I confess, I have not actually picked up much Izumo dialect, thought to be rather hard to understand even for native speakers. I’m not so sure how far that goes. I have had difficulty understanding little old ladies in the countryside when I’ve asked for directions, but otherwise I can usually understand whatever someone is saying based on context. Locals always tease that Izumo-ben must be difficult to understand since I’m a foreign speaker of Japanese, but it doesn’t really work like that. As a non-native speaker, I have years of having to understand words in context that I’ve never formally studied, so listening to Izumo-ben doesn’t feel strange.

Using Izumo-ben, however, is a different story. I can sort of hear and parse out in my head how it works, but the only aspects I’ve picked up have thinking with verb endings like “-choru” or sometimes adding “-ken” to things for a little emphasis, but I don’t think “-ken” is limited to this brand of Inaka-ben (country dialect) anyway. When people teach me phrases I can usually imitate them, but this is usually only for their entertainment and I never commit them to memory.

The major part of Izumo-ben that anyone and everyone should pick up, though, is the phrase for “Thank-you”: Dan-dan.

You hear it everywhere, and it’s such a short, snappy, and catchy phrase that there’s no reason not to try using it. Even though I typically hear people use more standard ways of expressing thanks, the locals do smile warmly and get excited at the sound of people from other parts using that phrase. It carries a lot of local character, and it always goes over well when everyone from Japanese tourists to foreign diplomats use the phrase. You also see and hear it used throughout the area, like in the “Dan-dan kasa” program, a free umbrella-loaning service found through the city of Matsue (I’ve benefitted from this program almost as much as I have contributed to it by forgotting my umbrellas in public places all the time).

You would also hear it used for the outdoor hot-food festival held throughout the city and especially on Sundays throughout the month of February, the Matsue Dan-Dan Shoku Festa.

I’ve broke this down in an entry last year as follows:

まつえ暖談食フェスタ
まつえ is “Matsue” written in phonetic hiragana instead of in kanji, as usual (松江).
暖 is “warmth” and read here as dan.
談 is “conversation” and read here as dan. Pairing them together is like “warm conversation” and sometimes people translate the name of the festival as “heart-warming.”
だんだん, Dan-Dan, is Izumo dialect for “thank-you,” one of the most commonly heard and actively used Izumo phrases.
食 is “food/eat” and read here as shoku.
フェスタ is short for “festival.”

So you could call it anything from “Matsue Festival for Food That Brings About Warm Conversation” to “Matsue Thanks-For-The-Warm-Food Festival” but I find “Dan-Dan Shoku Festa” is most catchy.

Now that we’re heading into a cold snap here in January, I thought for sure we’d be looking forward to some Dan-Dan Shoku Festa material soon, but what is this? The Matsue Shoku Matsuri??

Apparently they changed it this year because the Dan-Dan pun was a hard sell to travel companies. But I am very disappointed with the name change! I feel no sense of local character and warm from a bland name like “Matsue Food Festival.” Give me back my Izumo-ben pun and get some local flavor back in this name!

Sigh. At least we get four Sundays of outdoor food fests instead of only three this year. There are as follows:

January 31, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
In front of JR Matsue Station (Area A)
(Includes the annual “En-musubi Shichifukujin Nabe”, the “Seven Lucky Gods Fate-binding Hot Pot” which serves 800 people yet can disappear rather quickly–to date, I’ve only made it in time for a serving once)

February 7, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Matsue Castle grounds (Area B)
(Special features include handmade wagashi from artisan Itami-sensei and Matsue Castle Rifle Troupe performances at noon and 2pm, but you can get Itami-sensei’s wagashi at the Matsue History Museum cafe Kiharu all year round and the Teppo-tai performs at the museums on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of every month anyway, so…)

February 14, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Kyomise shopping district (Area C)
(If you find it too cold to stay outside, many of the fancy restaurants around this shopping district are also doing special things that day)

February 21, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Tenjinmachi (around Shirahata Tenmangu Shrine) (Area D)
(Seeing as Tenjin is the god of scholarship and we’re coming up on entrance exam season, there’s a special “Tenjin Goukaku Okage Nabe”—which I’d roughly translate as “Pass Your Tests Thanks to Tenjin’s Hot Pot.”)

The area south of the Ohashi River

The areas south of the Ohashi River


The areas north of the Ohashi River

The areas north of the Ohashi River

Furthermore, the San’in region is Crab Country. See more details (and puns) about the crab culture in this entry, but also be aware that the “Kani-goya” (Crab Shack) event going on a 10 minute walk east of JR Matsue Station along the Ohashi River is already underway. This year it’s January 16 ~ February 29, open 11:00am through 10:00pm. This event is all about indulging in regional crab, having them cooked right in front of you and making a raucous with your buddies as you tear into them.

I like crab if someone else gets the meat out for me, but I supposed this is a craze I don’t really understand. I’ll stick with the array of fancy Sunday market foods.

And I will still stubbornly call it the Dan-Dan Shoku Festa, thank you very much. Yes, I am feeling a little salty over the loss of this pun.

Katae (written 片江 or かたえ) is a little neighborhood nestled into the northern coast of the Mihonoseki portion of the Shimane Peninsula. It’s so separated from everything else that it’s practically its own town, and when talking with the locals there, they speak of Matsue like it’s a big city that is totally unrelated to them. It seems that although they were politically integrated during the nationwide town and city mergers of 2005, there hasn’t been much of a cultural integration, or at least not much of an awareness of themselves as Matsue citizens.

The biggest claim fame this tiny neighborhood has is its early January festival, in which they engage in two New Year customs, Tontoyaki and Sumitsuke. Tontoyaki is the burning of New Years door decorations. In Katae’s tradition the families with boys and girls through about elementary school age display and burn different decorations accordingly, but the big show is for the girls’ decorations. Unfortunately, like many rural towns and neighborhoods of Japan they’ve had a declining population, so the amount of decorations had also significantly decreased from the time my friend’s family was putting out decorations for her. While there used to be four giant, streamered towers of special decorations following the early morning burning of the household decorations, the celebration is now down to two.

It’s hard to tell, but each of those bag-like things hanging from the poles was actually a very elaborate paper decoration.

The main draw takes place a little later, and that is the Sumitsuke. Literally, “ink-applying.” If that translation doesn’t make it clear, you’ll soon find out what it is if you show up to spectate. There are no mere spectators at this event.

This tradition has been going on here for over 250 years, and while it’s not the only one of its kind in Japan, some spectators came from as far away as Kobe to witness and participate. As the two omikoshi portable shrines parade up and down the main street between the houses and the ocean, they are surrounded by people walking around and offering free cups of sake and hearty helpings of fishy snacks to go along with it, and a truck drives by with free drinks in the back for people to share. These locals are on duty this year, while other years they get to stand around by the big dish of free tonjiru (very homemade-ish soup with pork broth) and watch and wait. And who are they waiting for, if not the men carrying the omikoshi or the people handing out free drinks and grilled fish sausage and dried squid?

The people are carry the event (not in quite as literal of a sense) are the people with hands covered in jet black ink. Wetting their fingers with sake, they smear the ink on people’s faces, everyone from tiny babies to the elderly to everyone in between. And everyone wants this—getting this ink on your face will ensure good health for the coming year!

I wore some old clothes I wouldn’t mind getting stained with ink, and checked it out with a friend and her 5-month-old. The festival is held on the second Sunday of January, and those there was a light rain, the weather didn’t feel very cold amidst the brimming activity. Oddly enough we seemed to pick the people with the ink for a couple passes of the omikoshi, be it that we were distracted by soup or by using the bathroom, and the people around us kept making comments about what blank palettes we were. That didn’t stop the retiree photographers with pension money to spend on multiple cameras bigger than their own heads from swarming me like paparazzi, though.

sumi

By about the third time the train started to come by, everyone was ready but me–the hobby photographer crowd and the local cable TV news were all aiming at me while I held the baby and was approached by an old lady who very politely gave me two big dabs of ink on my forehead, two on one cheek, and one on the other. The baby got a single dab, but by the end of the festival her yellow coat was smeared black in several places as she looked around and people watched (or zoned out watching the streamers. It was easy to zone out watching those while waiting for the party to come back around).

What the photographers missed, however, was a few minutes after that when we followed behind the crowd up to the beach where the highlight of the event would take place. Along the way, an old man I had never seen before walked right up to be and grumbled as if something was wrong, and next thing I new, he was pouring beer in his hands and then he rubbed his hands from my cheeks down to my chin. Ah, he really got me this time, I thought, and just as soon as I did he marched back in my direction and swiped his hands around my forehead and temples and then down my nose for good measure. Looks like I’m set up for some really, really good health this year.

As one of my friends later pointed out, I looked like a monkey with the part of my face that was left uncovered. I suppose this is my excitement for the Year of the Monkey showing. Thankfully I am not a Monkey, as you’ll notice later.

Seeing as Katae is situated right along the Sea of Japan, the ocean plays a big role in this winter festival. Where could they be going with those omikoshi?

Right out into the ocean? Why yes, of course.

A brilliant use of brisk weather.

It reminded me how at another winter Mihonoseki festival on the south side of the peninsula the men wear even less and sound even more energetic, and are so distracted that they can’t feel the cold. However, for toshi-otoko, “year-men” born in the same zodiac animal year as that present year, I imagine no amount of distraction could keep them from feeling at least a little chilly.

“Here’s to your good health! Let’s have you start the year by catching a cold!”

Those poor Monkeys.

The festival soon simmered down after that as the omikoshi were parade back up through the neighborhood to return to the shrine, the spectators dispersed, and I remained stuck for a while as photographers documented my thoroughly inked face. Thanks for the snacks and the soup and the good health and a good time, Katae.

“The town where we put ink on each other, Katae”

The gods are here
It’s Kamiarizuki
Better light the way!

IMG_4974

Here in Matsue
We call this Suitoro
Lantern Festival

IMG_4976


Around the Castle
On a breezy night time stroll
Handmade lanterns gleam

IMG_4973


Each one unique
Celebrating the city
In various styles

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

Not only on foot
You can view them by boat too
City of Water~

Click for source and more photos (Japanese)

“What is the difference between yukata and kimono?” someone asked me recently.

I gave them a rather lengthy answer, but somewhere in my heart the answer was, “Kimono are a pain. Yukata are fun.”

Don’t misunderstand, I do love kimono, and you can have a lot of fun with them. A yukata, however, is not bound by all the same rules as kimono. Although it would not be appropriate to wear them in place of a kimono, you can get away with all sorts of traditional and untraditional patterns, and accessories. It’s a little shocking to older generations to see young women wearing their yukata short with their ankles exposed for easy walking, in some ways it looks like the yukata has evolved into outfits one would hardly associate with kimono, like the shirt-and-pants style high schoolers are sporting lately, and the frilly-dress style things for small children that one could argue are not yukata at all. Although you do need some amount of tools for the typical yukata, you don’t need as many as you’d need for kimono (and in fact, you don’t even have to be able to tie a bow because many of them come with pre-tied bows!). Furthermore, yukata are much, much cheaper than kimono.

On my first trip to Japan I really wanted a yukata, so I bought a relatively cheap blue one. Although things did not work out to go to festival during that trip, I wore it to go do handheld fireworks in the park with my high school friends. To my chagrin they did not show up in yukata as planned, so I was the only one while they all wore t-shirts. Still a fun memory, though.

No, I did not take off anyone’s head!

The following year when I returned for a study abroad program, a Japanese friend of mine gave me a nice black and pink one as a gift. Score, one yukata for me, and one yukata for a friend if ever need be!

Fast forward to my life in Matsue, especially while I was working on competitive kimono dressing. I had gone into a chain kimono store looking for something and wound up signing over my contact information for a mailing list and a raffle, in which I won… another yukata! This one was purple with some hot pink.

Fast forward to the following year, when I won second place at the regional competition. What was my prize? You got it, another yukata. I already have a dark blue one, but I really like the breezy material on this one.

So what do I do with all these yukata???

I get lots of friends to dress up with me to and go to lots of festivals, that’s what.

Here in Matsue, there are other festivals at shrines a little further away, but my favorite ones around the city center that are very easy to get to even while tottering around in a properly worn yukata include the following:

Shirakata Tenmangu Natsu Matsuri: “Tenjin-sai”
Tenjin is the god of scholarship, worshiped at Tenmangu shrines throughout the country. This story behind this god is rather interesting, and although Matsue’s Shirakata Tenmangu Shrine is the better known one, Sugawara Tenmangu Shrine towards the southwest outskirts of town is one of many spots throughout the country that claims to be the birthplace of this god.
The festival atmosphere lasts from the afternoon until very late evening on July 24th and 25th, stretching all the way up and down a shopping arcade that’s been in that spot since the Edo period. Although I’ve worn yukata to stroll and watch the bouncing and shouting parade of o-mikoshi (portable shrines), this year I stirred things up a bit by joining in and going for the festival happi jacket look instead.

At many festivals of similiar nature in Japan, the people carrying the shrines shout “washoi! washoi! washoi!,” heaving it in the air on “shoi.” Matsue’s Tenjin-sai started the same way, but that felt a little too slow, so at some point it changed to the people carrying it and the people around them trading off with “Soya!” “Saa!” “Soya!” “Saa!” “Soya!” “Saa!

As cool of an experience as it was, you know what was really unforgetable that night? The colors of the sunset over Lake Shinji as we carried the shrine over the Ohashi Bridge! I wasn’t exactly able to stop and snap a picture, though… oh well, Lake Shinji will always have other beautiful sunsets.

Suigosai: Lake Shinji Fireworks Festival
Again, every region has a big fireworks festival–or several of them–but this is the biggest in the area, with the added appeal of reflections off of Lake Shinji visible from several directions, and sound echoing even as far as the quiet neighbors of neighboring Yasugi City. Usually held on the first weekend of August or so, they usually fire 3000 fireworks on Saturday night and 6000 fireworks on Sunday night, but last year there was a typhoon so they rescheduled it and fired 9000 in one night later on in the month. I had thought that would be the most amazing fireworks display of my life, especially sitting right by the surface of Lake Shinji, but this year Matsue Castle became a National Treasure. To commemorate this, they fired the usual 3000 on Saturday, and then 10000 on Sunday. It looked like the sky had filled with gold.

Matsue Shinjiko Onsen: Oyukake Jizo Matsuri
On August 24th, people give thanks for the natural spring waters at the north banks of Lake Shinji. And they buy stuff from food stalls, watch stage events, and light some more fireworks. I wrote a little more about this last year.

Tamatsukuri Onsen, on the southern banks of Lake Shinji, also has a summer festivals that lasts for a few weeks, but I have not attended yet (despite how much I always love a good stroll through that onsen area and a dip in the riverside foot baths!).

There are some other shrine festivals I always hear about and have yet to go, and I suppose if I really wanted to dress in yukata for the lanterns floating down the Ohashi River at the end of the Obon holiday on August 16 it wouldn’t be out of place, but I’ve always only stopped by in casual western style clothes.

The other place I’ve been using my yukata this summer is at my tea ceremony lessons. I usually practice in western style clothes, but after accidentally dipping my sleeve in the waste water during this year’s New Year ceremony, I figured I should probably take the chance to practice in long sleeves while I had the chance. Technically yukata are not appropriate for a tea ceremony, but my teacher gave me permission so that I could fit some extra practice in. So far I’ve only dipped the sleeve in the tea cup once, but thankfully it had nothing in it at the time.

Don’t be fooled when people tell you that yukata help you stay cool, though. They are indeed breezier than kimono, but they won’t keep you as cool as lazy western style clothes will! That said, it’ll still be pretty hot in late September when I am planning on attending a private tea ceremony, and I’ll need to be prepared to sweat. Also in preparation for this, I went out to a charming little kimono goods shop a couple weeks ago and found a cheap obi that’ll be pretty useless because it’s okay to use almost any time of year, and because it’s a repeating pattern, it may be easier than my usual obi which have a specific point to center.

To my and my friend’s pleasant surprise, this kimono shop also offered free iced coffee in their cafe area with a view of the garden and soft natural lighting. The coffee–which, even for someone who does not identify as a coffee lover, was delicious–was served in decorative glassware with cute, circular ice cubes. Every detail of this space and the five senses was taken into consideration. It was like being surrounded by aesthetic sense inside and out.

It’s just my observation, but kimono seems to bring out a broad sense of aesthetics, taking into consideration all sorts of surroundings. Season, occasions, company, purpose, age—it pulls all these elements together, it follows certain rules, but expresses creativity within those rules much like you would with a haiku.

But yukata, the rebellious offspring of what we know think of as traditional kimono who is still a good child at heart, is a more accessible aesthetic. Where kimono says “rules and proper sense” yukata says “festivals, fireworks, seasonal junk food, flirting with that cute classmate and hoping you’ll catch him by surprise with your altered look, the chic or sparkly and fluffy finishing touches, and finding your friends in the bustling streets and exchanging “kawaii!” compliments.”

February in Matsue means it’s time to feast, in the “let’s go gourmet!” sort of sense. Throughout next month, Matsue will celebrate its 13th annual Matsue Dan-Dan Shoku Festa. The name is a pun, so let’s delve into linguistics for a moment:

まつえ暖談食フェスタ
まつえ is “Matsue” written in phonetic hiragana instead of in kanji, as usual (松江).
暖 is “warmth” and read here as dan.
談 is “conversation” and read here as dan. Pairing them together is like “warm conversation” and sometimes people translate the name of the festival as “heart-warming.”
だんだん, Dan-Dan, is Izumo dialect for “thank-you,” one of the most commonly heard and actively used Izumo phrases.
食 is “food/eat” and read here as shoku.
フェスタ is short for “festival.”

So you could call it anything from “Matsue Festival for Food That Brings About Warm Conversation” to “Matsue Thanks-For-The-Warm-Food Festival” but I find “Dan-Dan Shoku Festa” is most catchy.

There will be gourmet events going on at hotels and restaurants throughout the city throughout the month, but the three “Dan-Dan Gochisou Ichiba” (Dan-Dan Feast Markets) are the most bustling with activity and variety. In addition to food stalls common at events throughout the year or that come from out of town specifically for this food festival (from as far as Miyazaki Prefecture, given the Kojiki myth connections!), you can expect live entertainment and visits from local characters like Shimanekko, the mascot of Shimane Prefecture fighting in the top ten spots for mascot of the year so several years but still has not quite made #1 (keep at it, Shimanekko! Your dance is the best!).

This is a photo from a different event, but I see these guys a lot and thought their product was tasty. Meat-wrapped rice balls aren’t unique to the San’in region, but these “Niku Maki En-Musubi” are made with Shimane beef and Shimane-grown rice. This is also a pun: Niku (meat), Maki (wrapped), Musubi (a term for rice balls), En-musubi (see below).

I’ll bet the Matsue Young Warriors will be there again. They’re always coming up with seasonal shows and displays, and last year they taught the crowd about Matsuba crabs. Even outside of a busy event with lots of visitors from out of town, it feels very normal to see a samurai sitting in your local JR station.

This year, the Feast Markets are on the following Sundays:

February 1:
10:30am – 3:00pm, in front of JR Matsue Station

February 8:
11:00am – 3:00pm, Kyomise shopping area, Minami-Tonomachi shopping area, and Karakoro Art Studio (north of the Ohashi River and southeast of Matsue Castle)

February 15:
11:00am – 3:00pm, Tenjinmachi shopping area and Tatemachi shopping area (Near Tenmangu Shrine, sort of between the JR station and the Shimane Art Museum)

The homepage is in Japanese, but you can see more details and maps here.

One of the (literally) biggest things visitors and locals alike anticipate is the “En-Musubi Hot Pot of the Seven Gods of Fortune.” The first year, I was not fortunate enough to be one of the 800 people served from this enormous hot pot, but last year I certainly felt lucky to get there in time. They certainly do not skimp on the seafood!

Photo from the Dan-Dan Shoku Festa Facebook page (click photo for source).

Speaking of seafood, this year the “Buri-shabu” at the Feb 1 market has my name on it. There is also a month-long crab event going on, but that requires special reservation, and we’ll talk more about crabs in the next entry anyway.

Besides the hot pot, there are plenty of other specials making liberal use of the catchphrase “En-musubi.” It’s been a while, so let’s break this phrase down again:

縁結び (sometimes written phonetically as えんむすび)
縁, en, is a phrase translated in many ways, but often loses its nuance when translated. It can be any kind of tie of fate or relation, be it between romantic pairs, friends, business partners, or even your relationship with Mother Nature. Used like “I have en with that person” as opposed to “that person is my en.” People pray for good en, but this is more about relations and encounters rather than generalized luck (運, un).
結び is a noun based on the verb 結ぶ (musubu, to bind or tie).
Therefore, 縁結び is like “binding fates” or “ensuring good encounters” but often given the rather limiting translation of “match-making.”

En-musubi is a big San-in catch phrase for many reasons based in local mythology, but especially because Izumo Taisha is where the gods throughout Japan gather to discuss En-musubi each year, which is kind of a big deal.

And since En-musubi is applied in any way possible here, of course it applies to food–sometimes in clever ways like in the case of zenzai, but at other times just by creating a lunch special and calling it the En-musubi plate.

Besides those various February En-musubi specials, there will be a sweets market at the first Feast Market with an En-musubi theme as well. That’s got my name on it, too.

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.

The title is a bit of a mouthful, but the festival itself is quite refreshing–especially considering the free use of onsen facilities although the Matsue Shinjiko Onsen area on the northeast banks of Lake Shinji! The line of ryokan and other facilities all have views facing the lake along the boardwalk.


The onsen are only open for a few hours in the middle of the day, but the festival really picks up in the evening. The purpose of the festival is to give thanks for having the springs in the first place. There is a statue of Jizo, the merciful Buddha often thought of as a patron of children. This is the Oyukake Jizo whereas “oyukake” means that you pour hot water on it, and thus your wishes are granted.

Oyukake Jizo on a sunny day


Oyukake Jizo on a rainy festival night

In addition to the usual street of food and game stalls (as well as toy sales and free sake tastings and what not), there were stage events set up near the line to offer incense and pour water on the Oyukake Jizo. It started raining partway through, but no one seems to mind–umbrellas or not, the crowds didn’t decrease at all.







This festival began in 1974, and it has since become a classic sign of late summer around this onsen area. Besides games and food stalls and stage events and people in yukata everywhere, one of the main draws is cooling off by the lake and watching the fireworks.

The early people waiting for fireworks while the lake is still quiet… I didn’t attempt to take any photos of fireworks this year, but you could always see my Suigosai entry from last year.

Now as for fireworks, I’m afraid they can’t compare to the display put on during Suigosai, the focal point of the summer. This event was supposed to be held August 9~10, but due to a typhoon, it has been postponed until August 30. Usually they fire 3000 fireworks over the course of half an hour on the first night and 6000 fireworks over the course of an hour the following night, but due to this schedule adjustment, they’ll be firing all 9000 of them from 8pm until 9pm!

Everyone, if you can make it to Matsue this weekend, try to find a spot early before everything fills up with people!

And don’t forget, the best Suigosai viewing spots are also around the Matsue Shinjiko Onsen area, and the Ichibata Railway will even be allowing people to view it from a special train car. Well, they’re probably best only next to the view from Matsue Castle, but people had to win a raffle of sorts to get acess to the tower at that hour. Anyway, before or after the fireworks, there is a free foot onsen outside the Ichibata Railway station and the Shijimi Clam Center. The one outside the station has a second Oyukake Jizo to pour hot water on.


Click for source

Happy Hina Matsuri, otherwise known as Dolls’ Day or Girls’ Day! At this time, families with young daughters decorate with elaborate dolls and eat delicate delicacies.

“But wait!” some of you may say. “Hina Matsuri is March 3! It’s April 2, so you’re a month late.”

To which I say, “No, I’m not! I live in the San’in region!”

Recall this lengthy explanation of why the modern Japanese calender, in an attempt to synchronize with the West and retain tradition, is more than a little complicated and maybe a touch crazy. For our purposes here, suffice to say the Gregorian calender tends to be roughly a month off the old Japanese agricultural calendar, and so holidays that mark the changing of seasons or events in nature may be celebrated weeks before these seasonal changes. Something that marks the beginning of spring feels even less festive when you’re in a colder area, so some areas–such as the Tohoku region and the San’in region–choose to celebrate the holiday according to the old calendar as opposed to the Gregorian calendar.

While today may be April 2 according to the calendar in broad use, it is 3/3 according to the old one, and Hina Matsuri as it is traditionally celebrated is going on today.

What do I mean by “traditional”? That depends on how far back you want to look, though there is “traditional” merit in how it is celebrated in any given time period. While the “traditional” mental image of the celebration may call to mind a multi-layered display of Heian courtiers and their accessories, there are of course modern families who find this a pain for the price and go with cuter, smaller renditions to enjoy the festivities. In the smaller towns where the houses are bigger, however, you’re somewhat more likely to encounter people with room in their homes for the full sets. Some friends of mine in Yasugi have three daughters, and they’ve had three complete sets on display throughout March and through now.

Part of the fun of observing the dolls is seeing all their unique expressions. Which doll has what pose and expression is generally determined by its position in the set, but it was fun to compare them between the three sets.

Or if you’re too lazy or cheap to get a set of dolls to display, or even if you don’t have any daughters to celebrate, anyone can easily enjoy the dainty atmosphere decked out in visions of peach blossoms, red, white, and green sweets, and luxurious kimonos and decorations.

I didn't plan on celebrating Hina Matsuri, but that was a delicious shortcake.

I didn’t plan on celebrating Hina Matsuri, but that was a delicious shortcake.

The doll set as we know it today didn’t really become a tradition until Japan was westernizing, though. The practice of making wishes for a girl’s bright future by making use of dolls goes back even further.

In fact, it didn’t even have to be for girls. We have records from the Heian era about a millenium ago that men as well used dolls in a special bina-asobi ritual. Dolls were not so much to be a toy as to represent the form of a human (hence, they are called ningyo today, a different pronunciation of the characters 人形 for hitogata as they used to be called, which literally mean “human form”). Representing human form gives them the ability to take human curses in our place. That’s great and keeps us from getting sick and all, but you can’t just keep that cesspool of bad luck with you. After taking the fall for us, the dolls must be banished so that the curses stay far away.

This is where we get Nagashi-bina, the ritual floating of dolls down the stream or out into the ocean. This grand sending-off is the more direct origin of Hina Matsuri as we know it today, though you could go back hundreds of years even before the Heian era to see some of the earliest uses of dolls for spiritual purposes in Japan, and you’d have to back centuries and centuries further in Chinese history to see where they may have even gotten that idea, what with burying dolls with deceased rulers as opposed to burying live people with them. Given the milleniums of dolls having the bad luck of taking away our bad luck, it makes the notion of a doll hanging around for amusement purposes something ponder-worthy.

In late February leading up through March 3, it’s easy to find doll displays either in museums, public gathering spaces, or personal homes, but what about this darker side of doll use?

The display dolls we now consider traditional come back into the mix here. There is a thought that old, damaged dolls should be allowed to retire, as by that time they have acquired a soul of their own and grown tired from their duties in providing good luck to little girls. Thus, they are usually entrusted to a shrine as opposed to haphazardly thrown out, and while some have taken on unique new lives in artistic displays, there are some shrines that simply store hundreds of these elaborate dolls. If this sort of thing interests you, might be able to visit these kinds of shrines around Kyoto and Wakayama to see the store houses in March, or if that’s not your thing you should beware of these rooms of soulless(?) eyes staring back at you!

You don’t usually find these dolls floating down the river, though… well, nowadays, you typically don’t find any dolls floating down the river. Tokyo makes a good show of it with sending paper dolls down a pink slide to the water, though.

However, then you have Mochigase, a district of Tottori City that has maintained a local practice with its roots in the Edo period. Paper dolls are arranged with sweets and other decorations on a woven straw basket, then sent down the Sendai River (not to be confused with a city in Miyagi Prefecture). This river runs through Tottori City on the way to the Sea of Japan, and runs right by the location of the Nagashibina-no-Yakata, a museum dedicated to the practice of Nagashi-bina and other types of Japanese dolls from different locales and time periods. Mochigase’s doll rituals frequently take place at the banks of the river around here, and it is one of the biggest events of its kind maintained throughout Japan. Smaller cities in Tottori also have their own traditional styles of handmade dolls and similar Nagashi-bina events as well. Unfortunately, I can’t be in Tottori today, so I’ve hunted around for some resources and borrowed from photos instead (click for the sources and more galleries!).

Click for source--there is a whole gallery of semi-official cuteness-in-kimono waiting for you.  FYI, that is the doll museum in the background.

Click for source–there is a whole gallery of semi-official cuteness-in-kimono waiting for you.
FYI, that is the doll museum in the background.

Click for source–Ojisan Jake has a couple of entries about the content of the museum, so I highly recommend check his blog out. These are the sorts of dolls being set afloat down the Sendai River.

Finally, here is a brief article about teaching the not-so-stereotypical sides of Hina-Matsuri to high school students studying Japanese.

I may not be there in person today, but that can’t stop me from enjoying some dainty (and more traditional) Hina Matsuri snacks here.

hina-tottori

hina-closeup

Yukata season is starting to wind down now, but there are still summer festivals at which to wear them and play games to take home real goldfish (not that I would want to make the poor things suffer in the heat of my apartment while I’m away!). Despite this feeling like the hottest time of the year, we’re technically already in autumn according to the 24 periods of the old lunisolar calendar!

While wearing kimono comes with a certain amount of financial investment and necessary items to achieve the ideal shape on which to base an array of tasteful aesthetics, yukata do not require so much fuss. Unlike kimono, they are usually made of a breathable fabric like cotton and do not require much–if anything?–underneath them, so they are ideal for the hot and humid summers of Japan. Even in my kimono class and other culture classes for which classic dress is standard, they make special allowances for people to wear yukata instead of traditional kimono for practice.

If you have ever stayed at any hotel in Japan, you might have been provided yukata to lounge and sleep in, but there are yukata more proper for wearing in public. They’re cheap enough that most visitors to Japan can afford one, and some fancy hotels in resort areas, like Tamatsukuri Onsen on the south side of Matsue, provide them to the guests to wear around the area anyway. Of course, if you’re just passing through for the day, you can rent them from Himekoromo at the Hakobune Tamatsukuri Art Box. While we’re on that topic, you could always get a brief kimono experience at Karakoro Art Studio closer to Matsue Castle, too.

Just because yukata don’t inheritantly require as much fuss as normal kimono doesn’t mean that you can toss out all the rules of kimono (left side over right!!!), and it doesn’t mean people don’t fuss over them anyway. You see people wearing them all over the place at festivals, and since you can get away with any kind of pattern on a yukata (seeing as the material automatically makes it appropriate for summer, even if its covered in a snowflake pattern), people get very creative with them. It’s gotten very common to see girls with thick make-up, bleach-blonde hair with giant crepe flowers, and sparkly gauze sashes tied over the regular obi (belt). What with the freedom they offer, crafty people are getting craftier and craftier.

For the people just going for a traditional yukata look–the very mental image of which conjures nostalgic memories of summmer, and all the shaved ice, festivals, and refreshing (if infrequent) gusts of wind–there are obi that are tied with strings and have a seperate pre-tied bow that you just stick in the back.

As I call them, “Cheater Obi”–though I’ve happily been cheating for the past six years since attaining my first yukata.

Seeing as I am supposed to be able to wear kimono now, I did take the time to learn how to tie a basic bunko bow. As soon as you master the basics, however, the little creative adjustments you can make–a fold here, a stretch there, flipping inside-out around there–are only limited by your imagination and the length of fabric you have to work with. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of perfectly good, perfectly orthodox ways of arranging it already, though.

I just don’t have enough talent and practice yet to be very orthodox.

I live and work around the northeast bank of Lake Shinji, right by where it feeds into the Ohashi River (which then continues into Nakaumi by cutting through the middle of Matsue). Here’s a bit of trivia: way, way back when, Lake Shinji wasn’t a lake at all, but part of the Hii River! The ancient Izumo flatlands have quite a history of (and culture based around) flooding out there on the west side of the peninsula. Thankfully I haven’t heard of any recent floods!

The boardwalk around that area is a popular spot for joggers, or picnickers like me and my coworkers. Though it’s usually a quiet place to sit (or stretch) and listen to the waves, watch the Shijimi clam fishers at work, or observe the wildlife, last weekend every bit of dry land was covered with people and food stalls. Major roads were blocked off to make way for foot traffic, and only the luckiest few were able to squeeze their way into a lakeside seat (or be lucky enough to have friends who grabbed a spot, as was my case–getting to said friends amoung the crowd was the hard part).

What was the big draw? Matsue’s Suigosai! Otherwise known as the “let’s set off 9000 fireworks over Lake Shinji” festival.

To be more precise, they set off 3000 fireworks for half an hour on Saturday night, and then 6000 fireworks for a full hour display on Sunday night. Fireworks are nothing new to me and I can’t say I’m an enthusiast or anything, but it was probably the best display I’ve ever been to. Besides being so close and watching the reflections on the surface of the lake and the remaining sparks disappear into the water, it was fun being in such a densely packed crowd and listening to the children shout out the shapes that appeared in the sky: “Heart! Smiley face! Watermelon! Umbrella! Circle!!”

At one point, the fireworks seemed to spill off the boat and the sky momentarily went dark. “Was that a dud?” everyone started asking their neighbors, until we noticed softly twinkling lights of various colors floating on the lake. Nice touch!

Seeing as I only had my phone to take pictures with, I’m not aiming to impress anyone with firework photos, and these don’t show the usual height of the fireworks, just the ones close to the water surface. Photos can’t do justice to being there in person at bustling and loud events, after all (cheap excuses, sure–but I was enjoying myself in the moment!).









That said, on less crowded summer nights, the board walk is a perfect setting for lighting small fireworks and playing with handheld sparklers (just hopefully not in as much wind as we did them in).

We were trying to spell “Matsue”… don’t mind my backwards ‘e’.

Fireworks are nice and all, but when it comes down to it, I prefer starlight. Being at sea level with so much moisture in the air, it surprises me how many stars I’m able to see here. The night we all went to light fireworks, a couple of us were lucky enough to notice a shooting star, too.