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June 12, 2019

Lafcadio Hearn and the Paper of Shimane

by Clara Kumagai

Garden view of Hearn's former residence, Matsue. Photo by Furukawa Makoto

In my essay for Japan-Insights about Lafcadio Hearn, I write about his stories, his life, and the places and lived and was inspired by. I had to research Hearn and read his stories and essays, but what I also had to do was actually visit some of those places: Matsue, Izumo, the Oki Islands, and others within Shimane Prefecture. I was very lucky to be able to this, to experience so much, and be able to write from a personal perspective. As a result, what proved the most difficult about writing the essay wasn’t meeting a word count but trying not to go too far over it. Fortunately for me, the Japan-Insights blog is a place where some of those extra words can go.

Photo by Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum

In Shimane, the first place I went was Matsue, known as ‘The City of Water’, and where Lafcadio Hearn once lived. It’s where the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum is today, with an extensive collection of Hearn’s letters, writings, and photographs. Beside the museum is Hearn’s former residence, where he lived with his wife, Setsu. You can walk around, gaze out on the little garden, and sit at Hearn’s very idiosyncratic writing desk. Because of his bad eyesight, he had it custom-made, legs high enough to hold the table not far below my chin—so that the paper and letter would be closer to his eyes.

Stairwell Exhibition, photo by Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum

On the second floor of the museum, there is a wall of bookshelves dedicated to the numerous editions and collections of Hearn’s writing. Some of these are chirimen-bon: ‘crepe paper books’ made with Japanese washi paper, softly wrinkled and with a texture between fabric and paper. Chirimen-bon became popular in the 1880s, not with Japanese audiences but with foreign ones. The stories were Japanese folktales for children, written in English and beautifully and vibrantly illustrated. Lafcadio Hearn wrote several of these: The Boy Who Drew Cats, The Old Woman Who Lost Her Dumpling and Chin Chin Kobakama. Chirimen-bon are sadly only collector’s items now, though I did come across a sort of book descendent on those museum shelves.

Photo by Clara Kumagai

It was a small book that contained one story: Yuki-Onna. It wasn’t chirimen-bon, but it was illustrated, written and English, and made from exquisite washi paper. I flipped through it and found that it had been published in Shimane, only a year or two before. I showed it to our Shimane guide, who said he knew the paper-maker, and would I like to visit the shop?

Of course I said yes, and the next day we drove along quiet roads beside the lush green fields around Matsue until we came to an unassuming russet-tiled building. “A museum in the middle of a rice-field,” our guide said. There were no other visitors inside, but an enthusiastic lady emerged from a back room and seemed pleased to see us. 

Photo by Abe Eishiro Memorial Museum

The Abe Eishiro Memorial Museum was set up in 1983 to honour Abe Eishiro, master craftsman of paper, and Living National Treasurer. There are two floors displaying Eishiro’s work, and art made with his paper. My personal favourite was a smart white suit—jacket and trousers—made entirely from paper.

Photo by Abe Eishiro Memorial Museum

On the first floor there was paper products for sale—sheets of paper, notebooks, and two lovely small books, each containing just one of Hearn’s folktales. I bought one, Yuki-Onna, and a notebook that I still haven’t written in because it’s just too beautiful. I definitely recommend a visit to the Abe Eishiro Memorial Museum if you're in Shimane—it’s a true treasure of craftsmanship and paper.

Photo by Clara Kumagai
Photo by Clara Kumagai

June 01, 2019

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