Tom Midwinter visits the Yamaguchi Prefecture town of Hagi, known for its natsumikan oranges, fine ceramics and revolutionary former denizens.
The busy Pacific coast of the main island of Honshu is the familiar Japan, where the main centers of population and industry are concentrated. By contrast, the side of Honshu facing the Sea of Japan is the quieter one, where life proceeds at a gentler pace. It is also the more attractive, as becomes evident on the coastal approaches to Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture. White-capped waves pound into a rugged coastline of pine-crowned headlands trailing into sea stacks and cliff-rimmed islands. The road connecting sparsely populated towns and villages hugs the winding coastline, and offshore fishing vessels cut through metallic-blue waters.
With Hagi, the attractions go beyond the scenic approach. This town enjoys a reputation as one of the few places in Japan that have successfully retained an authentic historical character. Following the construction of its castle, beginning in 1604, Hagi developed throughout the Edo period (1603–1867) as a castle town, and the old samurai residences that grew around the fortress lend Hagi its old-world character.
The top-ranking samurai lived closest to the castle, the lower ranks and merchants farther away. And in those old samurai districts, the layout of the streets today is pretty much as it was during Edo times. Perhaps the most striking of the old structures is the extensive residence of the Kikuya family, chief merchants to the ruling Mori feudal lords. Its main building is one of Japan’s oldest merchant houses and, like many buildings in this area, is a handsome structure of gleaming white walls above a crisscross pattern of white and charcoal-gray tiles known as namako-bei.
At the heart of Hagi’s historical district stands the city museum. Among the museum’s comprehensive documentation of local history, culture and nature is a prominent display devoted to the food item most closely associated with Hagi. Natsumikan are a kind of slightly bitter orange that were once of considerable economic importance to the town. They were grown by ex-samurai to provide income when the stipends they formerly received were cut off after the Edo period. The sight of the orange fruit hanging above the white walls and gray tiles is the classic image of Hagi.
The castle transformed Hagi from a minor fishing village into a regional power center, but, having been dismantled in 1874, the donjon is today no more. Despite the absence of what was the castle’s central feature, the stone ramparts still rise grandly above the system of moats. And the site itself is rather scenic, being adjacent to the pine-lined beach of Kikugahama. With the backdrop of the green, dome-like hill of Shizukiyama, the place is now an extensive park, elegantly set off with black pines and over 600 cherry trees.
In the middle of the park stand a couple of teahouses—Nashiba-ke and Hananoe. Built for the tea ceremony, these simple wooden structures are surrounded by stone lanterns, water basins and lawns thick with bright-green moss. Through the garden, paths of stone flags gracefully meander, offering visitors an unhurried appreciation of it all.
When the Mori lords savored their tea beneath the thatched roof of Hananoe, there is a fair likelihood that the tea bowls they used had not traveled far. Ceramics have been produced in Hagi since the late sixteenth century, and the town enjoys a particular reputation for its quality tea-ceremony bowls. Glazed Hagi ware is produced today in about 100 kilns in and around the town.
One obvious use for Hagi pottery is as receptacles for the local food. As might be supposed from its proximity to the sea, Hagi boasts excellent seafood, a good place for sampling which is Hagi Seafood Market. The market is not extensive, yet its stalls present an inviting assortment of seafood, from whitebait and mollusks to strapping 70-centimeter sea bream. This is a place to enjoy the local specialty of kaisendon, which features raw salmon, squid, octopus, salmon roe, sea urchin and sea bream on a bed of rice along with laver seaweed and daikon radish offset by pungent wasabi and piquant perilla (shiso) leaf.
Legacy of Yoshida Shoin
Though Hagi is outwardly small and placid, it was once the center of powerful events. By the mid-nineteenth century, Japan had experienced over two centuries of national isolation. The Edo period was one of peace and stability, but the great technological and military disparity between Japan and the West became dramatically clear in 1853, when the powerful U.S. naval squadron of Commodore Matthew Perry appeared near Edo (now Tokyo). Perry forcibly presented demands that the country open ports to American vessels.
One person living in Edo during those momentous times was a brilliant scholar of military tactics—a native of Hagi called Yoshida Shoin. It was clear to Yoshida that if Japan were to survive, it had to learn from the West. He decided that the only way to do so was to study overseas, which was no small task when traveling abroad by Japanese was prohibited and carried the death penalty. But Yoshida was determined. When Perry’s squadron docked at Shimoda, southwest of Edo, Yoshida and a companion boarded one of the vessels, wishing to be taken to the States. Unwilling to antagonize the Japanese with whom they were signing treaties, the Americans handed Yoshida over to the authorities.
Being a man of spirit, Yoshida did not let the subsequent spell in prison deter him. Following his release, he plotted the assassination of one of the shogun’s senior councilors, whom Yoshida felt was not facing up to the challenges imposed by the West. After word of the plot reached official ears, Yoshida was tried and then, in 1859, executed. He was 29. The story might have ended there, but before the plot, Yoshida had opened a private school in Hagi, and his teachings had tremendous influence on his pupils. Among them was a handful of individuals who later played key roles in bringing about an end to the rule of the shoguns and a return to power, in 1868, of the emperor. Known as the Meiji Restoration, this process set the stage for Japan’s rapid modernization.
Hagi is certainly an interesting town. More than any other place, it helped bring about an end to the Japan of the Edo period. Yet it is also one of the few places that present an uncontrived image of the Japan of those older times.
Tom Midwinter is a freelance writer and editor living in Tokyo.