park, is a stridently modern structure, a trigonal pyramid of silver and egg-shell white, crowned with metallic towers, sculptures and a brace of suspended bells. It has large stained-glass plates in its cool interior, and colored jars of burning candles that add to the effect of a dim cafe-gallery.

A kilometer or so northeast of the cathedral, the Sesshu-tei must be one of the most serene gardens in Japan, a place free of the recorded messages often deemed necessary to enjoy a historical or cultural experience. Originally a villa owned by Ouchi Masahiro, it was converted into a temple, the Joei-ji, for his mother. Returning on an Ouchi trading ship from China, where he had gone to study the arts, the master painter and priest Sesshu was asked to design a garden in the temple grounds.

The Zen-inspired garden, an arrangement of stones, rocks, lawn and a lily pond, is best viewed in its entirety from the broad wooden veranda at the rear of the temple. The garden can also be viewed from a pleasant tea room, where matcha is served on red cloth-covered tables decorated with ornamental glass weights.

The view remains unchanged, a little more weathered and mature with each passing year. Paths run on four sides of a central arrangement: one beneath the viewing veranda, the other rising up into woodland that either masks or reveals glimpses of the garden from varied angles. The perfect subject for an ink painting, the Sesshu-tei resembles a horizontal scroll.

There is another Zen garden to the left of the main entrance. This is pure Zen, with gravel, rocks, a mud wall: a subtle compression of changing light, hues, tonal composition, movement and layers of shadow, an immensely engaging scene for the patient, discerning viewer.

One may preserve some of the serenity of Sesshu’s garden by following the Ichinosaka River on its sinuous course back to the town center. Crossed by pedestrian bridges, the banks of the stream, a place of water reeds and azaleas, is a popular walk in the spring when its cherry trees are in full bloom, while in the summer there are fireflies called Genji and Heike-botaru, according to their respective sizes, taking their place in the timeless traditions and cycles.

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