Kakuzo Okakura and Lafcadio Hearn: Recommended Reading from Meiji Period Authors

I wanted to try something different again for this week’s post. I’ve already posted a lot of information about Izumo and a bit about what I understand of the history and traditional culture of the area. My expertise, however, only stretches so far. That said, I want to dedicate this week’s post to some recommended reading. Specifically, recommended reading from authors of Japan’s Meiji Period.

The Meiji Period is most often known as Japan’s emergence from isolation, and shift to modernization. During this period, Japan managed to shift from an isolated country governed by a feudal system, to a player on the global stage, in the span of only a few decades. Of course, this rapid shift sparked a lot of questions. Specifically, questions about how exactly the country should modernize. How could Japan preserve its cultural heritage while also going toe to toe with nations such as the United States or the British Empire? The ways in which this question was answered are really interesting to look at.

Much of the preservation of Japan’s history and cultural heritage during the Meiji Period was done by ordinary people. For example, Matsumoto castle, now considered a national treasure, was slated to be demolished in the Meiji Period. The only reason it wasn’t, was because of efforts led by Unari Kobayashi, a middle school teacher, and Ryozo Ichikawa. These two men gathered support from everyday people, and eventually raised enough money to buy the castle and the land around it, and preserve the area as a public monument.

The two Meiji Period authors I’m going to talk about today led their own efforts to preserve Japan’s cultural heritage through their writing. Maybe you’ve heard of them, maybe you haven’t, but their names are Kakuzo Okakura, and Lafcadio Hearn.


Okakura and The Book of Tea


Kakuzo Okakura was the son of a former samurai, and born just as the Meiji Period’s modernization began. He was educated both in the English language, and in Chinese classics. He spent several years studying in a Buddhist temple, later attended Tokyo University, and spent a period of time working as a consultant for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In his childhood, he was educated in chanoyu, the way of the Japanese tea ceremony.

The Book of Tea, is Okakura’s defense of the significance of the Japanese tea ceremony to both Western nations, and to Japan itself. To Western nations, Okakura claims that both they and Japan can come to better understand each other through a mutual enjoyment of tea culture. To Japan, Okakura writes that chanoyu is not simply a performing art, as Meiji Period officials wanted to classify it, but a philosophy and a way of life.

I love this book for so many different reasons. For one, Okakura does an excellent job of clearly explaining the importance of each part of the tea ceremony. He explains the design of Japanese tea rooms, human nature as seen through the tea ceremony, the philosophy of flower arranging, and the symbolism behind sharing a cup of tea, all the while remaining accessible, relatable, and funny. I’ve never had the opportunity to formally study tea ceremony before, but after reading this book, I have a much better understanding of why the tea ceremony is so special in Japan’s culture. On top of that, Okakura offering his personal thoughts on modernization at the start of this book helped me to better understand the general mindset of the Meiji Period.

Another reason to love this book is Okakura’s, for lack of a better word, sass. In the first chapter, “The Cup of Humanity,” Okakura writes something that essentially says, “Look, I’ve heard all the unflattering things you Westerners think about Japan. It doesn’t bug me, though. Japan has been making fun of you guys for way longer than you’ve been making fun of Japan. Check out some of these things we’ve written about you!” Okakura doesn’t dwell on this, though, and moves on to say that nations should stop hurling insults at each other and just enjoy a cup of tea. After all, tea is the one thing we can all enjoy, and life is crazy, so let’s enjoy the little things together.

Probably the most important reason I keep going back to The Book of Tea, is to absorb the philosophy of life that Okakura lays out. Here are a couple of quotes from the first chapter of The Book of Tea that I go back to read time and time again:

“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence…It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”

“(Teaism) is the noble secret of laughing at yourself, calmly yet thoroughly, and is thus humor itself–the smile of philosophy.”

By explaining the philosophy behind each aspect of the tea ceremony, as well as the symbolism of the tea ceremony itself, Okakura inspires readers to think about how one can apply the philosophy of tea in their own lives. Ultimately, Okakura encourages readers to find beauty in the little things they see every day; to seek out harmony; and to live simply so as not to miss out on what truly matters in life. Okakura encourages readers to do this especially when times are difficult, uncertain, or violent. For this reason, the philosophy of The Book of Tea is extremely relevant today.

To close this section on Okakura, here is one final quote from the end of chapter one:

“The heaven of modern humanity is indeed shattered in the Cyclopean struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. Knowledge is bought through a bad conscience, benevolence practised for the sake of utility. We need a Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”


Lafcadio Hearn: Outside Coming in


Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece to an Irish father and a Greek mother. He was raised in Ireland by his aunt from his father’s side, and lived in Cincinnati and New Orleans for a part of his adult life. Here, he notably wrote about Creole culture and cuisine, before traveling to Japan. He was sent to Japan as a newspaper correspondent, but quickly ended that assignment. Instead, he took up an English teaching position in Shimane Prefecture’s Matsue. In the years that followed, Hearn made his home in Japan, moving from Matsue, to Kumamoto, to Tokyo, and writing book after book all the way. He wrote extensively about Japan’s national character, everyday life, religion, spirituality, and folklore, as well as his own travels and observations. Eventually, he married Setsu Koizumi, and became the Japanese national, Yakumo Koizumi.

In Matsue, the city about an hour away from me, Lafcadio Hearn is something like a literary rock star. The express train that connects Izumo and Matsue to main bullet train lines is called the Yakumo Express, after Hearn. There’s a whole museum dedicated to Hearn in Matsue, and nearby this museum, one of Hearn’s former residences is preserved.

The reason for Hearn’s popularity appears to be the effort that he put out to truly understand the inner working of Japanese life. Kakuzo Okakura himself mentioned Hearn as a rare example of a foreigner attempting to really learn something from Japan. According to an aside from Okakura in The Book of Tea, the Meiji Period was a time when most Westerners came to Japan to take or to impart, but never to learn or to receive. Meanwhile, Japan was doing everything it could to learn from Western nations. Then, in the middle of this time period, here comes Hearn. Here comes a Westerner writing books claiming that not only should Japan maintain its cultural identity, but also that the West should make more of an effort to learn from Japan, because Japan is better off than the West in some cases.

If you’re interested in Japanese folklore and mythology, Hearn’s Kwaidan would be an excellent read. Kwaidan is a collection of Japanese ghost stories and examinations of traditional customs that have connections to spirituality in Japan. Hearn wrote at least a couple of different books covering folklore, and from what I’ve read, Hearn was able to write books such as these thanks to his wife, Setsu. According to information from the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum in Matsue, the two of them would often stay up at night with Setsu telling Hearn all the ghost stories that she had grown up with. Also according to the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, Kwaidan is considered to be Hearn’s masterpiece among his books about folklore. The catalog of the museum writes that the stories of Kwaidan “describe the affection, kindness, wisdom, and morality of ordinary people, and the connection between their actions and the spirit world.”

Other books from Hearn are excellent for learning about life in Meiji Period Japan as well. Books such as Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan are Hearn’s observations of the character and daily life of people he knew and encountered throughout his life in Japan. I read Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan some time ago. This particular book focuses on Hearn’s travels throughout Japan, and his observations of everyday life. It was really interesting to read Hearn’s observations of the Izumo area. In reading this book, I realized how much Izumo has changed since Hearn’s time. For example, in one chapter of Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Hearn talks about his desire to see Hinomisaki Shrine. Apparently, at the time Hearn wrote this anecdote, it was difficult to get to the shrine from Izumo. One would either have to make a long journey over land, or a journey by sea. Today, if I want to visit Hinomisaki shrine, I just have to drive about thirty minutes down a windy coastal road.

Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life is another work I read recently. It’s a collection of short stories by Hearn and focuses more closely on the character of people in the Meiji Period (hence the name, Kokoro, which means “heart”). This book of short stories is food for thought on human nature and society. The opening story, “At A Railway Station,” details a real incident in Kumamoto, where a man convicted of murder meets the son of the man he murdered. This incident supposedly moved an observing crowd, and a policeman, to tears. Another story from Kokoro that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about is “In The Twilight Of The Gods.” This is the story of an unnamed narrator looking through a collection of relics that a Westerner has stolen from Japan and plans to sell to the British Museum. The narrator is well versed in Japanese culture and understands the value of each of the relics, while the collector does not. In watching the narrator examine the collection and hearing the collector comment the relics, you get a glimpse of the ignorance of Westerners at the time, and the weight of what Westerners can and should learn from Japan.

At the end of the day, I believe Hearn’s intention in writing his books was to show the Western world just how little they really knew about this country that had just opened itself to the world. Japan has a history that goes back about two thousand years; how many Westerners in the Meiji Period could say they knew very much about any of that history, let alone what daily life in Japan was really like? The wonder Hearn experienced in learning from Japan is tangible in his writings. I believe that in writing his books, he hoped that Westerners would come to experience a portion of that wonder themselves, and truly learn something of what Japan had to teach the world.


The works of Kakuzo Okakura and Lafcadio Hearn are what first made me interested in reading more from Meiji Period authors. If you have any interest in Japanese culture or history, I can’t recommend these two authors enough. I’ve especially come to love reading from the Meiji Period because of what experiencing that era of time might teach us today. The Meiji Period was an era of immense, rapid change, that Japan was able to pull through. Today, we are also living in a period of change. Take two seconds to look at current events, and you find conversation after conversation about why and how something about the world as it is now should change. There is support, there is resistance, there are so many screaming matches and literal fist fights. In a time like now, it’s refreshing to look back on authors who also witnessed a tumultuous time of change, but still managed to write about people coming together in mutual respect of life itself. Whether you have an interest in Japanese culture and history, or you want to look at how a society might survive a period of change, I recommend taking a page from the books of these two Meiji authors.


Works Cited:

Dixon, Heather, and Junko Yokoyama, translators. Lafcadio Hearn: Tracing the Journey of                 an Open Mind: The Catalog of Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum. By Bon                                 Koizumi, Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, 2016.

Hearn, Lafcadio. Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life. Tuttle Publishing, 2011.

Hearn, Lafcadio. Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. Tuttle Publishing, 1971.

Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of Tea. Kodansha International Ltd., 1989


Destination: Momen Kaido

Momen Kaido is a historic street in Hirata; partway between the cities of Izumo and Matsue. In the Edo Period (1603-1868), this area was a merchant town that was famous for its cotton. Today, Momen Kaido is a street where you can get a literal taste of history.


At any time of the year, the shops of Momen Kaido are one of the main attractions. If you visit, you’ll find shops that sell the same wares as they did during the Edo Period, including sake, soy sauce, and other foods. My personal favorite is the shop specializing in ginger. Here, you’ll find local ginger tea, ginger ale, and traditional ginger candies known as shogato. This shop has been selling shogato for about three hundred years! That’s longer than America has been a country!



The soy sauce breweries of Momen Kaido are another great find. Here, you can buy house-made saishikomi soy sauce that’s unlike any soy sauce you’ve tasted before. Saishikomi is only produced in the south of Japan. It cuts back slightly on saltiness, and is a bit sweeter than more common soy sauces. One of the first soy sauce shops you encounter on Momen Kaido has been making and selling soy sauce for about 120 years, and they offer tastings of different varieties of soy sauce from around Japan. Nearby this shop, there’s also a place where you can buy soy sauce ice cream!


Another attraction unique to this area is isshiki kazari, a folk art of creating sculptures from everyday items. Isshiki kazari carries a specific set of rules that makes the resulting sculptures distinct; the items the sculptures are made of cannot be damaged or altered in any way and they cannot be drilled or glued. The items are held together only by a wrapping of thin wire. This is so that the sculptures can be dismantled, and the items used again for their original purpose. Since isshiki kazari are often created for festivals throughout the year, it’s very common for the sculptures to be dismantled. However, there are a few permanent examples of isshiki kazari around Izumo, such as the display in the picture below from Momen Kaido.


When I went to Momen Kaido, I got to go with one of my teachers. Before we left, we were lucky enough to experience a tour of the Ishibani House, the former home of a major landowner from Momen Kaido’s boom town days. It costs 200 yen to enter, and you always enter with a guide (the guides only speak Japanese, but they’re used to tourists visiting, so they can speak a little bit of different languages). According to the guide who showed us around, this house started out small, but was gradually added to from the Edo Period, up to the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Over time, this house has served as the first school in Shimane Prefecture, and as a guest house for the Lords of Matsue castle. A few of the house’s features were built specifically with Lords and Samurai in mind.


Two of the rooms of the Ishibani House were built with high ceilings so that, if needed, a samurai could fully draw his sword and use it easily. The house also features a tearoom with an outdoor hand-washing area built with samurai in mind. For the most part, tearoom hand-washing areas are built low to the ground, and you have to bend over to use them. However, the one at the Ishibani House is taller, so that you can stand upright to use it. According to my guide, if a samurai bends over, they put themselves in a position where it’s easy for someone to cut off their head. That’s why this area was built so that samurai who used it could stand upright and avoid that situation.

Speaking of the Ishibani tearoom, it’s unique from other tearooms because of how it was built. I didn’t know this until recently, but tearooms where matcha (powdered fine green tea) is served all have one distinct feature, the entrance to the tearooms is very small and square, and you have to crawl through it. The tearoom at the Ishibani House, however, is not built in a matcha style. The entrance and most of the walls are made up of tall, sliding panels that can leave the tearoom almost completely open to the outside when opened all the way. The tearoom is built like this because the tea most commonly drank in this room was sencha (a common variety of Japanese green tea), not matcha!


The final big feature of the Ishibani House is its garden. You can see this garden from the tearoom, and one of the larger main rooms. Our guide told us that he believed one of the trees in the garden to be around five hundred years old. Also, there are fifteen large and small rocks specially chosen for this garden, and every one of them has a name. All of these names are written and displayed inside the house.

I saw all of this when I went here, but I want to go back, because there’s so much more I didn’t get to explore! Momen Kaido is a little-known place, but well worth the visit. Whether you show up on a day reserved for a festival, or on any other day, walking around this street engulfs you in the eerie and awe-inspiring feeling of experiencing the vastness of the history, culture, and tradition all around you. It’s a glimpse of authentic Japan unlike any other. Access Hirata from either Matsue or Izumo by riding the Ichibata railway!


Destination: Mizuho Highlands

Mizuho Highlands has apparently been running since 1986. It’s near the boarder of Hiroshima, which makes it a really popular ski spot for people living around that prefecture, and is in Onnan Town. In other words, these slopes are in the middle of some gorgeous mountains.

I went here last weekend with some other ALTs. From Izumo, Mizuho is about a two hour drive. You take Route 9 until you get to Gotsu, then you get on the Hamada Expressway (toll road) and drive until you get off at the Mizuho exit. As long as the drive is, it’s really pretty! The first half of the trip takes you along the Sea of Japan, and the second half takes you through the mountains. Going between these two parts of the drive was something else. Not long after I started turning inland, I caught glimpses of snow on mountains that were further away. Then, at some point, I went through a tunnel. When I came out the other side, there was snow everywhere!

Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor and nature

From this point on, I had to drive a lot more slowly. The roads hadn’t been cleared yet at that point in the morning. Also, there was a stop everyone had to go through so that you could have your tires checked. Everyone driving on the toll road had to have snow tires on.

Overall, the slopes at Mizuho were fantastic! They had a good mix of easy and difficult slopes, and it was fun to explore them all. To start, you ride up the mountain in a tiny gondola that seats four people. From the gondola’s end, you can ride other lifts that take you to different parts of the mountain, or ski all the way down to the start of the gondola. There are restaurants at different points all over the mountain, so you can just stop and eat without having to venture too far from the slopes! Also, if you’re like me and don’t have your own ski equipment or clothes, you can rent ski or snowboard gear, jackets and snow pants from the rental center (they have English-speaking staff!). Fair warning, though, they don’t rent goggles or gloves, so make sure you have some of your own to use.

Image may contain: snow, sky, outdoor and nature

I definitely recommend skiing down to the start of the gondola. It’s a nice, long course that offers a bit of a challenge, and (on a clear day) a good view of the mountains. The Little Morning course was also nice. It’s an easier switchback that makes for a good warm-up run.

Image may contain: sky, tree, mountain, outdoor and nature

A couple of tips for skiing here, if you want to have a map of all the courses, see if you can get one at the information desk. As far as I could find, there’s only one map of the courses just as you come off the gondola. At one point, I ended up on the other side of the mountain, and had to guess which lifts would take me back to the side I had come from. Also, if you can, go on a clear day! When I went, the weather wasn’t very good, so I could barely see the surrounding mountains. I have to go back on a clearer day sometime, because I can tell the views would be amazing!

Image may contain: sky, mountain, cloud, outdoor and nature

If you’re in Shimane or Hiroshima and want to get a taste of the ski scene, definitely check out Mizuho Highlands!

5 Tips for Studying Japanese

We have now entered February, the coldest month in Izumo according to my JTEs. I haven’t really gone out to do much because of the weather, so I’ve been studying Japanese a lot. On that note, for everyone out there trying to learn Japanese either for JET or for other reasons, I want to dedicate this post to the study tips that I’ve found the most helpful over my six years of Japanese language study. Feel free to take or leave any of these depending on how they work for you! The best thing you can do for yourself is come up with a study method that works well with your particular learning style.


  1. Have a tangible goal


I decided this year to pass level N3 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). A while back, I went online and printed out an N3 practice test to get an idea of what I needed to study. As it turned out, I couldn’t read half the kanji on the practice test. Many other kanji were ones that I knew, but had somehow forgotten all the same.

I immediately set to work marking all the kanji I was unfamiliar with or wanted to practice, and made flashcards out of all of them. Later, I’ll go through and mark all the grammar that’s unfamiliar to me so that I can practice that.

I probably wouldn’t be half as motivated to learn all these kanji if I hadn’t decided I want to pass the JLPT. That’s why I recommend you come up with some simple, tangible goal and use that as scaffolding and motivation for your studying. The key to this is to get as specific as you possibly can with your goal. For example, wanting to listen to anime without subtitles is a good goal, but it’s also pretty broad. What kind of anime do you want to be able to listen to? The conversations you’ll hear from a Ghibli movie are way different than the ones you’ll hear from Tokyo Ghoul. Moreover, what does being able to listen to an anime without subtitles actually mean? Do you want to be able to get the gist of what characters are saying? Or do you want to understand every single sentence? The more specific you get with your goals, the easier you’ll be able to come up with ways to help yourself achieve that goal. And, of course, whatever your goal is, you’ll learn something along the way.


  1. Know your weakness, don’t forget your strength


My best skill in Japanese is listening. My worst skills are vocabulary, and reading and writing kanji. All other aspects of Japanese fall somewhere in the middle of those two things.

Once you have your goal set, figure out where your weaknesses are as soon as possible. If you know your weaknesses, then, obviously, you know where to pay the most attention. If you feel like everything is your weakness, focus on what you most want to get better at first, and then go from there. Once you begin addressing your weaknesses, though, don’t forget to keep your strengths on their toes.

During my senior year of college, I didn’t study Japanese consistently for almost that entire year. When I came to Izumo after graduation, I was hit hard with just how rusty my Japanese had become. I hesitated to call anything my strength because that’s how incompetent I felt at the time. However, I started getting better again little by little as soon as I decided I wanted to improve. Now, six months since arriving in Izumo, I wouldn’t call myself fluent in Japanese, but I can hold my own. Moreover, I know for sure exactly where I need to improve the most, and I’m doing things every day to improve one skill or another.

Long story short, stay consistent with all of your skills in Japanese. You don’t have to study everything every day, but keep coming back to work at something.


  1. Routine, routine, routine


Gavin Aung Than, the artist of the books and website, Zen Pencils, said in a recent comic that routine is what helps him get anything done in his drawing. Studying Japanese works the same way. I started seriously practicing kanji last year and had managed to memorize quite a few. However, I stopped practicing for two weeks over New Year’s and when I cam back to practice again, I basically had to relearn everything.

You’re the best person to figure out when and how is the best time for you to study Japanese, so try out a few things and see what sticks the best. Then, keep doing that until it becomes habit. Study for as long or as short of a time as you can, just make sure you practice every day. Also, don’t get hung up on finding the “perfect” time to study. More often than not, there is no completely perfect time. You have to make time somehow.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, offers a wonderful way to think about making your routine. In her creative self-help book, Big Magic, she points out how people having an affair always manage to find time to be alone with the person they’re having an affair with. They’ll get up early, they’ll come home late, they’ll make up an excuse for why they can’t go out that night. Even if all they can get is fifteen minutes making out in a stairwell, they take that. You should do the same thing with studying Japanese. Even if all you can manage is fifteen minutes in a stairwell, go and make out with your flashcards and textbooks. (Not literally, you’re asking for paper cuts that way, but you know what I mean).


  1. Use real world sources


Textbooks are great for clearly explaining the nuts and bolts of Japanese. However, several of my friends in Japan have seen my textbooks from college and they’ve all said the same thing, “No one really talks like this.”

By all means, please continue to use your textbooks, because they’re an efficient way to learn the basics of Japanese. However, to keep yourself interested in studying, and to expand your abilities, couple your textbook learning with real world learning.

Memorize the lyrics to a song in Japanese. Read a book in Japanese. Watch a movie or an anime in Japanese and don’t use English subtitles. Expose yourself as much as possible to how Japanese is used outside of a textbook, and things will start to fall into place. Eventually, you’ll recognize vocabulary words or grammar that you’ve studied. You’ll listen to that song again one day and realize you just understood several sentences in a row. You’ll notice the Japanese language’s cadence, and through your effort, that cadence will soon become so familiar to you that you’ll begin to think in Japanese.


  1. Don’t compare yourself to others, and forgive your mistakes


There’s always going to be someone who knows more Japanese that you do, and there’s always going to be someone who knows less Japanese than you do. Whatever you do, DO NOT let other people get in the way of your growth. Voltaire once said that the best is the enemy of the good, and that definitely rings true here.

I’ve been studying Japanese since high school. However, my consistency in studying has been spotty through the years because I’ve had to deal with things like graduation, irritating people, capstone projects, three jobs, family crisis, zero motivation days, no Japanese classes available, et cetera, et cetera. I’ve always come back to studying Japanese one way or another, but I often end up criticizing myself for what I still don’t know. Whenever I can’t understand something in a conversation or forget a kanji I’ve practiced a million times before, my knee jerk reaction is, “You’ve been studying for six years! How are you not fluent in this yet? If you don’t have the dedication now, you’ll never have the dedication, and you should just give up now.”

That voice in my head sticks around until I tell it, as politely as possible, “Get out of here. I’m trying to study.”

Say this and say this often. Defend your right to study another language and your right to be imperfect at it sometimes. Defend your right to study when you’re a novice, and when you feel like you’re starting to get the hang of it. When you start to get the hang of it and feel like you’re still making too many mistakes, defend your studying harder than ever before.

Think of it this way, I’m a native English speaker, so I’ve been “studying” English for about twenty-three years. It took every second of those twenty-three years to get to the skill level I’m at now, and I still make mistakes sometimes. In the case of Japanese, I’ve been studying that for about six years. How good was I at English after “studying” it for only six years? Not very good at all.

Long story short, you’ll be fine. Wherever you’re at now as compared to where you want to be, everything will turn out fine.


I hope these tips end up being helpful! Learning another language is a wonderful pursuit for its own sake, and I’m totally biased, but Japanese is a really fun language to study.

If you haven’t started studying Japanese yet, but want to know where you can start, I think classes are the best way to go if those are available to you. If you don’t have access to classes, though, I recommend the Duolingo app as an everyday study aid. The blog, Tofugu, also has some good articles about memorizing characters among other things. If you can’t find someone to officially teach you, build a self-study routine using texts and real-world resources, and stick with it. If you have the will to learn Japanese, you can find a way!