On the first glimpse of actual snowfall this season, it turns out it was mostly blustery snow hurling through the sunlight air. It also turns out my friend Y-chan and I already had plans to go to Yuushien Japanese Garden to see the peonies which bloom in cold weather, called Kanbotan. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that Y-chan and I go to Yuushien a lot. You might have also noticed it’s very well-known for peonies.

After all, you can see things like this all year round:



The best time to go, of course, is when the peonies are in their natural blooming season around the end of April and beginning of May. The Peony Festival is right time for Golden Week, and no matter how many holiday travels there are, it’s totally worth the crowd to go see the thousands and thousands and thousands of blossoms of hundreds of varieties blooming not only on the Yuushien premises, but all around Daikonshima Island. I’m afraid I cannot share the fragrance in the air with you, but I can show you pictures.

One of the other big peonies periods is when the Kanbotan are out in the brisk air, protected from wind and snow by charming straw huts. The last time we went was near the end of February so we missed a lot of them, but this time we went in January and got to see not only the blooms, but the blooms with a little bit of snow to set the atmosphere.





Yuushien also hosts work from Japanese and international garden artists, and from January 15 to March 31, 2016, there was/is large collaborations with Shogo Kariyazaki throughout the garden.

The indoor exhibit space felt a little like walking into a Tim Burton movie.

Speaking of peonies, please allow me to introduce my Paeonia suffruticosa Seidai, Yatsuko!

Seidai are a regular spring bloomer, but she's been peaking through early!

Seidai are a regular spring bloomer, but she’s been peeking through early!

I won her at my department’s New Years party, and I’m quite pleased. I named her Yatsuko because the Daikonshima (as well as its small neighboring island Eshima, home to the “scariest” Eshima Bridge) makes up a district of Matsue called Yatsuka. Peonies can be very long-lived plants if not transplanted too many times, and so long as everything goes smoothly to try to get her past US customs, she might do well in Colorado’s climate. After all, peonies need a very cold winter in order to bloom in spring. Matsue exports its prized peonies throughout the world, especially to places like Russian and Holland and Taiwan, and I’m very happy to have one of my own now.

I just really hope I don’t kill her. There’s a good reason I got to Yuushien to appreciate the professionals’ work.

Most light displays are just a Christmas season thing, but this feels so unfair. What about the dark months of January and February? Let’s try to keep them bright too!

Therefore although a lot of the lights have already been packed up and now it’s a matter of enjoying whatever flowers will carry us over to spring, I have saved the photos for now, as there’s no sense in not being able to enjoy them in January (sorry February, you’ll just have to stay cheerful with the Dan Dan Warm Food Festival).

First, we have my favorite garden in the area, Yuushien Japanese Garden. Although my very favorite time to go there is during the peony festival, this was first time going to the nighttime maple leaf display in November. I was only anticipating the leaves; little did I expect the expansive display of lights complete with its own little Mt. Fuji. Although they do some kind of light display every year around this time, the “Golden Island Zipangu” display ran in two version: the autumn leaf version (November 14 ~ December 5) and the Christmas version (December 19 ~ 26).



It’s hard to get a crisp photo when the leaves are shaking in the wind.















Next, we have the Matsue Vogel Park, where you can go any time of year to get your fix of fuchsia and begonias, as the main greenhouse remains a paradise all the time. If you’re like me and you like birds, then the rest of the park is a paradise too. Really, adding Santa costumes to the penguins and light displays and handbell concerts is totally unnecessary embellishment, but they do this every year. This past year it was every weekend in December leading up to Christmas, as well as December 23-25.



No matter what time of year, the Vogel Park is a popular spot for En-musubi photo ops.


Although there were plenty of other light displays going on throughout the region, the last one I went to was Tottori Hanakairo (aka Tottori Prefectural Flower Park), which is really the place to go anytime you wind to run away to fantasy world of flowers. And you know the really nice thing about this one? It’s still going! This year’s event is from November 20 all the way through January 31st. (Sorry, February.)


A small fireworks display… well, nothing compared to the summer displays around the region, but still nice.



Inside the warm central dome, pear flavored ice cream is appealing any time of year.


A Christmas tree made of…


…poinsettias…


…and orchids!



All three gardens/parks off discounts on admission for visitors with foreign passports or resident cards!
gardens

I had a little tea party with some of my favorite trees in Matsue. I’ve written about these unusual trees before, if the photos from that entry are any point of comparison, then this year I got to them a little bit early and the fringe-like petals had not yet gotten so long.


When most people think of the Nanjyamonjya (an affectionate nickname to the effect of “what-the-tree-is-this?”, whereas its usual name is hitotsubatago) as the line of full, fluffy trees near the Otemae entrance to Matsue Castle, at the southeast corner.

There are also a few on the quieter western side, nestled between the plum and camellia gardens.

nanjya

I started my little tea party in the sunny patch under the most sparse of the trees, mostly using miniature tools I had received as gifts, and enjoying some seasonal sweets from Saiundo, one of the major wagashi producers in Matsue. Every time the wind blew, I was surrounded by falling white petals that made little thumping sounds against my hat. Playful sparrows hopped around above, and I had the view of the nearby sunlight nanjyamonjya and the lush nanjyamonja a short distance away in the shadows.


Despite the various tea events going on, such as the temporary tea house on the castle moat, this was rather unceremonious. Although Matsue is a prime spot for a number of schools of the tea ceremony, in its general daily tea culture, they embrace very casual matcha drinking. Hence, I took it easy.

I made sure to have that second cup, though! I had that one over by the main entrance, as more and more Sunday tourists gradually started making their trips up to the castle tower. These trees are one the first things you see upon entering, so there were comments over and over and over about the sight of them.

“Wow! Look at those trees!”
“What is that?”
“How pretty…”
“They’re so fluffy.”
Hi-to-tsu-ba-ta-go… hmm, never heard of it.”
“Oh, looks like it’s also called nanjyamonjya. Hahaha, nanjyamonjya!
Nanjyamonjya!

Their curiosity upon seeing these trees was justified, as Matsue Castle is one of only about six places in Japan where these trees are found.

There was also the more typical Matsue Castle views to enjoy–the tower itself, the ninomaru area of the inner keep, the majestic castle walls in the bright sunshine.


But enjoying the tea and the petals was nice enough already.

Until next year, fluffy trees.









Seventh feudal lord of the Matsue Domain, Matsudaira Harusato (aka Lord Fumai), has just gotten major a facelift.

fubaki

I was asked to make a cover for the February 2015 issue of the city newsletter, and I wanted to do something that felt very representative of Matsue to me. I like history and I like drawing portraits, so I wanted to draw a historical figure. Hands down, this tea-loving lord is my favorite figure of Matsue’s history. Furthermore, they wanted something bright and flashy, so flowers typically work for that. What’s more, I really like camellia (tsubaki), and they are one of the flower symbols of Matsue, and they are frequently used in the tea ceremony, and the camellia valley on the Matsue Castle grounds starts going into major bloom around late February. So Lord Fumai and camellia seemed my obvious choice for content.

Until I asked whether they wanted something like my cartoony Fumai-ko they might have seen before, or if they’d prefer something a little more refined.

My cartoony Fumai-ko to explain Bote-Bote Tea.

“Refined! Refined!” they cheered.

But, given my artistic roots, “refined” mentally translated to “shoujo manga.”

Unfortunately, this is not a face that translates well in shoujo manga.

Ironically, I’m writing this post as the “Portrait In Museum: The Appeal of Portraiture” exhibit is going on at Shimane Art Museum (until March 9). This historical portrait is one of the featured pieces.

Something felt terribly off to me as I was working on it, so much so that I covered up the face while working on the flowers so that I wouldn’t be so disgusted with the results. I consulted with fellow artists to see if there was something I could fix in the anatomy, and as pretty as we all sort of felt it was, we could not quite tell what was so bothersome about it. The people who requested it for the newsletter all loved it and thought it was beautiful, but I was still very put off by it.

The reception has mostly been good, though people go out of their way to say how pretty the camellia are opposed to mentioning the odd figure in the middle, or he’s just an afterthought and people don’t notice him as much as I do. Many people didn’t recognize that it was Lord Fumai even though he was labeled as Lord Fumai right by the spot that said, “Hey! Your local American CIR drew this!” As a couple of elderly acquaintances brought it up in conversation, one said to the other, “There were such pretty camellia! And she drew Lafcadio Hearn, too.” No!! Hearn gets to be on covers all the time, but Fumai is my favorite, so I wanted him to be on the cover!

At last, a friend who is not regularly steeped in the worlds of glittery shoujo manga saw it and burst out laughing, as she articulated right away what was so funny about it—-why is this old man so pretty???

It’s gotten a little easier to look at since then, as I now know what was so weird was about it. Apparently, all that green tea gave him the power of Matcha Magic for this spectacular transformation!

A few weeks ago, a friend and I had an afternoon open, so we figured we would go check out the Tottori Hana Kairou (Tottori Prefectural Flower Park) garden I’ve always heard so much about.

Turns out it’s not just one garden, it’s a series of several gardens. The flowers and trees seemingly stretch on forever, taking advantage of the natural surrounding hills and valleys and view of Mt. Daisen to create the illusion that the series of little worlds stretches out into more and more and more little worlds.


The flowers in this area vary according to season, but for this season I couldn’t help but hear the Wicked Witch of the West in my head.

I didn’t take enough photos to do it proper justice, as I was busy using a number of my senses to enjoy the park. This sign outside the herb garden made me quite happy–these people encourage enjoying plants like I enjoy plants! Quite often their textures get ignored in favor of their appearances or scents, and I get weird looks for touching the leaves and petals (for whatever seems it won’t damage me or the plant, anyway). At least the people in this part of the garden won’t think I’m weird, right?

I didn’t even take any pictures of the lilies, the signature flower of the garden, which were already in a bright bloom. The rose were taking center stage in many areas, especially with a temporary rose exhibition going on. As one small part of that, in encouraging people to interact more with their flower subjects, they had a set of very perfumed roses showing of the different types of scents roses carry.

That’s not to forget the orchids.

It was such a pleasant world of color that I don’t have too much else specific to report about the gardens (just an overwhelming sense of “oooh, pretty!”), but a couple non-floral things of note:

1. Concept benches! Along the elevated track circling the gardens, they had a number of creative benches designed and constructed by schools and other organizations.


2. Ice cream! Following up on a recent post about local specialties produced in ice cream form, I couldn’t pass up the park’s Tottori 20th Century Pear soft serve. Pear wouldn’t usually be my flavor of choice, but I’ve had these pears once before, and they were among the tastiest fruits I’ve ever eaten. I found it refreshingly tasty, but my friend more comments–that it was more like a sherbert, and that that halfway through she detected a flavor like apple juice.

And now for a little more prettiness:





Allium in flower language: “the correct assertion” or “infinite sorrows.” Would one of those sorrows happen to be that it can smell like onion?





It’s Golden Week so people have time to travel, which means every pocket of Japan is flooded with visitors right now. Even better, this period of consecutive public holidays coincides with extremely pleasant, picnic-perfect weather.

I can’t stress enough what a great time it is to see peonies at Yuushien Garden while thousands and thousands and thousands more are on display than usual, but as we know, peonies tend to be show-offs, and there are plenty of other seasonal flowers to enjoy at this time.

One of my favorites I hadn’t seen much before moving here was fuji (wisteria, witten as 藤, not 富士 like Mt. Fuji!), and from the highway you can see large purple trees towering out among the forests, and one of my favorite seasonal sweets from Kiharu, a charming cafe inside the Matsue History Museum, is an original wagashi with a delicate fuji motif.

That photo is from the wisteria at Yuushien among all the peonies, but one of the most pleasant and easily accessed (and free!) places to view them is Matsue English Garden, which is what it sounds like: A garden in Matsue designed and maintained in English style, with varying heights and shapes and botanic selections around the meandersome garden paths. Located right outside one of the closest railway stations to Matsue Shinjiko Onsen station (the easternmost on the Ichibata Railway that leads to Izumo Taisha), you can walk right in and go straight to wandering the garden, or there are like displays and exhibitions or fairs going on within the glass-walled hallways surrounding the garden.

englishgarden

On a sunny day, light floods all of the enclosures, including the hot house or the stage area which is home to a couple of giant ficus trees I’m very fond of and some other unusual plants I still am not sure of the identity of. While I haven’t eaten at the restaurant there (but enjoyed ice cream or home cooked treats from food fairs), I imagine it is also well lit as it provides a view of Lake Shinji, which the garden is on the northern banks of.

But the upclose view of Lake Shinji is free, too. There is a grassy green lawn to stretch out or run around on at the southernment most point of the garden, overlooking the lake, or you could take a stroll down to the boardwalk. We held the closing ceremony and reception of the 23rd Japan-America Grassroots Summit 2013 in Shimane in this back area last July, and it proved to be the perfect space to accomodate so many mingling visitors and performances. It’s no wonder people plan weddings there.


But, you know, I live right by Lake Shinji too and have no shortage of good views of it. There is something in bloom all year around (most notably a wide variety of seasonal roses!), so I was there to see plants and English garden design!





And of course, early May means wisteria, which are best viewed from within the tunnels they hang from when arranged in gardens, observing the speckled sunlight and the purple hues in varying rays and shadows.


Miss Artemis from Otaku Lounge is a good model as always!

Those of you with access to them, go out and enjoy some wisteria. After all, in Hanakotoba (Flower Language), they mean “Welcome!” However, be careful! They also mean intoxication, including being intoxicated with love.

Speaking of those of you with access, the furry nanjyamonjya trees at Matsue Castle will be blooming soon!

This. Is. HANAMI!!

While I went all over the place last year to spots like Tamatsukuri Onsen, Kisuki, and Senju-in Temple, I didn’t spend much time at the O-shiro Castle Festival that marks the start of spring, complete with a temporary Edo-style open-air a tea house (one more than usual in the area) serving matcha and sakura-mochi on every clear day. I do so love the scent of sakura-mochi. The castle was worth visiting almost every day for a while, though the best time I went was at noon when the flowers were in full bloom.

Sure, yes, the flowers were great… but I think I might have done more baby viewing that afternoon. Where had all these babies suddenly come from!? Little faces peeking out of carriers while (slightly) older siblings are helped to teeter down the stairs, or babies out for a day with grandma and grandpa, or babies so small you hardly notice their tiny limbs poking out of their carriers. Dads carrying strollers up the stairs while moms huff and puff and follow more slowly, carrying in the baby while walking in heels. Babies barely mobile squirming on the picnic blankets, and for every baby, a smartphone to snap pictures of said baby and their first Hanami (flowering viewing).

I’m pretty sure the babies weren’t all planned for cherry blossom season, but given important beginnings are planned around cherry blossom season, I wouldn’t be too surprised if some were. I think my surprise may just be a combination of not seeing so many young families all congregated in one place so often, and of everyone finding it too cold until that point to bother braving the weather with their tiny bundles. That may apply to more than just babies–everyone dressed up a little more than usual, either breaking in new outfits purchased for spring, or finally breaking out some old favorites again. Haha, take that, winter! Be gone!!

It wasn’t only people with babies at Matsue Castle this particular lunch hour–it was as if everyone was there! The young couples were obvious–holding hands and dressed most fashionably, though a little shriek of surprise caught my attention when one young woman tripped in her high heels. Thankfully her boyfriend already had her hand to keep her from tumbling too far down the steps, and they shared a laugh as she stood back up.

These two, however, made a more graceful couple–at least on a shorter set of stairs.

The old couples were also picnicking and strolling together, more still and quiet than the young families who had brought puppies and baseballs gloves. They took their time, and at one point I overheard an old man ask his wife what in the world she was doing stopping to pick up a fallen blossom, as the two seemed to have differing opinions on the aesthetics of the blossom and its natural place.

That’s a Lafcadio Hearn marker–his students used to have their physical education class here.

The kids are enjoying their short spring break between school years, so there were picnic groups made up entirely of elementary school boys, as well as a few family-run yatai (food stalls) where the kids were helping out as well. A little more so than adults, kids tend to scream like they’re having fun when they are freaking out about the shaved ice machine going haywire.

It is only the students who are on break, as working society is busily taking little more than lunch breaks in the new fiscal year. Thankfully there is cultural reinforcement at this time of year to at least take a midday breather to appreciate the cherry blossoms. One such worker was perhaps slightly older than middle age, but had an appreciation of beauty that was apparent on his face. As he came up the old uneven steps he was already glancing upwards at the blossoms, and he slowed his pace as he approached, smiling with what looked to be a sign of approval. Good job, blossoms. A trio of young recruits were looking a little less than used to their formal black suits, but they still giggled like school girls as they made their way through the grounds. A fourth picked up her pace and to join them, and the others gawked at how fast she had gotten an ice cream cone from one of the yatai.

I didn’t plan on getting anything from the yatai, but it had been a while since I last had a crepe…

Despite how dressed up everyone is, I only noticed one person in kimono, which feels a little less than usual for big events around the castle. She had dressed it up casually and left her hair down, but seemed increasingly warm and tired in it as she looped here and there among the cherry trees. Perhaps her friends hadn’t arrived?

Perhaps what was oddly lacking was serious photographers–sure, everyone was snapping photos on their smartphones, but the big, clunky cameras that so many retirees frequently tote around the castle didn’t seem as present as usual. That’s perhaps because Hanami is best done with the people you love, and best enjoyed in the moment.

I was short on moments, however, and had to get back to work at city hall–though it just so happened that I ran into Mayor Matsuura on my way back, as he was on his way in. Enjoy your midday break, Mayor!

This was just the scene on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and the blossoms throughout the castle keep were lit up until 9pm. On the weekends during the castle festival, there were also Kagura, Dojou-sukui, and musical performances, as well as free samurai dress-up. Speaking of samurai dress-up, this year’s Musha Gyoretsu Warrior Parade had sunny weather for their march to the castle! I was in Tokyo for the kimono contest at the time, but maybe this sort of luck with carry through next year, too! As long as I don’t have anything else to do I’d love to take part again, but it’s so hard to choose what sort of role I’d want. Performing with a naginata was great and all seeing as it is my weapon of choice, but there are so many other props that look fun to try out, be it long and detailed wigs, or bows and arrows… ah! My inner samurai-wannabe is at odds with my inner Yamato-Nadeshiko-wannabe. That’s why being one of the lady warriors was such an obvious choice last time.

Alas, looks like I am getting carried away with the aesthetic thoughts the cherry blossoms arouse–but just when you looks again, they’ve all disappeared.

March 27:

I noticed yesterday that the buds of the cherry trees on my way home are now visibly pink. Took a walk around the castle this morning to see how they’re progressing, and they look ready to burst open at any moment. The forecast for the somei-yoshino, the representative breed of cherry blossom, is that they’ll bloom in Matsue starting March 30. I already saw an early blooming mountain variety in Yasugi on March 15, next to a plum blossom tree in full bloom. There are still some hearty plum blossoms in bloom in town today, but they’re on their last breaths. In these final days of blooming they give off the strongest fragrance, but their petals are already dotting the grass, moss, and sidewalks.

Though cherry blossoms are known for their sentimental scattering, no flowers fall quite as dramatically as the camellia. Like the plum blossoms, they’ve mostly enjoyed their glory for this year, and the bright green, post-early-spring-rain around the Matsue Castle grounds is dotted with trees surrounded by fallen blossoms. They don’t scattered their bright magenta petals like the similar sazanka flowers do, instead they fall with a pottori sound. The sight and sound of a fallen camellia pulls more of my heartstrings than any amount of scattering cherry blossoms can. The stone steps on the western slope of the castle hill are green with moss, fresh grass, and lush new leaves, but they are also decorated with bright fallen camellia heads.

I can’t say I enjoyed them in silence, however, because birds of all sizes are varieties are chattering in large numbers this morning. It’s a wonder how some old trees don’t fall over with that many blue herons sitting at the top branches.

Up by the castle tower, the cherry blossoms take center stage, and while they are almost ready for their spotlight, they are only that–almost.

March 28:

23 degrees this morning, and it felt amazing! The sun poked through, and the dew on the grass was very noticeable.
Some of the somei-yoshino cherry blossoms are starting to peak through their covers.

However, some cold weather varieties are already in full bloom, like the large white oshimazakura at Suetsugu Park. Not only is it full of blossoms, but it has young leaves and fragrance.

Across the street from this tree, several people were lined up in suits outside of the main entrance of city hall, applauded from someone I couldn’t see making their exit. It’s almost the end of the Japanese fiscal year and many people are about to retire or be transferred somewhere completely different. This is a sending-off for some such person, but I don’t know whom.

March 29:

The cats are prowling in the neighborhood–looks like everyone is shaking off winter laziness. A lot of cherry blossoms here have already opened and it’s warm enough to need to open a window. My poor kimono practice partner has a terrible case of allergies and has been doing her best not to sneeze on the silk.

March 30:

The rain was loud all night, but it’s just a light rain this morning. Today at Matsue Castle–where the 3/30 forecast seems fairly accurate–I heard an uguisu–that semi-officially means it’s spring! A stark contrast from the continual rubbery honking of the herons up at the tree tops, but everyone morning has been filled with the sounds and songs of quite a variety of birds. I’ve woken up most mornings lately to sunshine and a chirping chorus.

While we’ve had ducks and other aquatic birds hanging out in mass numbers in our waterways all winter, today the ducks in the castle moat are looking more frisky than usual. I wonder how soon we’ll see turtles families again?

March 31:

Ah-ha, so this is the bird that’s been doing all the screeching! There were a few of them by the southwest turrets of the castle today building nests, sticking their faces in flowers, and happily screeching.

The blue crested herons are still just as busy. Today most of them were heading towards the nests carrying branches; quite industrious on this sunny day. Many have already been sitting in nests for a few days, frequently visited by their partners who they pestered for branches and food, likely.

At work, we’ve had many people coming to say their formal good-byes, and we had a sending off at our own entrance today.

April 1:

Foggy weather this morning, but it soon cleared up into perfect flower-viewing weather, especially considering most of the blossoms are open now. The somei-yoshino are pillowy and white, but I am more attracted to the pink varieties, like this cherry tree planted in honor of the Sister City relationship between Matsue and Onomichi.

Not all the camellia are down for the count. This large pink variety right outside my office is a late-bloomer.

April 2:

The cranes were arguing about something this morning. Despite nesting in such close proximity, which multiple nests at one treetop, they can still be a little territorial.

I finally remembered my sunglasses–it feels like I haven’t touched them in ages (though I’m perhaps one of the few people here who uses them without trying to make a fashion statement). In any case, the sunshine feels great.

The bring green grass and clover patches are making their return in the park, but they’re already dotted with scattered cherry blossoms. I wonder how much longer until their dramatic exit? It’s forecast to rain tomorrow…

The good-byes have switched to self-introductions as seasoned workers and young recruits are taking their new posts. It’s also the season for welcome dinners instead of just good-bye parties, and I came across a long train of excited new young employees, split into a few groups as the traffic light separated them on the way to hotels with ballrooms large enough to host them all. Thankfully my division-only party was small enough to talk with everyone and still hear yourself as you scoot along the tatami floors, pour drinks, and get to know each other better.

April 3:

Still sunny this morning!

And not only that, but the somei-yoshino all throughout town–and especially at the castle–have burst into full bloom. A couple unexpected detours in the afternoon led me to some quieter spots around town, such as Cherry Road, which is lined with cherry trees and overlooks the Sea of Japan. Another less famous spot, however, had low-hanging branches that almost looked heavy with fluffy white blossoms, and the shaded grass around the trees was a home for wild flowers that looked down the hill on some cultivated, deep green bushes. The sunlight glittered down upon the whole scene. That was well and good, but then the wind came and the blossoms began scattering–and that, dear Readers, was the mysterious cherry blossom viewing in Japan as I had always pictured it.

April 4:

I woke up to thunder, howling wind, and water crashing around my roof and walls.

Well. The cherry blossoms were nice while they lasted.

April 9:

Hold on–those blossoms are still hanging on! It seems conditions here were perfect for more flower viewing while I was anxious about tornado warnings out in Tokyo.

April 10:

One of the Go-mei (seasonal names for your tea scoop in the tea ceremony) for April is 花吹雪 (hanafubuki, “flower blizzard”). Even the light wind today is making that apparent, as cherry blossom petals don’t need much force to carry them away.

April 11:

The somei-yoshino had looked fluffy and white from far away, but they’re starting to look like deep shades of orange highlighted with spots of blossoms now. The fresh young leaves start with this rustic color, but they’ll turn green by summer and blend in with all the other trees.

Some later varieties are all fluffy yet heavy-looking with yae style blossoms–layers of petals all piled together rather than the iconic five-petaled blossom.

April 13:

On my usual Sunday morning route cutting between the Shimane Prefecture Office and Chidori Bridge–the little getaway route the feudal lord would have used to escape from his residence to Matsue Castle in case of an attack which never happened–I committed the sin of ignoring my surroundings and checking my phone. While consumed in the virtual world held in my hand, a fluttering cherry blossom flicked me in the ear, turning my attention to the last buds clinging to the branches, as well as though among the grass, water, or air that had given up the struggle. The blossom that hit me seemed to say, “I’m still here–look at me now!”

Cherry blossoms are perhaps less known for their grace as they are for their ethereal evanescence–you have to make it a point to view them, because they disappear so soon.

Following the blossoms in the trees, however, “cherry blossom grass” (sakurasou–technically Japanese primrose) tends to stick around for a while. I’m a big fan of brightly colored coverage like this, be it some variety of sakurasou or baby blue rurisou (nemophila), and some areas in Japan are famous for planting entire hilly areas in colors other than green. The wild collection of green plants covering the ground together also have their own rustic appeal, such as the excitement of finding yomogi (Japanese mugwort) which can be ground up and added to rice cakes to makes them green and give them a spring-like aroma. However, if you are more attune to food than to seasons, you might grind up the little leaves in your hand and have the smell remind you of mochi instead of the other way around.


April 15:

Although the bigger cherry blossom tend to hold on longer, the little walkway behind my office is now lined with big white blossoms, though the tree still looks plenty covered as well. It’s very, very sunny today, but the wind is still a little cold. Big waves on Lake Shinji today. We might be getting cloudier weather tomorrow.

April 21:

The turtles are back in all sizes again–I spied some twenty turtles out for a swim or sun bath in the castle moat. Although the hill Matsue Castle sits on is called Jozan (Castle Mountain) now, it used to be called Kamedazan (Turtle Mountain).

14420-turtles

My spring fever had been wearing off until I was interpreting for a group of educators from Thailand, and when we brought them up to Mt. Makuragi for a view of Lake Nakaumi, they were all much more excited by the somei-yoshino cherry tree that was still mostly in full bloom. What luck to see cherry blossoms while in Japan, though true cherry blossom season is mostly over. There are many other varieties in mostly full bloom now, including fluffy pink blossoms that bunch together like pockets of pillows, and green tinted blossoms that at a close view have stripes of pink, but from a distance they trick you–“Ha! You only thought I was leaves, but I’ll bet you’ve never seen leaves in such a soft green tint!”

The group continued to ooh and ahh at all the flowers, very different from the tropical varieties they are accustomed to, and it seem it’s already too hot for many of them. The flower beds throughout the city planted by community volunteers are at their most cheerful right now, and the peonies at Yuushien Garden are just now beginning to wake up. While there are always enough peonies to make a visit just for them, most of the garden seems green compared to my first memories there from May of last year, but the buds are big and ready to take over the garden in an array of bright colors.

We took a brief visit to Izumo Taisha as well–this being my 11th visit there, so perhaps I am somewhat jaded to grandeur of the shrine. However, upon arrival, there was a garden of pink-tinted cherry blossoms that stood out against the familiar green mountains of Izumo, and all of a sudden Izumo Taisha felt new and exciting to me again.

Spring has a way of doing that.

This has been an odd winter in the San’in region, which is typically known for the amount of snow it gets compared to sunnier parts of the country. I was told by many people to expect a very cold winter this year. However, while Tokyo had been experiencing heavy downfalls, we had usually been experiencing rain as opposed to snow.

As striking as Matsue Castle appears on a sunny day, there is a sense of it looming over the city on such dreary January days as this, and I can’t help but be reminded of how Lafcadio Hearn described it:

…solid as when first built long centuries ago, a vast and sinister shape, all iron-grey, rising against the sky from a cyclopean foundation of stone. Fantastically grim the thing is, and grotesquely complex in detail; looking somewhat like a huge pagoda, of which the second, third, and fourth stories have been squeezed down and telescoped into one another by their own weight. Crested at its summit, like a feudal helmet, with two colossal fishes of bronze lifting their curved bodies skyward from either angle of the roof, and bristling with horned gables and gargoyled eaves and tilted puzzles of tiled roofing at every story, the creation is a veritable architectural dragon, made up of magnificent monstrosities—a dragon, moreover, full of eyes set at all conceivable angles, above below, and on every side. From under the black scowl of the loftiest eaves, looking east and south, the whole city can be seen at a single glance, as in the vision of a soaring hawk; and from the northern angle the view plunges down three hundred feet to the castle road, where walking figures of men appear no larger than flies.

(“The Chief City of the Province of the Gods”, from Lafcadio Hearn’s “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” 1894.)

Matsue Castle is sometimes nicknamed “the Black Castle”, given that it wasn’t covered in flame resistant white paint like many other surviving original castles of Japan were. It’s managed to survive both rain and lightning despite the lack of this finishing touch. The castle isn’t the only black sight that only seems blacker on a dark, wet day. The area is also lined with many black pines, many of which (not pictured here) are very old have grown into large, unique shapes that necessitate supporting the trees with wooden pillars as they loom over the sidewalks and canals.

Rain or no rain, Sunday means tourists, and I frequently see at least a few of them climbing of the stairs from the Otemae (main) entrance at the southeast end of the castle hill. This is the most photogenic approach to the castle, for sure, with its neatly shaped rock walls and lookout towers. As a reminder, this is the area where they’re planning on rebuilding a historically accurate main gate, and the 5,000,000 yen reward for usable historical photos and materials until March 31, 2014 (so a final push, please help us promote that.)

In May, those bare branches will bloom in to unusual, furry-looking nanjamonja fringe.

While I like visitors to be able to see the castle in all its sunny glory, I live here and see the 400-year-old tower on a daily basis, and frequently take walks around the castle hill even in winter, so I’ve seen its many faces in many different kinds of weather. While sunny days are splendid, it has more mysterious character in the rain.

Matsue Shrine, on the approach to the castle tower

One of the places I find the most character is in the castle’s stone wall. While you can enjoy the alluring, smoothly cut and fitted styles when approaching from the south, I usually like to leave the castle from the north gate–that is, the back gate. This leads to the forest area that the Horio clan decided to leave primarily to nature to protect. Here, the fitted stone walls in which the rocks were mostly left in their natural shapes, melt away into the hills and trees. Eerily quiet as this other world on the back of a tourist location may be on a sunny summer day, the rain highlights the textures of the features that have stood quietly back there for four hundred years of history.

Somebody else thought to wander around my favorite spot. Go find your own, dude, this quiet corner is mine!

If the name is any indication, they used to wash horses in this pond. Now you’ll usually find aquatic birds instead, especially in winter when many of them migrate here. If anyone is, I’m sure they’re enjoying such ducky weather.

Given the choice, though, I’ll typically take sunshine and flowers. Speaking of, March at Matsue Castle means the camellia exhibition, the fragrance of the plum garden, and the start of the spring festival to celebrate the cherry blossoms!

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Technically, the entire Mt. Kameda encircled by the canal is Matsue Castle, though usually people picture the castle tower. I stroll around the castle a lot, though where I go depends on what's blooming (camellia and plum blossoms are my favorites, though you can find cherry blossoms and autumn leaves all over the main areas), or if there is an event going on, or what the weather in general is. During Suitoro (the lantern festival in Sept/Oct) there are hundreds and hundreds of lanterns all over the main castle areas and walkways, as well as around the canals, I didn't even bother trying to indicate a sight that is everywhere. The Inari shrine would probably be Lafcadio Hearn's suggested spot, so I included it.