Over the course of my four years in Matsue, I put a lot of special effort into art, be it developing my hobbies or learning the ways of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Long-time readers of my blog will probably recall my adventures in competitive kimono dressing with regional contests in Kochi and Hiroshima and a shot at a world championship in Tokyo. However, since 2014, I limited my kimono practice to only occasional refreshers for getting myself dressed for tea ceremonies. Sure, I love the chance to dress up in traditional Japanese attire, be it for strolling around Izumo Taisha during my New Year shrine visit or taking part in Matsue’s early Edo inspired Warrior Parade. However, I chose to dedicate more time to tea ceremony practice.

I still keep in touch with Kimono-sensei, of course. It just so happened that when I called her for advice on behalf of a friend who was getting started with her first kimono that she asked if I happened to be open on May 29th, during the annual kimono show she and her kimono buddies put on at the Matsue English Garden. As luck would have it, I did happened to be open that day, and thankfully there was no prep necessary for showing up on stage as a hanamusubi (folding obi in the shapes of flowers) model.

Knowing this might be one of my last times to wear kimono for a while, Kimono-sensei specifically chose to have me model the tsubaki (camellia), because it is one of the representative flowers of Matsue. It just so happens that I’ve always had a very soft spot for tsubaki, so this made us all happy. After all, Kimono-sensei wanted me to have this as one more memory of Matsue.

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Fast forward to June 26th, when I woke up at 4am to get ready for an Asagayu tea ceremony. Because it’s hot in summer, it’s an early morning tea ceremony served with a light breakfast instead of a full fancy meal. Having, yes, even something as humble as rice porridge can be made very, very fancy when you leave the menu to the discretion of an inn that’s been in operation since the Edo period, where even Lord Fumai himself was known to frequent. After breakfast, we had the very formal okoicha (thickly prepared tea) ceremony in a very small, intimate room, and then the more relaxed o’usu ceremony outside in the garden by the banks of where Lake Shinji meets the Ohashi River. The weather was beautifully sunny to the point of being uncomfortably warm, but the tools all had a cool sense to them—the mizusashi for fresh water was made of very clear glass, the dish for the sweets was silvery and reminiscent of the upcoming Tanabata festival, and there was an enormous green leaf across the table to give everything a refreshing hue.

But yes, I mentioned 4am. Because this was a morning tea ceremony, I had to wake up very early to do my hair and make up, and dress in my kimono with room for making mistakes. It was the first time I had used that hydrangea obi since my first tea ceremony in June 2013, when Tea-sensei gave me that obi. I had practiced with Kimono-sensei how to tie a regular taiko obi, but at that time I ended up asking for help after all. Then in June 2016, I had not practiced a taiko obi in forever, and with my busy schedule lately, I barely had tied to do one frustrating practice late the night before. The first shot I took at doing my obi in the morning was a failure, but on the second attempt I tried something else with it which would have made no sense to me before, but somehow trying new things to get the correct form didn’t feel odd. But hey, it worked, and I had about ten minutes of leeway before the taxi came!

Don't mind the snapshot of a laminated photo I received...

Don’t mind the snapshot of a laminated photo I received…

It was also my first time performing the okoicha ceremony. I did really well–almost flawless, with poise and calmness. I’d like to say it was the fruits of over three years of near-weekly tea ceremony practice, but it was mainly due to being so sleepy that I was seriously nodding off in the mizuya (preparation room). I simply was not alert enough to be nervous, so my hands moved automatically. Everyone said the tea was the perfect, too. I know my knowledge and practice of the tea ceremony is still shallow, but hey, I can say that I can practically perform a tea ceremony in my sleep.

This was also my official farewell party from my tea ceremony school. It was very nice to have a formal setting in which many people were gathered so I could express my thanks to them all at once, but I’ll still attend a couple practices before I leave to learn a couple things I should know as an official dues-paid member of the worldwide Omotosenke school of tea. I’ll be able to say a more personal farewell to my regular classmates then. A couple of my other classmates who had taught me a lot arranged for me to go make pottery with a lapsed student of our school who is a professional potter. As of writing this I still have yet to see how they turned out, but it was fun. He helped us make proper tea cups/bowls, and then with the remaining clay he left us to our imaginations. Well……… I’m interested to see how my, erm, very imaginative “flower vases(?)” turn out.

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As part of that mid-June day, with off and on rain out in the mountainous area around Sada Shrine, the ladies who brought me along prepared a casual tea ceremony in the display room neighboring the workshop. They borrowed some pieces from the potter, and picked from persimmon leaves to place the summer sweets on, and we casually partook of a couple cups of tea while listening to the alternating sounds of bugs and rainfall and talking about the creativity and craftsmanship of his works and works that he admired other places.

It was one of those “Ah, this is Japan” moments. Or at least, “this is my life in Shimane, when I actually slow down and enjoy it” moments.

My job as a CIR has of course been very demanding at times, with a very wide variety of exciting and challenging work to do. On the flip side, when I haven’t been as busy, I’ve found many opportunities to use my art as part of my work. I made it a point to do this in my first year. I had always loved drawing and had dreamed for years of writing manga professionally, but for some reason it always felt like I had to keep my passion for anime and manga a secret if I ever wanted to be taken seriously. After some self-published manga I made right before I started the JET Program, I knew I wanted to embrace it and let myself put a little more effort into it, which is part of why I started on the Kojiki manga.

Although I saw it as a chance to improve over the course of the years it would take me to write the narrative I had in mind, it turns out I got more and more lazy with it over the course of the project, haha! But I was busy with other projects on the side. Besides the experimental and hastily drawn Tengu manga that won 2nd place in an international contest in 2014, I also fulfilled a long held dream by submitting a short story to a monthly shoujo manga magazine contest last summer. It did not win anything (as expected), but I got professional criticism on it, and was overall very satisfied with the experience. However, I feel it is safe to say that I have worked that dream out of my system—the process of using professional tools and making print-quality manga without assistants and while having a full time job was exhausting. There were many late nights spent on it, and many hours hunched over my work, and the emotional stress of knowing how undeveloped my art skills are due to lack of any practice on the basics. The professional criticism I asked for very aptly suggested I focus on the fundamentals of drawing, and I know myself well enough to know that I’m only interested in doing this as a hobby.

However, it is through actually doing it that I’ve figured this out, which is why I feel very satisfied instead of feeling like I’ve given up. Besides, it already felt I had my “debut” in my 1st year when this article came out in the local Sunday paper about my Kojiki project.

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Furthermore, I’ve branched out a lot, and tried out a lot of different styles and subject matters while I’ve made use of here at the office. I’ve become the go-to person for copyright-free illustrations on fliers and newsletters, so much so that when I walked into work one day and was told, “Buri-chan, we need you to draw Matsue Castle real fast,” it was only mildly startling.

A snapshot from my 1st year

A snapshot from my 1st year


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I'm really proud of this logo design too. I thought it was only going to be a CIR-made newsletter, but it turns out it's been used in foreign tourism material as well.

I’m really proud of this logo design too. I thought it was only going to be a CIR-made newsletter, but it turns out it’s been used in foreign tourism material as well.

I’m sure I’ll always continue drawing as a hobby, and I’ll likely have opportunities to use my kimono and tea ceremony practice in the future. It may not be quite as regularly as I use them now, but I have attained both deep and wide knowledge to take back with me.

However, the fact that I am leaving Japan soon really hit home when I was putting away my kimono materials after the tea ceremony the other day. I could pack this all up right now, I thought. That was probably the last time I’ll wear one for a while.

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The hike to Nageiredo is the main feature of a visit to Sanbutsuji Temple, nestled into the mountains of central Tottori. However, there is an array of statues and other little quirky things to keep an eye out for. One of my favorite things about visiting old rural temples throughout Japan is keeping an eye out for all these details.

Some are more or less obvious in subject matter, others are more interesting once you know what they mean. Some are hard not to notice, while others blend in the world around them either for subtlety or because they are such a common sight that you would hardly think to notice.




Jizo, a patron of children (in this case, likely deceased children), surrounded by the Seven Lucky Gods


For the people whose shoes were not appropriate for the hike, they had thick socks and waraji (straw sandals) available.


“Misfortune is something you recognize right away, but happiness is something you do not recognize until its gone.”



I love how much character Jizo statues can have.


The prayer beads make a loud clack when they fall as you pull the loop downwards. This wards off bad luck.


“Rather than the things you do for yourself, the things you do for others wind up being for your own sake.”


Pillars baring names of donors


Hey there, Daikokuten!


That was the main temple area rather than the hiking area, though. Beyond the red gates to hiking route, I only noticed one statue.


I liked his face.

My favorite interesting find was this tree, which was situated at a tight turn on the trail back down the mountain. I was puzzled about the shape until I ran my hand along it as I took the turn, and I noticed it perfectly followed the grooves in the tree trunk. Like the footsteps worn into the stone by thousands of pilgrims, I suspect that this tree has also been shaped by thousands and thousands of hands using it for support.

Just goes to show that dedicated effort, however slight each action might seem, clearly can change the world.

A few months back I had the opportunity to meet with the Yamaguchi couple. Mrs. Yamaguchi is the president of Saiundo, one of the major local wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) producers in Matsue, which, along with Kyoto and Kanazawa, is one of the top cities known for wagashi. Saiundo operates in other parts of the San’in region as well, and they have also been involved in wagashi promotion abroad in places like New York City and Paris (see their English product descriptions here).

A motif that’s already come and passed, served with frothy matcha

The main Saiundo shop, a short walk west of Matsue JR Station.

Serving a wagashi market abroad comes with considerable challenges, especially when it comes to namagashi, fresh handcrafted sweets with constantly changing seasonal motifs (at Saiundo, they change every 10 days or so based on designs the artisans propose). Not only does it require educating new markets about the aesthetics of a dessert they may not be accustomed to the tastes of, but it requires having partners they can trust to retain the integrity of the company’s products, and even technical requirements such as special refrigeration. The weather can even provide challenges, as the ingredients used in wagashi are suited to the particular climate of Japan, and the humidity might not even be high enough to retain the right texture!

Within Japan, Matsue not only has the right seasonal weather for wagashi, but by my observation, they also seem to have the right cultural climate given the historical emphasis on tea culture (thanks, Lord Fumai). I asked about this, and asked business owners with a longer history in Matsue than I do, they expressed some challenges they face. A more Western-style sweet tooth has sweet most of Japan, so they have started providing Western style sweets in addition to their wagashi line-up so as to fit a wider range of occasions. Mr. Yamaguchi also mentioned the generation gap and that many high school students today say they hate azuki (sweet red beans), and key ingredient in the world of Japanese sweets. “That’s only because they haven’t had good azuki!” he insisted, obviously quite passionate about this topic.

I have to relate–after having a bad experience with azuki ice cream when I tried it when I was 12, I went almost a decade without being able to look at something the color of azuki without being disgusted. Having grown up in the US with only seeing beans used in hearty dishes like chili and never in sweets, it was also a bit of a mental thing to overcome. Thankfully, I now regularly eat–and enjoy!–wagashi with good quality azuki that retain their bean appearance, but I still am wary of processed azuki in mass-produced sweets.

Another challenge we talked about was the differences in taste. One of my favorite Saiundo products is “Manten,” a kanten (agar-agar, or vegetable gelatin) sweet with a starry sky motif only sold around summer. Because it stays fresh a little longer than hand-molded seasonal sweets, I brought one home to my family. They all thought it looked pretty and were excited to try it, but not a single person ate much. Something about the flavor didn’t sit will with them. Maybe it was not so much the light flavor, but the shocking lack of flavor from something that looked like it should be like Jell-o?

I often hear Japanese people say that Westerners probably don’t take a liking to Japanese sweets because they are used to much sweeter things like cake and cookies, but I’ve noticed that the opposite tends to be true. The first time I had fresh wagashi eight years ago it was too sweet for me to enjoy, despite my love of almost everything sweet. It felt like I was suffering to swallow something like sugar polished and packed into something even heavier and sweeter than any regular spoonful of raw sugar could be, and it made the matcha–which I already disliked due to my distaste of bitter things–taste even more sharply bitter than it otherwise would have been. Haha, my 18-year-old self, little did you know that you would go on to love both wagashi and matcha and consume them almost every week, but the experience still provides some insight I think most wagashi eaters or sellers have not always noticed.

It came up in the comments of my blog at some point and I wish I could remember and credit who said it (I have it narrowed down to a few of you in my mind!), but one of my readers made a very good point: western sweets dilute the sweetness with fats, but wagashi, naturally lower in fats, sugars, and artificial colors and flavors, have little to dilute the sweetness, thereby making wagashi very, very sweet to those who are not accustomed to them.

Perhaps if I had more familiarity with wagashi the first time I had one, I would have been more prepared for the sweetness, and I would have had more of an appreciation for it as edible craftsmanship. Craftsmanship with wagashi is something Saiundo and other wagashi shops in Matsue continue to encourage, and I happened to visit during an exhibition of edible sculptures. For instance, they occasional do weddings, and they had some examples of their personalized arrangements there.

And yes, those ones in front are what they look like–Shimane Prefecture’s official mascot, Shimanekko!

It’s very common to see wagashi sculptures that have plant motifs, like the following.



Camellia (tsubaki) are one of the representative flowers of Matsue, and this whole display is titled “Matsue.” The other key featured is the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat, which is seen at all daylight hours cruising around the Edo period moats than remain a key part of the city layout.

Speaking of celebrating local culture, two of the most impressive sculptures were of Izumo Taisha as it supposedly stood in the Kamakura Period, and a Yamata-no-Orochi mask as used in Iwami Kagura theater style. (However impressive, I’m not sure the sugar head spews real fire like the Iwami Kagura heads do.)

My favorite of all of the displays was this one that seemed to have a certain charm that reminded me of home. It probably felt western to me given the emphasis on fallen leaves, and given that wild squirrels are not really a thing in Japan.

Over the course of our conversation, a few small children came up to the second floor to view the displays, asking questions the whole time, like if these things were all wagashi and therefore all edible. Mr. Yamaguchi proudly answered each of their repeated questions, like “What color are wagashi usually?”

The comment they kept repeating to themselves was “wagashi sugoi… wagashi sugoi…

Wagashi are cool… wagashi are amazing…

The gods are here
It’s Kamiarizuki
Better light the way!

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Here in Matsue
We call this Suitoro
Lantern Festival

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Around the Castle
On a breezy night time stroll
Handmade lanterns gleam

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Each one unique
Celebrating the city
In various styles

The lantern I made for Suitoro 2013, featuring Matsue Castle, the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat, and my own spin on “Enishizuku.”

Not only on foot
You can view them by boat too
City of Water~

Click for source and more photos (Japanese)

This is a famous art museum that many visitors to Japan have heard of. After all, it has the top ranked Japanese garden 12 years running! Its prestine landscape makes a strong impact in any season and weather, and the building is designed such that you can view and appreciate it from different angles as if it were a painting or hanging scroll.

Art? Oh yes, there’s that too! Really, there is more to Adachi Museum of Art than just the garden, although it does tend to steal a lot of the show.

Besides Yokoyama Taikan, whose landscapes influences the garden’s design, there are a number of works of fine art, including some expectedly sweet Taisho and Showa era illustrations aimed at children (my friend who I usually go to Adachi with is a big fan). Although I always love a good nihonga (Japanese style painting) of birds and flowers and although I am a big fan of the collection of Uemura Shoen‘s Meiji~Showa period portraits of women in kimono, the part of the museum I find most inspiring is the annex with the contemporary Japanese paintings, which has introduced me to artists like Mori Midori and Miyakita Chiori. I’ve brought home postcards of both their works.

Alas, taking photos of the artwork is frowned upon, so instead I just have some summer snapshots of the garden to share with you.

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Noh is a heavily stylized theater form with religious connotations and representative of high Japanese culture, and Kagura is a heavily stylized dance form with religious connotations and representative of Japanese folk culture. If you want to see something right in between them, you want to see Sada Shin Noh (佐陀神能) at Sada Shrine (佐太神社).

I have written before about the unique architecture of this shrine in a couple of entries before (see here and here), and in the previous entries I have written about the birth of the primary deity, but today our focus is on this piece of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Sada-no-Okami himself (official photo)

This two-day ritual take places on September 24th and 25th every year, and I saw it shortly after I arrived in Matsue. The atmosphere left an impression on me, but I did not have a good view, and like many Shinto rituals, it was initially interesting because of the atmosphere created by the firelight and traditional musical instruments and costumes, but then it started to drag on. However, I only went on the first day, when the holy part of the ritual takes place with the Gozagae dance, which purifies the new tatami mats before placing them inside the shrine in preparation for all the visiting kami during Kamiarizuki (The Month of the Gods, when 8 million deities from around Japan congregate not only at Izumo Taisha, but at a few other shrines throughout the Izumo region as well–meaning, the rest of the country has Kannazuki, the Month Without Gods).

Gozagae ritual (official photo)

The following day is for celebratory dances and performances to entertain the gods (and which, by extension, tend to be more entertaining for the human audiences as well). Unlike the night before, it builds up the drama as the night goes on, and unfortunately, this was not the night I was present.

Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo! Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo!

There are Sada Shin Noh performances occasionally held throughout the year, and I was invited to go along to a spring performance. It was still ritualized, but not the annual, holy ritual around which these folk performance is based. I say folk, but there are historic ties and influences from high-class Noh performances in Kyoto, which people who served at the shrine studies and incorporated. The dances of Sada Shin Noh went on to influence the flamboyant Kagura dance styles throughout Shimane. Nearly every Kagura form around Shimane has their own version of the local legends, especially Susano-o’s battle with the Yamata-no-Orochi.

Thankfully, that was the performance I got to see, called Yaegaki (you often hear this phrase associated with this legend, such as in Yaegaki Shrine). It had a slow start as the chanters set up the story like a conversation between Susano-o and Kushinada-hime, and then built up to the fight between Susano-o and the 8-headed-serpent (presented by one dancer with one head, though other styles of Kagura in Shimane have full coiling and fire-breathing beasts). Susano-o and Kushinada-hime were also in masks, and the subtleness with which they catch the light seems to lend different expressions to unmoving masks, a constant factor among a stream of stylized movements meant to evoke different emotions that a mask alone cannot.

 Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo! Thanks to Jihye Park for the photo!

It was of a different style and approach than seen in this 2003 video, but just when I thought the special performance might be wrapping up, they started the Akugiri dance (see 5:23). This made me sit up and pay extra attention, as it was the most impressive sword-slinging I had ever seen, coupled with valiant shouts from the old man which could easily have scared off any evil spirit. Although the percussion sounds in the video seem primary, the howl of the flutes guided the atmosphere more than anything else, and on that quiet night, I can only imagine how far the sounds carried through the quiet neighborhoods of Kashima-cho in northern Matsue.

It is a very closely held neighborhood traditional, and the people involved tend to be very tightly involved. Watching the performances also became more interesting once I had more of an understanding of how closely they are tied to the locale, especially since I could watch and recognize some of the people. Like, “Oh, that old priest on the big drums gave me a tour around the roof construction of the shrine” and “he has a mask on, but I can tell that the guy playing Susano-o is someone I know from city hall, and we went to a yakiniku party together once” and “now I finally get to hear one of my tea ceremony classmates perform the flute.”

There are a number of other dances among the Sada Shin Noh repertoire, and who knows, perhaps I will have another chance to go enjoy the atmosphere they create and oogle at the skills of the performers.

Seventh feudal lord of the Matsue Domain, Matsudaira Harusato (aka Lord Fumai), has just gotten major a facelift.

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I was asked to make a cover for the February 2015 issue of the city newsletter, and I wanted to do something that felt very representative of Matsue to me. I like history and I like drawing portraits, so I wanted to draw a historical figure. Hands down, this tea-loving lord is my favorite figure of Matsue’s history. Furthermore, they wanted something bright and flashy, so flowers typically work for that. What’s more, I really like camellia (tsubaki), and they are one of the flower symbols of Matsue, and they are frequently used in the tea ceremony, and the camellia valley on the Matsue Castle grounds starts going into major bloom around late February. So Lord Fumai and camellia seemed my obvious choice for content.

Until I asked whether they wanted something like my cartoony Fumai-ko they might have seen before, or if they’d prefer something a little more refined.

My cartoony Fumai-ko to explain Bote-Bote Tea.

“Refined! Refined!” they cheered.

But, given my artistic roots, “refined” mentally translated to “shoujo manga.”

Unfortunately, this is not a face that translates well in shoujo manga.

Ironically, I’m writing this post as the “Portrait In Museum: The Appeal of Portraiture” exhibit is going on at Shimane Art Museum (until March 9). This historical portrait is one of the featured pieces.

Something felt terribly off to me as I was working on it, so much so that I covered up the face while working on the flowers so that I wouldn’t be so disgusted with the results. I consulted with fellow artists to see if there was something I could fix in the anatomy, and as pretty as we all sort of felt it was, we could not quite tell what was so bothersome about it. The people who requested it for the newsletter all loved it and thought it was beautiful, but I was still very put off by it.

The reception has mostly been good, though people go out of their way to say how pretty the camellia are opposed to mentioning the odd figure in the middle, or he’s just an afterthought and people don’t notice him as much as I do. Many people didn’t recognize that it was Lord Fumai even though he was labeled as Lord Fumai right by the spot that said, “Hey! Your local American CIR drew this!” As a couple of elderly acquaintances brought it up in conversation, one said to the other, “There were such pretty camellia! And she drew Lafcadio Hearn, too.” No!! Hearn gets to be on covers all the time, but Fumai is my favorite, so I wanted him to be on the cover!

At last, a friend who is not regularly steeped in the worlds of glittery shoujo manga saw it and burst out laughing, as she articulated right away what was so funny about it—-why is this old man so pretty???

It’s gotten a little easier to look at since then, as I now know what was so weird was about it. Apparently, all that green tea gave him the power of Matcha Magic for this spectacular transformation!