Mt. Kameda, now known as Jozan and the site of National Treasure Matsue Castle, is home to more than one historic building. Just down the stairs and north of the castle town sits Kounkaku, a Meiji era imperial guest house.

Completed in 1903 in anticipation of Emperor Meiji’s visit, it turned out to be used for instead in 1907 by his son who would go on to be Emperor Taisho. He stayed there for three nights in late May, and the buildings’ original function as a fitting spot to house an emperor was served.

During that time period when Japan was rapidly Westernizing, there was a rush to build Western style ballrooms where people in Western style attire would gather and socialize. Although they had observed many buildings abroad, the buildings in Japan maintained local construction techniques, there by retaining some elements that are very local in character, such as the wooden ceiling found at Kounkaku. In the emperor’s private sleeping quarters as well, the floors are made of tatami mats.


Whereas the floors in his working areas were covered in lush carpets. I’m give or take about the floors, but I love those curtains.

The building served as a prefectural office for a short period of time, and then as the Matsue Folklore Museum for a few decades, but ended with the 2011 opening of the Matsue History Museum nearby in a new (and very nice) building modeled on a high ranking samurai home. Kounkaku was closed for about two years undergoing renovations, and reopened last October both as a general tourism spot and as an event space.

We’ve hosted a couple of receptions for delegates from Matsue’s Friendship City, New Orleans, here on the second floor (it’s tempting to call it a ballroom, but it was not actually designed as a party space). I’ve had a few people ask me if the building was based on Southern plantation buildings, as something about it feels very much like home to them.

I can’t say it feels familiar to me, but I do feel at home in buildings that transport you back to ages long ago. Great care was taken in preserving the buildings’ integrity while adding accessibility options and toilets to the back of it outside of the original building. The paint colors are as close to the original as we have sources to indicate, and all the locks and keyholes, marbled Meiji glass, and wooden door remain the same. Even the knicks in the wood from years of use remain as they are, adding character akin to freckles to a building that remains proud and regal.

My affection for the state of the building made me alarmed when I was consulted about adding a cafe to the downstairs.

I could see why it seemed like a good idea on the surface, but I was consumed with how many ways a good idea could go wrong. There was some talk about opening a Cafe Du Monde chain there, given the connections between Matsue and New Orleans and that Japan is the only place where the chicory coffee and beignet shop allows any chains. If they put enough effort into maintaining the character of both Cafe Du Monde and of Kounkaku I though that had potential to be very impressive, but the company that owns the Cafe Du Monde chains in Japan–and made an abomination of them by selling breakfast hot dog sandwiches and not even providing beignets at its Kyoto Station location–likely would not allow the city such flexibility to try to honor the original. What’s a more, a chain—-if it were any kind of coffee shop with a recognizable name in Japan, that name would inevitably be all over the Meiji architecture, during the imperial guest house into a shrine to modern commerce and convenience culture. With those fears in mind, I strong advised that unless they could made an independant shop with commitment to a Meiji style atmosphere and menu, it would be safer not to chance it with a commercial enterprise.

Granted, my advise was only asked for in passing, but I doubt my influence went very far. There were other who also loved the building who had even more grave concerns, such as keeping the Prfectural Cultural Property from going up in flames due to electrical fires.

The cafe opened at the same time the building reopened to visitors last fall. And to my pleasant surprise, the Kamedayama Tea Room was not a name I recognized.

I should know by now that Matsue loves its castle town atmosphere too much to let it be sold out in the name of progress. Even the castle tower itself only stands today because a Meiji period citizens’ group pooling money together to buy it from the government to prevent it from being demolished in a nationwide effort to toss out the old and unnecessary remnants of feudal Japan. Likewise, they would not let just any cafe operate inside of a building as special as Kounkaku.

As the name suggests, it is named for the mount on which Matsue Castle stands. Due to strict fire prevention guidelines placed on designated cultural properties, there are limits to how much electricity the cafe can use, and no open flames are allowed. As such, the food is prepared off site and kept cooled and/or heated up on the premises, thereby although reducing noise. Visual noise is also kept to a minimum with the sleek and understated design of the furniture and dishes.

So far I’ve only tried an Earl Grey with persimmon cheesecake, as well as one breakfast there, but they do have an appetizing lunch menu as well. I am also very intrigued by the Kuromoji Tea, a brew hailing from the nearby Oki Islands and long since a favorite in Shimane Prefecture. I’ll bet it’s fragrant, and I’m saving trying it for a time when I don’t need a kick of caffeine.

It’s now also the closest spot to Matsue Castle to grab lunch or stop in for tea time. Of course, that doesn’t mean the springtime picnics around the castle are likely to decrease.

As part of my ninja romp through the obstacle course at Adventure Forest in Gotsu City, I also checked out Arifuku Cafe in the Arifuku Onsen area. It’s one of three places in the very charming, tiny townscape that I wish I would have saved more daylight to walk around and take pictures of. I sort of blame the cafe, because even for having only seen a tiny portion of the stylish amenities, my friend and I stayed there a long, long time, completely swept up in the quiet, relaxing atmosphere and our conversation.


Here in the regular cafe space, there are some roof tiles to write wishes on. The Iwami area–that is, the western block of Shimane Prefecture–is a well-known spot for producing quality rooftiles.

You can enjoy a view of some of those roof tiles by sitting outside with your feet soaking in a little basin of hot onsen water, which flows throughout the little town area and sends steam up from the streams.

Ah, the charming townscape.



But what’s back through that door?

An indoor hall of rooms, behind which are the decorated rooms with beds which you can rent out for nighttime or daytime use.

And parallel to it, an outdoor hall with doors leading to the onsen rooms named after the Seven Lucky Gods, rented out by the hour for private use.

These make a great little introduction to onsen culture for visitors to Japan who are shy about bathing with strangers, and who don’t want to pay for a full ryokan experience. The sizes of the rooms and characteristics are reflected in the prices (the lowest ones run 1,500 yen per hour for one to two people), and not all have access to the outside. Even the indoor ones, however, are situated by sunlight windows. The bath water, naturally extremely hot near its source, can be adjusted with cold water to suit your preferences, but the natural light and wood tones give it a warm atmosphere as well. The pH 9.0 water is known for its cleansing properties and gives your skin a soft and springy texture like rice cakes.

After a dip in the onsen, my friend I thought we’d just get drinks in the cafe and then be on our way, but as I mentioned before, we stayed quite a while. I specifically chose the chairs I thought I’d be least likely to get cozy in and doze off in, but we got too comfortable anyway! Along this cafe is supposed to be a good spot for specialized coffee roasted with bamboo charcoal, my friend went with a hot cocoa and I went with a ginger ale with a generous amount of very tasty fruit.



For being a relatively small city, sandwiched between Hamada and Oda, Gotsu has no shortage of stylish and satisfying cafes or fancy onsen facilities. Kaze no Kuni Onsen Resort was also a favorite!

Ginger has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes across many cultures, and Japan is no exception. In fact, the variety of ginger grown in Izumo’s Shussai region around the bed of the Hii River was mentioned in the 8th century records of the region, the Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki. The Fudoki were like encyclopedias of every region of Japan, and were a massive project. Despite the years of work poured into them, most have been lost or are largely incomplete. Only the Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki is mostly intact, so we know about 8th century life in this region in the most detail (and on that note, the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo, near Izumo Taisha, is a must-see for ancient history nerds).

When I’m not spending winter being a history nerd, I’m spending it whining about the cold. However, since incorporating more ginger into my diet, I’ve found I’m not as bothered. In addition to heating properties, I also drink ginger tea to soothe my throat after days of relentless interpreting or going all-out at karaoke. It tastes a little strong to drink ginger tea straight and it takes some getting used to, but I am a big fan of the local brands–they are so much more potent than the generic ones! You only have to drink it once when you have a bad cold to be a believer.

This is because Izumo Ginger–more properly referring to as Shussai Shouga–is like ginger with a power-up in both health and taste. This might make you think of a burly root that looks like a body builder, but it more so resembles a young maiden. The color is fair and the fibers are finer than they are in other types of ginger, making for a softer texture when used in recipes.

Click for source.

No one knows for sure why the ginger grown around this spot is super ginger in a pretty package. Some think it’s because of the properties of the soil or the waters of the Hii River floating in from the Chugoku Mountains on their way to Lake Shinji, but even the farmers aren’t entirely sure.

This spot is very close to Yunokawa Onsen, one of the top beauty onsen of Japan. Therefore, the Michi-no-Eki (like a rest stop and local products center rolled into one) is filled with ginger products–everything from ice cream (no surprise) to cookies to curry. Mmm, curry. Yum. The thought is that taking a dip in the onsen and enjoying cooking with the ginger warms you up through and through, and the warm and fuzzy feeling is aptly described by the Japanese onomatopoeia: poka-poka~~

I live closer to Matsue Shinjiko Onsen instead, and with it the furthest east station on the Ichibata Railway line, Matsue Shinjiko Onsen Station. There is a cafe facing the taxi stand called “Gallery Fleur.” This is my recommended spot to chill (or warm up) while waiting for a train to Izumo.

This is where I go for ginger curry. I repeat: yum.

While I’m still on the topic of ancient history, Japan is often criticized for not having much in the way of cheese, but they already had their own version of cheese back in the 8th century–and I bring it up because it’s one the menu here. It was called so, was soft and slightly crumbly and full of protein, and had a slightly sweet taste. It’s usually much darker than this. Even though I tend to be apprehensive about offensive cheeses, my inner history nerd could not pass up the desire the try it. This felt like a large serving, but it was alright. It reminded me of other cheeses and yogurts, but it’s hard to compare to anything specific.


Fleur also sells an array of decorative items (the layout is different every time I go), and a number of Shussai Shouga products, including the ginger tea I like available by the single pouch instead of in bulk like it would be sold in local product centers and gift stores. The lady who runs the place is very nice and frequently throws in something extra, like ginger candies. They also have a lot of information about Ichibata Yakushi Temple and the Izumonukuni Shinbutsu Reijyo pilgrimage, which combines both Shinto and Buddhist sites.


You can find Shussai Shouga candies, baked goods, teas–or even ginger wine!–at retail-centric places, or purchase the ginger stalks and root whole for pickling in soy sauce as a topping to go with rice. Although I prefer the straight ginger-flavored products, there is a type of ginger red tea in tea bag form that makes me giggle: “Izanami‘s Tears.” I guess being an inhabitant of Yomi made those tears pretty spicy.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m trying to get my addiction to dessert cafes under control. It’s difficult with so many of them all over town, but I’ve been doing pretty well, and that makes the times I do treat myself all the sweeter (that was only a semi-intentional pun). I had a number of things to do on this particular Sunday in early March, but the Matsue History Museum was on my way so I stopped in to Kiharu for a quick break.

The museum is located right around the samurai district and the castle, so the outside of the building was designed in an old Edo period style–seeing as it was built on the same ground as a high-ranking samurai’s house in the past. The inside, however, is very comfortable has a sleek design, mixing Japanese elements–such as tatami flooring–with western elements–such as nice bathroom features. While the exhibits do charge admission (though it’s cheap admission to begin with and foreign visitors get a half-price discount), it’s free to browse the temporary photo and art exhibits, look around the library and the gift shop, peak at the perserved tea house, or stop in to enjoy a beverage and sweets at Kiharu, the cafe facing the garden.

Given characteristics like the color choices and the raised stepping stones, this is a characteristic examples of Izumo style gardening.

There are plenty of ice cream, wagashi, coffee, and tea sets to choose from, and the wagashi here are all Kiharu originals.

Sakaiminato may have Kitaro-themed everything, but I didn’t notice wagashi there! I like the Nezumiotoko one best.

What are you doing there, Shimanekko? You’re not a youkai!

I had just gotten my fill of wagashi the day before (which means staying out of cafes isn’t my only issue!), so I went with a matcha cream soda–green tea, soda, and vanilla ice cream. It hit both my craving for matcha and for something sweet–but to prevent brain freezes or overwhelming my tastebuds, it came with regular sencha anyway. For those who aren’t familiar with the terms, matcha and sencha are both green tea, but matcha is powdered green tea that you consume, whereas sencha is made by steeping the leaves.

There’s still so many more cafes that make me curious and that I want to treat myself to, but I guess this will tie me over for a while.

On a different topic, tonight the Shimane Civic Center is having a free showing of Stu Levy’s documentary about the Tohoku region’s post-earthquake recovery, “Pray for Japan“. The San’in region out here in the west part of Honshu isn’t very earthquake prone, but that doesn’t mean we’ll go through this 2nd anniversary unaffected. There’s still a lot of rebuilding to be done, and we’re sending aid and good wishes from here.

With careful attention spent on the first times you do many regular activities, I thought I would post a couple more of my firsts for 2013.

I had originally intended to wake up and watch the Hatsuhi or Hatsuhi-no-de (first sunrise) but I fell asleep. Oh well, the San’in region is better know for its setting sun than rising sun, right? (Nevertheless, my fellow CIR got some very nice pictures of the Hatsuhi from near here!

Then I saw my Hatsuyume (first dream), in which I went to Izumo Taisha and ate some array of pickled vegetables. It’s so fitting with the Japanese New Year theme that it’s almost boring! But what can I say, these things were on the brain. (I’ll get to the vegetables in the next post.)

Before I went to sleep, though, I wrote my Kakizome (first calligraphy), as well as my less standardized first rakugaki (doodle).

"Ishi"

“Ishi”

Hmm. My calligraphy could use a little work. A lot of work.

I went with “willpower” as my first writing of the new year to help reinforce one of my resolutions. It’s probably one of the most commonly chosen and commonly broken of resolutions, but I need to cut some sugar out of my diet. Sure, it has a bit to do with being a little healthier, but perhaps it has more to do with my addiction to dessert cafes–of which Matsue has plenty! It’s so easy to go run some errands and wind up sitting around at a cafe and reading a book and trying out different kinds of teas and desserts and running out of whatever cash I brought with me.

This one had a nice looking lunch menu, too! I'll have to try that sometime...
Had a tasty panini at this one first
Honestly, I came looking for lunch at this one! But they didn't serve any, so I had to eat a dessert sampler instead.

And these are only a small sample of the western style ones! Matsue still has a thriving green tea and wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) culture, after all. I suppose I don’t need to deny myself at those establishments, right? Right!? There goes my ishi now…