Local Anecdotes


We haven’t gotten a lot of snow this winter, but there’s still been enough to go get some classic views of the scenery around Matsue Castle.




The retro-style LakeLine Bus goes around all the major tourist spots and transportation hubs in central Matsue, and a day pass is 500 yen.


The “Matsu” in “Matsue” means “pine,” and this is one of my favorite pines among the many around Matsue Castle.


Migratory birds flock here in winter. I think these are all cormorants.



The Izumo-style Japanese garden at the Matsue History Museum, as seen from Kiharu, the cafe inside with its own characteristic wagashi (Japanese confectioneries) which change motifs every month.


The Horikawa Sightseeing Boat makes its rounds, with kotatsu provided all winter.


This is the main venue for the Daichakai on the first weekend of October. Image this space covered with tents for different schools of the tea ceremony to try.


Lookin’ good as usual, you National Treasure, you.


Matsue Shrine, down the stairs from the castle tower.


Winter can be pretty, but it’s cold.




An equestrian statue of good old Matsudaira Naomasa. I say “old” but in this statue, he’s still a baby-faced 14-year-old. A 14-year-old who kicked butt in the Battle of Osaka.


Shiomi Nawate Street, along the northern moat.


Oh no, a ninja snowball attack! Take cover!


Uh oh… a ninja victim. Just one more ghost story to add to Matsue’s list, I suppose.

On the first glimpse of actual snowfall this season, it turns out it was mostly blustery snow hurling through the sunlight air. It also turns out my friend Y-chan and I already had plans to go to Yuushien Japanese Garden to see the peonies which bloom in cold weather, called Kanbotan. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that Y-chan and I go to Yuushien a lot. You might have also noticed it’s very well-known for peonies.

After all, you can see things like this all year round:



The best time to go, of course, is when the peonies are in their natural blooming season around the end of April and beginning of May. The Peony Festival is right time for Golden Week, and no matter how many holiday travels there are, it’s totally worth the crowd to go see the thousands and thousands and thousands of blossoms of hundreds of varieties blooming not only on the Yuushien premises, but all around Daikonshima Island. I’m afraid I cannot share the fragrance in the air with you, but I can show you pictures.

One of the other big peonies periods is when the Kanbotan are out in the brisk air, protected from wind and snow by charming straw huts. The last time we went was near the end of February so we missed a lot of them, but this time we went in January and got to see not only the blooms, but the blooms with a little bit of snow to set the atmosphere.





Yuushien also hosts work from Japanese and international garden artists, and from January 15 to March 31, 2016, there was/is large collaborations with Shogo Kariyazaki throughout the garden.

The indoor exhibit space felt a little like walking into a Tim Burton movie.

Speaking of peonies, please allow me to introduce my Paeonia suffruticosa Seidai, Yatsuko!

Seidai are a regular spring bloomer, but she's been peaking through early!

Seidai are a regular spring bloomer, but she’s been peeking through early!

I won her at my department’s New Years party, and I’m quite pleased. I named her Yatsuko because the Daikonshima (as well as its small neighboring island Eshima, home to the “scariest” Eshima Bridge) makes up a district of Matsue called Yatsuka. Peonies can be very long-lived plants if not transplanted too many times, and so long as everything goes smoothly to try to get her past US customs, she might do well in Colorado’s climate. After all, peonies need a very cold winter in order to bloom in spring. Matsue exports its prized peonies throughout the world, especially to places like Russian and Holland and Taiwan, and I’m very happy to have one of my own now.

I just really hope I don’t kill her. There’s a good reason I got to Yuushien to appreciate the professionals’ work.

Thicker walls may be the case in a lot of the city center, but last week I took a walk through an old neighborhood with many wooden houses, and I froze in my tracks when I heard the clear sound of someone practicing shamisen leaking out into the street. Truly one of those “ah, Japan~” moments.

Perhaps I’ve never brought this up, but… the San’in region really likes to welcome visitors with international passports and resident cards. They give you discounts. Lots of discounts.

Although many people taking advantage of the cheap yen also take advantage of the JR Pass (which does reach into and through the San’in region, hitting all the major cities and then some), some of us travelers–as in, those of us who live in Japan and are not eligible for the JR Pass–prefer to take buses. While I do like riding the Yakumo Express to Okayama and then hoping a bullet train from there to Osaka or Kyoto (standard one-way fare between Matsue and Kyoto: ¥12,020), a highway bus between either location is both cheaper (Matsue to Kyoto: ¥10,000) and more direct, and they also have night bus options.

The really obvious bus choice, however, is from Hiroshima. Not only is it faster–much faster, thanks to the new highway–and cheaper, but international visitors get half-off. If you present your residence card or passport when buying your ticket in person, you get a one-way trip through the Chuugoku Mountains for ¥1,950 instead of ¥3,900. This is still in the works, but a local hotel association is considering making the round trip free if you fill out a short survey when purchasing your ticket. Yes, free. This is still in the works, though, and if it works out, it’ll probably only be offered for a year a so.

But how about once you get into the region? Here is a non-extensive list of discounts:

Places offering 50% discount on admission:
Matsue Castle: ¥280
Samurai Residence (Buke Yashiki): ¥150
Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum: ¥150
Lafcadio Hearn’s Former Residence: ¥150
Meimei-an Tea House: ¥200
Matsue History Museum: ¥250
Horan-enya Memorial Hall: ¥100 (Though this is free if you bought admission to the history museum around the corner anyway)
Gessho-ji Temple: ¥250 (yes, that’s the one with the enormous tortoise)
Shimane Art Museum Special Exhibitions: ¥500
Adachi Museum of Art: ¥1,100
Yuushien Japanese Garden: ¥300
Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo: ¥300
Yasugi-bushi Entertainment Hall: ¥300 (That’s where you can watch the silly Dojo-Sukui dance)

30~33% off:
Horikawa Sightseeing Boat: ¥820
Matsue Vogel Park: ¥1,050
Lake Shinji Pleasure Cruise: ¥980

This is such a common-place thing to me here that I forget that’s it’s not as common elsewhere. Be informed, everyone! And I hope to see you out here soon!

NOTE: All prices are subject to change!

Every region of Japan has a wealth of omiyage. These might be items to take home as your own souvenirs, but perhaps more characteristic are the individually packaged snacks meant to be shared by a large group, such as your colleagues. Though it is not enforced, some may consider it a pain to spend money on such things so as not to be the jerk who never brings back omiyage, but I find it fun to try to find things nobody has brought back yet. Sometimes this can be difficult, as every place has cheap cookies that taste the same all around the country and just have different mascots stamped on them. But sometimes you find something everyone is actually excited to receive.

On the flip side, sometimes you get the same thing more than once, and sometimes it’s from visitors to the office who have brought local products. There are some I am always excited to see, and Furoshiki Warabi Mochi is one of them.

A furoshiki is a wrapping cloth often made of decorative material historically used for wrapping your clothes when you visit a public bath, but which is now used in many aspects of Japanese culture. In the tea ceremony we make extensive use of them wrapping boxes which contain fine tools or for bagging up our purses and other items we don’t need in the tea room while enjoying the ceremony, and I use them at home for wrapping my kimono supplies. They are a very popular gift item, both as very Japanese-like souvenirs from Japan (especially given the wealth of designs and the fine silks they are often made of), and especially as wrapping for gifts. Instead of paper which is just going to be thrown again, furoshiki can be used again and again, and there are many stylish ways to wrap everything from boxes to wine bottles to oddly shaped objects. A furoshiki is now not only a very useful and pretty piece of fabric, but the sight of it almost screams something about gifts and gift-giving culture.

Warabi Mochi is a dumpling made with bracken starch. It’s extremely soft, not as chewy as gyuhi or tough like mochi made from rice flour. It is often covered in kinako, soybean flour (more like powder) which is lightly sweet and much more appetizing than the translated name suggests.

So what gives this its San’in flavor? The pear syrup you put on top! After all, Tottori is Japan’s ultimate pear spot.

Individual servings include three tiny blocks of warabi mochi, a packet of pear syrup, and a wooden stick with which to cleanly eat the sticky and powdery confection.

Doesn’t that look appetizing, especially at 3 in the afternoon when your brain is crying for a little confectionery boost? Stab those delectable morsels and enjoy the mix of fine powder, smooth syrup, and soft, soft, soft mochi textures.

When introducing Matsue to foreign digintaries, the mayor and vice-mayors frequently mention that Lake Nakaumi and Lake Shinji, Japan’s fifth and seventh largest lakes respectively, are Ramsar Convention Wetlands of International Importance. And seeing as February 2, 2016, is World Wetlands Day, I figured they would make a good theme for today’s post.

I’ve already been busy lately writing an article about them (or more broadly, about Matsue as a City of Water) as part of my series of articles about Matsue in the Asahi Shimbun’s online English newspaper, Asia & Japan Watch, which is included in their From Around Japan feature. For as many basic infobites one could say about them–like that they are both brackish lakes, and the famous islands found on them, and the foods for which they are wellknown–I figured it would be more fun here to write about what they mean to me.

daisen

Lake Nakaumi:
–Home to Daikonshima, land of amazing peonies.
–The view I always get to enjoy on the way to Mihonoseki, or to Sakaiminato or to Yonago or sometimes to Yasugi
–The spotlight of the incredible view I get from Mt. Makuragi (yet have never managed to get my own photo of)
–A part of the wide view while climbing Mt. Daisen (which I also have yet to take a photo of)
–Home to the recently famous “scariest” Eshima Bridge
–Birthplace of Benkei, near-legendary warrior of the 12th century (who was thought to weild a naginata, yeeeeah, rock on, Benkei)
–That lake I don’t see as often because I have to cross a few mountains to get to it

Lake Shinji:
–That lake I see pretty frequently because I live and work right by it
–That lake people go jogging next to
–That lake people set off little fireworks next to
–That lake with the really, really big fireworks display
–That lake where I’ve seen every romantic scene from couples walking hand in hand to musicans strumming on their guitars and singing as if to the ducks
–That lake I eat my lunch next to
–That lake I walk by on the way to the art museum
–That lake with really, really nice lakeside landscaping
–That lake that provides shijimi clams
–And that made it into a viral video about a guy standing there in winter fishing for clams and giving viewers a pep-talk that they should never give up
–That lake you can see from the highway when riding a bus up from Hiroshima
–That lake you can see from viewpoints in Tamatsukuri Onsen
–That lake you can see even better from Matsue Shinjiko Onsen, because the lake is right there outside the windows from the onsen
–That lake you can see from Matsue Vogel Park
–That lake you can walk down and touch from Matsue English Garden
–That lake that looks like an ocean on a stormy day
–That lake where a swam calmly glided along next to me one day while I was out there eating lunch
–That lake covered with all sorts of migratory birds in winter
–That lake with fish jumping out of the water in summer
–That lake with the exciting sunset boatride on a windy day
–That lake that looks like a painting when all the shijimi clam fishing boats are out there on a sunny morning
–That lake that defies being captured well on panoramic shots taken on my phone
–That lake that has the sad “bride island”
–That lake that mysteriously fades out towards Izumo, the heart of the Land of the Gods
–That lake which is kind of famous for its sunsets

I confess, I have not actually picked up much Izumo dialect, thought to be rather hard to understand even for native speakers. I’m not so sure how far that goes. I have had difficulty understanding little old ladies in the countryside when I’ve asked for directions, but otherwise I can usually understand whatever someone is saying based on context. Locals always tease that Izumo-ben must be difficult to understand since I’m a foreign speaker of Japanese, but it doesn’t really work like that. As a non-native speaker, I have years of having to understand words in context that I’ve never formally studied, so listening to Izumo-ben doesn’t feel strange.

Using Izumo-ben, however, is a different story. I can sort of hear and parse out in my head how it works, but the only aspects I’ve picked up have thinking with verb endings like “-choru” or sometimes adding “-ken” to things for a little emphasis, but I don’t think “-ken” is limited to this brand of Inaka-ben (country dialect) anyway. When people teach me phrases I can usually imitate them, but this is usually only for their entertainment and I never commit them to memory.

The major part of Izumo-ben that anyone and everyone should pick up, though, is the phrase for “Thank-you”: Dan-dan.

You hear it everywhere, and it’s such a short, snappy, and catchy phrase that there’s no reason not to try using it. Even though I typically hear people use more standard ways of expressing thanks, the locals do smile warmly and get excited at the sound of people from other parts using that phrase. It carries a lot of local character, and it always goes over well when everyone from Japanese tourists to foreign diplomats use the phrase. You also see and hear it used throughout the area, like in the “Dan-dan kasa” program, a free umbrella-loaning service found through the city of Matsue (I’ve benefitted from this program almost as much as I have contributed to it by forgotting my umbrellas in public places all the time).

You would also hear it used for the outdoor hot-food festival held throughout the city and especially on Sundays throughout the month of February, the Matsue Dan-Dan Shoku Festa.

I’ve broke this down in an entry last year as follows:

まつえ暖談食フェスタ
まつえ is “Matsue” written in phonetic hiragana instead of in kanji, as usual (松江).
暖 is “warmth” and read here as dan.
談 is “conversation” and read here as dan. Pairing them together is like “warm conversation” and sometimes people translate the name of the festival as “heart-warming.”
だんだん, Dan-Dan, is Izumo dialect for “thank-you,” one of the most commonly heard and actively used Izumo phrases.
食 is “food/eat” and read here as shoku.
フェスタ is short for “festival.”

So you could call it anything from “Matsue Festival for Food That Brings About Warm Conversation” to “Matsue Thanks-For-The-Warm-Food Festival” but I find “Dan-Dan Shoku Festa” is most catchy.

Now that we’re heading into a cold snap here in January, I thought for sure we’d be looking forward to some Dan-Dan Shoku Festa material soon, but what is this? The Matsue Shoku Matsuri??

Apparently they changed it this year because the Dan-Dan pun was a hard sell to travel companies. But I am very disappointed with the name change! I feel no sense of local character and warm from a bland name like “Matsue Food Festival.” Give me back my Izumo-ben pun and get some local flavor back in this name!

Sigh. At least we get four Sundays of outdoor food fests instead of only three this year. There are as follows:

January 31, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
In front of JR Matsue Station (Area A)
(Includes the annual “En-musubi Shichifukujin Nabe”, the “Seven Lucky Gods Fate-binding Hot Pot” which serves 800 people yet can disappear rather quickly–to date, I’ve only made it in time for a serving once)

February 7, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Matsue Castle grounds (Area B)
(Special features include handmade wagashi from artisan Itami-sensei and Matsue Castle Rifle Troupe performances at noon and 2pm, but you can get Itami-sensei’s wagashi at the Matsue History Museum cafe Kiharu all year round and the Teppo-tai performs at the museums on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of every month anyway, so…)

February 14, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Kyomise shopping district (Area C)
(If you find it too cold to stay outside, many of the fancy restaurants around this shopping district are also doing special things that day)

February 21, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Tenjinmachi (around Shirahata Tenmangu Shrine) (Area D)
(Seeing as Tenjin is the god of scholarship and we’re coming up on entrance exam season, there’s a special “Tenjin Goukaku Okage Nabe”—which I’d roughly translate as “Pass Your Tests Thanks to Tenjin’s Hot Pot.”)

The area south of the Ohashi River

The areas south of the Ohashi River


The areas north of the Ohashi River

The areas north of the Ohashi River

Furthermore, the San’in region is Crab Country. See more details (and puns) about the crab culture in this entry, but also be aware that the “Kani-goya” (Crab Shack) event going on a 10 minute walk east of JR Matsue Station along the Ohashi River is already underway. This year it’s January 16 ~ February 29, open 11:00am through 10:00pm. This event is all about indulging in regional crab, having them cooked right in front of you and making a raucous with your buddies as you tear into them.

I like crab if someone else gets the meat out for me, but I supposed this is a craze I don’t really understand. I’ll stick with the array of fancy Sunday market foods.

And I will still stubbornly call it the Dan-Dan Shoku Festa, thank you very much. Yes, I am feeling a little salty over the loss of this pun.

Katae (written 片江 or かたえ) is a little neighborhood nestled into the northern coast of the Mihonoseki portion of the Shimane Peninsula. It’s so separated from everything else that it’s practically its own town, and when talking with the locals there, they speak of Matsue like it’s a big city that is totally unrelated to them. It seems that although they were politically integrated during the nationwide town and city mergers of 2005, there hasn’t been much of a cultural integration, or at least not much of an awareness of themselves as Matsue citizens.

The biggest claim fame this tiny neighborhood has is its early January festival, in which they engage in two New Year customs, Tontoyaki and Sumitsuke. Tontoyaki is the burning of New Years door decorations. In Katae’s tradition the families with boys and girls through about elementary school age display and burn different decorations accordingly, but the big show is for the girls’ decorations. Unfortunately, like many rural towns and neighborhoods of Japan they’ve had a declining population, so the amount of decorations had also significantly decreased from the time my friend’s family was putting out decorations for her. While there used to be four giant, streamered towers of special decorations following the early morning burning of the household decorations, the celebration is now down to two.

It’s hard to tell, but each of those bag-like things hanging from the poles was actually a very elaborate paper decoration.

The main draw takes place a little later, and that is the Sumitsuke. Literally, “ink-applying.” If that translation doesn’t make it clear, you’ll soon find out what it is if you show up to spectate. There are no mere spectators at this event.

This tradition has been going on here for over 250 years, and while it’s not the only one of its kind in Japan, some spectators came from as far away as Kobe to witness and participate. As the two omikoshi portable shrines parade up and down the main street between the houses and the ocean, they are surrounded by people walking around and offering free cups of sake and hearty helpings of fishy snacks to go along with it, and a truck drives by with free drinks in the back for people to share. These locals are on duty this year, while other years they get to stand around by the big dish of free tonjiru (very homemade-ish soup with pork broth) and watch and wait. And who are they waiting for, if not the men carrying the omikoshi or the people handing out free drinks and grilled fish sausage and dried squid?

The people are carry the event (not in quite as literal of a sense) are the people with hands covered in jet black ink. Wetting their fingers with sake, they smear the ink on people’s faces, everyone from tiny babies to the elderly to everyone in between. And everyone wants this—getting this ink on your face will ensure good health for the coming year!

I wore some old clothes I wouldn’t mind getting stained with ink, and checked it out with a friend and her 5-month-old. The festival is held on the second Sunday of January, and those there was a light rain, the weather didn’t feel very cold amidst the brimming activity. Oddly enough we seemed to pick the people with the ink for a couple passes of the omikoshi, be it that we were distracted by soup or by using the bathroom, and the people around us kept making comments about what blank palettes we were. That didn’t stop the retiree photographers with pension money to spend on multiple cameras bigger than their own heads from swarming me like paparazzi, though.

sumi

By about the third time the train started to come by, everyone was ready but me–the hobby photographer crowd and the local cable TV news were all aiming at me while I held the baby and was approached by an old lady who very politely gave me two big dabs of ink on my forehead, two on one cheek, and one on the other. The baby got a single dab, but by the end of the festival her yellow coat was smeared black in several places as she looked around and people watched (or zoned out watching the streamers. It was easy to zone out watching those while waiting for the party to come back around).

What the photographers missed, however, was a few minutes after that when we followed behind the crowd up to the beach where the highlight of the event would take place. Along the way, an old man I had never seen before walked right up to be and grumbled as if something was wrong, and next thing I new, he was pouring beer in his hands and then he rubbed his hands from my cheeks down to my chin. Ah, he really got me this time, I thought, and just as soon as I did he marched back in my direction and swiped his hands around my forehead and temples and then down my nose for good measure. Looks like I’m set up for some really, really good health this year.

As one of my friends later pointed out, I looked like a monkey with the part of my face that was left uncovered. I suppose this is my excitement for the Year of the Monkey showing. Thankfully I am not a Monkey, as you’ll notice later.

Seeing as Katae is situated right along the Sea of Japan, the ocean plays a big role in this winter festival. Where could they be going with those omikoshi?

Right out into the ocean? Why yes, of course.

A brilliant use of brisk weather.

It reminded me how at another winter Mihonoseki festival on the south side of the peninsula the men wear even less and sound even more energetic, and are so distracted that they can’t feel the cold. However, for toshi-otoko, “year-men” born in the same zodiac animal year as that present year, I imagine no amount of distraction could keep them from feeling at least a little chilly.

“Here’s to your good health! Let’s have you start the year by catching a cold!”

Those poor Monkeys.

The festival soon simmered down after that as the omikoshi were parade back up through the neighborhood to return to the shrine, the spectators dispersed, and I remained stuck for a while as photographers documented my thoroughly inked face. Thanks for the snacks and the soup and the good health and a good time, Katae.

“The town where we put ink on each other, Katae”

Reblog for good measure!
Matsue Castle achieved National Treasure status last year, but the thousands of citizens who contributed to that recognition still want to retain as much of the castle’s history as possible.

San'in Monogatari

matsue-castle-gate

Matsue City aims to reconstruct Matsue Castle’s Otemon Gate that was torn down in the early Meiji Period, and is seeking source materials on which to base it.

Requested Materials: Old photos or blueprints of Matsue Castle’s Otemon Gate (materials than can be used for reconstruction purposes)
Reward Money: 5,000,000 yen
※This is only applicable in cases where an expert reviews the materials and determines that they are useful for reconstruction purposes.
Deadline:March 31, 2016
※Application period may end sooner upon finding usable materials.

If you have applicable materials, please contact: kokuhou AT city.matsue.lg.jp.

illustrationsite

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Most light displays are just a Christmas season thing, but this feels so unfair. What about the dark months of January and February? Let’s try to keep them bright too!

Therefore although a lot of the lights have already been packed up and now it’s a matter of enjoying whatever flowers will carry us over to spring, I have saved the photos for now, as there’s no sense in not being able to enjoy them in January (sorry February, you’ll just have to stay cheerful with the Dan Dan Warm Food Festival).

First, we have my favorite garden in the area, Yuushien Japanese Garden. Although my very favorite time to go there is during the peony festival, this was first time going to the nighttime maple leaf display in November. I was only anticipating the leaves; little did I expect the expansive display of lights complete with its own little Mt. Fuji. Although they do some kind of light display every year around this time, the “Golden Island Zipangu” display ran in two version: the autumn leaf version (November 14 ~ December 5) and the Christmas version (December 19 ~ 26).



It’s hard to get a crisp photo when the leaves are shaking in the wind.















Next, we have the Matsue Vogel Park, where you can go any time of year to get your fix of fuchsia and begonias, as the main greenhouse remains a paradise all the time. If you’re like me and you like birds, then the rest of the park is a paradise too. Really, adding Santa costumes to the penguins and light displays and handbell concerts is totally unnecessary embellishment, but they do this every year. This past year it was every weekend in December leading up to Christmas, as well as December 23-25.



No matter what time of year, the Vogel Park is a popular spot for En-musubi photo ops.


Although there were plenty of other light displays going on throughout the region, the last one I went to was Tottori Hanakairo (aka Tottori Prefectural Flower Park), which is really the place to go anytime you wind to run away to fantasy world of flowers. And you know the really nice thing about this one? It’s still going! This year’s event is from November 20 all the way through January 31st. (Sorry, February.)


A small fireworks display… well, nothing compared to the summer displays around the region, but still nice.



Inside the warm central dome, pear flavored ice cream is appealing any time of year.


A Christmas tree made of…


…poinsettias…


…and orchids!



All three gardens/parks off discounts on admission for visitors with foreign passports or resident cards!
gardens

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