Someone sure looks happy to be in paradise.

One of the things that makes me sad about my current lifestyle is that there are not that many opportunities to interact with animals. I can’t have any pets at my apartment, and most of my friends don’t have pets, and although I love seeing the wide array of wild birds that call Matsue their home for all or part of the year, it’s not quite the same as getting to interact with them. Bird feeders are not particularly common here, and when it comes down to it, many people–though certainly all–people raised in Japan are not comfortable interacting with animals, especially birds.

When I studied abroad in the Kansai region many years ago, I was a little starved of animal contact then, too. On a trip to an amusement part with my host mother and 5-year-old host brother I dragged them along to the petting zoo, and they didn’t seem to have much of an idea how to pet the furry critters. They both refused to go through the hallway of birds with me, seeing as she was afraid of them and that fear had spread to him. As I walked through, a parrot squawked at me, and that made the two of them scream on the other side of the wall. Even just now, as I was going through some of these photos of me taking advantage of every chance to interact with the birds at the Matsue Vogel Park, one of my supervisors noticed and asked, “Buri-chan, you weren’t afraid? Not at all??”

Nope! Not at all. And I’m really glad there is a place like the Vogel Park to give people a chance to give birds–and animals in general–a chance.

When I first came to Matsue it was the first outing I took while getting to know the city, and since then when I’ve had people come to visit and just want to hang out with them somewhere, I take them here. It had been a while since the last time I was there, and I had been pining for some animal interaction all winter, so once my schedule opened up, I took a Wednesday off from work to go spend the day there.

I distinctly wanted to go on a weekday as early as I could, because it can get very crowded on weekends and the ibises get sleepy in the afternoon. I love feeding the ibises, and they certainly enjoy being fed, so it worked out well. Not well enough to get a photo of them crowded at my feet and honking (or beeping, more like it?) at me, but I did stand around and drawing them later.

It felt so good to take the day to work on art, too! Birds are so much fun to draw, and the kachou (“flowers and birds”) themed Japanese paintings at the Adachi Museum of Art always make me want to go home and draw birds. Ahhh, but flowers. That’s something people come here for too. There begonias, fuchsia, and other flowers make the center greenhouse a paradise all year round.


On a Wednesday in February, it just happens to be a paradise with no people… which might or might not be a good thing?

It was still a little chilly in the greenhouses, but warm enough to fit in a lot of live sketches throughout the day. Usually, you can take a leisurely walk through the park in about an hour, but I took lots and lots of extra time, and made it to all the daily shows and events this time instead of just one or two. Instead of walking you through each part of the park, it’s probably faster just to see the new and improved English website. I skipped the observation tower overlooking Lake Shinji because it was an overcast day, but I fully enjoyed listening to the birds in the forest while walking between greenhouse and observing the birds.





















It was especially fun to take my time while drawing the Banana the Toucan because his cage while right across from the cockatoo whose name I can’t quite remember. She’s usually not very interested in talking to me when I’m there on more crowded days, but today she was really bored, and constantly called out to me with “Hello!” and “Arigatou,” especially while I was facing Banana. When I would face her and interact with her instead, young Banana would start complaining until I’d go back over to him, and he’d quiet down and start hopping around the structures in his enclosure like the show-off he is.

The penguins, although they are one of the most popular attractions, are not quite as interesting to me. Besides their daily march in differing costumes, Sakura-chan has also captured the hearts of millions with this viral video in which she chases her beloved keeper.

For as nervous as many people around birds, the keepers obviously loved them, and birds are generally pretty affectionate with them, too. Seeing as it was a slow day between the waves of kindergartners on school excursions, the keepers were also pretty happy to chat with me about the birds as well, telling me everything from their names to how old they were to their personalities and which ones were raised at the park from the time they hatched. They were also very happy to indulge me in my question get some animal interaction–for 100~200 yen at select times, you can hold and pet many of the birds (and enormous rabbits, but I stuck with birds today). So I did. Let me interact with all the birds!

Owls are really, really, really soft.


This old call duck was enthusiastic and didn’t want to stay still.


This falcon was disappointed that it was a rainy day so she didn’t get to do her usual outdoor flying show at that hour.


The turacos are some of my favorites.


One of these toucans was named “Puri.” We’re a pair.

That was a good bird fix for a while, I suppose I could always go to Mt. Daisen to hang out with cows if I need a wider variety of mammals in my life. In the meantime, there is still a wide variety of birds to look at and listen to on my usual routes around this City of Water (and waterfowl).

…have I never written about shijimi clams?

………how could it be that in over 3.5 years of writing this blog, I have never written about shijimi clams!?

shijimiiii

It might be because they are such a ubiquitous part of life in the San’in region–especially the Lake Shinji area–that I take them as given as good rice. Sure, I’ve mentioned them here and there a lot, but I’ve already given Nita rice its own introduction, so it’s about time I do the same for shijimi clams.

…hmm. Where to start?

Best to start where they do: Lake Shinji.

shijimi2

The early morning sight of shijimi clam fishers on Lake Shinji is a familiar and iconic sight from around the central part of Matsue. The lake is home to Japan’s biggest source of yamato shijimi, and there are so many of them acting as a natural filtration system for the brackish water that they can clean the entire lake in three days’ time. Or was it three hours? I forgot, as it was part of a quiz that a proud shijimi fisher gave me one time when he very enthusiastically shared a lot of clammy trivia with us. To illustrate how fast they work, he said, they have a tank of them near the boarding point for the Hakucho boat tour of Lake Shinji, and before departing they pour a bunch of cloudy, dirty water in, and by the time the passengers get back, they get to see that the water has already turned clear thanks to the hardworking clams.

The hardworking, tasty clams.

shijimi3

Miso soup is a standard part of the Japanese diet, pairing well with almost any kind of Japanese food, and there are limitless in the ways you could prepare it. Here in the Lake Shinji area, that means shijimi soup. There’s no question about it, really. If you go to a fancy restaurant in Matsue or Izumo or Unnan or Yasugi, you’re getting shijimi soup near the end of your multi-course meal of local delicacies. If you go to a more home-style place with a lunch set or dinner set, you’re getting shijimi soup as part of it. If you’re staying over at a friend’s place and they bother cooking Japanese style, you’re getting shijimi soup with dinner and breakfast the next morning. More likely than not, these will all be filled with lots and lots and lots and lots of these little creatures.

Are there other ways to eat shijimi clams, besides in soup? Sure, but I think the only other ways I’ve eaten them were when they were cooked into rice (delicious), and when I prepared them with pasta after I won a huge bag of them and didn’t feel like making soup with them. And yes, it can take some time to get each of them out of the shells with either a pair of chopsticks and some talent or with your tongue and teeth. After so much practice now, though, I don’t usually consider it a struggle. After all, I’ve probably eaten hundreds of these things by now.

Whenever anyone introduces this local specialty product to you, they usually mention–perhaps more than once–how good they are for your liver. Hence, they give people a good excuse to break out the sake with their meals.

They’re hiding in there… and there are lots of them.

If you have a passion for these tiny mollusks you can find out more at Shijimikan, the Shijimi clam center nestled among the ryokan of Matsue Shinjiko Onsen, lining the northeast bank of the lake. I don’t know what you’d find there, though. I haven’t been. Maybe shijimi-flavored ice cream? Actually, now that I think of it, I think I have heard of that.

Even though I don’t exactly have a passion for them, I still find the sight of their tiny black shells familiar and endearing. They wash up along the statue-laden shores surround Shimane Art Museum and lonely island Yomegashima, and I’ve even found some in the parking lot of my apartment, possibly dropped there by the large birds of prey surrounding the city life. It’s considered good luck to leave the shells in front of the second hare statue around the museum (no, I have no idea why), and there are a number of accessories made with them as local souvenirs. They have a bit of an En-musubi meaning to them too, because like a perfectly matched couple, the two halves of each shell will only match with each other.


Whether it’s slipper table tennis, tug-of-war out on the ocean, or bingo at a big work party, I find I don’t usually share the excitement everyone else has for the big prizes being shelled out.

See, that’s a pun. We get stuff like big boxes or Matsue Iwagaki oysters, shijimi clams from Lake Shinji, or sazae (turban shells) as prizes as well.



Sometimes you get expensive local fruit for prizes, too. I’m usually a little happier about that than I am about sea creatures I have no idea what to do with.

Appare-kun, for reference:

I still have yet to experience wearing one of these things, but having carried one through a backstage area full of expensive equipment to knock over was perhaps experience enough. I run into Shimanekko a lot, but my most recent encounter with Appare-kun, our modern local lord of Matsue Castle who likes to practice tea ceremony and who is married to Shijimi-hime, was when I was emceeing for his paper-rock-scissors competition with a bunch of kids (and then some) at the Irish Festival.

違う: 【ちがう】(CHIGA-u)
to differ (from); to not be in the usual condition; to not match the correct (answer, etc.); to be different from promised
Example: 違う文化について学びたい。// Chigau bunka ni tsuite manabitai. // I want to learn about different cultures.
Example: この漢字は違うよ。// Kono kanji wa chigau yo. // This kanji is wrong.

異なる: 【ことなる】(KOTO-naru)
to differ; to vary; to disagree
Example: 異なる文化について学びたい。// Kotonaru bunka ni tsuite manabitai. // I want to learn about different cultures.
Example: この名前のつづりが異なる。// Kono namae no tsudzuri ga kotonaru. // The ways to spell this name differ.

(Kanji definitions from KanjiDic2.)

I do not claim to be a kanji expert. I can usually read a newspaper without difficulty, but if you asked me to read aloud I might struggle on a few words here and there. I, like many modern Japanese people, have also forgotten how to write a lot of kanji which I used to be tested on in school because I usually type them instead of write them. It’s sort of like how proper spelling in English is said to be a dying art form.

kumako

As you’re all probably aware by now, Kumamoto and the surrounding prefectures suffered a series of large earthquakes over the weekend. There have been fatalities, wide spread power and water outages, and collapsed homes.

Technically the shaking from the larger quakes reached all the way out here to San’in region, but I never felt anything. I did, however, take a trip to Kyuushuu a couple weeks ago and had a great time going around Kumamoto and the surrounding areas, and I was very impressed with the Kumamoto Castle series of stone walls, which are now severely damaged. I had a lot of nice little interactions with the people in the city–the people selling snacks, the people I took pictures for under the cherry blossoms and then who wanted to take photos with me, the people who enthusiastically welcomed to me to Japan (and I didn’t have the heart to tell an especially enthusiastic man that I live in Japan), the people who cheerfully gave me directions, the lady who chatted with me on the bus and told me about the local dialect, and even the security guard who greeted me the three times I passed by him. It makes me really sad to know what those people are all going through now.

Drawing Shimanekko giving Kumamoto’s famous mascot Kumamon a hug isn’t going to do much, but it seemed like a good idea when it came to me late Saturday night. Sometimes you have to do something to keep from feeling helpless to help anyone.

Speaking of taking vacation, after getting back from Kyuushuu I’ve been really busy at work, and I don’t have many entries scheduled in advanced right now… ^^; I’m going to take a break from new entries for two or three weeks, and I’ll try to round up some new content after I’m not so drowned in work. I just have to hold out for Golden Week, and then at least there will be peonies at Yuushien again!

I’ve written about Izumo Soba before, but how about a reprise? After all, living in Matsue means eating a lot of Izumo Soba and shijimi clam soup.

When most people think about this tea-loving feudal lord Matsudaira “Fumai” Harusato, they probably do not picture his late night escapades in disguise as a commoner to go indulge in a love that his straight-laced advisers disdained: rumor has it that Lord Fumai loved to eat Izumo Soba, a commoner food unbefitting of his rank.

Light grey soba noodles, made of heart-healthy buckwheat flour, are found throughout Japan and in Japanese restaurants around the world served cold and dipped in sauce or served hot in a light broth. While they were never a favorite food of mine, I did enjoy the chances I had to eat them while outside of the country, and relied on them as a filling and cheap meal while studying abroad. Here in the Matsue area, Izumo Soba is made with flour that uses the outer hill of the buckwheat instead of only the inside portion, so the noodles are darker, have more aroma, and are packed with more nutrients. I have become so accustomed to this super-soba that my expectations of soba noodles have increased, and the regular soba options I enjoyed before now no longer measure up. Why would I eat regular factory-made grey noodles when I could instead enjoy hand-mixed, hand-rolled, hand-cut fresh noodles, with visibly speckled tones to show off the extra flavor they contain?

Hand Cut Izumo Soba

True to its commoner origins, Izumo Soba is not strictly restaurant fare. Soba-making parties, especially around the years’ end, are a common experience for many local social groups. Making soba provides a taste of the good-old-days of rural, unhurried Japan. Unhurried make describe the abundant nature of Matsue’s mountainous areas where I’ve done this, but it does not describe the atmosphere in the kitchen as people root me on while I try to rolling a thin slab of dough wider than my arm span with a rolling pin that would be lethal if anyone actually had the strength to pick it up and brandish it around, and as they coach me through cutting the folded dough with the nerve-wracking speed of practiced hands, and as they tease me for my poor handling of the knife half the size of my head and my varied fat and thin noodle slices.

Considering the craftsmanship than goes into producing them, it is unsurprising that so many people make a career out of preparing them, and that the tastes and textures of the noodles tend vary by restaurant, each perhaps more famous or beloved than the last. Just as I have grown such a taste for the deeply-flavored handmade noodles that I cannot happily go back to eating factory-cut ones, the locals all have different suggestions for which restaurant is best.

I can taste some of the differences, but I do not have a favorite. Usually all I suggest is that visitors to the region be sure to try Izumo Soba—preferably Warigo style—at any of the Izumo Soba restaurants they come across, and that they make sure to save room for Lord Fumai’s beloved matcha tea and original Matsue wagashi later.

By the time I post this, this morning will have been a few weeks ago. It’s probably thoroughly spring, and the cherry blossoms have already passed by now, haven’t they? But from here, we can only see their buds starting to plump.

This was the first day this year when I left my coat at home and went to work with only a sweater and scarf. The sunlight is warm, and there is no wind. There have already been signs of spring in the early bloomers and the weather at night has been making me shed layers of blankets one at a time, but this morning on a brief car ride to the Kyomise shopping district, something seemed distinctly different.

Had I never noticed that willow tree to the northwest of the Matsue Ohashi Bridge? I usually had only anticipated the cherry tree at the opposite end.

Did the water in the Ohashi River always reflect patterns against the side of Naniwa Issui, that fancy restaurant I’ve always wondered about but have never tried?

Had my hair salon with the yellow bricks always done Japanese style hair arrangements as well? If the hakama is anything to go by, this girl has her graduation ceremony today.

Those men chatting outside of Matsue City Hotel, the retro-style one with the clock tower I like. Are they visitors? Or going about their local business like everyone else while approaching 9am on this Thursday morning?

That young women with the peaceful smile on her face as she observes all the buildings in the shopping district, with what looks like her mother and brother two steps behind her. Surely they must be visitors, right? Or are they locals who simply appreciate what a fine place they live in?

The Matsue Ohashi Bridge, with its smooth granite, really does look its best in morning sunlight on a clear day. Is it clear enough to see Mt. Daisen out east? Or does it really look its best as a silhouette against the Lake Shinji sunset? On a morning like this, I’m prone to say the former.

From the windows of a little Showa-style tiny meeting space, waiting for work to start, my coworker and I are observing the aged buildings across the street. They fade into a foregone past, with the times traced in dirt around their windows and features. ‘Some time ago, we were stylish’ they say in quiet pride, as their inside contents are likely a more vivid shrine of pastimes unchanged as the decades have gone on. ‘We were the hot spots then, and we’re still the hot spots now–for those who know, for those as etched by time as we are.’

My coworker and I are not of that time. We look out and ask each other, “Have you heard of Kawakyo? Seems it was in some guidebook somewhere, and foreign tourists ask for directions to it.” “Is it any good? I have no idea. Seems like it would be hard to set foot in just for curiosity. Like you’d need to be taken along by someone who knows.” Its shutters are closed, its sign is dusty. The unassuming entrance makes its contents all the more mysterious.

And the building next to it? “What is that, even? Is the building just a wall?” I have seen oddly-shaped buildings built to fit into triangle corners before, but this three-story home is a fake–at least from our angle, we see the top is only the width of my forearm! Why? Whose home is this? Why does it take up such a wide, taxable area of street space, but with seemingly nothing behind it, but the shadow of a well-known ryokan?

“Ohashikan? Hmm, I’ve of course heard a lot about it, but I’ve only been inside once for work.”
“Yeah, I’ve never been inside, but they have English menus so I made a reservation for my friends there when they were visiting. It happened to be their anniversary, after all. And they like sushi, so I figured they should have some good Sea of Japan sashimi.”
“Should have gone along with them.”
“Yeah, but I was at work. They seemed to like it, though.”
“Especially with the view of the river, it must be nice.”
“Oh! But I have been to the Matsue Club building next to it. We’ve done a couple tea ceremonies in there. The view of the river really is nice.”
“Really! There’s space for tea ceremonies there?”
“You wouldn’t think so, would you? I sure wouldn’t have from the outside.”
“I knew they had a lot of different stuff in that building, but I didn’t think there would be space for that.”
“There’s a Japanese garden on the roof, too.”
“Really? I’d never have guessed!”
“Maybe that’s what’s on the roof, behind that wall, too.”
“It might be…”

Little did we ever notice that little world hidden beyond our view. Never had we thought to look.

Yet everyone thought to comment this morning, “It finally feels like spring.”

Cherry blossom season is evanescent, and enjoy them though I did, I took no new photos this year. Thankfully they look about the same every year, the only thing that changes is the way you perceive them.

San'in Monogatari

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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.