You probably don’t need to be a health nut to know that ginseng, a human-shaped root full of ginsenosides, is an expensive health product, lauded for its stimulant properties and powering up the immune system–among other systems. Although there is American Ginseng, it doesn’t pack quite the same punch as the Asian variety, commonly known as Korean Ginseng.

I bring this up, of course, because it doesn’t only grow in Korea. Ginseng production is big here in the San’in region, too.

Originally cultivated on Daikonshima (a large island on Lake Nakaumi) in the 17th century, it was sold through an operation lead by the samurai running the Matsue domain as part of an economic recovery plan for the region, it was at its height of popularity around the 1830’s and 1840’s, and it later became a privatized enterprize. When the samurai rain things, they imported ginseng and grew them in the volcanic soils of Daikonshima (also known for the peonies the volcanic soil is so good for). All of the ginseng produced was collectively processed and prepared for sale. This was known as Unshuu Ginseng* (unshuu ninjin, though ninjin is also confusingly the word for not-so-special carrots), known both then and now as a high quality, well-recognized variety. Shimane is still one of the top three producers of ginseng in Japan today.

Mural of Matsue history inside Matsue Castle

*Unshuu (雲州) takes the character for “clouds” from Izumo’s name (出雲) and combines it for the word for “province.” You find these –shuu names for a lot of old provinces throughout Japan. In Japanese, the readers for the characters might change depending how it is combined with other characters.

Why is ginseng production such a big deal? Setting it’s historical popularity as a health supplement aside, growing ginseng is not an easy venture. It takes six years for the ginseng plant to reach maturity enough for the roots to be harvested, and the plant sucks the soil dry of its nutrients–it can take 20 years for that soil for to be suitable for cultivation use again! If you’re a small-time farmer just trying to scrape by, growing this is not a effective use of your resources and time.

That’s where Yuushien Garden comes in for modern day Unshuu Ginseng production. I’ve mentioned this garden many times before as it is my favorite in the region and its peonies are amazing, but I’ve always glossed over the ginseng end of things. But on a not so crowded day, it’s fairly likely you’ll be served a free sample of ginseng tea before you even make it to the ticket booth.

In addition to tea, you can get this supplement in a variety of forms–in soap and beauty products, powder form, even sake! They’re available at various points throughout the walk-through garden course, most notably at the Unshuu Ginseng museum at the end of the course.

It comes in highly potent, sticky form!

Although these are in a form you can purchase and take home with you, I was very excited when I was interpreting for a delegation one time and we got to go to Yuushien for lunch–I had always been intrigued by the ginseng tempura, and I’d finally get a chance to try it! That was not all, however–in the set course of inventive and decorative items they served us that day, they used ginseng in almost everything. I apologize that I did not take pictures that day, but suffice to say that I found it worth spending some extra money on to be able to have it again someday–this coming from someone who has very frequent kaiseki (very fancy multi-course meals) at ryokan around the city. This page is in Japanese and the pictures are small, but it might give you some idea. I can tolerate the tea, but I find the taste of ginseng much more pleasant in in a form you can eat.

That said, I still have yet to try to the ginseng ice cream the garden serves. Someday!

While population density is one of the first things that comes to mind when people are thinking about life in Japan, it’s important to note that there is a big difference between the toshi (city) and inaka (rural) ways of life. Most people will tell you these are the two faces of Japan, but people in Tokyo might tell you that there is only Tokyo and inaka.

We’re talking stumbling upon an old bus in the middle of mountain rice fields while you’re lost and hunting for a somewhat mythological shrine kind of inaka.

While comparing the mindsets of Tokyoites and Osakans, or comparing the mindsets of Kyotoites and everyone else is always fun, there is also perspective to be gained within other regions as well. For example, the term “U-turn” refers to young people who move away to the big city for a while, but soon find themselves returned to their inaka hometowns. On a smaller scale, an aquaintance here once boasted that even if this region seems far away, living close to an airport means that it’s easy to fly out to Tokyo for a weekend to play and shop, and that is just enough time to receive a shock and be happy to come back home just as easily.

While many, many prefectures in Japan would proudly describe themselves as inaka, only the San’in region, facing the Sea of Japan and nestled behind the Chugoku mountain range as if hiding from the rest of the country, gets to boast of the lowest population of all the prefectures. Tottori Prefecture, to the east, wins in a lot of these contests: lowest population, as well as the last prefecture to get a Starbucks. Shimane Prefecture, to the west, only has the second lowest population and was only the second to last prefecture to get a Starbucks (as of about a year ago–we more recently got a Godiva right across from it, though!).

Furthermore, just as people enjoy trying to find any kind of unique(ish) claims to fame for US states, you find the same of push for fame for each prefecture in Japan. I heard of a list labeling each prefecture for something it is famous for, and while Shimane was quite appropriately named Shinwa-ken (Mythology Prefecture), Tottori was named Nashi-ken (Pear Prefecture). Tottori pears are indeed very, very, very tasty, but the problem with this nickname is that the word for pear (梨) is synonymous with the word for “nothing” (無). It doesn’t seem people were insulted. Rather, they laughed and took it with a sense of ironic pride–“Haha, that’s right, there is nothing in Tottori! We’re as inaka as it gets!”

That’s not true, though. Tottori is famous for–within Japan–very unique sand dunes, as well as for being the home prefecture of many famous mangaka, such as Mizuki Shigeru (who wrote Gegege no Kitaro), and Aoyama Gosho (who wrote Detective Conan). Thus, one of Tottori’s other nicknames is “Manga Kingdom.” If anything, because of Tottori’s reputation for being the most inaka of the inaka (and indeed, in many manga I’ve read where they want very a inaka setting, Tottori tends to be a popular choice), it’s kind of famous in its alleged “nothingness.”

And alas, Shimane, being second to Tottori in inaka-ness, is often overshadowed by Tottori’s supposed void. We joke that we’re the 47th most popular prefecture. Irony tends to be a strength of the region, though, as evidenced by Yoshida-kun, our scowling volunteer ambassador who tells it like it is and therefore doesn’t sugar-coat what really does make Shimane a cool place.

To break down regional attitudes a little further, I’ve written before about how the western portion of Shimane (Iwami) and the eastern region of Shimane (Izumo) tend to have different mindsets (and notice that this is completely ignoring the rather large, unique Oki Islands), illustrated in little things like offering and accepting tea:

A person from the Iwami region (western Shimane) goes to visit a friend in the Izumo region (eastern Shimane). The Izumo friend asks, “Do you want another cup of tea?” and the Iwami friend replies, “no thank you, I’ve had enough.” The Izumo friend then prepares another cup of tea, and the Iwami friend is surprised and then forces himself to drink it so as to be polite.

A person from the Izumo region goes to visit a friend in the Iwami region. The Iwami friend asks, “Do you want another cup of tea?” and the Izumo friend replies, “no thank you, I’ve had enough.” The Iwami friend pours no more tea, and the Izumo friend sadly wonders why he isn’t getting another cup of tea but says nothing so as to be polite.

Even breaking down the Izumo region even further into small cities and towns, you find even more different mindsets despite the higher level of integration. For example, the two largest cities in the Izumo region are Matsue City and Izumo City, respectively on the east and west sides of Lake Shinji, comprising the Shimane Peninsula. They are connected by various roads and train lines on both the north and south sides of the lake, and visitors to one city usually do not pass up the other. When it comes to tourism, however, you notice some of the following ways of viewing each other (I’ve emphasized and compiled general passing comments I’ve heard over my time here).

Matsue, when viewed from Izumo’s perspective:

Matsue is so lucky. They have Matsue Castle and all the samurai era history and festivals that go with it, the iconic Horikawa Sightseeing Boat weaving through the canals around town, and generally being a very walkable, welcoming place for visitors, always eager to show off its history with pride. What’s more, if they want to start a new city wide festival or even put on a weekend event in a shopping area, they have enough people that they can generally count on people attending! It’s just too quiet and spread out here for us to be able to put on big themed parades over five times a year… sure seems lively over there across the lake.

Izumo, when viewed from Matsue’s perspective:

Izumo is so lucky. They have Izumo Taisha! Everyone knows Izumo Taisha! Everyone comes here for Izumo Taisha. Everyone goes to Izumo Taisha for En-musubi. We have En-musubi too, you know! Sniffle… I wish we could have Izumo Taisha. Sure, we have Miho Shrine and Kamosu Shrine and Kumano Taisha and Sada Shrine… but nobody knows them like they know Izumo Taisha!!

So maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea.

It’s okay, Matsue, you are loved and known.
Click photo for Facebook source and share the love for Matsue.

However, even within Matsue, you find that there is still some leftover cultural differences from before the 2005 and 2011 mergers with surrounding small towns and villages (there was a big push for mergers all over inaka Japan around this time). At the far northeast, Mihonoseki retains its Mihonoseki culture and pride, as does Shinji at the far southwest, though they are all collectively Matsue now.

However, I frequently hear comments about those oddballs out in the Yatsuka district–otherwise known as Daikonshima, the large island on Lake Nakaumi. The island didn’t use to be accessable by car, so the little peony and ginseng kingdom combined its occasional influences from Sakaiminato (a fishing port) and Yonago (a business area, the San’in region’s “Little Osaka”), Mihonoseki, and central Matsue to create a strange cultural mix and even stranger dialect. While you hear varying amounts of Izumo-ben (Izumo dialect) in the city center and in the outskirts of Matsue, or in Izumo, or the famous folk songs of Yasugi, or in the little mountain villages of Unnan and Okuizumo… you don’t hear Yatsuka-ben anywhere but the Yatsuka district. I haven’t actually spent enough time on Daikonshima talking with locals or anyone outside of Yuushien Japanese Garden to have noticed, but I certainly hear the people in the rest of Matsue talk about how weird it is.

And who knows… maybe the locals on Daikonshima talk about their weird neighbors on the even smaller island, Eshima.

The attention hogs have demanded more sharing of their photos.

Following up on the previous entry, the winter peonies at Yuushien insisted on more photos to show off a little more of their splendor. In addition to the usual year-round displays of color and shape and winter peonyscapes with woven huts to protect them from snow, there is also a temporary exhibition on display until 3/31/2014 that is a collaboration between Holland’s imaginative and futuristic gardener Nico Wissing and Japan’s green magician Kazuyuki Ishihara.

Without further ado, enjoy Shimane’s prefectural flower, famous among peony enthusiasts around the world:


















I’ve got a lovely bunch of peonies, there they are a’standing in a row. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your—oh, who I am kidding, there are no small ones.

What do you get for venturing outside on a day like this? You get wet, that’s what.

Yuushien Garden is located on Daikonshima (otherwise known as the Yatsuka district of Matsue–now where have we heard that name before?), a island on Nakaumi, a brackish lake between Shimane and Tottori. When I hear “Yuushien” I think peonies. Okay, so sometimes I think of ginseng too, but I mostly think of peonies. After all, the sight and scent of 30,000 of them floating in the pond while thousands more were on display around the rest of the garden (and the rest of the island) was an unforgetable experience.

While no season can compare to full season, there are peonies blooming all year round at this garden, and the winter peonies (kan-botan) are a special sight from December through February. While peonies in Flower Language (hanakotoba) can mean royal style, riches and honor, pompousness, and (surprisingly) shyness, the winter peonies in particular have a noble, high class association. At Yuushien, these seasonal peonies have their own little straw huts to protect them from the weight of snow, and photographers flock to capture the bright blossoms against the white landscape.

I had no such luck. We had snowglobe like days during the week, but my Sunday at Yuushien was rain, rain, rain, rain.

I didn’t get to see the snowy scenery and rain is certainly not my favorite weather, but it did give me a very different view of the garden than I had only a very sunny, very crowded day last May during Golden Week (right around the height of the peony season). Rain brings out the textures in the garden landscape, especially in the ponds, moss, and volcanic rock that Daikonshima is made out of (and that’s why its soil is so good for peonies and ginseng).

Despite the general subdued tones of winter, there were still very vibrant, impressive peonies. In my years of studying East Asian cultures I have frequently heard them referred to like the Queen of the Flowers, and the Queen enjoys her spotlight in any weather. But, my dear Queen, there are so many other little things to notice in the sleepy garden winters! Can’t you let them have a little spotlight, too?

No? You really insist on photobombing, don’t you?

Setting the royal flower aside for a moment, let’s take a look at some of the rest of the rainy day views Yuushien provides in February.












Alright, Your Elegance, you haunty, flower, you! There will be more photos in your honor coming soon.

In the meantime, I’ll just wrap up with a statue we interpreted thus.

Another flower post as promised!

Yuushien is one of the most famous gardens in the San’in region (though the most famous would have to be the one at the Adachi Museum of Art located in nearby Yasugi). It is a Japanese-style garden for all seasons; a quiet space to listen to the sounds of the waterfalls, observe the seasonal trees and flowers, feed the fish, and collect your thoughts. That is, unless you go during Golden Week.




It’s not by simple coincidence that iris (aka “sweet flag”) season lines up with Golden Week. Read more on Fumiyaen‘s insightful blog.

Yuushien is located on Daikonshima (otherwise known as the Yatsuka district of Matsue), a island on Nakaumi, a brackish lake between Shimane and Tottori. It used to be a town of its own, and there is a unique dialect spoken only on that island with some influence from the surrounding Mihonoseki Peninsula, Sakaiminato, and general Izumo dialect. It was formed from volcanic rock and you can explore underground lava trails, and those familiar with Japanese cuisine will probably notice that it literally means “giant radish island” (大根島). While I’m sure they probably grow somewhere around there, the island is not actually known for daikon radishes.

Rather, the island was recorded in the 8th century Chronicles of Ancient Izumo as “octopus island” (’takoshima’ たこ島)(though this probably had more to do with someone bringing an octopus to the island than there actually being octopus in Nakaumi–squid are more popular around here!). It was given somewhat similar sounding kanji at some point (‘takushima’ 太根島), which gradually morphed into some similar kanji based on an alternate pronunciation of the aforementioned kanji (‘taikushima’ 大根島), and this was eventually misread as the pronunciation that is currently used today (‘daikonshima’ 大根島).

On of the other theories about the name origin is that it had some ties to what the island of volcanic soil is known for: ginseng! This was traded with Korea and other places back in the Edo era when Izumo province was in financial straits, and is still prized today (and easy to get your hands on).

But this post is not about ginseng, it is about flowers. The other thing Daikonshima is famous for is its peonies (‘botan’, ). The prefectural flower of Shimane, thousands upon thousands of them bloom all over the island, and they are highly prized by peony lovers all around the world. Yuushien is but a central location to see some 180 varieties in a single place, including many varieties that were cultivated on the island. There are always some kind of variety blooming on Yuushien, even in winter when the blooms are protected from the snow by little straw huts. For a few days during Golden Week, however, the pond is filled with over 30,000 blossoms. That’s only a fraction of all the blossoms within the garden at that time, much less within the entire island! As soon as you step into the garden, you might even notice the fragrance before the actual sight. Kudos to anyone who knows what I mean when I say I half-expected to meet Liu Mengmei! Peonies originally came to Japan from China, they just thrived and developed extremely well on this island. As it turns out, there is a Chinese style garden elsewhere on Daikonshima.


Besides vendors selling their own cultivated peonies all over the island during the Peony Festival, there is also an exhibition during this particular period of time, and you can use your garden admission ticket to vote for your favorite cleverly titled variety on display (by the way, foreign visitors get half-off admission to the garden all year round for only 300 yen).

“Old Mountain Lady”, but I wonder which one?

Without further ado, how about we just move on to a sampling of pictures?

Striped varieties were originally cultivated on Daikonshima.


Peonies are huge. Many blossoms seemed to be about the size of my head.





Yellow varieties are not as common, but there were plenty to be seen anyway.