Have you ever gone on a trip unaware that you are searching for something, only to be handed the exact thing you need? I’ve just returned from a week in Western Japan, and though I am jet lagged and maybe even a little overfed, I have new creative energy flowing through me. I am brimming with ideas for my writing projects and with a general joy for creation thanks to the many stories of artists and writers I came across while in Japan.
In the English-speaking world, it’s more common to think of cities like Dublin or New York or Melbourne as great locales to rekindle any sort of lost creativity. They are known to most of us as the homes of our idols, the ones we have always read and strove to be like. Those are all great options, I’ll never knock them, but what about expanding your mindset outside of the books you can read. What about all those millions of books you naturally don’t read because of the language barrier? I found a way to engage with these writers and artists without have to become fluent in Japanese. I did it by visiting the little known, but artistically rich region of Western Japan.
What/Where is Western Japan?
The part of Western Japan I visited included three regions: Kyushu, Choguku, and Kansai. These regions are made up of smaller areas known as prefectures, and in turn the prefectures are made up of cities and towns. I started my Japanese journey by flying from Tokyo all the way down to Fukuoka, a city in the very northern tip of Kyushu. I worked my way north from there using buses and trains to finally arrive in Osaka which is in Kansai. These regions are accessible by rail, plane, and car. I recommend finding a tour group to travel with to some of the more rural regions if your Japanese is less than stellar.
For the purposes of this Artists & Writers tour we will be focusing on Choguku and its Yamaguchi and Shimane prefectures.
Artists and Writers Tour of Choguku – Western Japan
Day One – Inspiration at Motonosumi Inari Shrine – Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture
Depending on where you are traveling from and how (bullet train, car, or plane) your travel time to the shrine will vary greatly. If you’re driving from Fukuoka as I did, stop halfway at the Kamon Wharf just outside Shimonoseki for an amazing sushi lunch. The wharf is an active fish market and famous for it’s “fugu” or puffer fish. There are cute shops where you can buy puffer fish and also dessert. I had a green tea with a green tea ice cream topper. I had a sugar rush afterward, but it was well worth it. From there drive on to our highlight, the Motonosumi Inari Shrine.
Photos will never do a place like this justice but I did my best. This absolutely gorgeous shrine is built high atop seaside cliffs that you can climb and explore. The highlight of this shrine is its 123 red torii gates. Torii gates separate the shrine from the secular world and while they are at all Shinto shrines, Motonosumi is special in its quantity and arrangement on the seaside cliff.
I found this spot inspirational because like many writers and artists are familiar with, the vision for the shrine came to its creator in a dream. It was here he was told he must build it. So he did. The shrine honors the white fox spirit and among the gates you will find images of the white fox. Despite it’s 1 million visitors in the past two years, I felt as if I was experiencing something no one else ever had or would again. It’s a stunning and beautiful piece of art for worship. It is in a rural area and difficult to get to, but I know my readers are brave enough to find it out and experience it for themselves!
It will be a long day getting to the shrine, so plan to drive only 30 minutes to Nagato proper where you can stay in a number of hotels featuring hot spring onsens. Relish in a hot onsen bath and then curl up in a classic Japanese style room, sleeping on a futon bed that is rolled out for you while you eat dinner. I stayed at the Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo.
Day Two – Visit the Writers of Tsuwano & Matsue – Shimane Prefecture
Wake up feeling revitalized from your hot spring bath and get ready for a bit of a scenic drive up to Tsuwano.
Known as “Little Kyoto”, Tsuwano offers a feeling I get when I visit small New Engalnd towns. It is nostalgic, well organized, and rich with history. Walk the streets and do a little shopping before popping into the Ogai Mori Museum built next door to his former home, where you can view manuscripts and small relics. Ogai Mori was a physician who eventually quit his practice to become a writer full-time, working with fiction and poetry. He is known for modernizing Japanese literature.
And before you leave Tsuwano try stop by the washi paper making workshop. Can you really be a writer if you don’t know how to make paper? Grab a snack and head out for another long drive to our next stop: Matsue.
When you get to Matsue you may be tired. So feel free of course to extend this trip however you feel fit but if you have the energy head to our next literary stop, the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum.
Hearn had a long and difficult life before he landed in Matsue, where he found his truest inspiration. He married, had children, taught English and began writing his books. He is most well-known for ghost stories and stories of Japanese legends. I had the pleasure of holding a Hearn book that had an English translation readily available and I found the stories incredibly enjoyable.
Day Three – Hang tight in Matsue for some art – Shimane Prefecture
After our mini-literary tour we’re back to the artists by visiting an authentic tea ceremony and the Adachi Museum of Art, both in Matsue.
I’m including the tea ceremony I experienced at the Meimeian Tea House because it was such a beautiful and truly artful moment of my time in Western Japan. Presentation is of the utmost importance during a tea ceremony and everything is given great care — the sweets served, how the tea is poured, how you drink it and more. At each tea ceremony a small, sweet cake is served. At Meimeian they match the ceremony and shape of the cake to the season. We had a delicately structured cake shaped like a butterbur plant, signifying the coming of spring. Sweet and delicious it was the best precursor to the matcha we drank after.
From the tea ceremony head over for an afternoon at the Adachi Museum of Art. Known for its impeccable and absolutely breathtaking Japanese gardens. The museum’s founder, Adachi Zenko, took great care and an almost obsessive approach to the gardens. He was a hardworking man who believed in the beauty of his gardens. The five gardens are available to view through “picture frames” so that each is a living painting. Even the mountains behind the gardens are a part of these living paintings and to see them in person is breathtaking. Take your time with the gardens before heading up to see the stunning collection of art that Adachi houses also.
From here your time in Western Japan is all your own. Ok, well I actually have even more suggestions so feel free to drop me a note to hear more! I covered a lot of miles and places during my time and I am always more than happy to share. If you make your way to Japan I implore you to get out of the cities, or at least get out of Tokyo, and see other regions of the country that have so much to offer. I’ve only scratched the surface of the number of talented artists and writers that will absorb you.