Ask a Japanese person which part of Japan they most associate with writer Lafcadio Hearn and they are likely to instantly respond: Matsue, a seaside town in Shimane Prefecture.
Hearn is the man who introduced Japan to the West in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) through books such as “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.” During his 14 years in the country he became a Japanese citizen and even took a Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo. Matsue is where he lived during his first 15 months in Japan, where he wrote some of his most vivid impressions of the country and where he met his Japanese wife, Setsu. Yet Matsue was not the place that Hearn loved most in Japan. That honor lies with a less well-known destination: Yaizu in Shizuoka Prefecture. Other European writers in Japan — such as Basil Hall Chamberlain — took their vacations at ritzy hotels in hot-spring resort towns such as the historic Fujiya in Hakone. But in the last seven years of his life, Hearn hauled his family no less than six times to what was then a simple, obscure fishing village. Why?
Matsue built the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum in the writer’s honor, but Yaizu hosts Japan’s other museum devoted to the writer’s life. Through a series of fascinating displays and exhibits, the Yaizu Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum traces Hearn’s love of the seaside town. Like the other places he resided in Japan, he wrote extensively about this temporary home. Hearn’s writings about Yaizu (which he always spelled “Yaidzu”) are collected in the book “Lafcadio Hearn at Yaidzu,” which combine his original writings in English and the Japanese translations.
During the latter part of Hearn’s sojourn in Japan he moved further away from merely attempting an objective description of the nation that so fascinated him to viewing the country as a conduit to buried aspects of his own troubled psyche stemming from a difficult childhood spent in Greece, Ireland and England after being abandoned by his parents and entrusted to the care of a great aunt.
His affection for Yaizu was perhaps due to his love of swimming in the sea, but also to the village’s kind-hearted, unaffected fishermen — one of whom, he jokingly complained in the story “Otokichi’s Daruma,” had grossly undercharged him for his summer lodgings above a fish shop. Hearn found in this village the simplicity and customs that most delighted him about life in Japan — a sharp contrast to the stiff academic world of Tokyo Imperial University where he worked as a lecturer in English literature.
“On the evening before I left the village,” Hearn wrote, “Otokichi brought me his bill — representing the cost of two months’ good cheer; — and the amount proved to be unreasonably small. Of course a present was expected, according to the kindly Japanese custom; but even taking that fact into consideration, the bill was absurdly honest.”
Though the villagers were gracious, the sea around Yaizu was famously ferocious, choppy with hazardous currents. Indeed it was this very aspect of a location combining both bright summer sunshine and sea bathing with aspects of danger and melancholy that appealed to the complex hinterlands of Hearn’s psyche.
In his 1904 masterpiece, “Kwaidan,” Hearn was able to combine aspects of the supernatural found in traditional Japanese ghost stories with terrifying tales of horror derived from his own Irish childhood. Hearn moved from depicting the exterior of present-day Japan to enter his memories, dreams and buried fears.
Gazing out at the sea at Yaizu, Hearn found a means of contemplating his inner self: “I have noticed that even animals — horses and cows — become meditative in the presence of the sea,” he wrote in his essay “At Yaidzu.” As he listened to the “wild tide of the Suruga coast,” he wrote that he “could distinguish nearly every sound of fear known to man: not merely noises of battle tremendous — of interminable volleying — of immeasurable charging — but the roaring of beasts, the crackling and hissing of fire, the rumbling of earthquake, the thunder of ruin, and above all these, a clamor continual as of shrieks and smothered shoutings — the Voices that are said to be the voices of the drowned. Awfulness supreme of tumult — combining all imaginable echoings of fury and destruction and despair!”
Hearn’s wildly Gothic imagination finally concluded that “the speech of the dead is the roar of the sea.”
In Hearn’s day, the seafront at Yaizu was a bustling strip of two-story houses and shops. Since then, the construction of a concrete breakwater to tame the wild waves and shorefront land reclamation have meant that you will now need to head further along the coast to experience the sense of wild terror that once captivated the writer.
Once a charming village with a thriving fishing industry, Yaizu has now merged into some of the surrounding towns and has a feel about it of continuous low-level urban sprawl. The landscape may have changed slightly, but the kindliness of the locals that Hearn gloried in has definitely not. When I visited, I was adopted by two local gents who insisted that no literary tour of the area was complete without a visit to a museum in nearby Shizuoka City dedicated to another literary refugee, Kansuke Naka (1885-1965) who fled to the area during World War II.
As if the ghost of Hearn was watching, the kindly gents volunteered to take me round some sights of Shizuoka, including a proud castle that did not merit a single mention in my guidebook. They promptly appeared at my hotel bearing a gift — a Yaizu-style fisherman’s shirt — and took me on a tour of the remnants of Shizuoka Castle, followed by a couple of temples buried in the depths of mountain greenery. We lunched together on a local specialty: sweet potato and soba noodles.
Naka wrote his early novel “The Silver Spoon” (recently translated into English by Hiroaki Sato and published by Stone Bridge Press) while he was still in his 20s, and it was serialized in the Asahi Shimbun on the recommendation of literary great Natsume Soseki. But none of Naka’s subsequent works ever attained the fame of “The Silver Spoon” and by the time WWII began Kansuke was forced to resort to the humblest circumstances in order to escape the perils of the air raids on Tokyo.
His memorial museum is located in the honkan (main building) immediately next to the tiny thatched hanare (outhouse) that he lived in for the first 18 months of his 4½-year stay in the area. The museum displays the real-life “spoon” — though Naka’s own life was anything but privileged by the time he lived in Shizuoka — and the cramped tatami room where he and his wife lived when he entered his 60s. The rustic simplicity is reminiscent of the 10-foot-square hut in which Buddhist author Kamo no Chomei wrote the “Hojoki” (“An Account of My Hut”) in 1212. Naka’s house inspired him to begin composing haiku for the first time in his life.
The museum tells the story not just of “The Silver Spoon” but also another intriguing book called “The Miraculous Classroom.” The late Takeshi Hashimoto chronicled his experiment of encouraging his high school students to read “The Silver Spoon” over a three-year period and then pen their own chronicles of what it means to be young.
For both Hearn and Naka, in successive historical epochs, this corner of Shizuoka Prefecture acted as a profoundly protective getaway from the world — a place of quiet simplicity where two writers were able to find spiritual calm.
Today, the shinkansen hurtles past Shizuoka City with barely a moment to spare, perhaps giving the impression today that finding a “spiritual retreat” may require travel to more distant locales. Yet, few places can offer the fascination that the little town of Yaizu worked upon the wild Romantic imagination of that great essayist, Lafcadio Hearn.
Yaizu is roughly a two-hour train ride from Tokyo. Shizuoka is roughly a 90-minute train ride from Tokyo.