You probably don’t need to be a health nut to know that ginseng, a human-shaped root full of ginsenosides, is an expensive health product, lauded for its stimulant properties and powering up the immune system–among other systems. Although there is American Ginseng, it doesn’t pack quite the same punch as the Asian variety, commonly known as Korean Ginseng.

I bring this up, of course, because it doesn’t only grow in Korea. Ginseng production is big here in the San’in region, too.

Originally cultivated on Daikonshima (a large island on Lake Nakaumi) in the 17th century, it was sold through an operation lead by the samurai running the Matsue domain as part of an economic recovery plan for the region, it was at its height of popularity around the 1830’s and 1840’s, and it later became a privatized enterprize. When the samurai rain things, they imported ginseng and grew them in the volcanic soils of Daikonshima (also known for the peonies the volcanic soil is so good for). All of the ginseng produced was collectively processed and prepared for sale. This was known as Unshuu Ginseng* (unshuu ninjin, though ninjin is also confusingly the word for not-so-special carrots), known both then and now as a high quality, well-recognized variety. Shimane is still one of the top three producers of ginseng in Japan today.

Mural of Matsue history inside Matsue Castle

*Unshuu (雲州) takes the character for “clouds” from Izumo’s name (出雲) and combines it for the word for “province.” You find these –shuu names for a lot of old provinces throughout Japan. In Japanese, the readers for the characters might change depending how it is combined with other characters.

Why is ginseng production such a big deal? Setting it’s historical popularity as a health supplement aside, growing ginseng is not an easy venture. It takes six years for the ginseng plant to reach maturity enough for the roots to be harvested, and the plant sucks the soil dry of its nutrients–it can take 20 years for that soil for to be suitable for cultivation use again! If you’re a small-time farmer just trying to scrape by, growing this is not a effective use of your resources and time.

That’s where Yuushien Garden comes in for modern day Unshuu Ginseng production. I’ve mentioned this garden many times before as it is my favorite in the region and its peonies are amazing, but I’ve always glossed over the ginseng end of things. But on a not so crowded day, it’s fairly likely you’ll be served a free sample of ginseng tea before you even make it to the ticket booth.

In addition to tea, you can get this supplement in a variety of forms–in soap and beauty products, powder form, even sake! They’re available at various points throughout the walk-through garden course, most notably at the Unshuu Ginseng museum at the end of the course.

It comes in highly potent, sticky form!

Although these are in a form you can purchase and take home with you, I was very excited when I was interpreting for a delegation one time and we got to go to Yuushien for lunch–I had always been intrigued by the ginseng tempura, and I’d finally get a chance to try it! That was not all, however–in the set course of inventive and decorative items they served us that day, they used ginseng in almost everything. I apologize that I did not take pictures that day, but suffice to say that I found it worth spending some extra money on to be able to have it again someday–this coming from someone who has very frequent kaiseki (very fancy multi-course meals) at ryokan around the city. This page is in Japanese and the pictures are small, but it might give you some idea. I can tolerate the tea, but I find the taste of ginseng much more pleasant in in a form you can eat.

That said, I still have yet to try to the ginseng ice cream the garden serves. Someday!