I used to contemplate drawing an informative comic like “Buri-chan’s guide to using an onsen,” seeing as the San’in region has many, many, many wonderful onsen, and they are one of my favorite parts about living in rural Japan. However, once I started seeing this poster in a few onsen around Matsue, I gave up on that idea. How could I possibly make anything better than the amazing Faux Pas Man (named just now by me), ultra-serious in his efforts to ruin the grouchy old man’s bathing experience?

Please forgive the fuzzy photos, as I was in a hurry to snap the photos before anyone came in–as you can imagine, camera use is generally frowned up in onsen. Those “only person in the onsen” opportunities are not that rare on weekdays, but they’re hard to plan around.

Fuzziness aside, isn’t Faux Pas Man great? I’m surprised he’s not swimming, as that’s one of the ultimate temptations for Japanese people and foreign visitors alike! Whenever I go to a big onsen and I’m the only person there, I’m always reminded of Natsume Souseki’s “Botchan” and how the main character got in trouble for swimming at Dogo Onsen (which happened to be a spot in Shikoku which Okuninushi and his little friend Sukuna-bikona enjoy, and which has appeared on this blog before on last year’s Anime Pilgrimages series I wrote with Artemis of Otaku Lounge. But I digress. Back to the star of this entry, Faux Pas Man.)

Some more advice:

1. Yes, bathing suits are against the rules. You’ll very likely see naked old people, and you’ll be just as exposed as they are. The good news, however, is that no one really cares. Once you get over the “I am stark naked” thing, onsen are a very relaxing and casual experience. Plus, people do tend to use the little hand towels for some coverage when walking from one area to another, so feel free to do so–just keep it out of the bath water.

2. Onsen water is not potable, and you should not stick your face in the water–this protects both you and everyone else from the spread of germs. If you really want to enjoy some of that beautifying water on your most looked-upon feature, there will usually be a water source which you can cup your hands under and then dab it on your cheeks and forehead. Warning! This is where the water will be at its hottest!

3. Tattoos are still against the rules in most onsen throughout Japan, despite the rise in foreign tourists using onsen facilities. This isn’t because of they think the tattoos are bad for the bathwater or anything, but because tattoos have unpleasant associations with crime. Some people with small tattoos are able to avoid trouble by covering them with a bandage, but people with larger tattoos should find out ahead of time what the onsen rules are, or they should book a private bathing time. The price and ease of doing this likely varies quite a bit, and I have not done it myself. People at tourism information centers at major train stations may be able to help you investigate this and book a time.

4. Some people suggest acclimating to the water by pouring some of the bathwater on yourself with the available buckets before stepping in (not jumping in like Faux Pas Man). Some step-by-step guides also say to do it, but it is optional.

5. Some people think it is healthy to warm up either in the hot bath or in the even hotter sauna, and then sit in an icy cold bath. This shock to your blood vessels is supposed to be good for your circulation–and perhaps by extension, circulating all the other healthy elements you pick up from the natural minerals in the onsen water. I’ve also heard this is good for sore muscles after a hard workout, as it helps flush the lactic acid out of them. Repeat the hot-cold process a few times for best results. (Side note: there is usually a shower available by the sauna to rinse off your sweat–be polite and use it.)

6. Washing off is mandatory before entering the bath–be sure to use soap and to thoroughly rinse it off, and to bind your hair and/or use a hair net to keep it out of the bathwater. After leaving the bath, some people shower again to wash off any remaining germs from communal bathing, and others do not because they don’t want to wash away the water’s healthy and beautifying effects. Use your judgement. Keep in mind the time of day the bath is cleaned, often in the late morning. It is also advisable to rinse off if you have sensitive skin or if the onsen water has especially strong elements.

7. Speaking of cleanliness, very popular bath houses will often add chlorine to help keep the water clean. Much smaller countryside onsen, with fewer bathers, often do not. Some onsen enthusiasts prefer non-chlorinated water and avoid resort onsen, and the locals in popular onsen areas often use the less fancy, and therefore less populated bathing facilities. Personally, I don’t mind either approach.

8. Be tidy when you shower. Try not to spray water on people passing by, rinse off the stool you used, and line everything back up nicely for the next person who will use it. If you must leave your toiletries or hand towels anywhere while you’re in the bath, leave them where they won’t get in anyone’s way. Side note: Leave large towels in the changing area.

9. Stay hydrated! Cold water is usually available for free in the changing area, or just outside of it in the hallway. Also, make sure not to pass out in the hot bath. That would be problematic.

10. Speaking of staying hydrated, after you get dressed afterward it’s a common practice to drink some milk while your body is still feeling really warm. I have no idea how or when this custom started, and I don’t usually do it. Sometimes in hot weather I eat some vending machine ice cream instead.

11. As good as onsen water might be for your skin, make sure to apply lotion when you get out! Your pores will be really open in all that hot water and steam, but as your skin dries, it might get really, really dry as the water evaporates. Lock that moisture in! Many onsen in hotels will provide free facial moisturizers, but bathing-only facilities often will not provide that many freebies.

12. Some “onsen” are not real onsen. True onsen must meet certain thermal and mineral qualifications at their sources in order for them to be counted as such, and the scientific specs must be posted somewhere in the onsen area. Onsen-otaku could probably describe the effects of different minerals and water qualities in very subtle linguistic differences, but it may be fun to look up what makes an any particular onsen special before your visit. This will be the topic of the next entry.


At some point over the course of my tea lessons, Tea-sensei happened to mention using chocolate truffles for Christmas tea ceremonies. The mention of chocolate made me excited and very curious, and next thing you know, several months later we started planning a tea ceremony for Christmas 2014.

Although I was originally in this for the chocolate, Tea-sensei was excited to use it as a chance to bring out the tools and decorative items she usually doesn’t have any other chance to use. She and her husband run a shop that sells very expensive stuff, mostly with a traditional Japanese spin, but they are knowledgable of and collect wares from around the world. Although the Japanese tea ceremony tends to put a heavy emphasis on items made by Japanese craftsmen, as well as Korean and at time Chinese craftsmen, she occasionally uses things like incense containers from Thailand during practices, and she was looking forward to using her items from Europe and Africa for this ceremony.

Combining a holiday that feels both Western and modern with a traditional and very Japanese-feeling practice may strike people as odd, but the tea ceremony as we know it today actually owes a lot to the Catholic Mass. The founder of the three major schools of tea ceremony, Sen Rikyuu (1522-1591), although he was not a Christian convert, lived in a time when many samurai warlords were baptized Christians and welcomed the Portugese missionaries (this is before the attitudes at the top changed and then Christians were persucuted). Rikyu was therefore familiar with the religion and had attended Mass, which influenced part of the motions of the tea ceremony. Many early practitioners of the tea ceremony, most famously Takayama Ukon (aka Dom Justo Takayama), one of Rikyu’s seven closest followers, were Christians and viewed the tea ceremony through that angle. It’s very likely that Christmas tea ceremonies were celebrated regularly, like other seasonal occasions.

Tea-sensei, who is not Christian and has never had a foreign or Christian student before me, has done these a number of times in the past even if not consistently. There are some details she keeps consistent, such as one of the first details she mentioned after the chocolate truffles: in the tokonoma (decorative alcove) there is usually a seasonal scroll, which often has subjects heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. For a Christmas tea ceremony, however, they hang a painting of Mary and offer the tea before her first, and everyone bows in thanks for her having given birth to Jesus. The painting she chose was from her collection of African Christian art, of which I’ve seen a few items from but cannot recall the details of which items came from which countries.

She asked for my input at many steps of planning the ceremony, especially on what sorts of items to use for a traditional ceremony. “What sort of chawan should we use?” she asked, and off the cuff, I answered gold since baby Jesus received that from the Wise Men. She immediately made a mental note of it and asked what else he received, which lead to a discussion of the merits or demerits of using frankincense or mhyrr in a tea ceremony (in the end, we did not–that would be a little too overpowering).

I tried looking for material about what kinds of tools the tea ceremony practioners might have used back in the 16th century but found nothing, so I had to answer based on familiarity with a side of Christmas not often seen in Japan’s Santa and Snowman displays in shopping malls. She asked which flowers to use, and it seems she hadn’t even thought to use pointsettias or holly. Upon that suggestion, her husband made this wreath with a crucifix to hang in entry of the house, which would set the mood for everyone on their way to the tea room.

Because it was so close to the end of the year, when the students usually get together to do a massive cleaning of every knook and cranny of the tea rooms and all the tools for practice throughout the year, ten or so of us did that first before getting ready for the evening ceremony. I wore a dress instead of a kimono, as I was also taking advantage of the chance to use some nice Western style items I don’t usually have a good excuse to wear, and it was nice not to have to wear a kimono for performing the ceremony.

Performing the ceremony by candlelight, however, was very difficult. As nice as the atmosphere was, I could hardly see what I was doing, and I was not used to the very wide and heavy natsume (tea caddy) I was using, which was actually foreign pottery item instead of a Japanese laquerware piece. I wound up spilling a bunch of tea in my lap while trying to put the lid back in place, but thankfully, my dress was more forgiving to being coated in matcha powder than a kimono likely would have been. Oops. Not one of my more graceful moments. In the low light, however, hardly anyone could tell and thankfully I didn’t need to stand up until the end of ceremony and had a good chance to clean it up before letting it spill all over the tatami mats.

Moments like that are what make private ceremonies with your school mates very relaxed and fun, especially since it was a learning experience for everyone. With so many tools we were unfamiliar with, everyone took their time observing each one, and there was so much information that I could not keep organized in my head which tea bowl came from which European country, but I do recall interesting details such as chosing the tea bowl with the fish as a Christian symbol, which I wouldn’t have thought of using for Christmas. Although I am usually at the receiving end of all this information overload, I was also asked to explain some of the Christian symbolism and background they weren’t familiar with, and by the end of the night, everyone had learned something new in addition to enjoying the tea ceremony for the purely the tea aspect.

I had no explanation for the Christmas Cake, though. That’s a Japanese thing, and I doubt it’s the sort of thing Sen Rikyu would have used in a 16th century ceremony. I find it more sad for him and his guests that they didn’t have chocolate truffles.

As for San’in region gifts, I suggest things like magatama, wagashi, or Gegege no Kitaro goods.

Or wagashi shaped like magatama, that works too.

Here’s a little update about my progress in the Japanese arts, specifically in managing to put on my own clothes for practicing the tea ceremony.

Spontaneously making a couple cups of tea during Hatsugama (New Year tea ceremony) 2015

Although you may remember that I have participated in competitive kimono dressing (wait, what?! See here, here, and here), I am not that confident in basic obi skills. Or rather, seeing as I have always been bested even by origami, I do not have a natural talent for things like folding the obi. The more basic the obi appears, the more difficult it is for me to do. Unlike the florid designs I’ve done for competitions, basic styles used for tea ceremonies are more subdued, and provided less flexibility in fixing mistakes. By this, I’m referring to the very basic taiko (“drum” shaped) style many people picture when they think of kimono. More specifically, lately I’ve been working on nijuudaiko, which has two layers on the outermost fold of the drum instead of one.

Though I have had lessons for doing these basic styles, I always forget over periods of no use, and try though I might, I often can’t get them to look right and have usually asked for help prior to the tea ceremonies I’ve attended or served in. No, people don’t mind helping, but yes, I do find it embarrassing. By the time I got about two and a half years into my practice, I knew I did not want that help anymore, and did my best to get myself dressed all by myself. Though regular practice no longer fits into my schedule, I’ve occasionally gone back to my old classroom for refreshers.

In September I attended a moon viewing tea ceremony. I had squeezed a couple of classroom practices a few weeks beforehand, as I was losing hope in being able to fold my newly purchased obi on my own with only the Internet to help me. The first time I went I worked with one of Kimono-sensei’s friends who was taking over the class while she wasn’t feeling well, and she found it a little odd to work with (good, it wasn’t just me who thought something was off!), but she taught me a method that seemed a little simpler than standard nijuudaiko, but a simple Internet search is not revealing it as an orthodox method.

For precaution’s sake and because I wanted to say hello to good old Kimono-sensei once she was feeling better, I went to class again the following week to show her the obi in question, which she had already heard about from the friend who taught me the week before. With one look, she exclaimed, “Buri-chan, why do you have a bridal obi?!”

No surprises to justify that, just a simple misunderstanding on the part of the new employee at the used kimono shop who told me it was an obi for nijuudaiko. Kimono-sensei showed me how it was a thinner width than usual, and therefore would look too small for regular use. Having a packed schedule with travel and no time to find a new obi or practice using a new one, I decided to stick with it just for that one upcoming ceremony. After all, it was private (but there were still a number of people I didn’t know through my school) and in low light (but people still had chances to admire each other’s ensembles, which meant I needed to point out the error in my ways anyway so that they wouldn’t be duped like many of us already were by the slightly-too-narrow bridal obi).

The green one is the bridal obi, but most people wouldn’t know that with a single glance. I sure didn’t.

The good news, however, is that I was able to put it on mostly correctly in the very short time I had between getting home from a 5-hour bus ride and catching Tea-sensei’s taxi to the tea ceremony.

My schedule continued to stay very busy following the moon viewing tea ceremony, so once again, I was concerned I wouldn’t have much of a chance to find and purchase a new and appropriate obi, much less learn to use it before serving all day in the Ichibata Yakushi Tea Ceremony in November. That was the first one I had ever served back in 2013, but still being a bit of a newb, I only went back and forth serving and removing cups of tea and sweets for the hundreds of guests we had throughout the day as opposed to performing the ceremony myself. Two years of experience later I felt really good about performing the ceremony portion and making the tea for the guest of honor, but I still didn’t feel very assured dressing myself correctly, especially in front of so many guests in a public setting. Tea-sensei lent me a proper nijuudaiko and assured me someone would be able to put it on for me if I could not, but I promised that I would practice.

And practice I did.

Practice I did, so many times. I consulted YouTube-sensei a number of times, only to find that there were so many methods that differed from what Kimono-sensei had taught me by hand–literally, by grabbing my hands and putting them in the right places. Without having seen the process I did before and without being physically corrected while watching instructional videos, I was frustrated by being unable to compare what was different about the methods in the first place.

There were many weekend afternoons when I quit part-way without having been able to make anything half-way functional, and there were times when I mentally ran away from practicing at all. It would be hopeless for me to teach myself, and actually do it nicely enough to be presentable, especially with all the extra attention I already attract by being the obvious foreign student my tea school. I’m not the only one who is unconfident about putting on kimono, or even in performing the ceremony well, and I’ve put their nerves at ease by jokingly telling them not to worry because I’ll attract attention away from their mistakes. For as many whispers as I hear as I serve in public ceremonies (typically positive and genuinely surprised), I known I’ll not be judged as harshly if I get something wrong, but I still want to get things as close to right as I can. But with all those eyes on me, surely it would be better just to give up on the kimono practice and let someone more consistent handle it while I just focus on practicing making tea, right??

So I said to myself in my head many times when quitting part-way through my self-guided practices, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my schoolmates either by asking for help every single time. That stubbornness pushed me to try the obi one more time each time I wanted to quit, and little by little, I had something that was actually… well… functional?

A little… hmm… fluffy? Balloon-like? Tilted? But functional. Functional is a good start.

I kept at it, and I kept looking for more instructional videos. I’m grateful I can understand Japanese well enough now to listen as I practice instead of depending on subtitles (and that it gives me more options for instructional materials), even though things like origami instructions never even made sense to me in perfect English. Yet at some point, the videos started to make sense. At some point, I saw how the nijuudaiko came together, and it was no longer mystifying. After that point, my functional obi, although not perfect, became closer and closer and closer to… well, if not perfect, then at least reliable.

Come the weekend of the big tea ceremony, I was relieved the day before to see some a lot of nijuudaiko examples in real life for mental reference, and perhaps even more relieved to see that very few people had gotten it “perfect.” Since then, I’ve also caught on that a lot of my senpai who have been practicing tea for years still make appointments at beauty studios to be dressed up before tea ceremonies. When it comes down to it, a kimono is literally a “thing to wear” and before fitting some fanciful ideal, it is a functional garment. Even with well-tailored Western style clothes, we don’t always look like we’re modeling for a catalog when we wear them, yet they serve their purpose in clothing up and making our appearance appropriate for the setting anyway. Kimono are the same, and they are generally put into use away from a competition stage where perfection is of the essence.

I woke up at 4:30 the next morning to get ready, but in one try, my obi and I were ready with time to spare before Tea-sensei and Tea-senpai came to pick me up. Tea-senpai, who also studies with Kimono-sensei and knew how hard I had been working on it, told me right away that it looked great, as did Tea-sensei.

Not actually a photo from the day of the tea ceremony, just one of my better practices in the days leading up to it. The tail under the drum should be a little shorter and smoother, though…

With a near-perfect appearance of grace attained, I then promptly and quite noticeably bumped my head upon getting in the car.

This one was actually taken about 10 minutes before that happened.

“Pride comes before a fall” could describe the rest of that day pretty well too. Although originally scheduled for 13, we put on 15 tea ceremonies, and for the most part, I nailed it every time. Serving the guests directly throughout most of the day (ohakobi), performing the ceremony and making the tea in front of them twice (otemae), and even in my interactions while away from our tea room–not only did my ensemble look praise-worthy all day, but I had the charm to match in my speech and poise.

Just as I was feeling quite caught up in my awesomeness, I volunteered to perform the ceremony in our rather spur-of-the-moment final ceremony, especially considering everyone had already performed it twice. As I confidently started my third otemae of the day, I dropped the hishaku (ladle) on the floor as I was putting down my tools.

Oops. That threw off my groove. In an effort to cover my little mistake, the nice teacher from another school who was giving the welcome greetings and explaining the tools and decor we had that day instead drew more attention to it by saying I was likely very nervous because, as they could see, I was a foreigner. But nonetheless I was very good at the tea ceremony (really, don’t be fooled by that fallen hishaku, which other people had dropped throughout the day too because we weren’t practiced with the kensui that was so slick!), and I was also very good at Japanese, and I was also very good at kimono and put it on all by myself! “So please, don’t judge the poor gaikokujin too harshly!” it sounded like, but that was me being sensitive, and the already curious guests likely wanted to know more about my tea ceremony practice anyway. He summed up his comments with his own sort of experienced grace, pointing out that more and more, the Japanese tea ceremony is becoming an international hobby. He’s absolutely right about that, and in both the worlds of the tea ceremony and of kimono, people recognize the appeal it has abroad and are very, very happy to see that there are practitioners around the world.

I mostly recovered and did things calmly and smoothly but towards the end when I started prepping the tools for the guests to inspect, I started reaching for the natsume (tea caddy) before placing the hishaku and futa-oki in their proper places, and started turning the front of the natsume towards the guests before I had even cleaned it off, which was a silly thing to do that I had never done before. Oh well. My saving grace was that I had mostly made my mistakes with grace, so perhaps people who weren’t practitioners themselves wouldn’t have known any better (or so I can hope).

Although my efforts (mostly) paid off, I am still humbled by how much there is that I still do not know and still cannot do, and how I am at the mercy of people with decades of experience to point me in the right directions and enlighten me. Two of my classmates and I are responsible for putting on our New Year tea ceremony next month, and for the first time, I’ll serve a full kaiseki meal in ceremonious style. It’ll be quite a learning experience.

……..and I still don’t know what obi I’m going to use.

It’s not on a Tuesday, and it’s not in the usual season, and it’s not in New Orleans… but that’s not been stopping everyone in Matsue from having a good time and celebrating the culture of New Orleans every October for the past four years.

The Matsue New Orleans Club started as a social club for people with similar interests in New Orleans, especially jazz. In addition to other jazz events throughout the year, they started putting on Little Mardi Gras to do out-reach to children. The city has been very supportive of this, especially since New Orleans has been Matsue’s Friendship City for over 21 years now. Likewise, the City of New Orleans has also been very supportive, as well as very impressed. School bands, as well as other interested community members, learn to perform jazz numbers and parade through the streets and hand out not-so-easily-attained-in-large-quantities Mardi Gras beads to the spectators who come to watch in the castle town’s shopping streets.

This year, the parade went from near Matsue Castle down to the Ohashi Bridge and then back to the Shimane Civic Center for ongoing live performances. Although the layout of the city has largely remained unchanged since it was planned over 400 years ago, you’d almost think this city was built for parades, especially since the Ohashi Bridge provides such a picturesque spot for both spectating and showing off.

After a number of the elementary through high school bands paraded through, members of our regular visitors and assisting organizers, the Khachaturian Band, walked in ahead of the Shimane University brass band.

Once everyone made it to the bridge, we all squished there under the radiant blue skies for the battle of the bands, heading it off in a medley of practiced “When the Saints go Marching In” renditions. Although the San’in region is known for shadow more so than for sunshine, this was the second time we’ve hosted delegations from New Orleans in conjuction with Little Mardi Gras, and both times the visitors have brought us amazing weather.

The blue sky over Ohashikan, a ryokan that overlooks the Ohashi Bridge and Ohashi River.

On the flip side, Mardi Gras 2014 was rained out in both New Orleans and Matsue, with some sort of shared fate. However, the cycle of luck goes on–on both our sunny 2013 and 2015 parades, the Saints won both weekends (and as of when I’m writing this, so far this season that is the only game the Saints have won. Looks like we better hold more parades).

While there is some Saints influence seen throughout the parade, music remains the focus, and while each band shows off, the others duck down low for everyone to take their spotlight, which they pop up ready for the moment their name is announced. It all builds up to everyone performing unison, everyone from elementary school students to traveling professionals.

After that, and a few comments from our visitors to rile everyone up for more celebration, it’s time to turn the parade back around for a second go, this time back towards the castle.

One of the biggest differences between Matsue’s Little Mardi Gras and the big carnival that goes on for weeks in New Orleans, besides the obvious lack of floats, is that Japan isn’t so keen on throwing prizes (unless you’re throwing stone-hard mochi and shooting arrows in shrines, yeah, that’s perfectly acceptable). Therefore, instead of “throws” they’re more like “hand-outs.” Although the organizers always make sure to prepare beads, this year the delegates from New Orleans went all out with specialized Krewe beads, vintage doubloons, King Cake babies, cups, scarves, and then some.

The parade keeps growing every year, but looks like the bar just got set higher! Hopefully we’ll have some more visitors from New Orleans next year to ensure more good weather.

A few cultural differences regarding a favorite candy I grew up with:

“Look at that color. That can’t be good for you.”
“It tastes like medicine, that’s why you don’t typically see licorice in Japan.”
“But there’s so much artificial color.”
“…the color… the color!!”

Whereas among fellow expat friends who had never been exposed to it:

“What is this and why have I never seen it before?”
“It’s amazing. Give me more.”
“And more. And more. And more.”

(I was hoping my fellow foreign friends would have the same reaction as my Japanese friends, and therefore I’d be able to keep more of my acquired licorice to myself.)

I’ve blatantly borrowed this title from one of Lafcadio Hearn‘s most famous essays, published in The Atlantic in 1892. A lot of the essay is a detailed and flowery (ha!) description of his garden at his second residence in Matsue–preserved now as it was in Hearn’s day–and is quoted at Japanese gardens around the world, and at least two of which, in New Orleans and Tramore, bear his namesake.

I like Japanese gardens, but I don’t think I can–or would–go into such detail as Lafcadio Hearn. Looking back at this text, so characteristic of his style with his rich descriptions, heavy amount of information, cultural fancies, and fascination for even the lowliest of life forms–or forms that have taken on a life of their own–I can see how he was still in his honeymoon period in Japan when he wrote this. As much glowing praise as his prose gets from Japanese readers and criticism he gets from cynical Western scholars, the fact of the matter is that Lafcadio Hearn really enjoyed that garden in a time when he really enjoyed Japan after he had been anticipating enjoying Japan for quite some time. Furthermore, the words he wrote about Japanese gardens have long survived him and reached the sensitive sides of people’s souls throughout the world.

Perhaps my appreciation for Japanese gardens is not as honed and sensitive as Hearn’s, but you do appreciate them more as you learn more about them and the thought behind their designs. The basic idea that both an expansive Japanese garden like that of the Adachi Museum of Art and a tiny bonsai garden are meant to mimic a natural landscape is already enough to take you from one stage of appreciation to another, and the little details I’ve picked up about traits of Izumo style gardens, such as the elevated rock stepping-stones to keep the hems of kimono more dry in the rain and snow and the use of black pines, give me little things to enjoy looking for when I visit new gardens.

The San’in region is home to a few famous ones, even the garden of Kasuien Minami, a fancy ryokan in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area, has one of the top ranked gardens in Japan. My personal favorite is Yuushien Japanese Garden, famous for its array of peonies (and generally being a gorgeous setting for a stroll any time of year). I went out to see the peony festival again this year with a friend, and the fragrance of the thousands and thousands of peony blossoms, especially those covering the surface of the pond, was once again something that could have induced sweet spring dreams.


Afterward, my friend and I hopped over the Eshima Bridge (that one that looks scary and now has a temporary parking lot just for the people who came out to photograph it) to Tottori to do some shopping, and in the later afternoon hours my friend decided we should stop by her grandmother’s house to get pictures of the kirishima (a type of rhododendron) blooming in her garden. I’ve been to her grandmother’s house a few times before, and I’ve seen the garden, but never really looked at it.

It occurred to me on this visit just how quintessentially Japanese my friend’s family is. I have the pleasure of visiting every few months and have enjoyed seasonal pleasures such as youkan ice cream from Kiyomizu Temple (the Yasugi one, not the Kyoto one), picking home-grown shiitake mushrooms in the forest, viewing three full sets of Girl’s Day dolls, and so on. At her grandmother’s house, we always go straight down the hall to the guest room. The hall has a wood floor, to the right are glass doors and windows looking out on the garden, to the left are the sliding doors to the airy tatami room filled with natural light. There is a vase set on a shelf at one end, and a wooden structure at the far corner of the hallway, and they are both decorated with a few seasonal flowers.

The guest room has a wide, but low table that follows the natural features of the wood, holes and everything, but glossy and warm in tones like the rest of the wood in the house. There are statues and vases and such decorating the wall opposite the garden, and a folding screen with a bird and a few seasonal flowers that would be blooming right around the same time in real life. My friend’s grandmother wasn’t expecting me, and she’s in the adjoining room laying out a few extra sweets to go with the snack she had already prepared to go with the tea. As usual, she’s got everything ready to offer us both the customary two cups of matcha.

And, as usual, we all chill out in the guest room and chat and enjoy our tea and snacks, with no electronic distractions or even any noticeable clock to take our minds away from the moment.

Speaking of timing, we were too late to see the red kirishima bushes in full bloom, as they, like many other flowers, were early this year. Nonetheless, there are still splatters of coral color among the green leaves, and for the greater part of our conversation, a white butterfly with black lines has been ecstatically sampling and savoring them. My friend is none the less very disappointed that we missed full bloom, as apparently that is one of her favorite times to see that garden she’s been visiting with her sisters and cousins for as far back as she can remember. The two of them show me an old photo of them out there, and reminisce about times in the garden, and how it had already been two decades or so since they replaced the koi pond with gravel so that none of the small children would fall in.

The garden, like the guest room, is in meticulously cared for condition. The rocks and gravel are clean in the sunlight, the trees are shapely and full. While I’m still enjoying the sight of the feasting butterfly, their focus shifts to the lush maple tree, fluttering its young, bright yellow-green leaves in the wind. The shadows the leaves make against the large rock behind it are lively.

I’m still at the table while they go to window, and her grandmother kneels in the hallway while my friend borrows her grandfather’s sandals to go get a better look at the maple leaves. Their silhouettes and expressions in the warm afternoon light make me smile at how picturesque they are, and then her grandmother invites me over to enjoy the view and the breeze. They’re both indeed very nice, about as nice as I always pictured this fairy land I dreamed about for years before ever visiting. I’ve been a guest in many other quintessentially Japanese abodes before, including during my own honeymoon period of sorts, but having spent a lot more time around Japan now I have a very different way of looking at this country and culture now. The Japan that I–and other foreigners, and even Japanese people themselves–love to romanticize about does exist, but it’s not a part of everyone’s daily life. For many, Japanese gardens and serving tea to guests, or even having tatami mats is not even a thought in their given or chosen lifestyles. While there are parts of culture that are distinctly Japanese, they are not deeply relevent to many Japanese people, just as much as things like hamburgers and college basketball are major parts of American culture but not ones deeply relevant to me. This is neither positive nor negative, it’s simply things as they are.

Still, I enjoyed being in such a quintessentially Japanese setting, speaking in Japanese with Japanese friends, an experience that would be rare if I lived elsewhere. I could have enjoyed the sunshine and the greenery and the fresh air in a number of other places, or enjoyed snacks and company in any variety of tastes and cultures. Perhaps what really felt so refreshing this time was that I took the chance to notice it, even if not the same level of detail that Hearn observed his Japanese garden.

Right before we left, the butterfly was making friends with another like it, and they fluttered further and further away from the ending kirishima flowers. Just another passing moment, never to be captured again in any haiku, photography, essay, or blog post.


It’s any given dinner party that’s been running late, and the little seafood restaurant with decorative scrolls, flowers, and dolls throughout the room we’re taking up has served us matcha (green tea made from powdered tea leaves) at the end of the meal. Casual though the setting is, my tea ceremony training kicks in, so I’m sitting formally in seiza and turn the cup two times clockwise before downing it in three sips or so.

A talkative man sitting on the other side of the table takes notice. “You drank the tea very well.”

“Ah… well… yes. Thank you.”

A friend smiles and fills in for him that I practice tea, which leads us to finding out he and I both practice the omotesenke school of tea and that he knows my teacher. As we talk a bit more, he lets us all in on an open secret: “Actually, in Matsue, you’re a little uncultured if you don’t know how to drink matcha. Most people have at least a little practice.”

This isn’t surprising to me, and I’ve heard similar comments from many other people. I’ve spent time in other parts of Japan and had wide social groups there, but here in Matsue, a much larger proportion of my social circle has practiced the tea ceremony to some extent, or at least has enough passing familiarity to know the basics and be able to explain them, be it to foreign guests or Japanese guests from parts of Japan where the tea ceremony seems more archaic. That’s not to say everyone is an expert (though there are plenty to be found here).

However, to say that Matsue is stiff about tea rituals would be incorrect. Rather, Matsue’s tea culture started to take a strong hold when the tea ceremony had already developed into something like a Pokemon trading card frenzy, in which rich people were all seeking the fanciest of tools, and artisans and merchants were selling off second-rate tea cups for exorbitant prices given the amount of prestige they could associate with their use. In many ways, the the world of tea (chanoyu) had become a world of ego and showing off ownership of expensive tools.

19-year-old Matsudaira Harusato (later known by his tea name, Fumai), grew up in the bustling city of Edo (later known as Tokyo) and saw the ebbs and flows of high culture there. As much as he was accused of having his head stuck in his tea cups instead of on preparing to be the lord of the financially troubled Matsue domain, he wrote “Mudagoto” (“Useless Words”), which was a criticism of modern tea culture, in which he stated:

Making chanoyu a luxury, exhausting beauty to make it splendid is a distressful thing… rather, it can be made an adjutant to governing the country well.

In response, Matsue’s popular tea culture cuts many of the frills. Although there are many social elements tied directly to a system of hierarchy and harmony and a wealth of tools enough to fill 18 volumes worth of “Kokon Meibutsu Ruiju” (“Classified Collection of Famous Utensils of Ancient and Modern Times”), ultimately, chanoyu is about drinking tea.

It’s not to say that no one drinks sencha (green tea made from steeped leaves), but the uncited but often quoted fact that Matsue drinks more matcha per capita than the rest of Japan does is also unsurprising. Besides the Grand Tea Ceremony every fall and other tea events throughout the year, on a walk between JR Matsue Station and Matsue Castle I can already call to mind seven or eight casual places you can stop in for a quick cup of matcha with wagashi refreshment, and that’s before you even get to the ten or so other places that come to mind once you get to the castle area and beyond. Quite often I wander in just to take a look at tools and I wind up being served a cup of matcha I didn’t order.

When I hang out at people’s houses, a lot of them have working knowledge of how to prepare matcha and have at least one decent tea cup and chasen (tea whisk) with which to serve tea. While being served a cup of sencha while visiting people may be common elsewhere, many homes here regularly serve matcha, not just for special occasions. What’s more, it’s a local custom to serve two cups of tea, not just one.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, back in Edo period, especially when Fumai was the ruling lord, he gave the domain a financial overhaul and then Matsue had extra cash on hand with which to indulge in tea culture. Besides documenting the aforementioned list of valuable tea tools and compiling a treasure trove for the domain of over 800 exquisite tools, the common people had more money to afford to drink matcha. While different kinds of sencha are made from different flushes of leaves from different parts of the tea bush grown in different conditions, matcha is made from only the very top leaves in stricter conditions, and the best grades of thick matcha only use the very, very top leaves. Hence, drinking matcha on a regular basis will take a bigger chunk out of your household budget than regularly drinking sencha will, but the townspeople grew quite a taste for it.

Given the city’s proximity away from the more active trade and travel routes and relative self-sustainability with local rice and seafood, the culture here was less influenced by the changes going on outside of the region, and therefore had a strong base for a self-developed culture. This is still evident today, as while much of the rest of Japan is caught in a post-bubble era, in the San’in region, it’s more like, “bubble? What bubble?”

But why serve two cups of matcha at a time? There’s an early Edo period reason for that I’ll touch on in the next entry. In the meantime, it’s always worth taking a look at the flip side of all of this. Although matcha is part of the cultural face of Matsue, people are individuals, each with their own lifestyles that may or may not fit an image of the city.

On a visit to an elementary after-school club, the students prepared matcha for us as thanks for the things we had prepared for them before. It was quite an affair—there were old, broken chasen everywhere, yokan chomped on from the ends of toothpicks, and cups/tea bowls for everyone. It seems the kids were supposed to bring their own. Some had beautiful chawan that they brought to school in sleek wooden boxes labeled with the tea bowls’ credentials, while others brought miso soup bowls or tupperware. There was frustration as they could not get the tea to froth, and a handful of the kids who had some experience walked around all their schoolmates and the cups of hot tea everything to go grab the chasen and froth everyone elses’ tea. A friend of one of the club members told me later that they had originally planned to serve manjuu, but something went haywire and they switched to cutting up youkan at the last minute. There were a couple hushed complaints about the taste of matcha while the kids snapped at each other to hurry up because the guests’ tea was getting cold. This was after we had already waited in the office for a little while as the kids did all the preparation.

Serving matcha to us as an introduction to Japanese culture was something the kids thought of a long time ago, and only when asked directly by the teacher if I had ever tried matcha before did I admit that I practice the tea ceremony. As expected, that made her and the few students who were paying attention a little embarrassed, but the teacher played it off well by pointing out loudly to the rest of the club members that I am so interested in Japanese culture.

However, instead of stopping there, I really appreciate what she said next.

“Most of these kids have never had matcha, believe it or not. Even though it’s Japanese culture, a lot of Japanese people pay no attention to it at all. Kids, a show of hands, please. How many of you drink matcha at home?”

Out of 20-something kids, less than a third raise their hands.

The teacher’s point is proved. As nice as it feels to celebrate surface culture, one should always be aware of the culture of how people actually live their personal lives. Still, I can’t help but think there would be fewer hands going up in other places.

That’s still a lot of matcha.

In Japan, April is not only cherry blossom season, but also the start of the new fiscal year and the new school year. Although New Years is the biggest holiday of the year and clearing out a lot of the staleness of the past year, spring feels most appropriate for new beginnings. New employee recruits and transfers are getting to know their coworkers at flower-viewing picnics, and s school opening ceremony without cherry blossoms would be like a Christmas without cake.

Girls and boys, be ambitious!

Thanks for all the photos in this entry, XiaoMan!

It’s not quite St. Patrick’s Day, but the Irish Festival in Matsue was held last Sunday with bright, sunny, warm March weather–not weather very representative of Ireland or the San’in region, but it felt lucky!

There are a handful of cities in Japan that celebrate with parades for St. Patrick’s Day, but Matsue is likely one of the only places that incorporates a water parade around the castle moats in addition to the land parade through the streets. There are regulars, and there are also extras who take the chance to dress up in whatever they want (or dress up their dogs), so long as it is green. This year, my favorite was a pair of siblings dressed as Peter Pan and Negiman.

Like the other times I’ve taken part in the festival in 2013 and 2014, the parades were only one element of the festival. Perhaps what draws the most boisterous crowd is The Shamrock, the Irish pub set up in the vault of the Karakoro Art Studio with Guinness on tap, an Irish food and dessert menu, and a constant stream of live performances. Although there is a mix of music and otherwise, you can expect instrumental versions of traditional Irish jigs and even punk-rock approaches to old Irish ballads.

At the same time, larger performances are going on outside of the art studio following the parade. Everything from jugglers to hip hop dancers to marching bands and Yosakoi dancers to aspiring idol groups. Although many of these teams already have red, blue, or gold uniforms, they all made sure to add some green.

Irish Ambassador to Japan Ms. Anne Barrington arrived in Japan last September, and this was one of her stops what will probably be her busiest month yet. This is already her third visit to Matsue, and her first time to see the Irish Festival held here. Although there is no formal exchange relationship in place, Matsue is a key city in Japan-Ireland relations given the connections through Lafcadio Hearn. As a Irish emigrant to Japan mentioned to me, she’s noticed much more public awareness and familiarity with Ireland here as opposed to other cities. There’s a level of enthusiasm for it even among the people who don’t show up to the festival, as everywhere I’ve been this week people have been bringing it up. While not measurable in numbers, inspiring people to have an awareness and curiousity about other cultures without twisting their arms into it is a sign of healthy “internationalization” (a keyword in the goals of the JET Program, however it is that the phrase is supposed to be defined). There is also exchange in more measurable terms, such as a new gift the city is preparing to send to Tramore, County Waterford’s Lafcadio Hearn Garden Project, which is opening later this year.

Ah, that’s one more thing that makes this feel like a typical Matsue-style Irish Festival. It’s totally normal to stand around Matsue Castle and interupt smalltalk with, “Oh, look. A ninja.”

XiaoMan had a fancy camera with a long lens to capture this not-so-rare sight.

Although occasionally spotting ninja around the castle grounds is a fun little part of life here, watching one of them the ninja that attended that day get into a fight with a can of Guinness (and lose) is another little thing that makes the Irish Festival special.