The Matsue-bound train I boarded at Okayama Station was pointedly named Yakumo, a reference to its destination’s best-known former resident: Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), whose adopted Japanese name was Yakumo Koizumi.
Although Hearn stayed in Matsue for only a year, he developed a great affection for this castle town and its surrounds, which — far removed from the changes taking place elsewhere — were ripe with tradition, time-embalmed customs, folklore and local superstitions.
It was the winter that eventually did him in. Writing to his friend, British Japanologist Basil Hall Chamberlain, he predicted, “I fear a few more winters of this kind will put me underground.”
The town has no doubt changed since Hearn wrote those words in 1891, but development has been slow and measured — a characteristic Matsue shares with many settlements along the Sea of Japan.
Jay Gluck, in his 1995 guide, “Japan Inside Out,” commented that Matsue, in contrast to many Japanese cities, “has managed to modernize gracefully and exemplifies what Japan could be if more Japanese practiced those traits they are so generously credited with.” That still holds true today, although a shopping/office tower erected a few years ago is a dissonant note in a town notable for its good taste.
The beauty of its layout is visible from the keep of Matsue Castle — one of the 12 original (i.e., not reconstructed) fortresses in Japan. When the new Meiji government came to power in 1868, all but a few of these citadels were demolished. Others were pulled down by provincial patriots who saw them as symbols of feudalism. Astonishingly, Matsue Castle was sold to a wreaking company in 1875 for the present-day equivalent of about $90. Luckily, a group of residents campaigned to save it, raising the necessary funds themselves.
Completed in 1611 under the supervision of local lord Horio Yoshiharu, the hilltop castle remains the city’s best-known sight and an invaluable asset. Its black wooden panels convey a somber appearance to the structure, one that is ameliorated by the surrounding parkland. In an example of the colorful superlatives that define his style, Hearn described the fortress as “a veritable architectural dragon, made up of magnificent monstrosities.”
Though rather squat, the compressed concentration of the castle’s central mass creates the impression of a dynamic, well-grounded fortification. A complex geometry of angles is achieved through an intersection of slanting roofs, horned gables and protruding eaves.
The narrow windows that characterize feudal-era buildings of this kind — including the stone chateaus of France or the Saracen fortresses of the Arabian Peninsula — are narrow and well above floor level. Like its counterparts elsewhere, Matsue Castle was designed for defenders to drop stones and hot oil on invaders. It was also made for archers, whose quivers were embossed with the image of a dragonfly, in accord with a belief that arrows marked in this way would fly faster and straighter. Windows, in the form of funneled apertures, indicate that this was the age of the Portuguese matchlock, a early type of hand-held firearm, which became known as the tanegashima in Japan.
After removing your shoes at the entrance, climbing in socks up the steep and narrow wooden staircases takes you to the tengu (long-nosed goblin) room, with its commanding panoramas. The fine views of the castle moat, canals and the curving shore of Lake Shinji, are a reminder that Matsue is a water city — water has always played an important role in the life of the town.
Rivers and canals create a lively aquatic scene, with attractive bridges spanning them and pleasure boats plying the waterways and the main moat of the castle. The cool waters of the Japan Sea flow into Lake Shinji making it partially tidal and creating a mix of fresh and salt water, in which a rich diversity of fish exist.
On fine days, photographers huddle together on the lake’s eastern shore, which is a well-appointed spot for viewing the sunset behind Yomegashima (Bride’s Isle) — a tiny eminence of rock covered in pine trees, whose hues turn from orange and purple to a well-defined black silhouette as the light fades.
Hearn lived not far from here, near the castle moat. Even today, there’s no escaping the Greek-born Irishman. The moods, scenes and smells of the town remain as Hearn described them, and every major sight in Matsue seems to carry one of the writer’s descriptions of the town. It seems that the legacies of Hearn and Matsue are reciprocally intertwined — Hearn left behind rich paeans to the city, while it, in turn, pays endless tribute to a writer who changed its fortunes forever.
Matsue has certainly milked the association for all its worth. Strolling around the town you could be forgiven for thinking Hearn lived here his entire life. However brief his stay, Matsue left a profound impression on him. It also set the standard by which he measured every other place he would live in Japan, and invariably he found those places wanting. He was appalled by the restless development gripping Tokyo, for example, describing the city as “the most horrible place in Japan.”
Hearn lived near the castle moat, along a dusty, pine-lined street called Shiomi Nawate. A number of buke-yashiki (samurai homes) remain alongside the late writer’s residence in this heart of the old samurai quarter. The Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum is also here, with a number of first editions of his works, and his writing desk. No mention is made of his brief marriage — at a time when anti-miscegenation laws remained firmly in place — to Alethea Foley, a black woman in New Orleans. The English-language commentary is recorded in an attractively lilting Irish accent, an acknowledgement of Hearn’s Celtic ancestry.
One question that is often asked when thinking about Hearn’s work is: Was he an important writer, or merely a gifted journalist with an exotic subject? Regardless, his influence on those who take an interest in the people and culture of Japan remains strong. Henry Miller, a writer who — despite his calculated crudities — was a romantic at heart, wrote, “My passion for Japan began with Hearn.”
If you compare the interior and garden of Hearn’s delightful samurai villa with old photos of the same spaces, which are displayed in the museum, there appears to have been little change over the years. The house is often described as small, but I found it well-proportioned, especially given the fact that there were only two inhabitants: Hearn and his Japanese wife, Setsu. Describing the garden of the residence at the time, Hearn wrote, “There are large rocks in it, heavily mossed; and divers fantastic basins of stone for holding water; and stone lamps green with years. … and there are green knolls like islets.” This account still holds true, though Hearn was pessimistic about the future prospects for such landscapes. In his well-known essay “In A Japanese Garden,” he writes: “These are the gardens of the past. The future will know them only as dreams, creations of a forgotten art.”
A persuasive rebuttal to that forecast can be found in the stunningly landscaped garden at the Adachi Museum of Art in the nearby village of Yasugi, which is a worthwhile side trip from Matsue. Completed in 1970, the museum and garden were the brainchild of entrepreneur-turned-art-epicure Zenko Adachi (1899-1990). Its galleries house a fine collection — perhaps the most definitive one — of works Nihonga artist Taikan Yokoyama (1868-1958), including works by painters such as Shiho Sakakibara and Ryushi Kawabata, and ceramic objects from the hands of Kanjiro Kawai and Rosanjin Kitaoji.
The museum’s garden, designed by the highly regarded landscaper Kinsaku Nakane (1917-95) is a masterpiece of managed nature.
If there was ever a self-made man, it was Adachi, the museum’s founder, who began his business ventures by hauling charcoal in a handcart over the mountain passes of Shimane. By all accounts, he seems to have been quite a character and a man of unflagging determination. When he met opposition during the construction of the museum — specifically to the idea of converting an interior alcove into an opening that would frame the garden like a horizontal scroll — he fetched a sledgehammer and proceeded to smash his way through the wall himself.
With such a visually commanding landscape, there is always the chance that the garden will eclipse the museum and its art collection. Wandering through its galleries, exterior walkways and patios, though, you realize how well the museum and garden compliment each other. This skillful confluence of interior and exterior forms is apparent in the Juryu-an teahouse, set in a secluded, wooded part of the garden. Modeled after the Shokin-tei teahouse at the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto, the geometric panels that form the interior, flow naturally into the sinuous lines of the surrounding tea garden.
Teahouse visitors pass by a number of undulating green mounds. Embedded in their dense, mossy surfaces are cones of charcoal — a reminder of Adachi’s humble origins as a purveyor of sooty briquettes.
The vibrancy of this contemporary garden is a powerful repost to Hearn’s pessimism about the future of Japanese landscape design. If the spirit of the Irishman revisited his beloved Matsue, the chances are he would find at least some redeeming qualities in its preference for cautious progress over unchecked development.
Getting there: Matsue is served by both the Izumo and Yonago airports. The city can also be reached directly by overnight buses from major cities, or via Okayama Station, Okayama Prefecture, using shinkansen.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5