Matsue: 'City of Water ' with a history set in stone

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

The train from Okayama to Matsue took nowhere near as long as the one the English writer Sacheverell Sitwell boarded in 1959 to the same destination: “Nine hours from Osaka, into a remote and little-visited part.” The region still feels faintly remote, the train carriages clickety-clicking over rivers winding away into deeply forested defiles that seem ready to suck the unwary back a century or more.

The Yakumo Express I settled into for the journey is named after the Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), who arrived in Japan in 1890, never left, changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi, and remains strongly associated with the city.

Not paying heed to Hearn while in Matsue would be a little like ignoring Hemingway when visiting Key West, or refusing to pay homage to Garcia Lorca in Grenada. Their names are part of the cultural upholstering.

Hearn came to this Shimane Prefecture town to teach at its Ordinary Middle School from Aug. 30, 1890, leaving in November of the next year. To look at the Hearn tourism industry, and the way his connection to the town is milked, you would think he had spent a bit longer than 15 months here.

It was the climate that did him in so speedily. Much as he liked the region, he wrote in a letter to the venerable British Japanologist and professor at Tokyo Imperial University (today’s University of Tokyo) Basil Hall Chamberlain, “I fear a few more winters of this kind will put me underground.”

Like the present-day scholar Donald Keene, Hearn is known and admired in Japan for his unconditional praise of its beauty, but the Irishman could be grumpy enough when things didn’t suit him. Matsue was much to his taste, but it didn’t prevent him from grousing about the severe winter drafts in his house. Moving south to Kumamoto in Kyushu for his health, he found a town thoroughly wanting in the cultural graces. When he moved to Tokyo, he vented his contempt for the capital by defining it as a place of “absurd fashions, wickedly expensive living, airs, vanities, gossip.”

There is plenty of the writer’s memorabilia at the Hearn Memorial Hall near the castle moat. The museum, on a street named Shiome Nawate, contains original manuscripts, a writing desk, even his smoking pipes. With a nod to Hearn’s heritage, the recorded voice of a woman reciting the English-language commentary has an attractive Irish brogue. It’s a good, if incomplete, history of the man.

Setsuko Koizumi, the daughter of a local samurai family in Matsue, and whom he soon married, was in fact Hearn’s second wife. It’s not clear whether or not she knew about the writer’s previous marriage to a black woman during his 10-year sojourn in New Orleans from 1877 — that at a time when such unions were illegal. The museum makes no mention of that period of his life.

Lovingly preserved, the writer’s home is next door. Hearn’s books are sold at the entrance, and a life-size cutout of the writer and his wife greet visitors at the entrance, the only anomaly in an otherwise tasteful interior. The one-story house, a former samurai villa, is often described as small, but to this writer’s eye it is a spacious and commodious residence. A veritable time slip, the residence and surrounding gardens remain intact.

In his 1894 book “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” Hearn wrote on the fate of the Japanese garden: “These are the gardens of the past. The future will know them only as dreams, creations of a forgotten art.”

Thankfully, Hearn was wrong, and his very own garden today is remarkable in its authenticity to his description of it. But then you remember that the stones in a Japanese garden are the master plan. And stones endure.

As for Hearn’s writing style in general, well, it could be as long-winded and purple as any Victorian’s. Take his description of early hours in the town: “But oh, the charm of the vision, — those first ghostly love-colors of a morning steeped in mist soft as sleep itself resolved into a visible exhalation!”

The contemporary visitor is unlikely to experience quite such transports of delight, but Matsue is nothing if not atmospheric.

The writer’s descriptions of itinerant vendors and women selling kindling wood for the lighting of charcoal fires can no longer be witnessed, but many of Hearn’s other observations hold true today. Take his word-picture of Lake Shinji: “Long reaches of faintly-tinted vapour cloud the far lake verge, — long nebulous bands, such as you may have seen in old Japanese picture books.”

Matsue’s old castle, its lower ramparts visible from the writer’s former home, can’t have changed much, either. A rural city of some 140,000, Matsue would be just another pleasant backwater if it were not for this imposing edifice — one of only 12 original fortresses left in Japan.

Built by Horio Yoshiharu, a feudal lord serving under the outstanding warrior-politician Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), and completed in 1611 — by which time centuries of peace had dawned — it was Matsue’s castle that transformed this place from a sleepy fishing village into the bastion of the entire Izumo region of western Honshu.

Few of the castles built during the Edo Period (1603-1867) were ever laid to waste in combat. It would take a more enlightened age to decimate Japan’s defensive architecture. The Meiji government that seized power in 1868 would systematically demolish all but a small number of the nation’s fortresses. Others were pulled down in a hysteria of modernization by locals ashamed of their feudal associations.

Matsue’s castle was sold by the ministry of armed forces to a wrecking company in 1875, but mercifully a group of former clan vassals chipped in to buy the keep. Eventually, the grounds were donated to the city.

Today, the citadel is Matsue’s premier sight, with its grounds now a pleasant park. Six floors are carefully concealed within the five-story donjon, a clever device designed to give its warriors an advantage when under siege. The view from the upper donjon is comprehensive, taking in the downtown areas, mountains and lake — as well as a skyscraper some greedy, misguided soul had the idea to build in the middle of town and, at a stroke, transform an appealing provincial skyline into just another Japanese cityscape. Better to stay at street level, where the original urban paradigm can still be sensed.

Matsue is nothing if not cultural. Buke Yashiki, facing the castle moat, is a rather austere samurai residence built in 1730 for the Shiomi family. Their high social rank is evident in the relatively large scale of the villa and the fact they had the space and means for separate servants’ quarters and a wooden structure built to house the family palanquin. Furniture and objects pertaining to daily life are on show in the open rooms.

The Matsue Cultural Museum, a little south of the castle, displays a motley array of old photos, hairpins, boxwood combs, tea-ceremony utensils and craft items in an impressive white building erected in 1903 to accommodate the Meiji Emperor — should he ever visit. He never did.

Japan is strewn with such period buildings, all of them exuding an air of unfulfilled yearning and expectation.

The Tanabe Art Museum is a modern building beautifully designed to cast natural light on its excellent crafts and ceramics collection and, famously, on its wealth of objects used in the tea ceremony. Although there is a pleasant sunlit tearoom too, for a connoiseur’s brew, repair to Meimei-an, one of the best-known teahouses in Japan.

Meimei-an’s well-preserved thatched arbor dates from 1779. The aristocratic Fumai style of powdered green tea was developed here, and sipping a bowl of the scented liquid with fine views of the castle certainly makes for a pleasant respite.

In Matsue, the so-called City of Water, you are never far from the stuff since it sits on a spit of land between the lagoon of Naka-umi and Lake Shinji. This makes the city something of a culinary mecca for those with a taste for fish, as their fare may come equally from the cold waters of the Sea of Japan or the freshwater lake. In fact Matsue is said to have seven prime fishy delicacies: carp, pond smelt, shellfish, eel, shrimp, sea bass and whitebait, and a dish called kyōdo-ryōri (special native food) that combines them is well known among epicureans.

Appreciation of Matsue’s culinary side is nothing new. Terry’s Guide from 1920 recommends an inn, whose canal view has “many bizarre craft plying to and fro.” The guide also praises the local cuisine: “excellent food, cooked well and appetizing.”

Matsue may not be the Venice of Japan, but a number of canals and water courses offer different perspectives on the city. Boats depart from the Horikawa Boarding Point near Kyobashi Bridge. The Karakoro Art Studio stands opposite a canal in this concentrated corner of the town. Its small gallery exhibits glass, kimono and textile art, and has an attached craft shop and eatery serving very decent European dishes.

I opted for a more modest dinner on the opposite side of the canal, where the Chinese waitresses at the noodle shop were brisk and cheerful. Perhaps they hailed from somewhere like Dalian, where the winters are similarly bitter.

Rural Matsue is recommended for its quiet beauty and accessibility. I took the small, privately operated Ichibata Electric Railway to Tabushi Station, passing along the edge of Lake Shinji, through leafy passages and between rice fields and pathways leading to ancient archeological sites. Well-built wood and white-plastered farmhouses with polished black roof tiles stand behind rows of pines acting as windbreaks. It’s a 10-minute walk from the station to Kokokuji, a rustic temple with a well-appointed but little-known dry-landscape garden.

There were no other visitors to the site when I arrived. Asking after the garden from a friendly middle-aged woman, it turned out that she and her husband were the temple’s custodians. Apologizing for the garden’s scraggy condition, she explained that it had fallen into neglect since her father passed away. I noticed some lifeless patches of grass, and gravel that had not been raked for a long time, but otherwise the garden appeared to be much the same as when it was built in 1837.

The garden overlooks a reservoir at the foot of Mount Tabushi, whose dense forestation overhangs the water, creating a perfectly naturalistic view. Credited to the renowned designer Sawa Gentan, the garden also boasts a well-placed stone lantern adding point and balance to the design, while a row of trimmed hedges lend mass to the composition.

Sitting down on the wooden verandah overlooking the garden and the steep bank that runs to the waterline, I was joined by the priest’s wife bearing a tray of barley tea. It was a fitting way to end a day spent among Matsue’s rural graces.

Getting there: Izumo Airport serves Matsue, but most people get there by train on the 2½-hour Yakumo Express from Okayama. The tourist office outside the station’s North Exit is well stocked with English-language handouts. Bicycle rentals are available opposite the station, but the main sights are easily seen on foot.