Heading east from Shimonoseki along the San’in coast, the landscape becomes much more rugged and sparsely populated. Here the savage Sea of Japan has eroded the rocks into jagged shapes, and if you take the train you’ll see some marvellously bleak shorelines. The next town of any consequence is HAGI (萩), some 70km northeast of Shimonoseki, which dates back to 1604 when warlord Mōri Terumoto built his castle at the tip of an island between the Hashimoto and Matsumoto rivers. Hagi’s castle is long ruined, but the atmospheric graveyards of the Mōri daimyō, the layouts of the samurai and merchants’ quarters – Horiuchi and Jōkamachi – and the temple district of Teramachi remain, with several significant buildings intact. These attractive plaster-walled streets are the town’s main attraction, together with its renowned pottery, Hagi-yaki, considered Japan’s next-best style of ceramics after Kyoto’s Raku-yaki – you can hardly move around Hagi without coming across a shop selling the pastel-glazed wares. The town is also famous for the role that some of its citizens played in the Meiji Restoration, such as Yoshida Shōin, who was executed by the Tokugawa Shogunate for his radical beliefs and is now enshrined at Shōin-jinja.
Sharing the relaxed, friendly atmosphere of other Yamaguchi-ken towns, Hagi is certainly worth visiting. If you rent a bike, you can easily take in the most important sights in a day and still have time to crash out on Kikugahama, a fine stretch of beach beside the castle ruins.Read More
Born into a Hagi samurai family in 1830, the charismatic Yoshida Shōin believed that the only way self-isolated, military-ruled Japan could face up to the industrialized world – knocking at the country’s door in the insistent form of Commodore Perry – was to ditch the Tokugawa government, reinstate the emperor and rapidly emulate the ways of the West. To this end, he tried to leave Japan in 1854 on one of Perry’s ships, together with a fellow samurai, but was handed over to the authorities who imprisoned him in Edo (Tokyo) before banishing him back to Hagi.
Once at home, Yoshida didn’t let up in his revolutionary campaign to “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”. From 1857 he was kept under house arrest in the Shōka Sonjuku (now within the shrine grounds of Shōin-jinja), where he taught many young disciples, including the future Meiji-era prime minister Itō Hirobumi. Eventually Yoshida became too big a thorn in the shogunate’s side and he was executed in 1860, aged 29, for plotting to assassinate an official.
Five years later, samurai and peasants joined forces in Hagi to bring down the local Tokugawa government. This, and similar revolts in western Japan, led to Yoshida’s aim being achieved in 1867 – the restoration of the emperor to power.