Out of Japan: The city where 8 million gods gather

TOKYO - I visited, last week, the Chief City of the Province of the Gods. Or so the city of Matsue, in Shimane prefecture, was fancifully named by Lafcadio Hearn when he lived there 100 years ago.

Shimane prefecture, in the south-west of Japan facing the Japan Sea, has many shrines dedicated to the traditional Shinto gods, including the Izumo Taisha, Japan's oldest shrine where all the 8 million Shinto gods gather once a year in October. Hearn, a writer who feasted on legends and all manner of supernatural beliefs, was bewitched by Matsue, and his description of a day in the life of the small city in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan is one of his masterpieces.

Hearn was an extraordinary character - half-Irish, half-Greek, he came to Japan in 1890 at the age of 40 with a commission from Harper's magazine in the US. He quickly fell in love with the country, settled down, married a Japanese woman, and took a Japanese name, Yakumo Koizumi. For 14 years until his death in 1904 he produced a series of books on Japan as it went through the first stage of its modernisation campaign to 'catch up with' the West. Today he is venerated by the Japanese as someone who shared their nostalgia for the 'old Japan', and even schoolchildren know his name. Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan was written after seven months spent in Matsue in 1891.

Today Matsue is a sleepy provincial city far from Tokyo, suffering from depopulation of its youth and kept alive largely by the patronage of Noboru Takeshita, the former prime minister with a penchant for money politics. But a century ago Matsue still maintained many of the old traditions of Japan, and was only slowly waking up to the modernisation of the country that had begun in the cities with the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

In the early morning, Hearn would listen to people going down to the river to wash their faces and then face the rising sun to clap four times, in deference to Amaterasu, the sun goddess who rules over the pantheon of Shinto deities. Matsue is built on a large lake, and Hearn was captivated by the strands of mist that stretched over the water and wrapped around the surrounding mountains: mist 'such as you may have seen in old Japanese picture books, and must have deemed artistic whimsicalities'.

His songbird wakes up and starts trilling out a few notes, and the day really begins with the pattering of wooden sandals over the bridge, as people hurry to work. These days the sun goddess gets less attention, as most people start their morning with breakfast television. Songbirds and wooden sandals have all but disappeared, but, from my hotel window, I could see the mist over the lake has changed little in a hundred years.

As the mist lifts, it reveals Yomegashima (The Island of the Young Wife), a small strip of land in the lake with a dozen pine trees and a little Shinto shrine. This shrine, according to Hearn, was dedicated to a young woman who drowned in the lake and whose body was transformed into the island. Gratifyingly, the taxi-driver told the same story when I inquired.

During his day in Matsue, Hearn takes time to visit some of the numerous Buddhist and Shinto temples. In one he watches wrestling, a sport that has always been linked with Shintoism: even today, when sumo tournaments are televised and many of the wrestlers are media stars, the pre-bout rituals like sweeping the ring and throwing salt are Shinto rites.

I had little time to visit shrines - my main business in Matsue had been to talk to people about Noboru Takeshita, who has been linked to nearly every major political scandal in Japan, but is still very much the local hero in Matsue. But it came as no real surprise, after Hearn, to find that Mr Takeshita's political headquarters was in a Buddhist temple.

As darkness falls, Hearn sees a woman sprinkling small slips of white paper on the river - she is praying for her dead child, whose name is written on the paper. But, Hearn observes ruefully, she can only do this at night, because the 'pretty rite' has been forbidden by the police, who presumably scorn such acts as provincial superstitions.

Later, he listens to late traders in the street. One is selling love-papers, which contain secret messages written in invisible ink which can only be read when held close to a lantern. 'These are always about sweethearts, and sometimes tell one what he does not wish to know.' These papers, says Hearn, make those fortunate in love 'still more fortunate; the unlucky abandon all hope; the jealous become even more jealous than they were before'. As all 8 million gods can testify, some things never change.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Frank Turner performing at 93 Feet East
musicReview: 93 Feet East, London
News
Toronto tops the charts across a range of indexes
news

World cities ranked in terms of safety, food security and 'liveability'

Extras
indybest
Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a friendly, confident i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Primary Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: At Tradewind Recruitment we are currently l...

Tradewind Recruitment: Physics Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment is currently working ...

Recruitment Genius: Case Manager - Occupational Therapist / Physiotherapist

£28000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee