Matsue and The Origins of the Modern Ghost Story Kwaidan
by Ben Lindstrom-Ives
At the end of September, I recently returned from visiting the Lafcadio Hearn Home and Museum in Matsue, Japan. Located in the far west of Japan on the shores of Lake Shinji (one of Japan’s largest lakes) and adjacent to the Sea of Japan, Matsue which is now a rather sleepy community, was once the home of one of the most famed authors of recent Japanese Literature and tradition, Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn is mostly remembered for his notable collection of ghost stories in a volume known as Kwaidan, which which was published in 1904. It was later made into a critically acclaimed film by Masaki Kobayashi in 1964. Hearn’s Kwaidan has without a doubt probably become the most well known collections of ghost stories in all of Japanese literature.
Of half Greek and Irish background, Hearn would spend much of his career working as an influential journalist in many places around the world. He would eventually settle in cities such as New Orleans, Cincinnatti, New York City, and finally Japan at the end of his career. He would live in Matsue, however, for around 15 months from 1890 to 1891, before accepting a professorship at Tokyo Imperial University, (now Tokyo University.) In Matsue he would work as an English teacher, and would eventually marry a woman by the name of Koizumi Setsu who was the local daughter of a Samurai Warrior. This would lead Hearn to forfeit his Irish citizenship, and became a Japanese national. Today Hearn’s home is located in an old neighborhood of Matsue, one which is adorned by many beautiful and antiquarian Samurai houses which were constructed between the 18th and 19th centuries. It is also located near Yakishi, which is the most famous Samurai residence located in Matsue and Shimane prefecture.
In contemporary Japan of the 21st century, it would seem safe to say that Matsue is without a doubt one of its best preserved towns. Along with Kanazawa, and a few other communities in Japan, Matsue’s samurai heritage and architecture is very much alive and active today. The old historic area of Matsue itself is adorned by the astonishing Matsue Catstle which was built in 1611 by the local lord Horio Yoshiharu. Matsue Castle itself acts as a counterpart to Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture. Unlike Himeji which is adorned with beautiful white colors aka the Egret Castle, Matsue Castle by contrast is very dark, and it is characterized by its very black colors. At first glance, it may be Count Dracula’s Castle! It is also the second largest castle in Japan. It fits well into the land of Kwaidan, as it emits a sort of horrific and mesmerizing sort of feeling as one walks through the streets of the city.
On my way to Hearn’s home, I would see dozens of large spiders spinning their cobwebs in the streets of Matsue. Out of the many places which I had traveled to, I had not seen any spiders quite as big, or as numerous as in any other places which I have traveled to before. After I saw cobweb after cobweb, I pondered and wondered how there could be so many large spiders on nearly all of the trees in Matsue? Whatever the case may have been, it certainly fit the atmosphere very well. With the castle in view, along with the many spiders which I had seen in the streets, and understanding that many of Japan’s famous tales of the macabre had been written here, one could feel that one had stepped onto the set of a horror film. Matsue was beautiful, but it also ultimately had a ghostly and haunted feeling as well.
Hearn’s home I found was quite small, but at the same time very spacious and beautiful. The house itself is a former Samurai residence, and holds many of the classics features one might expect of 19th century Japanese architecture. The Hearn residence holds tatami mats, sliding paper doors, a beautiful (Niwa) Japanese style garden, along with some beautiful paintings depicting the old Japanese past. One can also view Hearn’s writing desk, above which an early photograph of him may be seen. The home had a very comfortable sort of feeling, surprisingly peaceful, and not as scary as some of Hearn’s tales, may make one believe.
My voyage to Matsue was a fascinating and fun trip, to one of Japan’s most iconic small towns. Having had the chance to see the home’s of one of Japan’s great chroniclers of folklore, along with a chance to see Matsue Castle, (one of the twelve remaining original castles in Japan), was simply a cultural treasure. Matsue is a fine example of a very interesting historical community which may be visited and appreciated by travelers, without the hustle and bustle of Kyoto or Tokyo. In a highly developed and modern society, it is always to delightful to see that such vestiges of the Japanese past may be seen and observed in Matsue. Lake Shinji gives Matsue a really beautiful sort of backdrop, where one can enjoy a very beautiful sunset over the small city.
If one has time, I would also recommend a visit to the Shimane Art Museum. This museum which was built in 1999 by the Japanese architect Kiyonori Kikukate, is home to many fine different pieces of art. The building is characterized by attractive modern glass interiors, and holds a little park/garden which faces the shores of Lake Shinji. In the museum itself, one may see some of the masterworks of French Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Corot, the sculptures of Auguste Rodin, along with Japanese painting dating back from the Azuchi-Momoya Period from 1568 to 1600. The museum is certainly worth a visit, if one has time. I highly recommend to anyone living in Japan that if you have a strong interest in fiction or literature and wish to discover some of Japan’s greatest writing heritage, pay a visit to Matsue, and you will surely be delighted by what you see.
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