Local Anecdotes

I’ve now been practicing the tea ceremony for three years!

Those are willow branches behind me hanging in the alcove as a New Years decoration, not wires hooking me up to the ceiling. I promise I am not a tea ceremony performing robot.

Those are willow branches behind me hanging in the alcove as a New Years decoration, not wires hooking me up to the ceiling. I promise I am not a tea ceremony performing robot.

Besides my obvious change in how I view tea tools, I’ve also picked up a lot more of the mindsets I’ve admired for a long time, which were the main reasons I wanted to try it in the first place. I’ve long since had difficulty living in the moment, letting my mind wander to times which my memory paints in nostalgic colors, or running ahead either to worries for the long term future to do my to-do list for when I am in an entirely different place from the present. Either way, it robs me of what is right in front of me, be it my lunch or a friend who I assume will always be there.

You can find a lot of meaning in the actions and elements of the tea ceremony. The ritualistic cleansing of the tools is done to show your guests that you are using clean tools, and the peaceful setting cleanses your guests’ senses–the soft sound of water boiling or the clack of the tea scoop against the tea bowl, the subdued decor and subtle harmonizing details, the scent of incense in the hearth, the texture of the tatami under your feet sliding along the floor, the refreshing and deep taste of the matcha. Each silent bow has its own message it communicates, from “I will now begin the ceremony” to “thank you for the delicious tea.” Both social rank and common humility are recognized in the tea room, but ultimately, it is an intimate time which the host and the guests share and enjoy together, never to come again in quite the same way. In both a literal and figurative sense, it is both bitter and sweet.

Indeed, it involves some “ceremony,” but the Japanese term 茶道 (sadou), can just as well be translated as “the way of tea.” It is a mindset, an approach. Perhaps the phrase you hear more often in Matsue, though, is not that it has 茶道 culture, but 茶の湯 (cha-no-yu) culture. This “hot water for tea” implies more than a noun, but something that flows.

If you want to learn about traditional Japanese culture, the tea ceremony has many of the elements you’d look for: pottery and other craftsmanship, scrolls with paintings and calligraphy, flower arranging, kimono, wagashi, and so on. Each one of those elements is its own world to dive into, and the tea ceremony ties them all together with its own depth that keeps getting deeper over the centuries.

Perhaps more important than its depth is its simplicity.

Ultimately, it’s about enjoying tea with your guests.

Right there, in the moment.

On my February 2016 visit to the Shimane Confectionery Training School, I served as the unskilled apprentice–I mean, as the hand model for a video they were taking, and I have the footage to share with you all! The subtitles, editing, and wasted wagashi are all my own unskilled doing, but hopefully this video will be helpful in appreciating the techniques the masters employ.

What does it take to be a wagashi master? That’s what I set out to find out!

I had taken part a couple times in the twice daily (except for Wednesdays) wagashi class at Karakoro Art Studio, and although they change the seasonal themes every month, they tend to teach the same two basic modeling techniques. This is nice, since anyone who enjoys working with a Play-Doh substance can quickly pick some new techniques for making completed works of tasty art as part of a busy day of tourism (I promise they smell nothing like Play-Doh and likely taste far better. Don’t eat Play-Doh, eat something nice). This is great if you’re visiting Matsue, one of the top three spots in Japan for wagashi culture and production. But what if you live here, and already consider yourself a master at eating them?

I dug a little deeper and found that through my conversation at Saiundo, one of the many famous wagashi companies in Matsue, that many students come from other prefectures–or even other countries!–to study the craft of wagashi in monthly classes held at the Shimane Confectionery Training School. The classes are offered for different skill levels, and I had the opportunity to participate in the final session of the year for a 2nd level class. We started in the morning with dorayaki, and then spent the afternoon sculpting bean pasted based sweets, both by the both and by our imaginations.

This is probably a good time to point out that I usually cook with my imagination. No, allow me to rephrase that. I “prepare food reasonable enough for consumption,” not “cook.” I especially do not “bake.” Baking is a matter of taking a handful of substances and transforming them into different substances. You know. “Alchemy.”

Seeing as I am not an alchemist, I was a little flustered when I realized I would be expected to concoct my own batch of dorayaki, which are like sandwiches made with pancakes and anko (sweet red bean paste, sometimes smooth (koshi-an), sometimes chunky (tsubu-an)). I thought I would just observe for the day, not put any ingredients to waste!

To my surprise, however, my dorayaki were a huge success. I did everything from sifting the flour (I guess people still do that), weighing the ingredients (oh, I guess that would usually help when you’re trying to perform alchemy), whisking them together (and I paid attention to when and how much of each ingredient to put in, really!), pouring the batter on the griddle (there’s a technique for flinging the batter onto a flat ladle, I learned), and flipping them such that they reach the right airy texture and retain their circular shape. I made lots and lots and lots of these things.

I was feeling pretty good about this success. Maybe, with a little care and practice, I could be an alchemist too! Surely that would be the hardest part, as I’m already creative and artistic enough for the visual components of making confectioneries, right?


Yeah, a little creativity is nice, but if you want to be a professional wagashi master–as in, someone who can actually manage to sell their work, and lots of it–you need more discipline than creativity.

You typically don’t sell individual wagashi. As the visual appeal and craftsmanship is just as important as their taste and texture, wagashi are typically something to eat in the company of someone else, so that you can appreciate the finer details together. That’s part of the goal of promoters of wagashi culture–to make people slow down and enjoy each other’s company. That part of the overall goal of the tea ceremony as well, since appreciating the visual elements of the ceremony is part of how the host and guests enjoy that moment spent together. Passing around a single wagashi for everyone to enjoy the view of, however, is not only a bit of a pain and impractical, but do you really want everyone breathing on the treat you are about to partake of, or let it get dried out in the air as you wait for everyone to look at it, or risk it falling to the tatami (or worse) as it gets passed around to everyone who wants to see it?

No! You typically see everyone at a tea ceremony eating the same sweet, and people casually hosting friends or bringing home wagashi to share with their family will typically get multiples of the same one. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and I’m sure there are people who like variety, but in general, you want everyone to have the same experience together of observing and tasting a unique piece of wagashi. I say “unique” to show they are usually seasonal designs which may only be available for a few weeks at a time, and will possibly never be sold again when the designs change in the following years. In order for everyone to enjoy that limited time wagashi, however, each wagashi sold needs to fit certain specs for the sake of consistency. The handmade effect is of course charming, of course, but as a customer you want a reasonable expectation of what you’re getting! That consistency, I learned, is very, very difficult to achieve.

A wagashi craftsman practices their techniques such that they can apply to any new and creative design, or any classic piece that people expect every year. These techniques are on professional tests, and the proof is in how well their wagashi fit the specs. In business, a few nice successes here and there won’t cut it. You need to have consistent successes. That is not only dependent on proper technique, but on the ingredients and on the environment in which you work as well. Even dry air will negatively affect them, so measures must be taken to ensure the proper humidity in the work space and in storage.

We didn’t work with each individual step that day, because the two bean-based pastes had already been prepared with just the right amount of sweetness. Although we didn’t have to worry about the taste, we needed to mix the colors ourselves and mold the sweets to go on display for the final presentation that evening.

There were issues and issues of monthly wagashi magazines set out for inspiration.

As I looked them over, the grandma-aged lady in attendance showed me the following pages and told me that each person would need to complete one of these sculptures.

Yes, those are all edible. See more wagashi statues here.

This lady tells jokes with a straight face and she took pleasure in how susceptible I am to that.

Ultimately, the final presentation would consist of one slanted-cut chrysanthemum of the teachers’ choosing done by the book–14 petals! It must be 14 petals!!–and two of each students’ choice. Many of them made designs that they liked in the magazines or that they had seen else where, while others started with a plan and made their own unique pieces, or just starting molding and seeing what they would come up with. (Like me. That’s all I could manage after working so hard on the chrysanthemum.

I’ll post a video next time about the process of making the chrysanthemum, as well as my results. As for the rest of this entry, let’s look at what those second-level students produced instead.

Mt. Fuji (volcano style) and Pikes Peak (plus Garden of the Gods)

In that time, the teacher was busy showing off a few other techniques as well. Sometimes it was instruct students who wanted to know how to making the wagashi in the magazines, sometimes it was to show off for my camera, and maybe some of it was for his own personal practice? Killing time? Killing material? I’m not sure. In any case, he was fun to watch.

As you’ll be able to tell more clearly in my upcoming entry, I’m not all that cut out for making wagashi. Maybe I won’t be a master at making them, but being a master at eating them’s not too bad.

It’s been about a year since the Art Imitating Life: Anime Pilgrimages Around Japan series (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), and I’ve had more run-ins with anime set in the San’in region since then.

Most recently, I was thrilled to hear the brief conversation about the San’in region the newest installment of the Digimon Adventure: Tri movies series, “Ketsui” (2016), because that’s how most conversations about the San’in region go in Tokyo. Most city kids can’t tell Shimane and Tottori apart and only know they’re right next to each other, and they tell them apart by remembering that Tottori is the one with sand dunes. (But as a good Our War Game reference, Taichi pointed out that Shimane was the one without computers. Really, though, we have computers here nowadays! There is internet in the inaka!)

The most prominent run-in was last October (2015), about the time when Noragami: Aragoto was airing. I had heard of Noragami and knew it had something to do with Shinto gods, a common theme in anime, manga, and video games, but I had not looked into it and I didn’t really know much about this person I found hanging out in Izumo’s En-Musubi Airport.

We welcomed an exchange group that night and took group photos with a massive group of key persons from both ends and all the host family members and a big welcome banner than stretch across the crowd, and it wasn’t until later that I noticed this crummy photobombing kami was nestled in at the side of every one of those diplomatic photos, as if casually trying to include himself.

Yes indeed, I realized just how funny that was after I watched the series a few months later.

In this entry, I’m not so much going to look at contents-based tourism as a whole like with the Pilgrimage series, but instead look at a few examples of Shinto-themed anime making use of the sites of Izumo myths. I want to start with Kamichu!, the 2005 series that first introduced me to Izumo Taisha and Kamiarizuki. When I first found out I was going to work in this region and read material about the gathering of the gods, I thought, “Hey, I know about that! In that one episode, Yurie transfered to a school in Izumo to attend Kami-Con!”

As cute and catchy as that is, and as much as I have to cut them some slack because their goal was to do cute things like make the Seven Lucky Gods into a rock band instead of making the gods get some En-musubi work done. But after a more recent watch, I have to call them out on a couple of things that made me want to flip the table and shout how wrong they were. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Who let the God of Poverty into the gods’ meeting? Binbogami and other unpopular gods are not invited!

Yeah, that’s a cat possessed by the God of Poverty.

But you know what made me more upset?

“After class, let’s all go eat some sweet red bean soup!”

The “sweet red bean soup” this note refers to is an Izumo specialty, and it would have been a really nice touch that they included this… if only they got the name right. We don’t call it “oshiruko” here, we call it ZENZAI!!! IZUMO ZENZAI!!!!! After all, the term “Zenzai” is even said to originate from Izumo dialect for “the gods are here”!

I was much more pleased with the second season of Kamisama Hajimemashita/Kamisama Kiss‘s treatment of Kamiarizuki and the surrounding Izumo culture (2015). Besides actually putting this school-girl-turned-goddess to work answering En-musubi prayers, they gave some gratuitous screentime to the scenes of Izumo Taisha which any visitor can expect to see on a visit there during a busy period like when the gods are visiting.

I liked that they even noted that Izumo Taisha’s omikuji (fortune-telling slips) are different from what you’d normally expect, because they don’t have a basic declaration of your luck-level at the top (like “Big Luck” or “Little Luck”).

They even showed off Izumo Soba and had Nanami explain how you eat it Warigo style!

They came so, so, so close to a perfect score on my rating of how they portrayed the region. But they just had to ruin it with this little error…

Ohtsukuri Onsen? We have no Ohtsukuri Onsen. We have a Tamatsukuri Onsen. That one little missing dot in the name (玉 (tama) as opposed to 王 (ou)) makes all the difference.

You can’t mistake it with that magatama theme found all over the onsen area. It’s the jewel-making onsen, not the king-making onsen.

Now back to Noragami. I was already enjoying their approach to popular Shinto gods before reaching the climax of the second season, Aragoto.

Bishamon is my favorite! Unfortunately during the two months or so that this campaign was going on, I didn’t get a chance to see Ebisu, Yukine, and Hiyori at Miho Harbor, Yasugi Station, and the Matsue Castle tourism information office. I also hadn’t even seen the series yet at that time.

I also loved to catch all the little references that I only know because of all the research I did for the Kojiki manga series and through working in the San’in region. I find their approach to Okuninushi hilarious, especially since they include everything from his dual-identity as Daikoku, branch shrine in Hawaii, affection for animals like white hares, and distaste for gods like the God of Poverty (to be honest, though, that spider bit took me by complete surprise).

In the later half of Aragoto, Yomotsu Hirasaka (the entrance to the underworld) makes an appearance. Overall, I thought their treatment of Yomi was pretty good–really, the dirty image of Yomi is consistent across many Japanese art forms, the similar themes in Noragami and Kamisama Hajimemashita’s treatment of Yomi isn’t surprising. I was very happy to see they got the site of Yomotsu Hirasaka so right, though (Kamisama Hajimemashita’s entrance to Yomi seemed a little too extreme for Yomotsu Hirasaka, so it’s possible they chose the lesser known entrance in Izumo, Inome Cave, instead. I haven’t been there, though, so I can’t say for sure!).

You know what was even more exciting, though? A few episodes later, they included more of the Higashiizumo townscape and the route to Yomotsu Hirasaka from JR Iya Station! I’ve made that trip a couple times in summer heat, so it was gratifying to see a couple of the characters do the exact same thing.

But you know what was still more exciting? Ebisu’s flashbacks to–you guessed it!–Miho Shrine!

I really loved how he described the harbor and the people who lived there, because that’s it exactly. They captured the charm of Miho Harbor so well–all they would have needed to add was some toddlers going around the shrine in foot-powered toy cars, more white squid hanging out to dry, and maybe even add the black Corvette I saw in the shrine the other day getting a blessing from the priest.

Good job, Noragami! And here’s hoping the San’in region will appear in more series yet to come! (Now hopefully the gods will avoid tearing up the Shimane landscape with their fights next time.)

We celebrated last Sunday, just in time for a few photos from XiaoMan to post today! I was busy with some interpreting work, since this event usually involves at least one representative from the Embassy of Ireland and a large turnout of the local (and surrounding) international crowd.

The day usually starts with a Water Parade, with the usual Horikawa Sightseeing Boats decked out for the occasion.

By the time that concluded, over three hundred participants in the land portion of the parade had gathered at Matsue Castle, and after a brief opening ceremony, we were off! I had some some of the crazy costumes before, but as always, there were plenty of new ones.

This cart played the Mario theme music too!

After the parade there were street performances spread out through the shopping district spanning two sides of the Kyobashi River, a food fair, and some special activities like petting penguins. I was mostly busy emceeing for a Paper-Rock-Scissors competition with Appare-kun, Matsue’s feudal lord mascot. The Shamrock, the Irish Pub in the vault of the Karakoro Art Studio, went on with live performances well into the night.

Are you ready for some beauty science?

Let’s start with a repost of a comic about Tamatsukuri Onsen, one of Japan’s original beauty onsen, a downright fountain of youth according to the Chronicles of Ancient Izumo.

I’m going to preface this by saying I’m not an expert. I just really like going to onsen and have picked up some nerdy knowledge and onsen guides here and there. I am not a chemist or a beautician. I can say, however, that I have noticed some changes in my skin quality over the course of my time in Shimane, which, for the past few years, have been ranked #1 for beautiful skin based on its humidity, hours of sunlight, life habits, and other environmental factors. I didn’t really believe this over the course of my first winter here when I had terribly dry skin due to indoor heaters, but when I started thinking skin care in terms of texture rather than acne (or lack thereof), I found that following skin care advice I’ve heard here really works well.

But beyond that, knowing nerdy things about onsen I enjoy anyway is plain fun. So let’s dive in! (No. No diving at the onsen. Don’t be Faux Pas Man.)

Onsen, which are all at least 25 degrees C at their source and contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements, can be categorized in some of the following (sometimes scary-sounding) ways:

Simple onsen (単純温泉: tanjun-onsen)
The most common type of onsen found throughout Japan, with relatively low concentrations of chemical elements (general 1g/kg and below). Good for people with sensitive skin.

Hydrogen carbonate onsen (炭酸水素泉: tansansuiso-sen)
Good cleanser and for giving you smooth skin.

Sulfate onsen (硫酸塩泉: ryuusan’en-sen)
Works like a toner and supplies moisture to skin.

Iron onsen (鉄泉: tetsu-sen)
Water with somewhat light brown color, good for people prone to anemia.

Chloride onsen (塩化泉: enka-sen)
Helps your skin to retain moisture and gives it a damp texture (in a good way).

Sulphur onsen (硫黄泉: iou-sen)
Antibacterial properties make this good for treating skin ailments. Also considered good to detox your system, and for helping your skin retain moisture.

Radioactive onsen (放射能泉: houshanou-sen)
Includes things like radium onsen and radon onsen. Good for pain relief.

Carbon dioxide onsen (二酸化炭素泉: nisankatanso-sen)
Basically, carbonated onsen. However, the gas bubbles are too tiny to see. Said to promote blood flow, these are relatively rare in Japan. (Shimane has one in the little town of Iinan, named Ramune Onsen. Gee, I wonder how it got that name.)

These chemical elements should be indication on a sign somewhere around the onsen, based on how much of them can be found per 1kg. Just because these are the primary chemical elements which any given onsen might be known for, it doesn’t mean they’re limited to those characteristics.

You also want to note the onsen’s pH balance. Onsen with pH balances from around 6 to 7.5 are the gentlest to your skin. Alkaline, particularly 8.5 and above, are supposed to be good cleansers. Higher acidic concentrations are good for their antibacterial properties (but always remember to keep hygiene in mind when visiting an onsen!).

If you’re looking for beautiful skin, you also want to keep an eye out for metasilicic acid (メタけい酸 metakeisan) content. H2SiO3 is a very simple, diluted silicic acid thought to stimulate collagen, which is what gives your skin a springy, youthful texture (in other words, it prevents wrinkles). Back to that Tamatsukuri Onsen comic up there, the joke is that when the onsen was introduced in writing about 1,300 years ago, the research team found all the locals partying in the hot springs, young and old alike. All of them had youthful, springy skin. Nowadays, onsen aficionado attribute this to the high concentration of metasilicic acid, at 110mg. In order to be considered a good beauty onsen, most would aim to have at least 50mg.

I mentioned that in Japan, people think of skin care in terms of texture (or whiteness, but that’s a totally different topic). They have a number of fun words to describe what skin should feel like, many of which don’t have a full equivalent in English. Some of the common ones are:

つるつる tsuru-tsuru: slick and smooth
すべすべ sube-sube: smooth and sleek
ぺたぺた peta-peta: skin moist enough to make a little sound when you lightly press your fingers to your skin
うるうる uru-uru: damp, moist, well-hydrated skin
さらさら sara-sara: silky and soft
もちもち mochi-mochi: a springy texture (yes, like a good rice cake)
しっとり shittori: retains its moisture really well

Or at least, if I had to try really, really, really hard to differentiate between things like uru-uru and shittori this is my sense. I’m not a professional linguist either, I just happen to be mostly fluent in Japanese. And I do like gitaigo (or gi’ongo, in peta-peta‘s case?).

And I like onsen. That too.

Hopefully this will help to make your next visit to an onsen more interesting. Throw these terms into conversation with your friends, and then make up observations about the smell and color and feel of the onsen water and pretend you’re taste-testing on a food competition show or something. Your friends will either think you sound really cool or they will be tempted to dump a bucket of cold water on your head to make you just shut up and enjoy onsen for the simple pleasure that they are.

I used to contemplate drawing an informative comic like “Buri-chan’s guide to using an onsen,” seeing as the San’in region has many, many, many wonderful onsen, and they are one of my favorite parts about living in rural Japan. However, once I started seeing this poster in a few onsen around Matsue, I gave up on that idea. How could I possibly make anything better than the amazing Faux Pas Man (named just now by me), ultra-serious in his efforts to ruin the grouchy old man’s bathing experience?

Please forgive the fuzzy photos, as I was in a hurry to snap the photos before anyone came in–as you can imagine, camera use is generally frowned up in onsen. Those “only person in the onsen” opportunities are not that rare on weekdays, but they’re hard to plan around.

Fuzziness aside, isn’t Faux Pas Man great? I’m surprised he’s not swimming, as that’s one of the ultimate temptations for Japanese people and foreign visitors alike! Whenever I go to a big onsen and I’m the only person there, I’m always reminded of Natsume Souseki’s “Botchan” and how the main character got in trouble for swimming at Dogo Onsen (which happened to be a spot in Shikoku which Okuninushi and his little friend Sukuna-bikona enjoy, and which has appeared on this blog before on last year’s Anime Pilgrimages series I wrote with Artemis of Otaku Lounge. But I digress. Back to the star of this entry, Faux Pas Man.)

Some more advice:

1. Yes, bathing suits are against the rules. You’ll very likely see naked old people, and you’ll be just as exposed as they are. The good news, however, is that no one really cares. Once you get over the “I am stark naked” thing, onsen are a very relaxing and casual experience. Plus, people do tend to use the little hand towels for some coverage when walking from one area to another, so feel free to do so–just keep it out of the bath water.

2. Onsen water is not potable, and you should not stick your face in the water–this protects both you and everyone else from the spread of germs. If you really want to enjoy some of that beautifying water on your most looked-upon feature, there will usually be a water source which you can cup your hands under and then dab it on your cheeks and forehead. Warning! This is where the water will be at its hottest!

3. Tattoos are still against the rules in most onsen throughout Japan, despite the rise in foreign tourists using onsen facilities. This isn’t because of they think the tattoos are bad for the bathwater or anything, but because tattoos have unpleasant associations with crime. Some people with small tattoos are able to avoid trouble by covering them with a bandage, but people with larger tattoos should find out ahead of time what the onsen rules are, or they should book a private bathing time. The price and ease of doing this likely varies quite a bit, and I have not done it myself. People at tourism information centers at major train stations may be able to help you investigate this and book a time.

4. Some people suggest acclimating to the water by pouring some of the bathwater on yourself with the available buckets before stepping in (not jumping in like Faux Pas Man). Some step-by-step guides also say to do it, but it is optional.

5. Some people think it is healthy to warm up either in the hot bath or in the even hotter sauna, and then sit in an icy cold bath. This shock to your blood vessels is supposed to be good for your circulation–and perhaps by extension, circulating all the other healthy elements you pick up from the natural minerals in the onsen water. I’ve also heard this is good for sore muscles after a hard workout, as it helps flush the lactic acid out of them. Repeat the hot-cold process a few times for best results. (Side note: there is usually a shower available by the sauna to rinse off your sweat–be polite and use it.)

6. Washing off is mandatory before entering the bath–be sure to use soap and to thoroughly rinse it off, and to bind your hair and/or use a hair net to keep it out of the bathwater. After leaving the bath, some people shower again to wash off any remaining germs from communal bathing, and others do not because they don’t want to wash away the water’s healthy and beautifying effects. Use your judgement. Keep in mind the time of day the bath is cleaned, often in the late morning. It is also advisable to rinse off if you have sensitive skin or if the onsen water has especially strong elements.

7. Speaking of cleanliness, very popular bath houses will often add chlorine to help keep the water clean. Much smaller countryside onsen, with fewer bathers, often do not. Some onsen enthusiasts prefer non-chlorinated water and avoid resort onsen, and the locals in popular onsen areas often use the less fancy, and therefore less populated bathing facilities. Personally, I don’t mind either approach.

8. Be tidy when you shower. Try not to spray water on people passing by, rinse off the stool you used, and line everything back up nicely for the next person who will use it. If you must leave your toiletries or hand towels anywhere while you’re in the bath, leave them where they won’t get in anyone’s way. Side note: Leave large towels in the changing area.

9. Stay hydrated! Cold water is usually available for free in the changing area, or just outside of it in the hallway. Also, make sure not to pass out in the hot bath. That would be problematic.

10. Speaking of staying hydrated, after you get dressed afterward it’s a common practice to drink some milk while your body is still feeling really warm. I have no idea how or when this custom started, and I don’t usually do it. Sometimes in hot weather I eat some vending machine ice cream instead.

11. As good as onsen water might be for your skin, make sure to apply lotion when you get out! Your pores will be really open in all that hot water and steam, but as your skin dries, it might get really, really dry as the water evaporates. Lock that moisture in! Many onsen in hotels will provide free facial moisturizers, but bathing-only facilities often will not provide that many freebies.

12. Some “onsen” are not real onsen. True onsen must meet certain thermal and mineral qualifications at their sources in order for them to be counted as such, and the scientific specs must be posted somewhere in the onsen area. Onsen-otaku could probably describe the effects of different minerals and water qualities in very subtle linguistic differences, but it may be fun to look up what makes an any particular onsen special before your visit. This will be the topic of the next entry.

Life is going to be so hard when I’m not a CIR anymore. Really, how can I complain about modeling for photos at a foot onsen? Modeling, although infrequent, is just another part of work, and when someone says, “see? That’s me here on this flier,” I can very placidly reply, “ah, and here’s the most recent one I’m on.”

Going to an onsen sounds great right about now. Thankfully I work right around Matsue Shinjiko Onsen Station, the easternmost stop on the Ichibata Railway which links the heart of Matsue to Izumo Taisha. Like many travel facilities in onsen areas around Japan, there is a free foot onsen there.

However, most train station and rest stop foot onsen cannot compare to the charms of Tamatsukuri Onsen‘s foot onsens–I’m purposely adding an ‘s’ because there are three available, two of which are located at the Tamayu River’s edge. You know what? Forget “foot onsen,” let’s just call them ashiyu. Besides generally warming your whole body up and relaxing tired feet, there are supposedly many health benefits just from sticking your feet in onsen water. Those of you who for whatever reason cannot take a full dip in an onsen (though you really should try to experience that!) can take advantage of the hot mineral water and the beautiful surroundings for free!

Besides the ashiyu themselves, non-bathers visiting Tamatsukuri Onsen can also enjoy strolling the onsen resort streets in rental yukata from Hakobune Tamatsukuri Art Box–assuming your aren’t already borrowing a yukata from your ryokan! Seeing as we were already borrowing the yukata for a different photo shoot we were there to do, former Matsue CIR Bernice set up her tripod to get some of these photos of the CIR team at one of the ashiyu. Squint though we did, these were some of my favorites!

I have two information entries about onsen coming up, one about faux pas and another about what makes the water special. Be on the lookout for them! Or step away from your Internet-enabled device and go take a hot bath, that works too.

If you’re looking for Ireland you probably aren’t looking in Japan, but if you are in Japan and looking for Ireland there, then you want to look for Matsue.

The city maintains strong ties with Ireland thanks to Lafcadio Hearn’s Celtic background, and this year’s weekend Irish Festival will be March 12-13. I’ve written about it before (see 2013, 2014, and 2015), but how about a video instead?

Here’s a little recap in English (seeing as many of the visitors for this event speak Guinness better than they speak Japanese):

The main event is the two-part St. Patrick’s Day parade and performances on Sunday, though the Irish pub in the vault of the Karakoro Art Studio runs both Saturday and Sunday.

The water portion of the parade, on the Horikawa Sightseeing Boats which frequent the city center but will be specially clad in green on that day, will take off at 11am. The street parade depart from Matsue Castle at 12:40, following its opening ceremony at 12:30. It will take about an hour for the parade to do its jig on down to Karakoro Square, where performances from local music and dance groups will start at 1:30pm. Parade participants should register by March 7, and they should get as creative as they can with their green costumes, as they were will be prizes!

During the performances there will also be a little market to get food from local restaurants, buy handcrafts, or get your picture with the small parade of penguins who will also be participating. But I know, I know, you’re really here for the pub and the Guinness on tap. In addition to other drinks and an Irish menu, there will also be live performances closer to what you’d expect to an Irish pub than what you’d expect a group of Yosakoi or hip hop dancers to put on outside.

On Saturday the 12th, the pub will be open 5pm to 10pm, and on Sunday the 13th, from 1pm to 9pm. Don’t get too hungover!

The Karakoro Art Studio will be lit up in green every night until March 17th, with some special displays and Irish goods for sale in side. Matsue likes making events like St. Patricks Day and New Orleans’ style Mardi Gras last all month, after all.

You can get all the most current and detailed information on the event’s Facebook page. See you there then!

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again many times in the future. The Japanese calendar is a mess.

Or at least, all of the adjustments made have made what seems like multiple alternate time lines all stacked on top of each other. Case in point, if you feel like you didn’t do enough New Year celebration on and around January 1st, you have a couple more chances to do that later.

One such chance is Setsubun on February 3rd. This is considered the last day of winter, and another chance to clear out all those demons–or as I prefer to translate them, ogres–in the closet, leftover evil influences that piled up from last year. Out with those oni! In with the luck! Or so everyone traditionally shouts while throwing beans around in the name of another chance at a fresh start.

Like many festivals, eating is an important element. I once again went the mamemaki (bean-throwing) event at Kumano Taisha, a major Susano-o shrine where he was said to have gifted the earthly inhabitants of Japan with fire. I wrote more about this event before, and this time I just focused on taking photos instead of trying to get in the way of the old people clamoring to catch enough bags of beans to be able to eat the same number of beans as their age in years–no more, and no less! One of the other eating traditions is Ehomaki, a long roll of sushi eaten while facing the auspicious direction determined for that year and contemplating your goal for the upcoming year. This tradition was popularized by the founder of Matsue, Horio Yoshiharu, when he at a long rice ball while wishing for success in battle during the Warring States era. (However, the long sushi roll as we know it today took more form in the Edo period).

As usually, the main event people gather for on Setsubun is mamemaki, though many people use this as a chance to stock up on some shiny new good luck charms for the upcoming year. Although Setsubun is often thought to have the last bout of bad weather before spring, it was a very sunny day.

Free sake! Though most people provide a donation.

This shimenawa looks like it’s been through a lot, but I like that weathered look. I always thought Taisha-tsukuri style heavy shimenawa were cool, but I have a deep appreciation for them since having helped construct one of about this size.

A relatively warm day, but the fire was cozy anyway. Thanks, Susano-o.

As usual, local government officials and other distinguished community representatives have the honor of throwing beans and rice cakes at people.

And they enjoy it.

Look! An oni!!

Sure looks bare after the beans run out.

Most people can be assured of going home with at least one bag of beans, and most likely some auspicious red or white mochi to go along with it. That’s usually not all they go home with! Everyone gets one shot at a drawing, and they get a corresponding prize, like a pair of chopsticks. I got three boxes of lotion-lined facial tissues. …Yay? (I gave one of the boxes to a friend, and I am told they are really, really nice tissues.)

Still not enough New Year for you? Did you already fail on your New Year Resolutions, and need another shot at starting over? Or were tissues just not enough for you?

Good thing for you, who flock to Shinto shrines for the earthly rewards they promise like getting rich and passing exams and avoiding traffic accidents, the Old-New Year often falls after Setsubun. Called “Kyuushougatsu” (旧正月: 旧 is “old” and 正月 is “New Years”), it would be more commonly known in English as the Chinese New Year. This is the date Japan used to use before switching to the Gregorian calendar, and shifting many of their seasonal holidays to periods of unseasonable weather for said seasonal holidays. Again, see a more thorough explanation of that here.

Izumo Taisha marks this additional start of the year with a ritual at 1:00am which includes chanting and miko dance, and a sermon from the priest. Hundreds of people squeeze into the Kaguraden, the hall decorated with Japan’s largest shimenawa, many hours before the event starts. It’s hard to squeeze, though, when many of the early arrivals are napping on blankets they brought and spread out over the tatami mats inside the hall. Others of us sat and chatted either with those we arrived with or perfect strangers who we happened to be sitting around. There are plenty of tourists from far away, but many of them are locals who have been showing up at this event for years. A couple of the gift shops and Izumo Soba restaurants lining the route from the parking lot to the Kaguraden stay open all night to give those who have gotten tired of playing cards or reading books a chance to stretch their legs and snack on some omiyage samples. Furthermore, weather was calm and the stars were brilliant that night.

Shortly after 2:00am, the moment the priest finishes his sermon, there is a sudden burst of activity as people bolt to take the gohei–folded strips of paper found in Shinto shrines–from the thin, long shimenawa hung around the edges of the inside of the Kaguraden. This is when the fun begins.

Although you could chose not to stay for it, most people are there for the prize drawing. Upon arrival, those who wish to participate (by that, I mean everyone) receive five raffle tickets and a sticker to show that they received it–no trying to get more tickets!

And what are the prizes?

Yes, those are enormous and expensive TVs you are looking at. There were five levels of prizes, and each came with a with pile of things to take home. Prizes included TVs, digital cameras, and sake and wine and local snacks, and expensive items on the high shelves of display cases at the surrounding gift stores, and travel vouchers, and hotel stays at local Izumo hotels, and microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, and miniature shrines with statues made of precious materials inside. To be honest, many of the prizes sounded like they’d be more trouble than they’d be worth!

That seems to be the case for my coworker who happened to have a stroke of luck this year, seeing as he won a second-tier prize. It’s a good thing only three of us went, otherwise it would have been difficult to take his big pile of prizes home.

I think I can say I’ve officially rung in the new year enough times now to settle in to 2016. Plus, now I have a story about removing a big screen TV from Izumo Taisha shrine premises at 4 in the morning.

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