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

When asked about the best times of year to visit, I usually tell people to come to the San’in region–especially the Izumo region–in May or October. Everyone knows that cherry blossoms are spectacular throughout Japan in April, but I think the more impressive flower displays are in May. As for October, that’s Kamiarizuki.

The Japanese calendar has classical names for every month, and October is typically known as Kannazuki (神無月), “the month without gods.” However, only in the Izumo region is it known as Kamiarizuki (神在月), “the month with gods.” Put simply, this is because the many thousands of kami from throughout Japan are congregating in and around Izumo Taisha for a meeting.

Just to be clear, the Japanese calendar is sort of whack and many holidays are not celebrated according to the times they were originally meant to be celebrated. Kamiarizuki, although the phrase nowadays typically is in direct reference to Gregorian October, is not even a month long. Futhermore, it changes every year according to the old calendar. In 2014, the meeting of the gods is from December 1 to December 8. There will be events going on at Shinto shrines–most notably and especially Izumo Taisha, of course–over the course of that time, and many pilgrims do flock to these events.

But like the divide between religious Christmas and mainstream Christmas, the mainstream celebration of Kamiarizuki is festive and quite noticable, and even more of the public takes part in this. After all, it is a whole month long, and there are even free shuttle buses to and from Matsue Station specifically for everything going on around the castle.

In Matsue especially, October also implies Suitoro, the lantern festival. Hundreds of lanterns–everything from square paper lanterns decorated by children or by local professional artists to stone lanterns carved out of Kimachi stone–are placed around Matsue Castle every night the weather permits, and on the weekends they extend out to the surrounding streets, including around the Shimane Prefecture office and along Shiomi Nawate, one of the top historic streets of Japan across the moat from the castle mountain.

Click for source and more photos (Japanese)

Besides the Matsue Castle Grand Tea Ceremony I already posted a handful of entries about, there are many events both during the day and during the evening on weekends. Some occur every year, others change slightly. For instance, the Samurai Residence (home to a middle-ranking samurai family which the street, Shiomi Nawate, is named after) is usually open late and has free evening admission so that people can enjoy concerts held there.

The backdrop for the concerts at the Samurai Residence

Matsue Castle also has later admission to enjoy the view of the lanterns, and the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat which cruises around the historic moats all day long runs a special night course to enjoy the view from below. The stage set up at the main entrance to Matsue Castle usually has some form of Kagura dance as well as other San’in region performers. Food stalls from local restaurants? But of course.

Last weekend I checked out an outdoor cafe and art exhibition set up to enjoy alongside the concerts at the Samurai Residence in which everyone working there was dressed in Taishou era style clothes, and then walked along the lantern-lit moat to go see a concert at Matsue Castle. Still, along the way, there was such a sence of peace in the glow of the night air–cool, but not yet frigid, quiet, but not silent. Groups of people–including families with teens, families with small children, families with grandparents leading the way most enthusiastically–were coming and going. Single wanderers, like myself, passed here and there, listening in to other’s conversations as acquaintances ran into each other.

“Oh! Fancy seeing you here!”
“Yes, I live close by, but you imagine that this is my first time to come enjoy Suitoro this year? Haha.”
“I came last weekend, too. Will you be going to the concert tomorrow?”
“I probably can… did you ride the boats yet?”
“Not yet… tonight I came for the shakuhachi concert.”
“Ah, I wanted to see the cafe! I think I’ll try the plum lemon tea.”

It’s like going out to enjoy the Christmas lights, only it’s not from your car, it’s up close and in person. It’s not just about the lights–it’s a chance to appreciate what others have created. Each performance, each booth and stall, each and every single handmade lantern, all unique and produced from the heart.

While walking along the moat, eyeing the lit-up boats and the reflections of the lights from all around on the water’s surface, whereas on the other side of the street the Edo period walls are lit just as much as necessary, I cannot help but wonder how many artists have passed that street in its hundreds of years of history.

Ah, but then again, I am an artist—and I have likely walked that street hundreds of times by now myself.

Another view of the lantern I made last year–yes, that is Lafcadio Hearn, who also happened to be an artist and took many walks along Shiomi Nawate.

Back home somewhat early that night, I could still hear the sound of October in Matsue–enormous do drums echoing through the city, as the neighborhoods break out their treasures from the store houses, pass the sake around, and practice the flute and drum tunes for a parade that has been celebrated since the Edo period–Do-gyoretsu. It rumbles like a distance thunder, but unlike the thunder, the beat goes on as it always had in the past. But we don’t live in the past–the familiar beats and echoes of the drum parade accompany the lantern festival, a modern traditional as much a part of local character as Kamiarizuki itself.



Yes, those are filled with sake.

——

Yesterday was Sunday, October 19th–the third Sunday of October, and therefore Do-gyoretsu, the drum parade. It was hard to spot the people I knew–it’s hard to tell if there were more participants or spectators, as it draws such a crowd. Furthermore, the weather was sunny and warm, perfect for a parade.

By the evening, however much the sounds of the drums lingered in after parties throughout the neighborhoods, the atmosphere of Suitoro took over again, and the night had just as perfect weather as the day. Windless, cloudless, and comfortably between warm and cool.

A perfect night for tea.

The local junior college tea ceremony club had set up a special event this weekend in cooperation with the special night-time Horikawa Sightseeing Boat canal cruises. Besides getting the enjoy the view of the lights along the streets, trees, and surface of the water, the boat was also lighted with its own lanterns and even a flower decoration attached to one of the posts, and there was just enough space for eight guests, two boat operators at either end of the boat cooperating in low-light navigation, and two students in kimono with a tea space set up for preparing tea.

In the low light it was hard to appreciate the appearance of the Horikawa boat themed wagashi and the individual tea cups, but the quietness of the night made everything else more noticable–the warm, autumn taste of the chestnut included in the wagashi, the fragrance of the charcoal used in the ceremony, the smoothness of the tea, and the subtle motion of the boat. I’ve ridden this boat countless times and could give the whole tour myself instead of interpreting, but it nonetheless felt very surprising and mysterious to see the 400-year-old stone walls of the castle, take a sip of tea as the boat was turning, and then see the lanterns decorating the street when I took the cup away.

The boat was full of people I didn’t know, and for once I was totally engaged in conversation on account of being the foreign face at a tea ceremony, and the others talked among themselves, perhaps assuming I couldn’t understand. A couple ladies with thick Izumo accents were trying to remember where the best soba restaurant on Shiomi Nawate was (came from just out of town, likely), an older couple were asking the boat operator when they’d be bringing out the kotatsu this year–ahh, November 10th, I see–(they were likely Matsue locals), and at last the quiet middle adged man asked if the tea ceremony on the boat happens all the time–what’s more, are these lanterns always there? He had immediately painted himself as a tourist–and as luck would have it, this Kanazawa native showed up on a perfect night for tea and lanterns! The older couple went on to tell him that if he thinks the boat ceremony is nice, he should have been there for the Grand Tea Ceremony and couple weeks beforehand.

I decided just to hold my tongue for once and let it look like I’m not the know-it-all I am. The silence was a welcome break from my usual chatter-filled, cultural exchange lifestyle, and I was content to simply observe the passing October moments.

In 10th month, most of Japan must go without their local kami, because they are all convening for their yearly meeting to decide how they’ll be influencing people in the year to come (more or less on an individual basis). Out here in the old Izumo province, however, we celebrate Kamiarizuki (literally, “the month with gods”) because they gather at Izumo Taisha (the second most important Shinto shrine).

Having kami around is generally a felicitous thing, so paired with the three day weekend, there were plenty of things to do in Matsue this weekend. I didn’t make it to everything I was invited to, but I fit in quite a bit. You’d think it would be hard to draw a crowd for anything going on because of how much is going on, but there was some giant outdoor gathering for everyone this weekend.

For starters, the Daichakai (“Big Tea Party”). I had been looking forward to this one for a while. Different schools of the tea ceremony set up tents around the castle grounds to do constant introductions of their respective styles.

A little hard to have an intimate ceremony with that many people, but it works.

The way it works is that you buy a ticket (or three), then turn in the ticket at the reception area of whatever style you want to try. They give you a colored and numbered ticket to turn in at the next open ceremony (the color indicates which time slot you have, the number is for organization purposes). There is typically a tent to wait in or observe flower arrangements. Once they start, everyone finds a seat in a rather orderly fashion, and one host prepares the tea while another explains the actions and decorations and characteristics of their style. The first and second guests (typically) receive tea prepared in front of everyone, while the other guests receive tea prepared behind the scenes by other practitioners. Before received the tea, everyone eats a fancy little wagashi (traditional Japanese sweet, which comes in all kinds of clever shapes and colors, and is usually identical in their level of sweetness–as in very, very sweet). In contrast, the tea is usually very bitter, but the contrast is refreshing.

Inside the tents, everyone is seated on a nice clean chair, and the ceremony typically goes pretty fast, meaning they probably serve several hundred guests over the course of two days. Instead of paper cups, in my experience every guest got to use a fancy cup/bowl, since appreciating the tools is also an important element of the tea ceremony.

This is Houenryu, which was very popular. This was more of an east-west fusion, with black tea instead of green tea, and European style China instead of traditional Japanese tools.

I didn’t participate, but I did enjoy the glimpse of tasteful fusion I did get.

I tried Soshinryu first, which served the tea in a more Chinese fashion–a delicate cup filled with loose leaves, which you keep pushed back with a matching lid as you sip the brew. It was served with an orange and pink and purple wagashi evoking maple leaves and filled with anko (sweet azuki bean paste).

After that I tried Fumairyu, the local style started by Fumai-ko. That had a lot of wabisabi influence (this is a rustic Japanese aesthetic that appreciates imperfection), and was a matcha (thick green tea made from powdered leaves), and had an orange and purple wagashi that looked simple like a piece of gyoza, and was once again filled with anko.

The following morning I went out to Meimei-an (the historic tea house), as this is one of the rare occasions when you can actually take part in a tea ceremony inside. It was removed from everything else and hidden away up a hill, so it certainly felt more formal. This was the Musha-Koujisenke, which was also matcha and had a green, purple, and pink wagashi coated in a sticky azuki bean concoction.

Lucky for me, kimono attire was not required. An umbrella would have been nice, though. Ninja rain attacks out of nowhere.

After the Daichakai, we went down to the south side of town for the annual Oden Summit. Oden is a seasonal food, and while there is a usual menu of Japanese ingredients, it pretty much consists of any collection of food items served in a hot broth (usually a fishy kind). It’s not quite like soup–you don’t eat it with a spoon, but take bites of the items and they gush with broth. It’s a bit of a comfort food, if you’re used to it.

This is closest to what comes to mind when I think of oden, though not necessarily shaped like Himeji castle (not a pine tree).

There were several Matsue vendors (with everything from traditional to Italian style), but also vendors from other prefectures (and Korea). I tried a couple traditional varieties and a kimchi one, but the curry flavored oden was my favorite.

After that, we checked out an event that seemed to have something to do with Nikoniko Doga (which is like, the Japanese version of YouTube, only with more active promotion? Does that sound like the best way to put it? I don’t have an account, so I don’t know…). It seemed to be aimed at a younger crowd, but there were plenty of people showcasing products and companies and organizations from everywhere.

While attendees at the Daichakai were dressed in fine kimono and western formal wear, youths here were also putting extra effort into the way they dressed. I liked seeing both styles!

There were performing groups and individuals on stages, and a group learning a dance to a pop song, and some famous (?) people giving autographs who people lined up to meet them, and then some wandering performers.



Practically across the street from the Oden Summit and lining any available space between the art museum and Lake Shinji, there was the Mizube Arts Festival, full of food and craft and clothing vendors, and jungle gyms for kids, painters working on giant canvases, and performers (both on large and small stages, or just on the grass with microphones, costumes, choreographed fighting and dramatic background music).

Also, notice that island in the distance behind the stage? This is one of the only weekends when you can visit it. So I did! But that’s a post for another time.

By the way, the kami aren’t actually here yet. They still meet meet according to the 10th month of the old Japanese lunar calendar, whereas the humans have switched to the Gregorian calendar.