One of my favorite memories so far as a CIR in Matsue was the Yakumo International Theatre Festival last November in a mountainous southern district of Matsue. It is held every three years, and over the course of four or five days, professional theater troupes from around the world gather in the village area, experience home stays, and practically backflip over language barriers as they mingle with the local audiences of all ages.

As I am already a big fan of many performaning arts, I was very, very excited to hear about this event. Of course there are regularly traveling professional performances hosted at Matsue’s regal concert hall and culture center, Plover Hall, and at the medium and large size theaters inside the Shimane Civic Center. What I really miss from my university days, however, was getting in free to a wide variety of performances of plays I had never heard of staged in intimate and small settings where the stage takes up the whole world around you. Famous performances in grand halls get you exposed to high culture that often requires some mental effort to fully engage in, but in an intimate setting with a story you’ve never had any exposure to, it engages you directly through the heart.

Therefore, I was excited to not only find out about the festival, but that one of the venues is Japan’s smallest public theater, nestled right into the mountain forest. Shiinomi Theater is a wooden building with seating for 108, designed with class and intimacy in mind. It is managed by a community theater group called Ashibue. Besides the local actors and volunteers of very professional caliber, they also collaborate with professionals from around Japan. I had the pleasure of being invited to one of their practice performances last year to provide some input on how they were tailoring it for a multinational audience, which was a major treat. The director, Tsukushi Sonoyama, left a very deep impression on me. She had an intimidating presence and gave sharp directions, as she had a clear vision and was determined to see it through. I thought she was so cool!

Therefore, even more and more to my excitement, I was overjoyed when I was asked to help with the opening ceremony for the festival. I’ve done the interpreting or English emceeing for a handful of ceremonies, and they’re always fun to some extent while following a typical formula. This, however, was–by design–no run-of-the-mill Japanese ceremony. Director Sonoyama directed it like a theater production, and I was really, really happy to receive her directions on what words to stress, where to pause, where to lead people into applause or prevent them from applause quite yet. It was no simple run-through as usual; I got to receive serious direction from a person whose directing admired. Even though I was speaking into a microphone off stage the entire time and reading from a script, I got to be a theatrical version of myself again instead of a ghost-like interpretor trying not to attract too much attention away from the speaker, or a formal English emcee guiding an audience through a process. I got to be part of an artistic vision.

The days (and long nights) leading up to the opening ceremony gave me a peak into the world of the passionate and serious volunteers who are committed to setting a consistent tone for the festival and seeing it through smoothly. I admired them all, and it built my excitement up even more. I still felt a little apprehensive, though—without a car, how hard would it be to get around all the little mountain venues? Would rural audiences be receptive to so many international theater approaches?

The opening ceremony itself went very well. I did the English emceeing with a Japanese co-host throughout most it, but in the second half he had to leave to be on stage for Ashibue’s opening performance so I did both the English and the Japanese. We only introduced ourselves at the very end of the first half before the intermission, and until that point, a handful of the people who know me at Matsue City Hall (such as the mayor and my department head) thought, “Hm, this voice sounds really familiar… what!? That was Buri-chan!?”

Although there were many, many performances I really wanted to go to, I had some other schedule conflicts that long weekend and could only afford to spend one full day there. I watched three productions: A puppet show with Japanese narration by the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company from Argentina, a multilingual and interactive dance production by CORPUS from Canada, and a play by Magnet Theatre from South Africa that did not really require knowledge of English or French to enjoy, though they blended use of both.

As for my concerns, I found access was not a problem at all, even when it rained. There were free shuttles going back and forth from Matsue Station all day, so even without a car I had no difficulty in getting to the Yakumo village area. Likewise, there were shuttles cycling all the venues sites, including the large Alba Hall and little Shiinomi Theaters, as well as the crafts fair and restuarant area, where the menu each day was inspired by the cuisine of some of the countries that the theater groups came from (prepared by a local chef who is known for doing this at monthly parties full of authentic and vegetarian food). Everywhere you went on that cold autumn day, there was a sense of warmth from the theater festival’s decorations and designs, especially its apple theme with the tag line, “Theatre is food for the heart.”

As for the audience receptions? I of course loved all the productions I watched, but I also loved seeing how it affected the other audience members. After the puppet show I saw people passionately express how moved they were by the performance, including an old man with tears in his eyes. The outdoor dance performance had everyone from kids to old people practically in stiches with laughter, and the dad they pulled out of the audience to play “Fifi” got really into it and looked like he was having a lot of fun, even if he perhaps could not believe what he was doing in front of so many people. The performance by Magnet Theatre was both comedic and movingly dramatic even if you couldn’t understand all the words, and I’m getting chills now thinking back to sitting back in Shiinomi Theater and watching it. Although the scene when they lit stage objects on fire has a lot of impact, I’m thinking more of the scene later on when the daughter realizes the truth that her mother had tried to protect her from the whole time. Ah, I want to cry!

So why do I bring this all up now, even when I don’t even have any good pictures to share?

Because although the next Yakumo International Theatre festival is going to be 2017, this September they are hosting the Little Forest Theater Festival!

There will be a variety of puppet shows, including a repeat visit from the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company, and also Ashibue’s “Gorsch the Cellist.” Unfortunately I will be out of town during the festival this year, but fortunately I will be in town for a couple later stagings of “Gorsch the Cellist.” I’m looking forward to seeing a production at Shiinomi Theater in the crisp autumn air again!

Please enjoy a few December views of Japan’s highest ranked garden–ten years running!–while I’m organizing photos from the kimono event. These are a few snapshots from my first visit to Adachi Museum of Art, in Matsue’s neighboring town of Yasugi.

Giving the number of shuttles that go directly to and from the museum, you can get there by taking shuttles directly from Tamatsukuri Onsen, Kaike Onsen, Yonago Airport, or Yasugi Station (the next station east of Matsue on the express lines, or four stations down on the local line). As easy as it is for individual travelers to make it there on their own (especially foreign travelers who get a half-off discount on admission!), you can expect to see a line of tour buses out in the parking lot on any given weekend. As such, my friend and I got there at 9am to try to beat the crowds. When we parked outside there were only two buses, but by the time we left there were at least ten!

The garden, a series of small self-contained worlds, varies both by season and by time of day. I visited during the later part of kouyou (autumn leaf) season, and the surrounding mountains of Matsue and Yasugi were all warm hues even on the grayest of days. At this early hour of December 1st, the sun was still relatively low in the sky, so there were slanted rays of light to peak through the leaves in the eastern gardens and cast a heavy shadow over the western dry landscape while illuminating the background mountains. Depending on what kinds of pictures you’re trying to take, the morning light can be a blessing or a curse.

This garden leads to one of two Japanese styles tea houses. The museum also has a restaurant and another cafe, all of which provide different views of the garden. One of the tea houses, Juraku-an, boils the water for the tea in a pure gold kettle.

Many Japanese gardens attempt to create a miniature version of a more vast landscape, with the arrangement of motifs mimicking patterns in nature. The large rocks are mountains, while the white gravel is a river coming forth from the mountains.

The natural mountains of Yasugi also make up part of the garden landscape. This peak is Mt. Katsuyama, where the Mori clan set up camp while battling the Amago clan. The war between these two clans influenced much of the western edge of Honshu before Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogun’s rule.

Just because they use gravel as a water motif doesn’t mean they can’t use real water, too.

At the far right side of this picture in the distance, there is an artificial 15 meter waterfall–a part of the garden which you can see from outside the museum! The Kikaku Waterfall was constructed in 1978.

This was the only snap shot I could get of the pond garden on the east side. The sun was reflecting so brightly off the surface of the water that you can’t see anything in my other ones! With the naked eye, it was hard to look beyond the shimmering surface at the lively fish for very long.

With my simple point-and-shoot camera I didn’t bother trying to get any perfect shots. Even when setting up the shots I did take, it was hard to decide what to try to include and exclude, as even a little change in angle and zoom will result in a different looking world. You’re really only able to take in the world of the Japanese garden with your own eyes and physical perspective, and it was much more exciting to be there in real life than to see photos. There are parts of the pathway to sit and see the framed view of the garden that make it appear like certain styles of landscape painting, or like the scroll of a tea room in the tokonoma (decorative alcove). In place of a scroll in that room on display, they had a window.

In order for the garden to take on an active, immediate level of art, it must be perceived. It is best perceived in person, as your perception changes with every step, and every unique view provived throughout the course of the art museum. As part of the active perceptive space, you continually pass between views of the living garden and series of Japanese paintings, especially collections of Yokoyama Taikan‘s works.

Yokoyama Taikan. “Distant Landscape” (1957). Click on the picture to go to the Yokoyama Taikan page, or on his name to go to the Wiki page and learn more about his style and contribution to modern Japanese painting.

While everyone talks about the garden and posts pictures of it everywhere, it’s still a perfectly good art museum even if it wasn’t part of the garden world. While I didn’t feel the need to go home and plant a maple tree, I did feel the itching desire to go home and sketch birds sitting on plum tree branches.

Sakakibara Shiho, “Japanese White-eyes and Plum Blossoms” (c.1939). Click on the photo to read more about the “Fragrant Flowers” exhibition, Winter 2013.

In addition to the Japanese landscape, portrait, kachou (flowers and birds) and series of other natural subject matters in Japanese style, there are collections of things like ceramics, paintings from modern travels around the world, illustrations for children, and statues. Thanks to the Google Cultural Institute, you can view some the collection here. I discovered Ide Yasuto and Yoshimura Seiji, a couple of promising, imaginative artists who were featured in one of the exhibitions and were honored with the Adachi Museum of Art Award.

Obligatory “I was here” snapshot.

A kaki is a fruit I never really had much exposure to until coming to Japan. This marks my third autumn spent here, and also marks my third time being gifted with gobs of the stuff.


They say persimmon trees alternate through good years and bad years. In a bad year you’d be lucky to get five of them, but in a good year you’re luckier if you can find enough people to take them off your hands who haven’t already been gifted with everyone else’s persimmons. This is just my perspective on it, though, seeing as I’m only on the receiving end and I can’t say they’re my favorite fruit. Other people get very excited for persimmon season because they love their soft flesh and sweetness.

Perhaps because of the abundance of fruit that would be a pity to let go to waste, people throughout Japan prepare the persimmons for sun-drying (these sun-dried fruits are then also generously gifted to everyone). Though this is common through my experience of central and western Japan, not all persimmons are created equal. The little town of Higashiizumo is not only famous for the entrance to the underworld, but for its hoshigaki (dried persimmons).

Click on the pictures for photo source (Japanese).

This webpage is all in Japanese, but the pictures express well enough how much a part of the way of life the drying of persimmons is there, as well as all the creative persimmon-flavored things they make. I recommend the chocolate covered dried persimmons.

To wrap this up, here is a tongue-twister likely written by someone trying to get rid of their excess persimmons:
隣の客はよく柿食う客だ
Tonari no kyaku wa yoku kaki kuu kyaku da
(My neighbor’s guest is a guest who eats lots of persimmons)

It’s Kouyou season!

Kouyou (紅葉) literally means “red leaves,” and while maple leaves do tend to take center stage, there are plenty of shades of other colors to enjoy as well. I had a little free time yesterday so I took a walk around the castle grounds, and was very refreshed to see all the different colors and how the fallen yellow leaves contrast the black stones, and how the green and red leaves contrast the black castle, and how bright they all were against the grey sky. I took the time to take note of what kinds of trees were in which places so can look forward to seeing them again in future seasons. For now, there are still more colors to come–it’s nice that autumn takes its time here!

Kouyou is not simply of a matter of noticing the leaves are changing–Japan has nature-viewing down to a science.

As much as I like noticing the leaves throughout town, there are certain spots that are very well known as leaf-viewing spots (thank you, Luc, for assembling the list corresponding to this map!):

1. Kagikage Valley 鍵掛峠(かぎかけとうげ)
2. Mount Daisen Sky Resort 大山スキー場 (だいせんスキーじょう)
3. Kinmon Gate 金門 (きんもん)
4. Lake Ono 大野池(おおのいけ)
5. Sekka Valley 石霞渓(せっかけい)
6. Kiyomizu-dera Temple 清水寺(きよみずでら)
7. Yuushien Garden 由志園(ゆうしえん)
8. Matsue Castle Jozan Park 松江城山公園(まつえじょうざんこうえん)
9. Gakuen-ji Temple 鰐淵寺(がくえんじ)
10. Adachi Museum of Art 足立美術館(あだちびじゅつかん)
11. Tachikue Valley 立久恵狭(たちくえきょう)
12. Ichibata Yakushi Temple 一畑薬師(いちばたやくし)

While there are stunning pictures of these places around the net…


…I’m still fond of the little places nearby.