"Located on Japan's west coast and with two lakes forming the boundaries of the city, Matsue is a water paradise with some of the friendliest people you'll find anywhere in Japan"
Alastair Donnelly - Director
Matsue City is known as ‘The City of Water’ being as it is both on the coast and sandwiched between two lakes. Perhaps for this reason alone, the people of Matsue have a somewhat chirpy, light-hearted demeanor. The area around the train station forms a central area of hotels and night spots. At first glance the city may not appear any different than any of Japan’s small regional population centres. However, the area a short distance north of the railway station holds a breathtaking look into Japan’s feudal past. Next to the city hall stands the thoroughly impressive Matsue Castle. The castle is an original, undamaged by wartime bombing, and is the second largest in Japan after Himeji. The reflection of its ramparts mirrored in the moat making for fantastic photographs. The castle interior is splendid and contains three floors filled with artifacts from a bygone era. These include Samurai weapons and Samurai armour, artworks and models showing Matsue now and then.
The gardens are incredibly beautiful and the stroll is well signposted, delivering you by way of several temples to the main area of interest at the banks of the castle moat. Here, in quick succession are the Lafcadio Hearn Museum, Lafcadio Hearn Residence, Tanabe Art Museum, Samurai House and Meimei-An Tea House.
A surprising Irish connection
The lilting Irish brogue of the castle’s English language announcement gives some indication of the City’s unexpected affinity with the Emerald Isle. To understand this one needs to understand the history behind its most famous resident. Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was the son of Dr. Charles Hearn, an Irish surgeon serving in the British Army, and a Greek mother, Rosa Kassimatis Hearn. Born on the Ionian island of Lefkada (Lefkas) in Greece in 1850, his parents brought him to Dublin, Ireland at the age of two. Uncomfortable with the Irish weather, unable to speak English and feeling that her husband’s affections had turned sour, Lafcadio’s mother left alone and moved back to Greece. Soon after, his father remarried to Alicia Goslin Crawford, and emigrated away to India, leaving Lafcadio alone to be raised by his attentive and doting great-aunt, Sarah "Sally" Holmes Brenane. The house he lived in is now The Townhouse Hotel on 48 Lower Gardiner Street, Dublin and is a popular tourist spot with Japanese visitors and dignitaries.
During his Dublin school days, Lafcadio was unfortunately struck in the eye with the end of a rope whilst playing. He lost the sight in his left eye and this must have caused him considerable self-consciousness, evident in that all photographs of him show him looking to the left. Later, his great-aunt fell on hard times and after a brief spell living in Durham, Lafcadio emigrated to America at the age of 19. An accomplished French translator, he then took a job as a reporter. ‘The Cincinnati Enquirer’ newspaper, where he worked, sent him to New Orleans, Martinique, and then on to Japan in 1890. It was here that Hearn excelled. His love of Japan led to him writing books on Japan as well as ghost stories for the Japanese. Seen somewhat confusingly as Japan’s Shakespeare, he took Japanese nationality, changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo and married a Samurai’s daughter, Setsu. His Matsue home and a museum dedicated to his life are major tourist attractions in the area. His former residence next door has charming gardens and the screen doors are fitted with some of the earliest glass to be made in Japan, circa 1907. At the cutting edge of technology in their day, they are of poor quality and give the distorted look of peering through water due to the unevenness of their thickness.
Through his poetic imagination, sharp intellect and readable style Hearn came to be held as the great interpreter of all things Japanese to the West. In 1904, after writing what is possibly his best work "Japan, an Attempt at Interpretation", Lafcadio died of a heart attack aged 54. The renewed interest in Hearn and his works some hundred years later is an acknowledgement of his skill in interpreting both the inner life of Japan for the West, and of the West for the Japanese.
English versions of his books, including the thoroughly recommendable ‘Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan’, which offers enchanting accounts of Hearn’s first impressions of Japan in 1890, are on sale here too. It is written in a style similar to James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ and this aptly demonstrates his Irish pedigree.
Next to the Hearn Museum and Residence and along the moat-side road known as ‘Shiomi Nawate’ (named after the feudal lord’s magistrate) is the Tanabe Art Museum, of interest to any Japanese porcelain enthusiast.
Shiomi Nawate road itself was named one of ‘Japan’s 100 Streets’ by the Ministry of Construction in 1987 and is one of the most wonderful roads you will have ever strolled along.
Beside the art museum is the ‘Buke Yashiki’ Samurai House, where visitors can feel that they are treading where ancient samurai once lived.
Strolling a little further on are the steps up to the ancient Meimei-An tea house. The view from here of the castle on the opposite hill, and the walk around the ancient gardens and buildings, fills the mind with images of ancient Japanese nobility and the senses with something both calming and sublimely spiritual.
BACK TO TOP