Hagi on the Japan Sea coast of Yamaguchi Prefecture in the south western corner of Honshu, is one of Japan's most interesting small towns and easily deserves an extended stay to see its many attractions.
With a population of around 56,000, Hagi is small enough to see on foot or rent-a-cycle. A journey to Hagi can be combined with visits to the nearby towns of Tsuwano, Yamaguchi and the limestone caverns of Akiyoshi-dai.
The center of Hagi is essentially an island created by the Hashimoto and the Matsumoto rivers. Most of Hagi's attractions lie in this area.
Old walls in Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture
Hagi became a major local center in the area after warlord Mori Terumoto built his castle in the fishing port in 1604.
Though a relative back-water through much of the Edo Period (1603-1868), known more for its pottery than its politics, the Choshu domain with Hagi as its capital rose to prominence from the 1850s onwards as samurai from the area took a leading role in the eventual overthrow of the Tokugawa regime.
Chief among these rebellious samurai was Yoshida Shoin (1830-1859) an influential teacher who inspired a generation of young men from the area who would go on to be major figures in Japan's new Meiji government such as Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909), Japan's first Prime Minister and Kido Koin (1833-1877).
Shoin was executed for his part in an assassination plot against Ii Naosuke - a Tokugawa government official - but his legacy remains strong in the town of his birth.
During this period of domestic strife Choshu became a center of progressive reform: remodeling its army along western lines with mixed units of commoners and samurai armed with rifles, beginning a modern naval force and employing domain (han) officials on merit rather than birth.
Shoin Shrine, Hagi
Hagi's main attractions are the preserved samurai and merchant quarters of Horiuchi and Jokamachi, with their beautiful, earthen walls.
These neighborhoods are ideal for a relaxed stroll and contain the numerous residences of the samurai and merchant classes of the time. The Kikuya-ke Jutaku (Kikuya Residence) (Tel: 0838 25 8282) is the spacious home of a rich merchant family with a beautiful garden, storehouses and with over 500 period pieces on display. Nearby is the Kido Takayoshi Kyutaku, the simple wood and tatami family home of Takayoshi Kido (aka Kido Koin). The Kyu Kubotake Jyutaku was the residence of the Kubota family, rich kimono and sake merchants. Aoki Shusuke Kyutaku is the former house of Shusuke Aoki, a clan doctor and student of Dutch studies (rangaku). Also in this area of Horiuchi is Enseiji Temple, which dates from the 13th century and is connected with the childhood of Ito Hirobumi, who studied here as a child and Takasugi Shinsaku Tanjoji (Tel: 0838 22 3078) - the birthplace of Shinsaku Takasugi, the man responsible for the formation of the Kiheitai - a mixed militia unit of samurai and commoners that fought with such success against the Tokugawa forces.
Meirin Elementary School was first established in 1718 in the grounds of Hagi Castle and was a major feudal domain school, which trained many of the men who would become major figures in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The large wooden buildings are still in use today as part of Hagi City Meirin Elementary School. The school is directly opposite Hagi City Hall.
Hirobumi's early childhood home (Ito Hirobumi Old Residence) and his later, grander residence from Shinagawa, Tokyo, the Ito Hirobumi's Second Residence are now preserved in Hagi a short walk from Shoin Shrine. The Second Residence is a spacious, traditional-style Japanese home with tatami flooring. Visitors must remove their shoes before entering.
The Aiba Waterway was built along the short Aiba River to allow transport by boat in the 18th century. The water was also used in indigo-dyeing and for general use. The low stone platforms called hatoba where women did the dishes and washing can still be seen over the carp-filled stream.
Hagi's seafront area includes the pleasant Kikugawa Beach with fine sunsets out to sea behind a line of now uninhabited islands. The beach is officially open for swimming from mid-July to mid-August, at other times beware of the jellyfish.
Daishoin Temple, Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture
Ride a tour boat on Hagi Castle Canal
Hagi Castle is now in ruins except for its impressive stone walls and carp-filled moat. Visitors can pay a small admission charge to walk what is now known as Shizuki Park which is an excellent place for a picnic under the cherry trees in season. The park contains Shizuki Shrine where the lords of the Mori clan are enshrined, the ruins of the castle tower and the Hanano-e Teahouse.
Nearby are a number of pottery kilns and pottery shops including the Jozan Kiln (Tel: 0838 22 5226), which has demonstrations of pottery-making for interested visitors.
Also in this area is the Kyu Asa Morike Hagiyashiki Nagaya, the large, former residence of the Asa Mori clan, which was first built in 1856 and restored in 1968 and the Hagi Old Document Museum (Tel: 0838 25 2132). Just south of here is Hagi Catholic Martyrs' Memorial Park, a cemetery for members of the Kumaya and Amano families, Christian samurai who were killed by Terumoto Mori in a dispute over the construction of the castle.
Hagi has a number of interesting museums including the modern Hagi Museum which opened in 2004. Hagi Museum (Tel: 0838 22 6447) displays important historical documents from the Bakumatsu Period as well as exhibits on astrology, biology and local crafts.
Hagi is famous for its fine ceramics so valued in the tea ceremony. Hagi yaki is a style of pottery that developed from the 16th century under Korean influence, when Korean ceramics masters were brought back to Japan by the invading armies of Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Fine collections of the local pottery can be seen at the Ishii Chawan Museum (Tel: 0838 22 1211), the Hagi Uragami Museum (Tel: 0838 24 2400), designed by Tange Kenzo and the Kumaya Art Museum (Tel: 0838 22 7547) which is housed in the former salt merchant's house and contains Japan's oldest piano, donated by the German doctor Von Siebold. The inside of Hagi Station also now contains a museum.
Hagi Station Museum
Chief among Hagi's many temples and shrines is Shoin Shrine commemorating the inspirational teacher. The spacious grounds contain a couple of museums dedicated to his life and his old classroom. Other Shoin landmarks scattered around Hagi include the nearby residence where Shoin was imprisoned after he unsuccessfully tried to stow away on one of Commodore Perry's Black Ships in Shimoda, the Yoshida Shoin Memorial Hall on the road to Yamaguchi, and a statue of Shoin where a few paving stones and a well survive from his birthplace. His gravestone is a short walk away from here.
Near JR Hagi Station is Daishoin (Tel: 0838 22 2124) - one of the two temples containing the tombs of the Mori clan, the other is Tokoji Temple (Tel: 0838 26 1052) across town, which like Daishoin has hundreds of stone lanterns donated by samurai of the clan.
Other historic temples and shrines in Hagi include the Jodo-sect temples Chojuji and Jonenji, Kaijoji Temple, Kotokuji Temple and the Rinzai-sect Zenpukuji Temple, which dates from the 15th century.
Kikugahama Beach, Hagi with Shizuki Park & Hagi Castle in the background
Shin Yamaguchi Station is on the main shinkansen line to Fukuoka, Osaka and Tokyo. The nearest airports are Yamaguchi Ube Airport and Iwami Airport near Masuda in Shimane Prefecture. A bus takes 70 minutes to and from Iwami Airport. There are also buses to Akiyoshi-dai (55 minutes), Hagi (70 minutes) and Tsuwano from JR Yamaguchi Station.
Hagi's two tourist information centers are at Hagi Station and Higashi-Hagi Station.
There are numerous places to hire a bicycle in Hagi near both tourist information centers. A red loop bus - the Hagi Maru Bus - runs two routes, east and west every 30 minutes from 7am-6pm daily. The bus costs 100 yen. another way to get a scenic view of the town is a ride on the Hagi Sightseeing Boat.
The basic course begins at the Shizuki Bridge near Hagi Castle and proceeds to the castle canal and the Hashimoto River via Tokiwa Island; Kikugahama Beach and the samurai residences of Horiuchi and Hiyako are viewed from the sea. The whole trip takes about 40 minutes in wooden, flat-bottom boats provided with a roof.