Famous Persons

If you’re familiar with theater styles of the world, perhaps you are familiar with kabuki. If you’re familiar with kabuki, perhaps you’re already familiar with its founder, Izumo-no-Okuni (1571~??). Not only is she the mother of Japan’s first form of pop-culture drama, but she lead a fairly dramatic life herself.

A brief survey of popular culture in Japan reveals that although folk culture did exist and change throughout the ages, it was the high culture of the elites that defined the tastes of the ages. In the Warring States period when samurai had to mentally and spiritually prepare themselves for death at any moment, the ritualistic Noh plays were the height of theater. No one could really expect the common riffraff to appreciate such a refined art, though. Not that commoners’ opinions were worth much to begin with.

In that day and age, it was common for shrines and temples around the country to send priests, nuns, monks, and shrine maidens to the capital to solicit donations. With religious dance being the heart of performance culture at the time, a beautiful shrine maiden–the daughter of a local blacksmith–was chosen to leave her duties at Izumo Taisha to solicit donations in Kyoto.

It was supposed to be a brief trip, but for whatever reason, she decided to ignore the call to return home. Rebellious and pleased with the large crowds her dances drew, perhaps? Or maybe by that time she had already met her lover and emotional, creative, and financial partner, Ujisato Sanzaburo? (Please read Lafcadio Hearn’s account of her story if you want a more romantic retelling.)

Whatever the case, she shirked her shrine duties (though continued to send money, it seems) and remained in Kyoto, performing in the dry riverbeds and recruiting women–often social outcasts–to perform with her. Graceful though her religious dances were known to be, she introduced very flamboyant, exaggerated, and provocative dances to the populous, and she grew famous throughout the country. She was especially well known for her performance in male roles.

Her humorous and dramatic performances were both loved and loathed by common people and those of high status alike. Part of what makes Kabuki interesting as a form of theater is that it started as a low-class form of entertainment for the masses, and during the Edo period it was the common peoples’ tastes than had the most influence on the artistic movements of the era. This was the start of Japanese consumer culture! What’s more, it was frowned upon for the dignified warrior class to engage in these popular forms of entertainment, but they frequently became regular patrons of kabuki anyway.

She was so famous and her troupe had such an influence on the tastes of the masses that soon brothels wouldn’t hire just any pretty women–they had to be talented in outlandish singing, dancing, and acting, too! Following Izumo-no-Okuni’s retirement and disappearance from the public eye, the newly established Tokugawa government would no longer tolerate this crazed form of mass entertainment corroding public morals. Women putting themselves on such gaudy display was too scandalous! Thus, women were banned from the stage. Kabuki theater was already so well-established by that point that it didn’t disappear, it merely replaced the womens’ roles with young boys (similar to what Shakespeare was working with). That was also problematic in a moral sense, so eventually the stage was limited to grown men as actors specializing in specific characters types. Contrary–or quite similar to–Okuni’s popularity in her male roles, the onnagata (female role) performers are often among the most famous and most popular actors. (Remember good old Metora-san?)

Today, kabuki is considered a high form of art that is thought to require some amount of sophistication to appreciate (400 years ago, who would have expected that?), and quite some sum of money to view live. I still have yet to see more than video clips of it, but exposure to kabuki (and its founding story) a number of years ago was, in a sense, the first I had ever heard of the Izumo region. How much longer Izumo-no-Okuni lived after retiring is a mystery, but it seems she returned home to her old neighborhood. It may surprise people just how easy it is to pay their respects to her on a typical visit to the shrine, which I’ll explain in my next entry.

I’ve already mentioned him several entries already, as Lafcadio Hearn is a pretty famous person around here. A century ago he was pretty famous around the world for his writings about Japan–especially the San’in region, as he was first placed in Matsue as an English teacher back in the Meiji era, when Japan was beginning to Westernize. He was an Irish man born in Greece who studied and worked in Europe and the United States, but ultimately found his home in Japan. If you’re familiar with the 1964 film Kwaidan, then you’re already familiar with some of his work.

While he lived here in the chief city in the Province of the Gods and took in the sights–many of which we still see regularly or nearby today–he collected the material for Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, which was written in 1894. It was the first of his sixteen books about Japan and what made him so well-known, though he had already been a world traveler and writer over the decades beforehand.

When I found out I was coming to Matsue, I made sure to read this book. Now I’ve been here for a while, when I flip back to it, I’m surprised just how vivid and accurate so many of his descriptions still are. To quote P.D. Parkers, one of his bibliographers:

There may be no other city like Matsue or Izumo that can be made so well known to those who have never been ….Surely there must be only a few places in the world that have travel guidebooks as complete as this.

Whether he was better known as a travel writer, folkologist, or anthropologist, his work is important as some of the most detailed accounts of Japan in a changing era. He went on to marry a woman from a local samurai family, become a university professor in Tokyo, and become a naturalized Japanese citizen under the name Koizumi Yakumo–as he is typically referred to within Japan. Biographers tend to agree that his days in Matsue were some of his happiest, and his home–a former samurai residence–and garden that he loved so much are still places you can visit. The Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum is right next door.

Besides his old home and sources of inspiration (and in turn, ghost tours and products inspired by Hearn’s writings), Matsue is also home to Prof. Bon Koizumi, his great-grandson. He and his wife are not only the local authorities on any Hearn-related, but they’re also active in Matsue’s Irish culture. I performed at an Irish music performance with them last fall, and will soon go celebrate St. Patricks Day at the Irish pub and parade coming up soon. Matsue’s Irish parade is one of the biggest in Japan!

You can learn more about the Hearn-related events and societies here, or if you read Japanese, you can also find out more about The Hearn Society.

Or you could download his books for free from Project Gutenberg, or directly on Amazon for Kindle users!

Horio Yoshiharu (1542-1611) (personal name Mosuke) is the founder of Matsue. To say why, we need a brief overview of the period of history he lived in.

Prior of the long period of peace and development in the Edo era (1603-1868), Japan was composed constantly warring fiefdoms, and notable samurai lords such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Oda Nobunaga, and Tokugawa Ieyasu gradually gathering enough supporters to become major figures in shaping Japanese history. Their activity eventually led up to the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and over 200 years of nationwide stability followed.

Yoshiharu was drafted into military service at a young age, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi heard about young Mosuke wrestling with a wild boar. Why he was wrestling with the boar, we can only guess.

These guts proved very useful to Hideyoshi, as Yoshiharu went on to thwart high-profile enemies over the course of Hideyoshi’s campaigns against Oda Nobunaga, and he was awarded land to rule over near Mt. Fuji in the old Totomi Province after major victories. That was how the samurai warlord system worked–if you wanted to rule over multiple fiefdoms, you did so by rewarding the people who serve you. Well-accomplished warriors would rule directly, but still take orders from their overlords. Everyone was happy! If they were samurai, anyway–farmers were probably just happy with whoever wouldn’t terrorize them.

Hideyoshi didn’t live to see the end of the warring states period, though, and after he died Yoshiharu entered Tokugawa Ieyasu’s service, earning property in the old Echizen province facing the Sea of Japan (but still pretty far east of the San’in region). Though he was phasing some of his position over to his son Tadauji at that time, Yoshiharu’s services on and off the battle field were still necessary.

A particularly notable example was at a dinner party he attended with Mizuno Tadashige (an ally) and Kaganoi Shigemochi (a fremeny, if you will–his family had previously served the Oda clan until they surrendered to Hideyoshi and recieved land from him to rule over). Shigemochi got drunk and killed Tadashige, and Yoshiharu therefore killed Shigemochi, thus wiping out the Kaganoi clan and putting the territory fully in Ieyasu’s control. That land would have been in the way of a military manuever enacted soon after, but having Shigemochi out of the way was a big help to Ieyasu.

Though that raised Yoshiharu’s status, he was injured in the battle with Shigemochi, and therefore could not personally partake in the Battle of Sekigahara two months later. Tadauji, however, was present and won honors in his father’s stead. Once Ieyasu took effective control of the country and needed to organize it in such a way that would cement the central government’s control over all the provinces, Horio received his final property to rule over: the Izumo Province.

Here comes Lord Horio, marching through the streets of modern-day Matsue in the annual Musha Gyouretsu (Warrior Parade)!

Yoshiharu and Tadauji hurried out here to the San’in region, stayed in an old castle in present day Yasugi City, and started making plans for building a more suitably located castle. That process is a story for another entry, but you can read about the naming of Matsue right now.

Yoshiharu ruled until he died in 1611, the same year construction on Matsue Castle was completed. He was well-liked and known for having the temperment of a Buddha, and therefore nicknamed “Hotoke no Mosuke” (the Mosuke Buddha).

Having finished re-telling the story of Izanagi and Izanami, introducing some places associated with them should now make more sense. Some of places have not only been listed in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, but have also been listed in the Izumo Fudoki. The Fudoki was like Japan’s first encyclopedia, written 713-733, and today the Izumo Fudoki is the only one remaining nearly fully intact. That means most of these places are really old and have fairly reputable roots, though it is worth noting the Shinto scholars’ impact in the Edo era (1603-1868) on cementing these places’ claims to Kojiki fame.

Manai Shrine (in red) is a shrine to Izanagi, Iya Shrine (blue) and Kamosu Shrine (purple) are both Izanami shrines, Izanami’s grave on Mt. Hiba (green) and final resting place of her soul on the restricted grounds of Kannoyama (yellow) are both relatively close by, but Yomotsuhirasaka (orange) in the Higashi-Izumo part of Matsue was what I was most interested in visiting.

Simply put, I live near the entrance to the underworld.

I started my Higashi-Izumo daytrip at Iya Station, where there is a friendly little place to kill time while waiting for the train, full of tourist information and ice cream and chatting old ladies and books–lots and lots of old books! This is the NPO known as Higashi-Izumo Machi no Eki: Metora, run by a kind lady happy to make your visit to hell–I mean, Higashi-Izumo–pleasant and well-informed. She named the place after a local kabuki actor from the Meiji era, Oonishi Seitarou, whose stage name was Metora (“Lady Tiger”).

The neighborhood is old and quiet, and definitely feels like a small town (which used to be a distinct municipality from Matsue, until a merger in 2011). It was a pleasant walk with a little Jizo shrine, flowers, and fish to discover–which I found so pleasant that I almost didn’t notice Iya Shrine when I passed by!

Iya Shrine, as stated before, is an Izanami shrine.

That being said, it’s not the most decadent shrine–even is the main building in which she is enshrined is hidden behind a bunch of trees, and the parts that you can walk right up to are very sparsely decorated.

Not that I am complaining–the atmosphere was very other-worldly, as Shinto shrines are set apart to be. Notice the mirror? In Shintoism, mirrors are frequently used instead of idols. Go ahead and take a minute to ponder that. Unlike shrines in more metropolitan areas, the torii here looked and felt old–just like the stone gaurdians at the entrance with their faces worn off by time. The gohei were also noticably unkempt.

Perhaps that atmosphere is appropriate, seeing as it can be considered a shrine of the dead–which I also find highly interesting, considering death is such a taboo impurity in Shinto shrines. Speaking of impurity, let’s take a trip to the entrance to Yomi in the next entry!

Mascots are a very normal part of daily life in Japan. Each prefecture has their own mascot (and they compete for the best mascot prize every year), companies and organizations will have their own mascots, cities will have their own mascots, even certain aspects of cities will have their own mascots–as is the case with Peony-chan, who represents Matsue’s… well… peonies. Their reputation may already proceed them, though. According to the Japan Times on 11/20/12, “Sales of peonies from Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, are booming in Vladivostok after hitting the market in Russia’s Far East in 2009, virtually selling out every year because of their variety of colors and longevity.” The day Peony-chan came to visit, she was preparing for a trip to Taiwan.

Matsue peonies are especially well known on Daikonshima, where they can be seen all year round–though I’ve heard early May is the best time to see them. That’s when I’m planning on going! The other flower that represents Matsue is the tsubaki (camellia), which I’m looking forward to seeing around the castle in winter.


While this is the only mascot of this size to pay a visit to my office, I don't see Peony-chan in my daily life as often as I see, say, Appare-kun, the PR champion of Matsue Castle!

Unlike most mascots he’s human(esque) and has a more varied set of expressions than just “happy” and “super happy”, but like most mascots, he can be made into any kind of product, especially edible ones.

I haven’t run into him in person yet, but I have seen his bride Shijimi-hime, based on a Shijimi clam (a specialty product of the area. Most of the Shijimi clams consumed in Japan come from Lake Shinji). This kind of encounter is also completely normal.

There is no mascot I see as often as Shimanekko.

Get it? Shimane (prefecture) as a neko (cat)? And notice the visual reference to Izumo Taisha, with the roof architecture and the shimenawa rope? You noticed that all, right? Of course you did.

Even if you didn’t, you can’t visit Shimane without noticing Shimanekko. Besides Shimanekko on the face of products from pencils to hand towels to cookies to bouncy castles in every place from rest stops to places of legend to your neighborhood convience store, there is also a Shimanekko dance.

Shimanekko and Appare-kun are so popular that they even get drilled with questions about whether or not they are friends and star in commercials for candy companies.

Furthermore, have you heard of the Yura-Chara Grand Prix? I didn’t until very recently either, but apparently many thousands of people did, and they voted for their favorite mascot characters. Out of over 860 entries in 2012, Shimanekko took 6th place! Good job being cute, Shimanekko!

Does Gegege no Kitarou ring any bells for anyone outside of Japan? Here in the San’in region, he’s a very familiar face.

If I had to draw a comparison, then Kitarou is like the Scooby-Doo of Japan. He’s been around for decades as the star of a cartoon filled with ghoulish creatures, has had multiple incarnations over the years, and enjoys a wide audience. However, as far as I know, Scooby can’t shoot his knuckles like missiles. And Scooby probably has more left of his father than just a walking eyeball (that’s not Kitarou’s missing eyeball!). Not to mention Scooby probably doesn’t have a whole city covered in statues and memorabilia of him.

Scooby probably doesn’t have an airport named after him either.

Kitarou’s creator, Mizuki Shigeru, is from the port town of Sakaiminato in Tottori Prefecture. They will find any way to put Kitarou and other youkai (monsters) on anything.

There is more to Sakaiminato than just Kitarou, but a first glance around town would imply it’s just Kitarou. For instance, one of the first places you’ll see after leaving Sakaiminato station is Mizuki Shigeru Road, which has 133 statues of Kitarou, other youkai Mizuki-sensei has compiled research about, characters from other Mizuki series, and Mizuki himself. Almost every business on Mizuki Shigeru Road either is full of Kitarou merchandise or finds some way to incorporate Kitarou into the theme. A normal barber shop is very quickly a youkai barber shop, and a bakery sells bread shaped like Kitarou characters. And because anything goes as long as it has Kitarou, you also find places like this:

Of course no normal item would be acceptable. If it can be made to fit the theme, it will fit the theme! You see these water bottles being sold everywhere, but I only saw this warning once. Even if you can’t read Japanese, you can probably figure it out.

I haven’t actually seen that much of Gegege no Kitarou myself, but I know it well enough to have thoroughly enjoyed visiting. It would have been faster just to take a bus from Matsue, but I took the trains–and even once you get to Yonago station, you know you’re on the right track.

He’s best known for the various versions of the anime “Gegege no Kitarou” but he was the hero of several different related manga Mizuki-sensei wrote (which is not to say he was in every manga!). With a character design consistent but flexible enough to appeal to newer audiences, Kitarou is a classic (although frightening) hero–rather calm and collected, he does his best to beat the bad guys with his set of powers and comrades, and he generally gets along with everyone. Medama-Oyaji–his eyeball father–is also rather popular. Purely because his name means “Rat Man,” I have a soft for Nezumi-Otoko too.

I also learned a lot more about Mizuki-sensei himself, though I had heard the basics a few years back. His introduction, however, merits a separate entry some other time.

Of course, no introduction to Kitarou would be complete without hearing the theme song. Thankfully they’ve retained the same song (just in updated styles) throughout the various Gegege remakes over the years.

And on that note, Happy Halloween!

Besides all the kami and youkai, there have been some famous humans here too. Today I’d like to introduce the man on the banner of this blog, the seventh lord of Matsue, Matsudaira Harusato, a.k.a. Matsudaira Fumai (1751-1818).

He’s frequently referred to by his artistic name with an honorfic noting his status: “Fumai-ko”

The Matsudaira clan was not the first to rule Matsue, but they did have the longest succession of leaders during the relatively peaceful Edo period (1603-1868). Fumai is known of course as the ruling lord for 39 years, but also well known as a tea master–so much so a master, in fact, that his created the Fumai-ryu tea ceremony style. He was well known for collecting tea ceremony objects, and he designed the Meimei-an Tea house northeast of Matsue Castle.

When he took office, rumors were spreading about the Matsudaira clan soon losing power because of their terrible financial situation. He therefore enforced several strict budgetary measures and had the region focus on raising and using local products, such as ginseng and cotton. He encouraged thriftiness among the common people, and is credited with introducing Bote-Bote Cha to the local diet to make the most of limited food resources.

Rustic peasant cuisine turned local speciality: azuki beans, mushrooms, tofu, rice, and any other seasonal bits of food boiled in a frothy tea. Add flowers if desired! I like the idea, but I can’t say I’d enjoy eating this everyday… or ever again.

Fumai’s measures turned out to be very successful, and the Matsudaira treasury was built back up.

However, he was a hobbyist–and tea can be an expensive hobby. The amassed fortunes didn’t wind up lasting long because he dipped into the treasury to splurge on old tea tools. But we still get to enjoy those tools today!

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