Field Report: Hagi, Japan (15 November 2016)

Japan’s Chūgoku region is an incredibly rewarding destination, and I’ve resolved to explore it more thoroughly in the years to come. But for this particular trip, I was happy to allow myself only a brief taste of the area’s many attractions – laying the groundwork, as it were, for a longer and more comprehensive future journey. After spending a few hours sampling the sights in a quiet city on the northern coast of Yamaguchi Prefecture, I came away convinced that here was another part of Chūgoku I’d need to come back to someday.

From the beginning of the 17th century up to the end of the Edo Period, the Mōri family held sway over the Chōshū Domain, which encompassed the westernmost tip of Japan’s main island, Honshū. Despite having their fiefdom and revenues considerably reduced by the ascendant Tokugawa regime – the consequence of throwing their lot in with the losing side at the Battle of Sekigahara (although a timely switch and surrender saved the clan from complete obliteration) – the Mōri capital of Hagi (萩) was endowed over the centuries with all the architectural and martial features one would expect to see in a prominent daimyō’s seat of power.

There are several ways of reaching Hagi from the prefectural capital, Yamaguchi (where I was based) – all the major options are summarised on this Japan-Guide page. By and large, the easiest and fastest way of getting there is by bus, but as a railway enthusiast, I decided to take the long and slow train route. This involved a short, 13-minute hop on the San’yō Shinkansen from Shin-Yamaguchi Station to Asa, then a local train ride of 70+ minutes to Nagatoshi via the Mine Line, followed by a final – and quite scenic – run of more than half an hour along the San’in Line from Nagatoshi to Higashi-Hagi Station. All told, the journey took more than two and a half hours (including transfers), which I personally thought was worth the trouble since the train ride was almost an experience in itself; I might write more about that in due course.

As for getting around town, there’s a handy tourist bus service that covers most of the main attractions. Running at half-hourly intervals, the “Ma-ru Bus” network shuttles visitors around Hagi on two overlapping courses for just 100 yen a ride, regardless of distance (500 yen gets you a 1-day ticket for unlimited rides).

After disembarking at Higashi-Hagi Station, I proceeded to my first stop of the day: Tōkō-ji (東光寺).

The compound is worth a brief stroll around, and some of its buildings are officially designated Important Cultural Properties…

…but my main target wasn’t really the temple itself. That distinction belongs to the graveyard in the rear portion of the grounds – the final resting place of some of the men who once reigned over these lands.

Except for the founder of the ruling line and the last two who held the title, the Lords of Chōshū were buried on an alternating basis within the grounds of Daishō-in (another temple in Hagi which we’ll have a look at later) and here in Tōkō-ji. To reach their graves, I followed a stone-paved path flanked by funerary monuments…

…which led me to a cleared area in the middle of the thickly forested hillside, where neat rows of lanterns drew my eye towards the monumental tombstones of the Mōri lords and their wives.

From the stop near the temple’s front entrance, I hopped onto the next available “Ma-ru Bus” service and – after transferring from the east route to the west route in the city centre – made my way towards Hagi Castle (萩城, Hagi-jō).

Constructed in 1604, this fortress by the sea served as the Mōri clan’s stronghold until the waning years of the Edo Period, when the Chōshū Domain’s administrative centre shifted south to the more defensible inland city of Yamaguchi. With the castle no longer in active service, much of what stood on the site was torn down, with the last remnants finally succumbing to the wave of demolitions that swept away castles all across Japan after the old system of domain-based rule was definitively abolished in 1871.

Even in its badly ruined state, the castle was an absolute delight to visit, and I plan to explore the site more thoroughly on my next visit to Hagi. With the fortifications spread across a wide area – stretching from the top of nearby Mt. Shizuki and deep into the heart of the city itself – I’d reckon even a full day for the castle alone won’t suffice to cover absolutely everything.

Hagi’s city centre is dotted with numerous buildings dating from the Edo Period, all of which I hope to see when I eventually return. As a sneak preview of sorts, I visited one samurai residence a short walk away from the castle: the former home of the Asa Mōri family (旧厚狭毛利家萩屋敷長屋, Kyū Asa-Mōri-ke Hagi-yashiki Nagaya).

Built in 1856, the structure was restored in 1968 and is the largest surviving house of its kind in Hagi.

Soon, I was back on the tourist loop bus and heading for my last major stop of the day: Daishō-in (大照院).

The main hall was undergoing restoration work at the time of my visit, and will apparently remain under wraps until October 2017. No matter – the scenic main gate was still fully visible…

…and in any case, my main reason for coming was to see the private graveyard of the Mōri Lords of Chōshū.

The overall layout is similar to the family’s enclosure at Tōkō-ji, although there are significant variances in the details. The tombstones, for one, are of an altogether different shape, and the sloping site at Daishō-in adds an interesting perspective to the view.

And with that, my brief exploratory visit to Hagi was at an end. Short the experience might have been, but it was more than enough to convince me that this quiet coastal city deserves a return visit – perhaps two or three full days next time.

I boarded the loop bus one last time, to Hagi Station – south of the city centre and one stop west of Higashi-Hagi Station where I began my visit that morning. Both stations opened in 1925, but only Hagi still has its original Taishō Era station house.

Farewell, Hagi. I hope to return soon!

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