If there is one place in Japan that makes the most of its unfulfilled destinies, it has to be Matsue, a luminous city along the atmospheric but otherwise lugubrious Sanﾕin coast.
Corroborating this view is its massive castle, Matsue-jo, and its graceful Historical Museum, built in 1903 as a villa to accommodate the Meiji emperor, should he ever deem to pass through the city. He never did. Even noted resident and writer Lafcadio Hearn, arguably the townﾕs main draw card, only put up in Matsue for a mere nine months before the regionﾕs freezing winds and winter snow drove him to warmer southern climes.
Jay Gluck in his groundbreaking, long out-of-print guide, Japan Inside Out, comments that Matsue, in contrast to many Japanese cities, ﾒhas managed to modernize gracefully and exemplifies what Japan could be if more Japanese practiced those traits they are so generously credited with.ﾓ That largely holds true today, although a ghastly shopping and office tower building erected a few years ago seems dissonant when compared with the overall good taste Gluck observed.
Peel away the layers of modernity that greet visitors exiting from main railway stations and there is at the center of most Japanese towns a historical kernel, a core essence waiting to be discovered.
The ancient city of Matsue, capital of Shimane prefecture, part of what was once known as the ﾔprovince of the godsﾕ, sits between a dragonﾕs spine of mountains that compliment the contours of Lake Shinji and Naka-umi, a natural lagoon. An all-weather town with a charming old quarter, Matsue is one of those rare places that manages to look good in sunlight, drizzle, autumn mist or under the crisp snow that blankets it in winter, giving it the appearance of a steely, gray aquatint.
In order to reach Matsue, I took the Yakumo Express from Okayama, the trainﾕs name a reference to Lafcadio Hearnﾕs adopted Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo, and a connection the town has been happy to trade off ever since his brief spell there. When Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), a journalist of Greek-Irish descent, arrived in 1890 on a contract to teach English at the Matsue Middle School and as a correspondent for Harpers, the town was little known to foreigners. Hearnﾕs appreciation of the town and the intensity of his impressions, coalesced into writings that would change its fortunes forever.
Hearn, who lost one eye in a childhood accident and retained only poor eyesight in the remaining one, was necessarily a highly descriptive writer, one dependent on sensory appreciation. The sounds, smells and texture of the town, as described by Hearn, are remarkably vivid. Inseparable from his literary descriptions, every shrine, temple, monument or geographical feature of note seems to have a plaque bearing one of the writerﾕs observations in Japanese and English. Itﾕs a comfortably reciprocal relationship: Hearnﾕs paeans to the town, Matsueﾕs tributes to the writer.
Was Hearn a great writer, or merely a good journalist with an exotic subject? One of his most accomplished books, Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, has been described as overrated and as an unsurpassed masterpiece. One thing is for certain, and that is his influence on the minds of romantics. Henry Miller, a romantic if there was ever one, wrote ﾒMy passion for Japan began with Hearn.ﾓ The Irishmanﾕs own passion for Japan is often attributed to his short spell in Matsue and the powerful myths that drew him to the region.
Shiomi Nawate, a pine tree-lined street to the northeast of the castle moat where Hearn lived, is the heart of the old samurai quarter. Buke-yashiki (samurai homes), Tanabe Art Museum, Hearn Memorial Museum and the late writerﾕs residence are all found behind the wood, tile and stucco walls of this dusty but pleasant avenue. Hearn memorabilia ﾐ including his writing desk, angled so that he could use his one good eye to best effect ﾐ and first editions of his books are displayed. The English language commentary is recorded in a nice, lilting Irish accent, an acknowledgement of Hearnﾕs part-Gaelic ancestry. The museum used to be housed in an odd looking colonial confection building modeled on the Goethe Memorial Museum in Germany until it was rebuilt in 1983 to more sensitively match its surroundings, a rare case of the contemporary improving on the past.
Comparing the interior and three-sided garden of Hearnﾕs genteel samurai villa with old photos displayed in the museum next door, little appears to have changed. In the summer months, this small but graceful house must have seemed like an address in lotus land. In Hearnﾕs day as now, there were lotuses growing in a small pond in the rear section of the garden.
Describing the garden here, Hearn wrote that ﾒthere are large rocks in it, heavily mossed; and divers fantastic basins of stone for holding water; and stone lamps green with yearsﾉ.and there are green knolls like islets.ﾓ There still are. Hearn was, thankfully, wrong in one respect. ﾒThese are the gardens of the past,ﾓ he wrote. ﾒThe future will know them only as dreams, creations of a forgotten art.ﾓ
Built in 1611, Matsue-jo is Matsueﾕs premier sight, one of the few original remaining castle structures in Japan. In the colorful superlatives that mark his style, Hearn described the castle as ﾒa veritable architectural dragon, made up of magnificent monstrosities.ﾓ
Among the castleﾕs martial aspects ﾐ low windows for dropping boiling oil and stones, and funneled apertures for articulating Portuguese matchlocks ﾐ were poetic considerations: quivers embossed with dragonflies, ﾒto wish the arrows to fly far and fast,ﾓ paulownia staircases and the remains of shachi-hoko, dolphin rooftop adornments that were meant to deceive the fire gods into thinking the castle was under water and, therefore, immune to bolts of lightening.
Indeed water is an important factor 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 Matsue Castle. The cold waters of the Japan Sea flow into the lake, making it partially tidal, a fish-rich mix of fresh and salt water.
The lake provides the ingredients for Matsueﾕs best-known ﾐ and most expensive ﾐ dish, kyodo ryori. Connoisseurs claim this is best sampled during the winter, when the Lake Shinji fish are at their freshest for this seven-dish splurge.
Sometimes the simplest food is the best. Bote-bote-cha is a tea gruel concocted as an emergency food during times of crop failure. In these days of fashionable vegetarian cuisine, its ingredients ﾐ tofu, chestnuts, mushrooms, dried tea leaves and seasonal mountain herbs ﾐ sound appealing. Tai-meshi is minced sea bream and rice; Izumo-soba, the local version of buckwheat noodles.
Blessed with magisterial sunsets, photographers repair to the east shore of the lake to capture its wash of orange and purple watercolors as they dissolve behind Yomegashima (Brideﾕs Island), a tiny eminence of rock highlighted by the dark silhouettes of a melancholy pine stand. A local story relates how a beautiful but mistreated bride could only visit her parents once a year in winter. Hurrying over the frozen lake, the surface gave way and she drowned. The gods, taking pity on her, created this island where she is said to be buried. Did the lovely creature ever exist or does the tale belong to Matsueﾕs rich heritage of legend? The question seems less important than the story itself, an appealing narrative evoking an archetypal Japanese sentiment: pathos, the beauty and sadness of things that pass.
Izumo-Matsue airport and Yonago airport both serve Matsue. There are also JR trains and highway buses from Okayama, as well as spots along the Sanin coast. The trains on both routes pass through some beautiful countryside. There is a small tourist information office with English-speaking assistants located just outside the north exit of Matsue Station. Minamikan (tel: 0852-21-5131) is the townﾕs top ryokan. Very traditional, despite being located in a modern building, the rooms and service are exquisite, with a bill to match. Comfortable, inexpensive accommodation and a free onigiri and egg breakfast can be had at the Matsue City Hotel (tel: 0852-25-4100), a small business hotel. Hearnﾕs books are sold in bookstores all over Japan. Both Hearnﾕs house and the museum have a ready supply of titles for sale.
Story & photos by Stephen Mansfield
From J SELECT Magazine, January 2007