On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 3, Matsue and beyond

This will be my last post on our Japanese adventures (unless something specific inspires me to write again – always leave yourself an out is my motto) and I’m going to share a few particular experiences, so here goes.

Matsue and Lafcadio Hearn

Our prime reason for going to Matsue was to visit the Adachi Museum of Art, and its famous garden. However, Matsue is also famous for having one of Japan’s best original castles, so we visited that on the day we arrived – and then explored the castle environs. And here we found a house and museum devoted to Greek-born Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). He only lived in Matsue for a short time, but he met his wife there and the town has taken him as their own. I have downloaded the eBook version of one of his best known books, Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan (1871) which was published just a little earlier than Isabella Bird‘s Unbeaten tracks in Japan.

For now though, I’ll just share two little tidbits that attracted my attention in the museum. The first is that Lafcadio Hearn was apparently the person who introduced the word “tsunami” to the rest of the world. He wrote, in 1897:

From immemorial time the shores of Japan have been swept, at regular intervals of centuries, by enormous tidal waves – tidal waves caused by earthquakes or by submarine volcanic action. These awful sudden risings of the sea are called by the Japanese “tsunami”. The last one occurred on the evening of June 17, 1896, when a wave nearly two hundred miles long struck the northeastern provinces of Miyagi, Iwaté, and Aomori, wrecking scores of towns and villages, ruining whole districts, and destroying nearly thirty thousand human lives. (from “A living god”)

The second is another quote the museum included from Hearn, this one on Japanese gardens:

Now a Japanese garden is not a flower garden, neither is it made for cultivating plants. As a rule a Japanese garden is a landscape garden. Another fact of prime importance to remember is that, in order to comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden, it is necessary to understand – or at least to learn to understand – the beauty of stones. Not of stones quarried by the hand of man, but of stones shaped by nature only. (From “Glimpses …”)

He’s right, though I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but stones are a significant part of Japanese gardens and you can’t help but notice and ponder them when you stroll around gardens here. At Korakuen in Okayama, an English-speaking guide told us that stones represent “prosperity” and would often be given as gifts.

Okayama and folk tales

Okayama manhole cover featuring Momotaro, the Peach Boy

Momotaro and friends on Okayama manhole covers

Japan, like many countries, is rich in folktales, and we came across several during this trip. There was one particular story, though, Momotaro, the Peach Boy, that I think is somewhat known in the west – at least, I came across it when our children were young – so it was rather meaningful to meet him in his home, Okayama. The Momotaro story involves his fighting marauding demons with the help of a dog, monkey and pheasant. The demons may, according to Wikipedia, have been from the island of Megishima – and we did visit the demon cave there some days later (but that’s a whole other story). What I want to introduce here instead is the topic of Japanese manhole covers. Each town seems to have its own design (or two) – and if you search Flickr you will find a goodly number of them. They are appealing and are just one of those little details that make Japanese travel fun. Anyhow, for Okayama the design is based on the Momotaro story.

Ogishima and John Masefield

One of the most surprising literary experiences of the trip was finding, within sight of the lighthouse on the little island of Ogishima, a beautifully polished marble stone monument engraved with the three verses of John Masefield’s famous poem “Sea fever” . I haven’t been able to find out what Masefield has to do with Ogishima, and perhaps it’s simply that it’s an applicable poem for a little sea-focused island, but with Japan’s close relationship with the sea I would have thought it had its own famous sea poems to use in such a situation. Whatever the case, this westerner rather enjoyed coming across something familiar in an unfamiliar place.

Onomichi and the Path of Literature

Engraved writings by Suiin Emi, Onomichi

Suiin Emi's stone on the Path of Literature

There is, as the Rough Guide to Japan will tell you, a long temple walk you can do in Onomichi, that takes you up and down the hillsides that line this little port town. We decided to follow the Rough guide’s advice and just do selected components of the walk, which happened to include the Path of Literature. According to an Onomichi Travel Guide the path was developed because Onomichi is known to have inspired many poets/writers because of its “beautiful scenery and quiet life style”. The walk contains 25 stones (stones, again), each inscribed with some words from a particular writer and each accompanied by an interpretative sign which includes the writer’s name in English. (Nothing else was in English, but the name’s a great help for later research.)

I have chosen the Suiin Emi stone to illustrate this post because he was born in nearby Okayama. Basho is, of course, represented … as he is also in the little fishing town of Tomo-no-ura.

An apparent incongruity

Japan is a country of contrasts, paradoxes even you could say, and so I thought I’d illustrate this with something from our second day in Japan when we visited the quiet little town of Obuse (which I mentioned in my first post for its Hokusai connection). We walked out of the station and across the rather empty little street to discover what appeared to be a restaurant (albeit closed at the time) with the following sign on its door:

We have NO relation with Yakuza.

We are still pondering that one …

10 thoughts on “On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 3, Matsue and beyond

  1. Oh, gosh, and here I was thinking that a Japanese garden was simply another place for tired business men to fall asleep during the day 😉 It’s amazing how much you’ve fit into your travels!

  2. I am going to have to go visit my local Japanese garden very soon as all of your gardening talk has made me want to go stroll there and try to somehow create a small Japanese style tribute in an area of my own garden. Must do some research and that’s the most fun part! Love the manhole cover!

    • The manhole covers are fun and I’m kicking myself about some I missed – eg a beautiful, coloured hibiscus design one in Uno Port but it was raining and it was on the edge of the road. I hope to see another one but we clearly didn’t walk in the right places during our two nights there.

      As for Japanese gardens … yes, I have a yen to incorporate some ideas too but I’m not a great visionary when it comes to design. Our back yard, which is less developed, is a possibility though. We have a lovely Japanese garden about 2 hours drive from our place. Have visited it a few times and plan to go again, maybe our spring this year.

  3. Fun to read about your trip after reading Hearn’s ghost stories. He was such a successful ambassador for Japanese culture. I can understand why he is respected there.

    • Thanks Fay … have you been to Japan? This was our third trip. On our return I thought, well, we’ve seen quite a bit of Japan, time to go elsewhere, but as the months pass I feel a hankering to visit there again. Though must say, I suppose, I think that when I return from most places! I should have added a photo from his house … not sure why I didn’t.

  4. Quite nostalgic to read about Matsue – where I was two years as an exchange teacher (NSW Dept of Ed.) 1991 & 1992. Matsue has one of the few original late 16th/early 17th century castles still extant in the country – “Plover Castle”! And the Greek-born writer Lafcadio HEARN – born on Lefkada (hence his given name) Greek mother/Irish British Army father – raised in Dublin, educated in France and at Ushaw College (a few miles west of Durham) to Cincinnati aged 19 – then to New Orleans and two years on Martinique – before at age 40 heading to Japan and teaching a year in Matsue! He wrote very movingly of an Untouchable community within the city – and his outrage at the way they were discriminated against brought some positive responses from important citizens. He was fascinated by traditional stories, ghost stories, legends – and aspects of Shintoism. Recent reflections by his descendants pay tribute to his wife as an important source for his understanding of Japan. Matsue is in the region of Shimane-ken called Izumo – The Land of the Gods – the mythological history present in the names and locations of mountains, rivers, lakes and coastal features and tales of land creation and as a place of exile from Miyazaki (south-east Kyushu) the place of all the original creation myths and deities. No other word but fabulous. It is also a significant centre for folk craft: Within the Adachi Art Museum (of nearby Yasugi-city) and its truly fantastic garden with its borrowed background and its beautiful collection of paintings – the gallery holding some of the work by potters Bernard LEACH, KAWAI Kanjiro, HAMADA Shoji – and other noted Folkcraft figures of the early to mid-20th century. Throughout the region pottery kilns remembered and featured various techniques taught them by Bernard LEACH. Have you visited Leach Pottery in St Ives in Cornwall? My wife and I were there in the late 1990s not long before the death of his widow, Janet LEACH. I had friends teaching at an Information Sciences high school just a couple of kms from the Adachi Art Museum – which I have visited many times since the first time in April, 1991. The local town of Hirose is noted for its Kasuri – splashed-patterned indigo woven cotton fabric. Every local town and village had its historical and craft or other local product feature. Thanks for posting about it. Most foreign visitors/tourists never get to this “remote” region. Tokyo/Kyoto-Nara/Hiroshima Peace Park often the sum of it! You saw much more. I am not surprised you have been back a number of times.

    • Oh thanks for that expansion Jim on Matsue. We loved our first visit to Japan in which we did mostly the well-trod path except of course for the week in our son’s tiny town … So we had to go back. The second time we went up to Hokkaido, also did a walk along the Oirase River in Aomori, and went to Sado Island but it poured and poured our two days there. Every time though we fit in Kanazawa, to which we believe the Shinkansen is opening right about now. I expect we’ll be back.

      I haven’t been to Cornwall … That’s on the next England trip … But we did love the art at Adachi too.

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