…have I never written about shijimi clams?

………how could it be that in over 3.5 years of writing this blog, I have never written about shijimi clams!?

shijimiiii

It might be because they are such a ubiquitous part of life in the San’in region–especially the Lake Shinji area–that I take them as given as good rice. Sure, I’ve mentioned them here and there a lot, but I’ve already given Nita rice its own introduction, so it’s about time I do the same for shijimi clams.

…hmm. Where to start?

Best to start where they do: Lake Shinji.

shijimi2

The early morning sight of shijimi clam fishers on Lake Shinji is a familiar and iconic sight from around the central part of Matsue. The lake is home to Japan’s biggest source of yamato shijimi, and there are so many of them acting as a natural filtration system for the brackish water that they can clean the entire lake in three days’ time. Or was it three hours? I forgot, as it was part of a quiz that a proud shijimi fisher gave me one time when he very enthusiastically shared a lot of clammy trivia with us. To illustrate how fast they work, he said, they have a tank of them near the boarding point for the Hakucho boat tour of Lake Shinji, and before departing they pour a bunch of cloudy, dirty water in, and by the time the passengers get back, they get to see that the water has already turned clear thanks to the hardworking clams.

The hardworking, tasty clams.

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Miso soup is a standard part of the Japanese diet, pairing well with almost any kind of Japanese food, and there are limitless in the ways you could prepare it. Here in the Lake Shinji area, that means shijimi soup. There’s no question about it, really. If you go to a fancy restaurant in Matsue or Izumo or Unnan or Yasugi, you’re getting shijimi soup near the end of your multi-course meal of local delicacies. If you go to a more home-style place with a lunch set or dinner set, you’re getting shijimi soup as part of it. If you’re staying over at a friend’s place and they bother cooking Japanese style, you’re getting shijimi soup with dinner and breakfast the next morning. More likely than not, these will all be filled with lots and lots and lots and lots of these little creatures.

Are there other ways to eat shijimi clams, besides in soup? Sure, but I think the only other ways I’ve eaten them were when they were cooked into rice (delicious), and when I prepared them with pasta after I won a huge bag of them and didn’t feel like making soup with them. And yes, it can take some time to get each of them out of the shells with either a pair of chopsticks and some talent or with your tongue and teeth. After so much practice now, though, I don’t usually consider it a struggle. After all, I’ve probably eaten hundreds of these things by now.

Whenever anyone introduces this local specialty product to you, they usually mention–perhaps more than once–how good they are for your liver. Hence, they give people a good excuse to break out the sake with their meals.

They’re hiding in there… and there are lots of them.

If you have a passion for these tiny mollusks you can find out more at Shijimikan, the Shijimi clam center nestled among the ryokan of Matsue Shinjiko Onsen, lining the northeast bank of the lake. I don’t know what you’d find there, though. I haven’t been. Maybe shijimi-flavored ice cream? Actually, now that I think of it, I think I have heard of that.

Even though I don’t exactly have a passion for them, I still find the sight of their tiny black shells familiar and endearing. They wash up along the statue-laden shores surround Shimane Art Museum and lonely island Yomegashima, and I’ve even found some in the parking lot of my apartment, possibly dropped there by the large birds of prey surrounding the city life. It’s considered good luck to leave the shells in front of the second hare statue around the museum (no, I have no idea why), and there are a number of accessories made with them as local souvenirs. They have a bit of an En-musubi meaning to them too, because like a perfectly matched couple, the two halves of each shell will only match with each other.


Whether it’s slipper table tennis, tug-of-war out on the ocean, or bingo at a big work party, I find I don’t usually share the excitement everyone else has for the big prizes being shelled out.

See, that’s a pun. We get stuff like big boxes or Matsue Iwagaki oysters, shijimi clams from Lake Shinji, or sazae (turban shells) as prizes as well.



Sometimes you get expensive local fruit for prizes, too. I’m usually a little happier about that than I am about sea creatures I have no idea what to do with.

I’ve written about Izumo Soba before, but how about a reprise? After all, living in Matsue means eating a lot of Izumo Soba and shijimi clam soup.

When most people think about this tea-loving feudal lord Matsudaira “Fumai” Harusato, they probably do not picture his late night escapades in disguise as a commoner to go indulge in a love that his straight-laced advisers disdained: rumor has it that Lord Fumai loved to eat Izumo Soba, a commoner food unbefitting of his rank.

Light grey soba noodles, made of heart-healthy buckwheat flour, are found throughout Japan and in Japanese restaurants around the world served cold and dipped in sauce or served hot in a light broth. While they were never a favorite food of mine, I did enjoy the chances I had to eat them while outside of the country, and relied on them as a filling and cheap meal while studying abroad. Here in the Matsue area, Izumo Soba is made with flour that uses the outer hill of the buckwheat instead of only the inside portion, so the noodles are darker, have more aroma, and are packed with more nutrients. I have become so accustomed to this super-soba that my expectations of soba noodles have increased, and the regular soba options I enjoyed before now no longer measure up. Why would I eat regular factory-made grey noodles when I could instead enjoy hand-mixed, hand-rolled, hand-cut fresh noodles, with visibly speckled tones to show off the extra flavor they contain?

Hand Cut Izumo Soba

True to its commoner origins, Izumo Soba is not strictly restaurant fare. Soba-making parties, especially around the years’ end, are a common experience for many local social groups. Making soba provides a taste of the good-old-days of rural, unhurried Japan. Unhurried make describe the abundant nature of Matsue’s mountainous areas where I’ve done this, but it does not describe the atmosphere in the kitchen as people root me on while I try to rolling a thin slab of dough wider than my arm span with a rolling pin that would be lethal if anyone actually had the strength to pick it up and brandish it around, and as they coach me through cutting the folded dough with the nerve-wracking speed of practiced hands, and as they tease me for my poor handling of the knife half the size of my head and my varied fat and thin noodle slices.

Considering the craftsmanship than goes into producing them, it is unsurprising that so many people make a career out of preparing them, and that the tastes and textures of the noodles tend vary by restaurant, each perhaps more famous or beloved than the last. Just as I have grown such a taste for the deeply-flavored handmade noodles that I cannot happily go back to eating factory-cut ones, the locals all have different suggestions for which restaurant is best.

I can taste some of the differences, but I do not have a favorite. Usually all I suggest is that visitors to the region be sure to try Izumo Soba—preferably Warigo style—at any of the Izumo Soba restaurants they come across, and that they make sure to save room for Lord Fumai’s beloved matcha tea and original Matsue wagashi later.

On my February 2016 visit to the Shimane Confectionery Training School, I served as the unskilled apprentice–I mean, as the hand model for a video they were taking, and I have the footage to share with you all! The subtitles, editing, and wasted wagashi are all my own unskilled doing, but hopefully this video will be helpful in appreciating the techniques the masters employ.

What does it take to be a wagashi master? That’s what I set out to find out!

I had taken part a couple times in the twice daily (except for Wednesdays) wagashi class at Karakoro Art Studio, and although they change the seasonal themes every month, they tend to teach the same two basic modeling techniques. This is nice, since anyone who enjoys working with a Play-Doh substance can quickly pick some new techniques for making completed works of tasty art as part of a busy day of tourism (I promise they smell nothing like Play-Doh and likely taste far better. Don’t eat Play-Doh, eat something nice). This is great if you’re visiting Matsue, one of the top three spots in Japan for wagashi culture and production. But what if you live here, and already consider yourself a master at eating them?

I dug a little deeper and found that through my conversation at Saiundo, one of the many famous wagashi companies in Matsue, that many students come from other prefectures–or even other countries!–to study the craft of wagashi in monthly classes held at the Shimane Confectionery Training School. The classes are offered for different skill levels, and I had the opportunity to participate in the final session of the year for a 2nd level class. We started in the morning with dorayaki, and then spent the afternoon sculpting bean pasted based sweets, both by the both and by our imaginations.

This is probably a good time to point out that I usually cook with my imagination. No, allow me to rephrase that. I “prepare food reasonable enough for consumption,” not “cook.” I especially do not “bake.” Baking is a matter of taking a handful of substances and transforming them into different substances. You know. “Alchemy.”

Seeing as I am not an alchemist, I was a little flustered when I realized I would be expected to concoct my own batch of dorayaki, which are like sandwiches made with pancakes and anko (sweet red bean paste, sometimes smooth (koshi-an), sometimes chunky (tsubu-an)). I thought I would just observe for the day, not put any ingredients to waste!

To my surprise, however, my dorayaki were a huge success. I did everything from sifting the flour (I guess people still do that), weighing the ingredients (oh, I guess that would usually help when you’re trying to perform alchemy), whisking them together (and I paid attention to when and how much of each ingredient to put in, really!), pouring the batter on the griddle (there’s a technique for flinging the batter onto a flat ladle, I learned), and flipping them such that they reach the right airy texture and retain their circular shape. I made lots and lots and lots of these things.


I was feeling pretty good about this success. Maybe, with a little care and practice, I could be an alchemist too! Surely that would be the hardest part, as I’m already creative and artistic enough for the visual components of making confectioneries, right?

Well…

Yeah, a little creativity is nice, but if you want to be a professional wagashi master–as in, someone who can actually manage to sell their work, and lots of it–you need more discipline than creativity.

You typically don’t sell individual wagashi. As the visual appeal and craftsmanship is just as important as their taste and texture, wagashi are typically something to eat in the company of someone else, so that you can appreciate the finer details together. That’s part of the goal of promoters of wagashi culture–to make people slow down and enjoy each other’s company. That part of the overall goal of the tea ceremony as well, since appreciating the visual elements of the ceremony is part of how the host and guests enjoy that moment spent together. Passing around a single wagashi for everyone to enjoy the view of, however, is not only a bit of a pain and impractical, but do you really want everyone breathing on the treat you are about to partake of, or let it get dried out in the air as you wait for everyone to look at it, or risk it falling to the tatami (or worse) as it gets passed around to everyone who wants to see it?

No! You typically see everyone at a tea ceremony eating the same sweet, and people casually hosting friends or bringing home wagashi to share with their family will typically get multiples of the same one. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and I’m sure there are people who like variety, but in general, you want everyone to have the same experience together of observing and tasting a unique piece of wagashi. I say “unique” to show they are usually seasonal designs which may only be available for a few weeks at a time, and will possibly never be sold again when the designs change in the following years. In order for everyone to enjoy that limited time wagashi, however, each wagashi sold needs to fit certain specs for the sake of consistency. The handmade effect is of course charming, of course, but as a customer you want a reasonable expectation of what you’re getting! That consistency, I learned, is very, very difficult to achieve.

A wagashi craftsman practices their techniques such that they can apply to any new and creative design, or any classic piece that people expect every year. These techniques are on professional tests, and the proof is in how well their wagashi fit the specs. In business, a few nice successes here and there won’t cut it. You need to have consistent successes. That is not only dependent on proper technique, but on the ingredients and on the environment in which you work as well. Even dry air will negatively affect them, so measures must be taken to ensure the proper humidity in the work space and in storage.

We didn’t work with each individual step that day, because the two bean-based pastes had already been prepared with just the right amount of sweetness. Although we didn’t have to worry about the taste, we needed to mix the colors ourselves and mold the sweets to go on display for the final presentation that evening.



There were issues and issues of monthly wagashi magazines set out for inspiration.

As I looked them over, the grandma-aged lady in attendance showed me the following pages and told me that each person would need to complete one of these sculptures.

Yes, those are all edible. See more wagashi statues here.

This lady tells jokes with a straight face and she took pleasure in how susceptible I am to that.

Ultimately, the final presentation would consist of one slanted-cut chrysanthemum of the teachers’ choosing done by the book–14 petals! It must be 14 petals!!–and two of each students’ choice. Many of them made designs that they liked in the magazines or that they had seen else where, while others started with a plan and made their own unique pieces, or just starting molding and seeing what they would come up with. (Like me. That’s all I could manage after working so hard on the chrysanthemum.

I’ll post a video next time about the process of making the chrysanthemum, as well as my results. As for the rest of this entry, let’s look at what those second-level students produced instead.








Mt. Fuji (volcano style) and Pikes Peak (plus Garden of the Gods)

In that time, the teacher was busy showing off a few other techniques as well. Sometimes it was instruct students who wanted to know how to making the wagashi in the magazines, sometimes it was to show off for my camera, and maybe some of it was for his own personal practice? Killing time? Killing material? I’m not sure. In any case, he was fun to watch.







As you’ll be able to tell more clearly in my upcoming entry, I’m not all that cut out for making wagashi. Maybe I won’t be a master at making them, but being a master at eating them’s not too bad.

Every region of Japan has a wealth of omiyage. These might be items to take home as your own souvenirs, but perhaps more characteristic are the individually packaged snacks meant to be shared by a large group, such as your colleagues. Though it is not enforced, some may consider it a pain to spend money on such things so as not to be the jerk who never brings back omiyage, but I find it fun to try to find things nobody has brought back yet. Sometimes this can be difficult, as every place has cheap cookies that taste the same all around the country and just have different mascots stamped on them. But sometimes you find something everyone is actually excited to receive.

On the flip side, sometimes you get the same thing more than once, and sometimes it’s from visitors to the office who have brought local products. There are some I am always excited to see, and Furoshiki Warabi Mochi is one of them.

A furoshiki is a wrapping cloth often made of decorative material historically used for wrapping your clothes when you visit a public bath, but which is now used in many aspects of Japanese culture. In the tea ceremony we make extensive use of them wrapping boxes which contain fine tools or for bagging up our purses and other items we don’t need in the tea room while enjoying the ceremony, and I use them at home for wrapping my kimono supplies. They are a very popular gift item, both as very Japanese-like souvenirs from Japan (especially given the wealth of designs and the fine silks they are often made of), and especially as wrapping for gifts. Instead of paper which is just going to be thrown again, furoshiki can be used again and again, and there are many stylish ways to wrap everything from boxes to wine bottles to oddly shaped objects. A furoshiki is now not only a very useful and pretty piece of fabric, but the sight of it almost screams something about gifts and gift-giving culture.

Warabi Mochi is a dumpling made with bracken starch. It’s extremely soft, not as chewy as gyuhi or tough like mochi made from rice flour. It is often covered in kinako, soybean flour (more like powder) which is lightly sweet and much more appetizing than the translated name suggests.

So what gives this its San’in flavor? The pear syrup you put on top! After all, Tottori is Japan’s ultimate pear spot.

Individual servings include three tiny blocks of warabi mochi, a packet of pear syrup, and a wooden stick with which to cleanly eat the sticky and powdery confection.

Doesn’t that look appetizing, especially at 3 in the afternoon when your brain is crying for a little confectionery boost? Stab those delectable morsels and enjoy the mix of fine powder, smooth syrup, and soft, soft, soft mochi textures.

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.

Mt. Kameda, now known as Jozan and the site of National Treasure Matsue Castle, is home to more than one historic building. Just down the stairs and north of the castle town sits Kounkaku, a Meiji era imperial guest house.

Completed in 1903 in anticipation of Emperor Meiji’s visit, it turned out to be used for instead in 1907 by his son who would go on to be Emperor Taisho. He stayed there for three nights in late May, and the buildings’ original function as a fitting spot to house an emperor was served.

During that time period when Japan was rapidly Westernizing, there was a rush to build Western style ballrooms where people in Western style attire would gather and socialize. Although they had observed many buildings abroad, the buildings in Japan maintained local construction techniques, there by retaining some elements that are very local in character, such as the wooden ceiling found at Kounkaku. In the emperor’s private sleeping quarters as well, the floors are made of tatami mats.


Whereas the floors in his working areas were covered in lush carpets. I’m give or take about the floors, but I love those curtains.

The building served as a prefectural office for a short period of time, and then as the Matsue Folklore Museum for a few decades, but ended with the 2011 opening of the Matsue History Museum nearby in a new (and very nice) building modeled on a high ranking samurai home. Kounkaku was closed for about two years undergoing renovations, and reopened last October both as a general tourism spot and as an event space.

We’ve hosted a couple of receptions for delegates from Matsue’s Friendship City, New Orleans, here on the second floor (it’s tempting to call it a ballroom, but it was not actually designed as a party space). I’ve had a few people ask me if the building was based on Southern plantation buildings, as something about it feels very much like home to them.

I can’t say it feels familiar to me, but I do feel at home in buildings that transport you back to ages long ago. Great care was taken in preserving the buildings’ integrity while adding accessibility options and toilets to the back of it outside of the original building. The paint colors are as close to the original as we have sources to indicate, and all the locks and keyholes, marbled Meiji glass, and wooden door remain the same. Even the knicks in the wood from years of use remain as they are, adding character akin to freckles to a building that remains proud and regal.

My affection for the state of the building made me alarmed when I was consulted about adding a cafe to the downstairs.

I could see why it seemed like a good idea on the surface, but I was consumed with how many ways a good idea could go wrong. There was some talk about opening a Cafe Du Monde chain there, given the connections between Matsue and New Orleans and that Japan is the only place where the chicory coffee and beignet shop allows any chains. If they put enough effort into maintaining the character of both Cafe Du Monde and of Kounkaku I though that had potential to be very impressive, but the company that owns the Cafe Du Monde chains in Japan–and made an abomination of them by selling breakfast hot dog sandwiches and not even providing beignets at its Kyoto Station location–likely would not allow the city such flexibility to try to honor the original. What’s a more, a chain—-if it were any kind of coffee shop with a recognizable name in Japan, that name would inevitably be all over the Meiji architecture, during the imperial guest house into a shrine to modern commerce and convenience culture. With those fears in mind, I strong advised that unless they could made an independant shop with commitment to a Meiji style atmosphere and menu, it would be safer not to chance it with a commercial enterprise.

Granted, my advise was only asked for in passing, but I doubt my influence went very far. There were other who also loved the building who had even more grave concerns, such as keeping the Prfectural Cultural Property from going up in flames due to electrical fires.

The cafe opened at the same time the building reopened to visitors last fall. And to my pleasant surprise, the Kamedayama Tea Room was not a name I recognized.

I should know by now that Matsue loves its castle town atmosphere too much to let it be sold out in the name of progress. Even the castle tower itself only stands today because a Meiji period citizens’ group pooling money together to buy it from the government to prevent it from being demolished in a nationwide effort to toss out the old and unnecessary remnants of feudal Japan. Likewise, they would not let just any cafe operate inside of a building as special as Kounkaku.

As the name suggests, it is named for the mount on which Matsue Castle stands. Due to strict fire prevention guidelines placed on designated cultural properties, there are limits to how much electricity the cafe can use, and no open flames are allowed. As such, the food is prepared off site and kept cooled and/or heated up on the premises, thereby although reducing noise. Visual noise is also kept to a minimum with the sleek and understated design of the furniture and dishes.

So far I’ve only tried an Earl Grey with persimmon cheesecake, as well as one breakfast there, but they do have an appetizing lunch menu as well. I am also very intrigued by the Kuromoji Tea, a brew hailing from the nearby Oki Islands and long since a favorite in Shimane Prefecture. I’ll bet it’s fragrant, and I’m saving trying it for a time when I don’t need a kick of caffeine.

It’s now also the closest spot to Matsue Castle to grab lunch or stop in for tea time. Of course, that doesn’t mean the springtime picnics around the castle are likely to decrease.

As part of my ninja romp through the obstacle course at Adventure Forest in Gotsu City, I also checked out Arifuku Cafe in the Arifuku Onsen area. It’s one of three places in the very charming, tiny townscape that I wish I would have saved more daylight to walk around and take pictures of. I sort of blame the cafe, because even for having only seen a tiny portion of the stylish amenities, my friend and I stayed there a long, long time, completely swept up in the quiet, relaxing atmosphere and our conversation.


Here in the regular cafe space, there are some roof tiles to write wishes on. The Iwami area–that is, the western block of Shimane Prefecture–is a well-known spot for producing quality rooftiles.

You can enjoy a view of some of those roof tiles by sitting outside with your feet soaking in a little basin of hot onsen water, which flows throughout the little town area and sends steam up from the streams.

Ah, the charming townscape.



But what’s back through that door?

An indoor hall of rooms, behind which are the decorated rooms with beds which you can rent out for nighttime or daytime use.

And parallel to it, an outdoor hall with doors leading to the onsen rooms named after the Seven Lucky Gods, rented out by the hour for private use.

These make a great little introduction to onsen culture for visitors to Japan who are shy about bathing with strangers, and who don’t want to pay for a full ryokan experience. The sizes of the rooms and characteristics are reflected in the prices (the lowest ones run 1,500 yen per hour for one to two people), and not all have access to the outside. Even the indoor ones, however, are situated by sunlight windows. The bath water, naturally extremely hot near its source, can be adjusted with cold water to suit your preferences, but the natural light and wood tones give it a warm atmosphere as well. The pH 9.0 water is known for its cleansing properties and gives your skin a soft and springy texture like rice cakes.

After a dip in the onsen, my friend I thought we’d just get drinks in the cafe and then be on our way, but as I mentioned before, we stayed quite a while. I specifically chose the chairs I thought I’d be least likely to get cozy in and doze off in, but we got too comfortable anyway! Along this cafe is supposed to be a good spot for specialized coffee roasted with bamboo charcoal, my friend went with a hot cocoa and I went with a ginger ale with a generous amount of very tasty fruit.



For being a relatively small city, sandwiched between Hamada and Oda, Gotsu has no shortage of stylish and satisfying cafes or fancy onsen facilities. Kaze no Kuni Onsen Resort was also a favorite!

A few months back I had the opportunity to meet with the Yamaguchi couple. Mrs. Yamaguchi is the president of Saiundo, one of the major local wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) producers in Matsue, which, along with Kyoto and Kanazawa, is one of the top cities known for wagashi. Saiundo operates in other parts of the San’in region as well, and they have also been involved in wagashi promotion abroad in places like New York City and Paris (see their English product descriptions here).

A motif that’s already come and passed, served with frothy matcha

The main Saiundo shop, a short walk west of Matsue JR Station.

Serving a wagashi market abroad comes with considerable challenges, especially when it comes to namagashi, fresh handcrafted sweets with constantly changing seasonal motifs (at Saiundo, they change every 10 days or so based on designs the artisans propose). Not only does it require educating new markets about the aesthetics of a dessert they may not be accustomed to the tastes of, but it requires having partners they can trust to retain the integrity of the company’s products, and even technical requirements such as special refrigeration. The weather can even provide challenges, as the ingredients used in wagashi are suited to the particular climate of Japan, and the humidity might not even be high enough to retain the right texture!

Within Japan, Matsue not only has the right seasonal weather for wagashi, but by my observation, they also seem to have the right cultural climate given the historical emphasis on tea culture (thanks, Lord Fumai). I asked about this, and asked business owners with a longer history in Matsue than I do, they expressed some challenges they face. A more Western-style sweet tooth has sweet most of Japan, so they have started providing Western style sweets in addition to their wagashi line-up so as to fit a wider range of occasions. Mr. Yamaguchi also mentioned the generation gap and that many high school students today say they hate azuki (sweet red beans), and key ingredient in the world of Japanese sweets. “That’s only because they haven’t had good azuki!” he insisted, obviously quite passionate about this topic.

I have to relate–after having a bad experience with azuki ice cream when I tried it when I was 12, I went almost a decade without being able to look at something the color of azuki without being disgusted. Having grown up in the US with only seeing beans used in hearty dishes like chili and never in sweets, it was also a bit of a mental thing to overcome. Thankfully, I now regularly eat–and enjoy!–wagashi with good quality azuki that retain their bean appearance, but I still am wary of processed azuki in mass-produced sweets.

Another challenge we talked about was the differences in taste. One of my favorite Saiundo products is “Manten,” a kanten (agar-agar, or vegetable gelatin) sweet with a starry sky motif only sold around summer. Because it stays fresh a little longer than hand-molded seasonal sweets, I brought one home to my family. They all thought it looked pretty and were excited to try it, but not a single person ate much. Something about the flavor didn’t sit will with them. Maybe it was not so much the light flavor, but the shocking lack of flavor from something that looked like it should be like Jell-o?

I often hear Japanese people say that Westerners probably don’t take a liking to Japanese sweets because they are used to much sweeter things like cake and cookies, but I’ve noticed that the opposite tends to be true. The first time I had fresh wagashi eight years ago it was too sweet for me to enjoy, despite my love of almost everything sweet. It felt like I was suffering to swallow something like sugar polished and packed into something even heavier and sweeter than any regular spoonful of raw sugar could be, and it made the matcha–which I already disliked due to my distaste of bitter things–taste even more sharply bitter than it otherwise would have been. Haha, my 18-year-old self, little did you know that you would go on to love both wagashi and matcha and consume them almost every week, but the experience still provides some insight I think most wagashi eaters or sellers have not always noticed.

It came up in the comments of my blog at some point and I wish I could remember and credit who said it (I have it narrowed down to a few of you in my mind!), but one of my readers made a very good point: western sweets dilute the sweetness with fats, but wagashi, naturally lower in fats, sugars, and artificial colors and flavors, have little to dilute the sweetness, thereby making wagashi very, very sweet to those who are not accustomed to them.

Perhaps if I had more familiarity with wagashi the first time I had one, I would have been more prepared for the sweetness, and I would have had more of an appreciation for it as edible craftsmanship. Craftsmanship with wagashi is something Saiundo and other wagashi shops in Matsue continue to encourage, and I happened to visit during an exhibition of edible sculptures. For instance, they occasional do weddings, and they had some examples of their personalized arrangements there.

And yes, those ones in front are what they look like–Shimane Prefecture’s official mascot, Shimanekko!

It’s very common to see wagashi sculptures that have plant motifs, like the following.



Camellia (tsubaki) are one of the representative flowers of Matsue, and this whole display is titled “Matsue.” The other key featured is the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat, which is seen at all daylight hours cruising around the Edo period moats than remain a key part of the city layout.

Speaking of celebrating local culture, two of the most impressive sculptures were of Izumo Taisha as it supposedly stood in the Kamakura Period, and a Yamata-no-Orochi mask as used in Iwami Kagura theater style. (However impressive, I’m not sure the sugar head spews real fire like the Iwami Kagura heads do.)

My favorite of all of the displays was this one that seemed to have a certain charm that reminded me of home. It probably felt western to me given the emphasis on fallen leaves, and given that wild squirrels are not really a thing in Japan.

Over the course of our conversation, a few small children came up to the second floor to view the displays, asking questions the whole time, like if these things were all wagashi and therefore all edible. Mr. Yamaguchi proudly answered each of their repeated questions, like “What color are wagashi usually?”

The comment they kept repeating to themselves was “wagashi sugoi… wagashi sugoi…

Wagashi are cool… wagashi are amazing…