The Far Coast, Part 2: Matsue

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I moved house today, saying a fond farewell to Itsukaichi by way of bean stew, noodles and fried chicken at a Burmese restaurant. From now, I’ll live in the city centre, close to the heart of Naka-ku, and even closer to my favourite bar. But I don’t want to detain you with the details right now. Let’s flash back to last week, and my trip to Shimane.

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I was on the trail of an author. Lafcadio Hearn was an English teacher, just like me, and he loved history and travel writing, just like me, and he burned with the urge to explore, just like me. But I don’t write like Lafcadio. Honestly, I’m not sure anyone ever has. He had an insatiable desire to report every moment in the worlds he uncovered, and each page bursts with endless fascinating detail and liveliness and kaleidoscopic colour. He’s a travel writer without equal, but I’ve found him completely impossible to read quickly, as you become saturated, overwhelmed even. To spend too long between his pages is to travel back to that first afternoon in Osaka.

Hearn was born in 1850 in the Greek islands, a child of a Greek mother and English father who separated when he was young. The author grew up between Ireland and England, an outsider in more ways than one, and eventually moved to the USA, where he fell in love with cultural diversity in a way that few other Victorians did. He moved a lot, from Cincinnati to New Orleans to Martinique, and married an African-American woman at a time when interracial marriages could be dangerous. Then one day in 1890, he set sail for Yokohama, and from there spent the rest of his life as a teacher in Japan.

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Lafcadio Hearn Museum

He lived in Matsue, and knew the city well. Although the castle was in poor repair during Hearn’s time, he marvelled at it, and visited it often, writing:

Fantastically grim the thing is, and grotesquely complex in detail; looking somewhat like a huge pagoda, of which the second, third, and fourth stories have been squeezed down and telescoped into one another by their own weight. Crested at its summit, like a feudal helmet, with two colossal fishes of bronze lifting their curved bodies skyward from either angle of the roof, and bristling with horned gables and gargoyled eaves and tilted puzzles of tiled roofing at every story, the creation is a veritable architectural dragon, made up of magnificent monstrosities…’

And, unlike many of Japan’s other feudal castles, this one survived into the modern era. It’s one of only twelve castle towers which survived unscathed. So when I found out there was a direct bus from Hiroshima, I knew I had to go.

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A Fortress in the Rain

It had been pouring with rain for hours when I arrived back in Matsue, and it wouldn’t stop all day. I strolled through grey streets lined with factories and along a grey river topped with grey clouds1. This washed-out place was only coloured in by the brushes of the many deep-green pine trees that give the town its name.

Eventually I came to a broad street leading up to immense stone ramparts. Umbrella in hand, I made for the castle courtyard, where soldiers once assembled for drills and before expeditions. This would have been a busy place- a third of the town’s 35,000 people were samurai and their families in Lafcadio Hearn’s time.

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The teahouse, looking all kinds of out of place in a castle courtyard.

The castle tower forces you to approach it in stages, looping round on yourself and coming to the smaller turret buildings first. This was all part of the strategy of wearing down invading armies, trapping them and picking off soldiers before they could even reach the castle doors. In the ninomaru (secondary compound) lies a shrine and a bizarre teahouse plucked out of some Louisiana plantation. And then you’re in front of the castle, and it’s a thing of utter beauty, all black wood and colossal, sandy stones packed together. Hearn was a true aesthete, but I refuse to believe this place was ever grim.

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In the basement, the two old leaping fish decorations which used to sit atop the castle were resting. When Hearn described them as ‘leaping’, I assumed they were angled to jump out of the castle roof, but actually they were pointed the other way, tail fins in the air, diving down into the castle. They were huge things, taller than me, but from ground level they just looked like the castle’s pointed ears.

 

The solemn, panelled and varnished interior of the castle is pierced through with huge imposing wooden pillars that link floor to floor. Not much has been changed about the castle, praise be. This place lives and breathes its history, instead of displaying it in neat little glass cages, sterilised for posterity. The place must have been dark, as well! I’ve read that in the art of the era2, beaten gold was used not just to flaunt wealth but to make artworks reflect light around gloomy quarters.

 

On the fourth floor, an entire retractable staircase can be withdrawn as a last, desperate defence, to protect the innermost sanctum of the castle. I don’t think Matsue was besieged much, but this was a practical fortification, designed to be almost impenetrable. And then, climbing one storey higher, you come to the peak, and the whole town comes into focus below.

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The Defense of History

Once, they wanted to destroy this place. Like so many revolutionaries, the samurai and businessmen who led the Meiji restoration (from 1868) were uncomfortable with physical reminders of history. So they scheduled the place for demolition. Only the hard work of a couple of local notables, Katsube Motouemon and Takagi Gonpachi, kept it from being torn down in 1875, in the wake of the revolution.

Fifteen years later, Lafcadio Hearn turned up in this little town, still overrun with former samurai, to take a post teaching English at the local school. After I left the castle, I visited a shrine where Hearn often went to pray, and (I think) found the headless lion statue he spoke of. I wandered around the well-loved old town, and stopped by the Lafcadio Hearn Museum, which told the story of a remarkable man’s life. At the end, I visited the house where he spent a blissfully happy year. I’ll leave you with some pictures of the author’s home.

 

1 Quite a bit of Matsue was pretty ugly, actually. It seems like Japanese cities often have ‘beauty quarters’, where everything is perfection, and to hell with the rest.

2 Azuchi-Momoyama art, made in the late 16th and early 17th century when Matsue Castle was being built.

 

 

 

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