The man who fell for Japan

The writer Lafcadio Hearn is little known in the West, but a hero in Matsue, says Adrian Mourby

These days the name Lafcadio Hearn is known only to people who have read You Only Live Twice: "Have you ever heard the Japanese expression kirisute gomen?," Blofeld asks Bond. "Spare me the Lafcadio Hearn," replies our hero (the term approximates to "licensed to kill").

But in the small city of Matsue in south-west Japan this month, the name of this baggy-trousered travel-writer will be on everyone's lips.

Standing in the grounds of the old castle (apparently the second-largest, third-tallest and sixth-oldest in all Japan) I found myself accosted by two people in samurai costume. Both assumed that I must be looking forward to Lafcadio Hearn Day.

It is not so unusual to meet armoured samurai in tourist sites such as Matsue. They are employed by the city and are usually very friendly. "Come and take my photo!" they cry. "No charge!" But it is unusual to find them so emphatic that they know best.

"You must know Lafcadio Hearn," said one called Shiomi, posing with his fierce-looking blade. "He was an Englishman from Ireland but he chose to live here and write about Matsue."

In fact, Hearn was born in Greece in 1850, and his father was Irish. After he was abandoned by his feckless parents at a school in Ireland, Hearn lost his left eye in a playground incident in his teens. As a result, he only ever allowed himself to be photographed from his sighted side, head ducked down in shame.

He enjoyed two nationalities until 1891, when he took the name Koizumi Yakumo – and Japanese citizenship – on his marriage to a samurai's daughter. Hearn, who had travelled Europe, America and the Caribbean in search of a home, finally settled.

For the last 10 years of his life, he poured out his feelings for Japan in 15 books of stories, memoirs and explorations of Japanese myths. He was one of the first travel writers to represent Japan to the West in English; but I had no idea that he was so big in Matsue.

For anyone who can remember the television series Shogun, Matsue Castle is a dead-ringer for Toshiro Mifune's Hikone.

"Vast and sinister in shape," Hearn wrote of it. "Fantastically grim the thing is... and grotesquely complex in detail, crested at its summit, like a feudal helmet, with two colossal fishes of bronze lifting their curved bodies skyward... the creation is a veritable architectural dragon, made up of magnificent monstrosities."

As I walked downhill from the keep, past an old pond used for washing samurai horses and the Gokoku Shinto shrine that honours dead warriors, a sign told me that I was walking the Lafcadio Hearn Way, so named because this used to be his walk to and from the castle. It's a leafy, gentle lane down to the vast square moat that surrounds Matsue Castle.

I crossed two lovely reconstructed old bridges straight out of a willow pattern plate, as one of the pleasure boats that circle the moat went by, full of Japanese tourists.

Although Matsue is on Japan's west coast, and therefore a world away from the devastating earthquake and tsunami north of Tokyo in March, tourism was hit. Apart from the laughter of a pair of passing Japanese schoolgirls and the putt-putt of the boat riding low in the water, the place felt very quiet, sleepy even.

At the main road, I'd intended to go left to Ichibata, an informal restaurant on the other side of the moat where you barbecue your own meat. However, my eye was caught by a row of single-storey buildings with black roofs and the flags leading towards them. Each showed the same line drawing of Hearn off on his travels – baggy linen jacket, crumpled panama and suitcases in hand.

Crossing the road, I found that the first wooden building was the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum. Next to it lay his old home: beyond that, an art gallery. They were comfortable, modest traditional structures, like small versions of the pan-tiled samurai houses I'd seen elsewhere in Japan.

Inside the four square rooms of the home, Hearn's high desk and low chair are on display. He had to write with his head pretty much level with the desktop because his eyesight was so bad he needed to be very close to the paper.

In the museum next door there was a display of memorabilia celebrating the 1965 Japanese film Kwaidan, which was based on four of his Japanese ghost stories. Evidently, it was commended at Cannes that year and nominated for an Oscar.

I also discovered that every year on the anniversary of his death on 26 September 1904, Matsue celebrates Lafcadio Hearn Day with recitations and a haiku competition. Hence the excitement from the local samurai.

On the way out of the museum, a phrase from Hearn's had been attached to the wall by his Japanese great grandson, Koizumi Bon. "Those who can survive are the ones who can co-exist with nature and live the simple life."

Koizumi Bon asked us to remember this when we think of "the East Japan Earthquake", as it is called here.

Over the road, a bust of Hearn has been erected. While the West has forgotten the writer, this gentle, green city does him proud.

The sculptor has even given him back his missing eye.

Travel essentials: Japan

Getting there

* The writer travelled with ANA (020 8762 8977; ana.co.uk), which flies from Heathrow to Tokyo Narita; change to the capital's Haneda airport for connecting flights to Yonago, which is 45 minutes by bus from Matsue. Return fares start at £891.

* British Airways, Japan Airlines and Virgin Atlantic also fly Heathrow-Tokyo.

Visiting there

* Matsue Castle: 550 yen (£4.60). The Former Hearn Residence: 350 yen (£2.85). The Hearn Memorial Museum (00 81 852 21 2147; matsue-tourism.or.jp): 300 yen (£2.45).

More information

* Japan National Tourism Organisation: 020-7398 5678; seejapan.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Coordinator

    £17600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum cares for one of the largest...

    Recruitment Genius: Experienced PSV Coach & Minibus Drivers

    £12500 - £24500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Drivers wanted for a family run...

    Ashdown Group: Finance Manager (FP&A) - Surrey - £45,000

    £40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful leisure company is seek...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionist, Bar and Waiter / Waitress & Housekeeping

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: The positions above are available either part ...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
    Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

    Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

    David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
    Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

    Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

    A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
    10 best DSLRs

    Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

    Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash