Hagi. A place that will always occupy a special spot in my heart. Ever since laying my eyes on some Hagi Tea Bowls and flower vases during tea ceremony class with T-Sensei, my heart was already irretrievably lost. Though there are quite a few variations now in terms of the ‘look’ of Hagi ware, the most classic ones feature creamy pinkish white hues over red clay, and are known to have take on different tones with age and use due to the more porous nature of the clay. It’s referred to as Nana-ba-ge 七変化 or the seven disguises of Ninja. It was a place I knew I had to put on my itinerary from the start and though it’s a small town, 3 days to explore still didn’t feel quite enough. There were so many wonderful moments in Hagi and I figured the best way for now to put them into words would be highlights of the moments that meant the most to me.
Getting to Hagi
Even getting to Hagi was a challenge and quite a humorous one, looking back. It took up to nearly 4 hours getting from Osaka to Hagi. First, the Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima then to Asa. Next, local train from Asa to Nagatoshi. Then another local train from Nagatoshi to Higashi-Hagi. Finally, a short ride on the local bus from Higashi-Hagi station to the bus terminal within walking distance of the guesthouse I stayed at. Probably haven’t had a trip with that many transfers in the same afternoon in a long time. But my favorite part about local trains is that there are always interesting, decidedly different scenes available from simply taking the Shinkansen. Local trains run less frequently and really do just function to serve the local population. Couldn’t help but feel a sense of affection for the train conductor as he tooted the train horn while passing through rural fields, and finding it interesting how the first thing many passengers did upon boarding the train was drawing the curtains behind them to shield against the glaring afternoon sunlight streaming in. Then there were the old grannies comfortably ensconced, one leg halfway up the seat, peering dreamily out the window, grocery bags filled to the brim with purchases…perhaps planning the night’s dinner? Plus the other thing that really gets to me is how everyone lines up waiting for the train to arrive…even 10 minutes beforehand. To someone who has always been used to running for the subway train back in SG which, even if I end up missing, comes by again in 3-5minutes, waiting on the platform for at least 10 minutes for the train is somewhat of a novelty for me. A novelty that I realised was better for me to imbibe for the rest of my life. Still working on it becoming a habit but I think after these 2 months in Japan… it certainly helped make me more punctual.
The inimitable sunsets
The first day I arrived it was close to 5pm. Not much was open so I decided to go for a stroll around the town with the tourist map in hand. I remember feeling the relaxed quiet of a small town. Walking through the old streets of the former Castle town dating back to the 1700s, it was such a surreal feeling thinking that these long walls have survived and seen so much. And here I was, basking in the immensely beautiful glow of the setting sun, as it seemed to slant through, illuminating the quiet, quiet streets…
Wandering but never lost
Often times my phone battery would just conk off and I would be stuck especially in the evenings trying to make my way back with the tourist map just like how travellers would do probably in the old days. Thankfully Hagi was a small enough town for safe exploration. I ended up wandering around the first evening and wound up at Kikugahama bay, hoping to catch a view of what probably would have been a magnificent setting sun but went there a bit too late. It was so tranquil though, that I only remember seeing one other person who had gone there with her dog, perhaps walking the dog before dinner.
Soon after, the skies quickly turned pitch dark. It was a little worrying for me at first since there was still quite a distance back to the guesthouse, but I remember stopping at a grocery store for a Bento dinner, asking the staff for directions, and walking the long but safe main road back. After that, it was so great tucking into my Bento in the dorm room since the other guests hadn’t arrived yet, hastily shoving food into my mouth behind the bunk bed curtains I had drawn, trying to watch a little bit of J-drama while keeping an ear out for new guests who might be arrival. All these moments of solo travel, I look back with a rueful smile.
Definitely the best decision I made was to stay at guesthouse ruco. I’d first seen it in an NHK World program on Hagi, and immediately knew I wanted to stay there if I ever had the chance to visit. It’s a place that was birthed from a desire of the owner to increase interactions between Hagi locals and visitors, as well as provide a place for people in Hagi to commune in easily. Not only is it the cosiest, most well-designed and comfortably furnished guesthouse I’ve been in, it was truly a place which made me feel that anything was possible. On the ground floor was space to relax in, eat, mingle with others (and eavesdrop on conversations going on given the rather confined space ;)), and Reina-san the main staff who was always behind the counter taking our queries and assisting us was so just so approachable and sweet. I noticed that some people went there because they were friends of the owner hoping to meet up with him… Others had heard about ruco and wanted to meet the owner as well to get his input about their own entrepreneurial ideas. People came from all over and perhaps just like me, seemed to be in search of a better way of life for themselves. My fellow dorm room mate K, was toying with the idea of moving from her current work city to another part of Japan where she could be closer to nature. Meeting her truly was fate, for in a 6 person bunk bed room, she and I were the only guests the first 2 night. We ended up eating at the local Izakaya on the second night together. Some people you meet and get along with immediately. The fact that it doesn’t happen so often nowadays really made it a special encounter for me.
Above: The simple but scrumptious breakfast set that Reina-san prepared. ^^ Nothing like that plus a delicious cup of black coffee to start the day off superbly. (All the ceramic ware was Hagi ware of course…)
This was the season of Natsumikan! or literally Summer-Orange though the botanical name is Chinese citron/Citrus Natsudaidai. There were Natsumikan trees everywhere and it’s also often used as the local motif of Hagi – Natsumikan and Camelia flowers.
Pretty much the most delicious Omu-rice I’ve had…ever
Sometimes you go into a cafe or restaurant and you know instantly it’s the right place for you to be in. The atmosphere is to your liking, the owner/staff are friendly and not intrusive, the mood is casual and carefree…and the food is absolutely amazing. If you’re ever in Hagi, you have to stop by this place – 珈琲 蔵, where they make their own breads and the chef/waiter is an elderly gentleman who fries the meanest and most delicious omu-rice set ever.
Moments of solace amidst the heat
There were many quaint boutiques and cafes down the main street leading to the former castle town. This was Kotokoto , a place which offered me temporary respite from the heat outside with a most delicious seasonal light treat – Natsumikan jelly. The pop of purple placed delicately on top for garnish also lifted my spirits so much.
Falling for Hagi ware over and over…and over again
It was hard for me to not drool over all the pieces I saw. But I definitely tried to control myself in very Konmari fashion but really asking myself if the piece I was holding sparked joy or not. Here, I found my very first Hagi Chawan. It was funny because this small sale was held in a parking lot by a temple. I wandered in and didn’t see the owner resting in her car, until I heard a loud ‘今日は暑いですねー！！’ (Isn’t it hot today!!!) ringing out from the parked car nearby. I’m pretty sure I jumped in shock/fright but she was extremely bubbly and friendly. And of course she was also a good saleslady in patiently allowing me to look at Chawan after Chawan till I finally picked out the one I wanted to buy. She did mention something which I took as a piece of wisdom. It’s always the first one that strikes your fancy that you will always end up going back to, she said. Something that seems to ring true…
A cup of Omotenashi
Ever on the lookout for Matcha cafes, I was so happy to have stumbled upon this very unassuming teahouse, 惺々庵. I think there was probably a sign that said Matcha available but because the owner serves it in her tearoom that is behind an entryway in a garden, I was a little intimidated at first going in. As luck would have it, she was actually a Tea Ceremony teacher and practitioner (of the Omotesenke school) and for each guest that arrived, she would provide a sweet plus maccha in her tearoom. It felt so surreal, stepping into a Japanese tea room, trying my best to remember some basic tea room manners, all the while feeling the warmth and sincerity from her…and through her bowl of tea.
I asked her what the scroll meant and while I can’t remember how to pronounce all the words in the scroll, the main character of Ishi 石 or stone, was a symbol of stability and equanimity. Holding one’s ground, calm as a stone, through life’s vicissitudes.
Origami folded by the Sensei herself. ^^
In the end, it was a piquant reminder of how simple the Tea Ceremony can be. At its essence, it really is just that. Someone sharing a bowl of tea with another person. And putting heart and soul into that once in a lifetime encounter.
(That cat was incredibly smart. It knew better than to roam the streets on a hot spring day like that.)
Chawan heaven. The layout of the Chawans in this store was incredible. I had gone there because Reina had recommended the store, saying that the owner was always very friendly and would be happy to explain about his teabowls if I asked questions. Unfortunately he was occupied with another guest in a side room at the time and it felt rude to interrupt. Another day then. And perhaps all for the better, because I didn’t manage to find out any of the prices of the Chawans. 😉
Possibly…the best coffee in a long long while
Yet another hidden gem of Hagi was this cafe. A really legitimate cafe which took their coffee very seriously. Stepping in felt like going into the equivalent of an apothecary, but this time purveyor all the wondrous coffee beans of the world. It was obviously a place popular for the local residents. I ended up staying there savoring my coffee and cake while writing postcards and in the hour or so that I was there, many locals came and went, each time chatting heartily with the owner and ordering their ‘usual’ coffee or buy coffee beans to take home. What a haven for any neighborhood to have.
A most delectable home-made tart (made fresh every morning according to the owner), featuring once again, the seasonal Natsumikan. The coffee I chose was done so well, I ended up buying a couple of drip coffee sets for use in Seto. It was the first time that I learnt about the different levels of roasting for coffee beans. Light vs medium vs dark roast. Turns out my favorite is the Dark roasted sort, with the least acidity and the strongest ‘black coffee’ type flavor. Those Dark roasted drip coffee packets I had in Seto the week after were my favorite cups of drip coffee ever. If only I had known… perhaps I would have stuffed an entire suitcase full of drip coffee from them.
If you’re in Hagi, this cafe 長屋門珈琲カフェ・ティカル is just a MUST VISIT.
(Plus, the one other thing that really impressed me the most was when they found out I was from Singapore, the first thing they asked was what sort of coffee culture does Singapore have? 😉 I take my hats off to them for being true coffee connoisseur.)
Enjoyed tea with some fresh Wagashi from the Wagashi shop a few doors down from ruco guesthouse. ^^ ruco just had the best location ever.
Another experience that I hold very dear to my heart was visiting what is probably the oldest pottery kiln in Hagi. Saka Kōraizaemon（坂 高麗左衛門) is the name of the kiln that had served the Mōri Clan and basically started out when Korean potters had been brought over to Japan to establish pottery villages to meet the demand for tea ceremony wares by the feudal lords. I had first seen examples of their works on the NHK World program about Hagi and when I had gone to a ceramics store along the main shopping street, an owner of one of the stores had also recommended I go to visit them since they were arguably one of the most important pottery families in Hagi. To pay them a visit required a reservation by phone which Reina-san kindly helped me do and despite it’s relative distance away from the town centre (I ended up having to take a cab there because it was pretty much impossible to walk without taking too many hours up hill), it was entirely worth the extra effort.
It felt rather surreal, stepping out of the taxi and walking down this long walkway to the front of the residence. (It was only upon exiting the premises at the end that I realized there was indeed a doorbell surreptitiously placed at the front near of the walkway. Surreptitious only to me, perhaps.) It was a traditional Japanese house with a veranda and a large garden with workers tending to it. Luckily I explained to the workers that I was visiting and they helped me to inform the owners of my arrival. The lady who came out to greet me was young with the sweetest, kindest face and demeanour. Turns out she was the wife of the current owner of the studio. The owner, Yuta-san, would be the 14th Generation Head, as and when he decides he is ready to assume the title of Head of the studio. There was such an incredible wealth of information that they provided me, I only feel bad that I couldn’t express myself fully in Japanese to them. They started off by explaining their family’s history and lineage, and Yuta-san talked about how his mother (11th Generation Head) and grandfather (12th Generation Head) had both passed on at an unexpectedly young age, though each had strived to create their own markedly distinct style during their career. He then brought me to a showroom to view an incredible display of Chawan each made by the Generation Head from the very 1st Generation all the way to his Mother. It was fascinating seeing the variation in styles – in terms of glazes, shapes, footrings even… When I asked whether those Chawan were chosen because they were somehow representative of the style of the Heads at that time, Yuta-san mentioned that those bowls were kept for a reason, not necessarily that they were representative of their style. They could have been kept perhaps because the Head who made it felt there was a defect and it couldn’t be sold, or perhaps they really liked it and kept it. Whatever the reason, it was enough to see the variations in style through the ages. At one point, after the end of the Tokugawa era and the beginning of the Meiji period, the family kiln had lost the protection and patronage of the Mōri Clan, and were left to fend for themselves. It was then that they started to put the artist’s ‘seal’ on the bottom of the Chawan, when prior to that they didn’t need to. Each Generation Head had faced the challenge of coming up with a style that was distinctively their own. His grandfather (12th Generation) for example, developed a style of overglaze painting, which was then deemed as very un-Hagi-like and had faced some criticism. However, he persisted and it’s a beautiful style that has now been accepted as one type of Hagi ware.
The words he used that really struck a chord in my heart were:
守 破 離
(Shu Ha Ri)
which literally means, to protect, to break and then to separate.
Those are words commonly used in martial arts and other traditional Japanese art forms to describe the path of a student learning from his/her Master. With any craft, first comes the learning of the Form. You start of by obeying and repeating the forms that have been taught to you. When you become good enough, you start to break away from the established form as you develop your own style. Eventually, you separate entirely from the Form that you have learnt, and what has emerged is a style, an innovation entirely of your own. It was such an honour to have heard that and learnt about the process of creating from someone like him. And, the amazing thing is that both he and his wife are also learners of the Tea Ceremony. 😉 He mentioned that since he often had to make Tea Ceremony equipment, it didn’t make sense unless he actually learnt about the Tea Ceremony himself. His wife served a delicious Yokan sweet along with a warm bowl of matcha. Though it was just a visit from a random foreigner like myself, they really took the time to talk to me, show me around and even served a bowl of tea. Couldn’t be more grateful for hospitality and kindness such as that.
Upon leaving their residence, I walked down this long path again, noticing the strangely Autumnal colours of the leaves and wondering what it would be like if it were Autumn in Hagi. And dreaming already of visiting again.
So many incredible experiences this time in Hagi. It felt to me like a place of possibility. Where people go to when in search of a better life for themselves. Where opportunities to create and make something of one’s lives are present for those who dare to try.
Before I forget this other great story, my dorm room mate K was headed for Onomichi and left a day before I did. It so happened that that morning there was no breakfast set available at ruco because they had run out of bread or something to that effect. Reina-san mentioned though that just down the street was a lady selling freshly made Onigiri rice balls and miso soup from a food truck. So off we headed to the food truck for breakfast. Boy, was it unique and delicious! It was 2 different flavors of Onigiri plus miso soup for a breakfast set. What a treat it was, sitting on the stools by the food truck, watching cars go by and other visitors stroll by looking rather bemused/curious at the sight of us eating our rice balls by the side of the road. Turns out that the chef was also headed to Onomichi that day and she would be driving her food truck there for an event. Amazingly enough, K managed to hitch a ride from her and off they went to Onomichi that afternoon. ^_^ For me it felt like such a great heartwarming travel story. And it was funny because as we were walking to the food truck from ruco, we’d already noticed on her flyer that she was due to be in Onomichi that day. We were joking that perhaps K would be able to hitch a ride… and sure enough, it came true.
How can you not fall in love with a place that creates stories like this? Till we meet again, my dear Hagi. ❤