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.