On September 27th, the moon was at its biggest and brightest, the closest it would be to the earth for 2015. On this day, many people in Japan practiced Tsukimi–quite literally, “moon viewing.”

But this story doesn’t take place on the 27th. It takes place on the 26th.

Being a big fan of our closest celestial friend and one to take notice of it at any time of year, I always loved that there are so many cultural activities in east Asia surrounding the act of viewing the moon. I have spent four previous harvest moons in Japan and noticed all the specials in the stores from Tsukimi Burgers (burgers with egg, because the egg is round like the moon) to dango with rabbits on the packages (instead of a man on the moon, the shadows are said to resemble a rabbit bounding rice cake, though please allow me to point out it should be a hare and not a rabbit because rabbits are not native to Japan). However, I had never engaged in the act of offering dango to the moon, appreciating susuki (pampas grass) decorations under the moonlight, or anything the tea ceremony offers surrounding this nature-viewing event.

Unsurprisingly, there are many tools and tastes set aside specifically for moon viewing, or in celebration of the moon. For instance, chestnuts and sweet potatoes are also in season around this time, so they are often incorporated in the decorations or sweets. Furthermore, the containers for tea that might usually have a gold interior instead have a silver interior because the moon is associated with a silver color. Then of course, you have a plethora of scrolls and tea bowls inspired by the moon or by viewing it, thereby making for a wide of array of decorations that are only used at this time of year.

Of course I was looking forward to all of that, but I was not entirely looking forward to the ceremony itself. Or rather, I was not not looking forward to putting on a kimono immediately after returning from a week out of town, fighting with the obi I had been having trouble with, and somehow looking presentable for a five hour ceremony after a five hour bus ride. Ironically, Japan’s “silver week” of three holidays in a row fell into the same week as the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, meaning my plans were stacked right on top of each other. A bit of an oversight on my part, and I cursed my over-confidence in my time management abilities as I hurriedly showered and ironed my kimono and tried to control my not-fully-dried hair. Luck was on my side, however, because I managed to tie my obi alright on the first try and only had the obi-age left to tie in the taxi.

I did not, however, bring a camera. Please bear with my verbal account instead of photos that would not do justice to a the night scene anyway.

We–about twenty people–held the ceremony at a restaurant built in the mid Edo period called Rinsuitei, which has a tea ceremony appropriate tsukubai (water basin) in the garden over looking the mouth of the Ohashi River and Lake Shinji. We heard many stories about this building and its history as the night went on, such as how they had switched to a lower tsukubai in recent years, as the term refers to a place where one must “stoop down” into a humble position as they wash their hands. Originally, they had a tall one in place, as the feudal lords of Matsue would often visit that place. They could not be expected to stoop down. Instead, they would stand there as one servant poured the water over their hands, and another would dry them with a towel. Even in hand-washing, a lord cannot be expected to get his own hands dirty. Obviously.

Our space was spread across enough rooms that we had three moon and moon-viewing related scrolls to view, as well as multiple spots for seasonal plants as decorations—in the waiting area in the hall where gourds were on display, along the hallways where Chinese lantern plants were rich in red and gold tones, in the waiting room where a flush array of wild flowers looked just as wild as if they were still in the dirt, in the alcove surrounded by windows where plump vegetables and dumplings were offered before the moon, and in the ceremony room itself, where there was a hanging boat vase set on the floor of the tokonoma (decorative alcove). I’ve seen these used hanging in the tokonoma, but this one was set with its chains trailing it like waves, implying that the boat had stopped so that the people (or in this case, flowers) on board could view the moon.

We started with the arrangement of the charcoal to prepare for the ceremony, and that is a ceremony in and of itself. This was followed by dinner, and it was the most delicious tea ceremony meal I have had yet. I even enjoyed the sake, which I typically don’t have much of a taste for! I had very pleasant conversation with O-san, the very kind old man who started practicing tea ceremony the year before I did.

While the three hosts who set everything up for us were cleaning up after dinner and preparing for the tea, the rest of us headed back out into the garden and the waiting room. The moon was visible over the roof of the annex next to us, making its only appearance from behind the clouds that we could see. The clouds surrounding it nonetheless lit up just as brightly.

The fourth generation owner of Rinsuitei joined us for the koicha (thick tea, most formal) part of the ceremony so that he could explain the scrolls and their meanings to us. He went us to tell us more about the feudal lords that dined there back in the day, and that the sign with the name of the establishment hanging inside the tea room was the calligraphy of Lord Fumai. O-san and I sat on either side of him, highlighting his words with expressions of “ehhhhhh?” to show our appreciation for the newly acquired knowledge.

“What we really don’t know much about is why my great-grandfather purchased this place in the Meiji Period.”
“Oh? There’s no information about that? He must have been rich to purchase it.”
“Yes, but we have no idea what he was doing before that to have gotten so rich,” he finished with an expression that suggested dubious ideas he may have entertained throughout the years.

The thick tea was extremely smooth and left a sweet aftertaste that spread throughout my palette, and we observed the tools by candlelight. The dim lights highlighted the silent movements of the host preparing the tea, providing just enough illumination to see each other’s faces.

We turned the lights back on during the more relaxed usu-cha (thin tea) portion, so we all got a very good look at the tea cups passed around, the one being served to the highest guest showing off an Edo craftsman’s sense of humor since you had to finish drinking all the tea before you could see the moon (the character 月 written on the bottom of the bowl). Part way through, as often happens in parties for twenty people or so among a school or two, some of the other students were asked to jump in and prepare tea for the other guests so that the busy hosts could have a break. I was one of these, and I could tell by using the tools–the sleek dark tea scoop, the textured tea caddy–that they were of a higher caliber than what I usually use in practice.

We shared the dango which one of the hosts had made as the moon offering, and to wash it down, most of us had second cups of the thinly prepared matcha. Because using and observing a variety of tools and decorations is part of the fun of the tea ceremony, the hosts asked everyone before they set out the second cups of tea before them, “This is different from the tea bowl you had before, right? If not, I’ll give it to the person next to you and get a new one.” I really, really liked the second bowl I used and perhaps took more time than usually granted to observe it, as it was like two bowls in one, or one melted over the first one or something.

The evening ran long, and the shy 14th day moon hid behind the clouds for most of the celebration. Despite all the caffeine, I was feeling much more relaxed at the end of the ceremony than I was when I arrived that afternoon. It reminded me why I was attracted to the tea ceremony in the first place.

It grounds you to the moment, treating each one as something that will never come again. It’s a brief respite from the world, cleansing all your senses with the quiet sounds of water, the sweet and bitter tastes and fragrances, and the carefully selected tools and decor to behold in your hands or just with your eyes. Despite the respite, it grounds you to your place in time and space, and brings you together with good company as you take in the details of the moment and appreciate those details together.

There may be more tsukimi tea ceremonies in the future, but this one is now in the past, a moment never to be repeated, but one I’ll remember for a long time.


“This restaurant is Showa-kusai,” I’ve occasionally heard my coworkers declare.

I’m thinking specifically of a random little outing we went on to a nearby oden restaurant where we could rent out the tiny upper floor of an already tiny shop, with ladies in kerchiefs carrying steaming bowls of broth and protein-filled items not easily recognized outside of Japan up a narrow flight of wooden steps, and then apologizing for not having the right beer on hand but that they’d be right back from getting some at the liquor store. But what does that phrase mean? A somewhat literal translation would be, “It stinks of the Showa period in here.”

The Japanese calendar is all kinds of complex, but one thing foreigners pick up on pretty fast is that there are two year-keeping systems in daily use. The year we’re more accustomed to (2015), or the year of the period of the current emperor’s rule (Heisei 27). When one emperor’s rule ends and another begins, the name of the time period also changes, and this has been going on since the year 645 AD. To put it in a little more perspective, the over two and a half centuries we now refer to as the Edo Period was actually a collection of 35 periods, ranging from one to twenty years in length.

The current era, Heisei, began in 1989 with the start of Emperor Akihito’s reign. Showa was the previous era, from 1926 to the first week of 1989. Therefore, “Showa” can mean a lot of things for a lot of people: the pre-war era, World War II, the post-war era and occupation, the economic climb up to the bubble era, and the bubble era (about 1986 to 1991). It was be a heavy topic, but when I hear the term thrown around to describe the atmosphere or style of something, what I’m hearing is not “this restaurant reminds me of carpet bombing and poverty,” but “this place is so-o-o-o-o 80’s!”

Showa is Japan’s retro, it the distanced past that we look back on and dismiss for its poor fashion choices, but still close enough to feel an uncanny familiarity even if you weren’t quite born yet.

Perhaps one of the more noticeable tastes I’ve had of Showa Japan was this ramen truck.

I was walking back to my apartment with some of my fellow CIRs when one of my American friends, who has a handle on Showa culture like no one else I’ve ever met despite her lack of actually having lived in Showa Japan, brimmed with excitement at the sound and sight of this thing. “I didn’t think those ramen trucks still existed!” she said. “I’ve never seen one, but I heard these used to be the big thing. Everyone ate at these. I have to try it.”

One of the things that feels very “Showa” to me yet that I have experienced in Heisei is singing trucks. They’re like ice cream trucks, but they sell more than just ice cream–if you’re really, really lucky, you might be hearing a tofu vendor! Other times they are collecting recyclables and they play their happy little songs between announcements to bring out your dead (dead trees, that is). If it’s just someone speaking and they’ve been at it all week at an especially loud volume, however, they’re probably just a politician. Still, the ramen truck and its whirring, repetitive notes was a new sound to me. It was like the horn of a car tortured into letting out long breaths to make a change in pitch noticeable enough to perhaps be called, by the most generous of listeners, “a song.”

The name of the mobile establishment even felt like a bit of an old joke:

味自慢 (aji-jiman) is a phrase you often see associated with ramen, and a quick search on the phrase reveals a ramen restaurant by this name in Sakaiminato. It means “Pride in Taste,” but it feels funny to me because my brain reads it as a pun like “ajiman.” That’s probably just me, though.

Although I appreciate the occasional bowl of ramen at a yatai (outdoor food stall), this takes that a step further, as you can stand there at the mobile counter if you so wish, after reading from the posted menu and watching your steaming bowl of food be prepared before your eyes.

My friend’s verdict was that this little taste of a bygone era was good. As a bystander, I wouldn’t have said it “stunk” of Showa.

Maybe I should have joined her for that little trip back in time. Ramen is sounding really good right about now, and I don’t really care what era it smells of.

I take no credit for this pun, allow me to just point out that Tottori 20th Century Pears are indeed delicious, and around September or so they sort of take over the entire prefecture.

So what else is there to say about these pears, besides that they’re delicious?

These pears, first cultivated in 1898 right before the turn of the century, are also known as “Nijisseiki” or “Nijusseiki” among both Japanese and Western horticulturists, as one of the only green varieties of Asian pears among an array of russet varieties. Like other Asian pears, it is crisp and sweet, fragrant, and with a grainy texture. They’re large and often shared as gifts, decoratively cut to be shared and enjoyed raw.

Click for source

But no famous local product in Japan would ever thrive on its own fame simple by being served raw. First, you need to make an ice cream flavor out of it, no matter what it is.

From Tottori Hana Kairo, a very big and lovely flower park.

Next, you need to make a curry out of it.

More appetizing than it looks, especially right after visiting the Tottori Sand Dunes.

It needs to be available for sale all over your respective region.

In the surrounding regions (like my local grocery stores) people need to go on a frenzy ordering them in advance, fully expecting to pay top dollar (er, uh, yen) for the shiniest of fruits. Having people pay to pick their own fruits in season is a given, and at this time of year, anyone should be able to drive through the area and see trees heavy with plastic-bag-covered fruit. Tottori has this all covered with their 20th Century Pears.

But they take it even further–yes, the Tottori Nijisseki Pear Museum is a real thing. I have not had the pleasure of going myself, but the more I think about it, the more interesting it looks. Having taught a very detailed class about American culture by way of peanut butter, I can tell you that a close look into a single plant-based food has can be extremely enlightening.

Although pears (梨) make a good pun for nothingness (無), don’t underestimate them. The ones I have received as gifts were indeed some of the tastiest pears I’ve ever had.

It’s easy to get caught up in routine, to lose sight of the specialness in the scenery around me. I live very close to Matsue Castle and the preserved scenery of the area. I’ve walked Shiomi Nawate, one of the top 100 historic streets of Japan, many hundreds of times, at many times of day, in any kind of weather we get here. Yet for all those times, I still had not visited Yakumo-an’s dessert cafe annex tucked alongside the Samurai Residence a rainy morning this past July.

Yakumo-an is a famous Izumo Soba restaurant (one of many) found along Matsue’s preserved Edo-period street (one of many places to get Izumo Soba around there), and every weekend you see tourists pouring in to enjoy the garden scenery, subdued and retro atmosphere of the wooden buildings displaying the signatures of the famous people who have dined there, and of course, the array of Izumo Soba options. I’ve written about this famous local dish (and how to eat it) before. On a three day weekend, you always need to expect a long wait to get in. While they do serve dessert there as well, the cafe annex is a few openings later along the Edo era blackened wood and white walls, facing the northern moat of the castle.

The entrance to Yakumo-an’s Izumo Soba restaurant

The more subdued entrance to the Yakumo-an dessert cafe

It was a routine Sunday morning, and walking back along Shiomi Nawate with rain both freshly fallen and threatening to fall again, the wetness highlighted the contrast between the abundance of green and the dark black of the bark of the pines along the moat, with droplets lingering on all the pine needles. To the other side, the black trim along the wall was stark against the white-painted walls, and I looked up as I walked instead of straight forward. Why had I never noticed how many different trees were reaching out above the wall? Were those unripe persimmons growing there? Ah, little snails tucked under the black tiles at the top. Oh, pomegranates!

The cafe, unlike its restaurant counterpart, was quiet with only soft jazz and a little rushed gossip between the lady on duty and another lady who had come in to drop something off. I took a seat by the window to look out at the Samurai House and the bamboo forest behind it and watch the umbrella-bearing couples of various ages walk through and observe a taste of a middle ranking samurai’s lifestyle. That bamboo forest is one of my favorite spots to see lit up during Suitoro, the month-long lantern festival every October, but right now there are some orange flowers that have caught my attention against the deep summer greens.

Although the whole menu looks tasty, I decide to go with the signature item, the Fumai-ko (one guess who that is–only my personal favorite local historical figure.) I got it for the matcha jelly, but there was much more than that: ice cream, a fluffy mousse-like matcha concoction above the gelatanious portion, tsubu-an (sweetened and semi-crushed red azuki beans), some soft and tiny mochi (rice cakes), and a sweet source I could not place the flavor of. Thinking back, it may have been made with condensed milk like is sometimes poured on top of Japanese style kakigori (shaved ice).

I will be the first to admit that I’ll take a Western style dessert before a Japanese style dessert most of the time, especially given that I had a strong aversion to azuki for a long time. I didn’t even enjoy fresh and artistic wagashi the first time I had them five years before coming to Matsue. Life has gotten easier since learning to like it, and indeed, it’s gotten a lot better. How amazing is it that matcha and azuki go so well together? It’s hard to imagine a better harmony among the world of Japanese sweets, as if they are made for each other when sweetened a little.

The elements of these dessert harmonized such that every bit was best when at least one element was in combination with at least one other element. I like to have a bit of at least every part of a dish seperately to appreciate each flavor, but this was the kind of dish that was best in combination–any combination. The hardest part was savoring enough of each flavor so that I wasn’t left with too much of a single item for the last bite!

Like many cafes serving traditional Japanese desserts, it comes with a little cup of hot tea to wash it down, usually a bancha. This is picked at a later flush than other Japanese sencha so it is less astringent and more grassy and smooth. Although considered of lower and cheaper quality, this is a nice tea for everyday use, and it doesn’t conflict with sweet flavors. I always like observing the tea cups it is served in.

Maneki-neko (beckoning cats)

Very enthusiastic maneki-neko

I left not-over-hungry, not-over-full, chilled out in both a physical and emotional sense, and aware anew of the treasure trove of a street I live so close to.

A few cultural differences regarding a favorite candy I grew up with:

“Look at that color. That can’t be good for you.”
“It tastes like medicine, that’s why you don’t typically see licorice in Japan.”
“But there’s so much artificial color.”
“…the color… the color!!”

Whereas among fellow expat friends who had never been exposed to it:

“What is this and why have I never seen it before?”
“It’s amazing. Give me more.”
“And more. And more. And more.”

(I was hoping my fellow foreign friends would have the same reaction as my Japanese friends, and therefore I’d be able to keep more of my acquired licorice to myself.)

One day, a friend asked me to go to Manai Shrine and Rokusho Shrine with her.

What? I thought. Usually I’m the one asking people to drive me out into the countryside hunting for mythological shrines.

Naturally, I agreed, as these two have been on my visit list since I wrote that first Kojiki manga about Izanagi and Izanagi. Manai Shrine is up a long flight of stone steps and quietly hidden away against a mountain, which made it strike me as a counterpart shrine to Kamosu Shrine, which is dedicated to Izanami and located in the same general area. Rokusho Shrine was located directly next to the local Izumo government offices back in the Heian period, so it was used as an organizational base for all the shrines in the area.

All three of them have the same crest, the character 有 (ari, “to have”) inside of a tortoise shell. The tortoise represents longetivity and is therefore lucky, while 有 is made up of the characters 十 (“ten”) and 月 (“month/moon”), which, when paired together as 十月 mean “October” (or at least, they referred to the 10th month of the agricultural calendar beforehand, but that’s been a mess since the Gregorian switch). Of course, the 10th month is special here in the Izumo region. While it is traditionally referred to as Kannazuki (“the month without gods,” written 神無月 (gods-nothing-month)), only here is it referred to as Kamiarizuki (“the month with gods,” written 神在月 (gods-exist-month), but can also be written as 神有月–there’s that 有 again!). This is because the 8 million gods from around Japan congregate at Izumo Taisha during that time.

Back in the old days…

We visited Manai first, and found it quiet and sparse, in a refined sort of way.

Rokusho turned out a bit more interesting, as we found the remains of some recent festival. “Nan darou…” we both trailed off many times as we noticed things around the shrine, the straw weavings and the gohei (paper streamerson small sticks) left around the trees. “Nan darou… I wonder what this is…?” We found other little things, such as a handwashing font partially hidden under the trees at a back entrance, a boat possibly for use on the nearby Iu River, and a basketball hoop. “Nan darou…”

What really brought my friend out to those southern hills and valley at the outskirts of Matsue was not the shrines so much as the Manai Waterfall, which the nearby shrine was named after, and is said to be holy water with healing properties. It is about three meters high, and nestled away up into the hill, and we made a few rounds around the neighborhood following a handful of different maps trying to find it. “Doko darou… where could it be…” we said over and over.

We asked directions from an old lady taking a break from her gardening who answered us in very thick Izumo dialect, and later on we asked directions from an old man with a dialect almost as thick. He was cheerful and helpful, but trying to be those things sometimes comes off as discouraging. “You’ll see that sign for the soumen shop, and it’ll be right up behind it, you can’t miss it! But nobody’s used it for years, they don’t make nagashi-soumen there anymore. Nobody bothers with the waterfall anymore. It’s nothing much. But yeah, there’s a parking lot, and you’ll find the waterfall right there! It’s too bad about the soumen…”

Little did we inner-city dwellers know about this supposedly famous nagashi-soumen (soumen is a type of thin, white noodle, and when served nagashi-soumen style it slides with water down a bamboo shoot and you try to catch it as it goes by–a popular thing to do in summer). I saw one big sign for it by the road as we passed around the tiny neighborhood and the hill a few times, but mistakenly thought it was referring to the building it was fixed to instead of to the little abandoned stall we found by the other sign the old man told us to look for.

The view from the parking lot

As soon as we stepped out of the car, we heard the sound of water, and found its source much sooner than we expected. Filled though the neglected pond was with fallen leaves, the water was perfectly clear.

“Maybe we should wash our hands with it?”
“A rinse couldn’t hurt.”
“You think it’s safe to drink? Dou darou… I wonder…”
Dou darou… maybe fill your water bottle and then take it home and boil it?”
“Ah, good idea.”
“What will you do with it?”
Nan darou…
“I wonder if it works. Dou darou…
Dou darou…

I took a look around the forested area and noticed this little sight next to the pond.

“Hey, it’s an Inari statue… hhm, the head’s fallen off. That’s unsettling.”
Nan darou…”
Nan darou…”

And then we found another by a tree behind us.

Nan darou…”
Nan darou ne…”

Beyond the tree, there was a little blocked off clearing of mysteriously placed rocks, and the carved ones were not legible.

“I wonder why we can’t go here?”
“I wonder if there’s something buried.”
“I wonder what it says.”
Nan darou…”
Nan darou…”

Neither of were particularly wary, merely curious. We stood and looked up at the branches and fresh spring leaves high above us, rustling in the wind on that cloudy April afternoon. The light and sounds were different in that space from the sleepy neighborhood and rice fields below, the forgotten gathering spot for catching noodles sliding down the supposedly holy water.

“That’s pleasant.”
“I’m glad we found it.”
“Yeah, me too.”

We went on trading our darou‘s throughout the rest of that shrine hopping afternoon in the southern stretches of Matsue, and the heart of where the Izumo region used to be ruled from.

As a bit of a reminder, the Japanese calendar system has been beat up and smashed around to the point that it is confused and hardly recognizable, but suffice to say that May 5th is thought of as a seasonal holiday called “Tango no Sekku” (also known as Kodomo-no-Hi, and perhaps you’ve heard of it as Boy’s Day or Children’s Day), but because the weather is still too cool to call it the start of summer on May 5th, the San’in Region and some parts of northern Japan practice tsuki-okure: They delay these seasonal holidays by a month and instead celebrate Tango-no-Sekku on June 5.

Chimaki, known by other names and methods in other Asian countries, is a traditional treat for this holiday. The basic idea is that you make a dough out of rice flour (and perhaps some other ingredients for flavor), wrap it in leaves (bamboo leaves are common now), and boil them. If you don’t boil them, they have the tasteless consistency of dough, I found out. Although I really did not know what I was doing when it came to boiling them, I did find them more palatable afterward. I would have appreciated them with a little something sweet, though.

Japan has a thing for oysters (牡蠣 kaki), and in the past handful of years many locales have begun harvesting them to attract gourmet travelers. Places like the ever popular Miyajima have long been known for their magaki, a winter delicacy, whereas iwagaki–rock oysters–are a Sea of Japan thing that are especially good during the spring and summer months. Oysters bars have become very popular in fashionable areas of Tokyo. The Matsue iwagaki sold in Tokyo tend to go for a ¥1200, whereas at 17 restaurants in town that sell official Matsue Iwagaki you can find them for as cheap as ¥800 for a single oysters. That’s still a lot of money for what many people all over the world cringe at the thought of putting in their mouths.

As a little personal history, I have been an extremely picky eater for as far back as I can remember. I am especially finicky about textures and how things feel when I chew them, and as a little kid, there was a time I had a mouthful of meat but refused to chew it because I so hated the rubbery bits of gristle. I am still haunted by the seemingly reliable chicken sandwiches in elementary school lunches that suddenly had a rubbery bit to failingly sink my teeth into. I often choose to forgo meat altogether because I’m so picky about lean cuts with good texture. This is part of why I love tofu–it’s dependably smooth.

However, as an adult, I’m quite proud that I’ve taught myself to tolerate–and even enjoy–many foods I used to refuse to touch. I can trace a lot of this back to my first trip to Japan when I was 18, when I tried foods again that I had refused to eat in years, or tried entirely new things, and found that they weren’t all that scary to have in my mouth after all. In fact, many of them were surprisingly pleasant.

Now, almost eight years later, my tastes and eating preferences have been mostly transformed. I still, however, loathe the rubbery sensation of gristle.

So… oysters? In particular, very large iwagaki? No, thank you, I was sure.

However, in the spirit of trying not to be so picky and having had many pleasant surprises over the years, I gave them a shot while visiting the Oki Islands because they were highly recommended. I figured that, if they were anything like sazae (turban shells, another Sea of Japan specialty), then I’d probably best be able to tolerate them covered in curry. Hence, I went with the deep-fried kaki covered in Japanese style curry sauce.

This is an abomination, as any oyster lover would tell you. Not knowing any better, I found them tolerable but not tasty. They were just chewy things in my curry. I decided I was not a fan of oysters.

It turns out, some other Sea of Japan spots with an iwagaki brand outright forbid the deep-frying of their oysters for the sake of preserving the integrity of the brand. Speaking of branding, I was invited to sample some Matsue Iwagaki from the cliffs of Shimane-cho so as to spread the word about this delicacy. I wasn’t particularly thrilled, but hoped maybe I could request some butter fried ones that I saw listed among the ways they are prepared, as I though that might make them more tolerable.

This invitation included a visit to the place where they are harvested. They began harvesting them on ropes with seeder oysters from the Oki islands about 17 years ago. The oysters take about 3 to 5 years to mature, and by then they are covered in plenty of other goods from the sea (many of which are also harvestable, such as the seaweed).

Although you can order them deep-fried or butter fried, grilling them over an open fire until they are half-cooked is a tantalizing option, but steaming them until they are half-cooked seems to be the most popular method. That is, if you’re even cooking them–by and large, every oyster fan I’ve met insists on them being served raw, as that is how you can taste them best.

I don’t care about the taste–what’s going to keep them from being rubbery!? When I mentioned to one of the people who proudly set me up for this taste test, he smilingly–but firmly–corrected me that they are tender, not rubbery. In Japanese, they are ぷりぷり (puripuri). While we were at the port, he also told us about a gigantic buri that was caught there. (I don’t think he knew my name as he was telling this story with me standing right next to him, but all my friends were giving me funny smiles. Yes, I share a name with a tasty fish. Yes, I know, I’m smooth and delicious. Not rubbery.)

They served us two freshly caught, steamed iwagaki each. I added a smidge of ponzu to one and a smidge of lemon to the other, as acidic things are supposed to bring out the thick, creamy flavor of this so-called milk of the sea.

It was… chewy… but… more tender than I expected.

In fact, now that I could actually taste it instead of deep-frying it and drowning it in curry, I could actually see why people like these things. Even the juice in the shell was salty but tasty. I didn’t even mind going for the second helping.

So… oddly enough, I guess I can honestly say they were good… and I might even have enjoyed them, now that I think about it. Now I find it a shame that I didn’t try them raw with no sauce, as apparently that would have been the ultimate oyster experience.

But hey, I do live in Matsue and can take my freshest choice of them anytime they’re in season, April through June. This is easier to do than I thought it would be, but I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you to come out and try them with me. Otherwise, you oyster lovers can just be jealous of these big things at my fingertips.

This is a well-known story in the Oki Islands. It’s a story about Yurahime Shrine on Nishinoshima, but it is said to have originated on Chibu. They are both small islands to the west, and Nishinoshima is one of my favorite hiking spots in Japan. Despite all the semi-wild horses that roam Nishinoshima, the island’s mascot is a squid.

One day, Yurahime, who was said to be a daughter of Susano-o*, floated out to sea in a wash bucket for potatoes. What she was doing in the bucket, I do not know.

Along the way, she amused herself by lightly dipping her hand in the water. A squid thought it would be funny to mess with her and yanked on her hand. Some say that it bit her.

As punishment for that one squid that picked on her, giant groups of squid has to gather in the harbor right in front of Yurahime Shrine every year.

(*Some people say that this is another name for Suseri-bime, but I don’t see much to back this up, and that’s just asking for more confusion. At least I’m pretty sure she’s not a potato.)

I don’t know, if I were Yurahime and was trouble by the squid teasing me, I probably would not want bunches of them showing up at my door step.

This is a real occurence, though. So many squid would show up in this harbor that, from the Meiji period through about 1945, there used to be about thirty fisherman’s’ shops set up annually right around the harbor to wait for them, and they come in huge group into such shallow water that they can just put on a pair of rubber boots and then scoop up bucketfuls with their hands.

However, the squid eventually figured this out and stopped flooding the harbor. Or at least, they don’t do it as often any more. Every few years it still occurs, it seems.

However, even if this phenomenon is not quite what it used to be, squid fishing is still a big, big thing on the Oki Islands (and other places along the Sea of Japan coast of the San’in region).

Especially around Oki, fishing for them at night is very common, and they use boats with lots and lots of giant light bulbs. They’re really massive, cool looking things that are also used for decoration around some spots on the islands, and their light is so bright that the seasoned squid fishers have tanned skin from working all night right under them. The squid think that this bright light is daylight and come to the surface, only to caught. Who is the joke on now, squids?

They look somewhat squid-like, too.

They look somewhat squid-like, too.

I didn’t used to like squid, but I’ve come to appreciate it while living here, the translucent raw squid that is often served as part of a sashimi course at fancy dinners. For those looking to try it for the first time, dried squid is nice. One of my earlier interpreting jobs was explaining how to gut the things and prep them for drying, but I didn’t do it myself.

My most distinctive San’in squid memory was last December, on a winter night spent at the Takobana cottages in Shimane-cho, overlooking the Sea of Japan from high cliffs. While making hot pot and playing games with my coworkers and waking up to the sound of the waves was nice, we all shared a strange experience looking out at the sea that night and seeing the bright white lights on the horizon. In the sky, however, they were straight, vertical lines of white light, not reaching down to the horizon and not reflecting off of any visible clouds. If we were not away that it was squid abduction going on, we all would have been convinced that it was alien abductions going on.

Ginger has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes across many cultures, and Japan is no exception. In fact, the variety of ginger grown in Izumo’s Shussai region around the bed of the Hii River was mentioned in the 8th century records of the region, the Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki. The Fudoki were like encyclopedias of every region of Japan, and were a massive project. Despite the years of work poured into them, most have been lost or are largely incomplete. Only the Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki is mostly intact, so we know about 8th century life in this region in the most detail (and on that note, the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo, near Izumo Taisha, is a must-see for ancient history nerds).

When I’m not spending winter being a history nerd, I’m spending it whining about the cold. However, since incorporating more ginger into my diet, I’ve found I’m not as bothered. In addition to heating properties, I also drink ginger tea to soothe my throat after days of relentless interpreting or going all-out at karaoke. It tastes a little strong to drink ginger tea straight and it takes some getting used to, but I am a big fan of the local brands–they are so much more potent than the generic ones! You only have to drink it once when you have a bad cold to be a believer.

This is because Izumo Ginger–more properly referring to as Shussai Shouga–is like ginger with a power-up in both health and taste. This might make you think of a burly root that looks like a body builder, but it more so resembles a young maiden. The color is fair and the fibers are finer than they are in other types of ginger, making for a softer texture when used in recipes.

Click for source.

No one knows for sure why the ginger grown around this spot is super ginger in a pretty package. Some think it’s because of the properties of the soil or the waters of the Hii River floating in from the Chugoku Mountains on their way to Lake Shinji, but even the farmers aren’t entirely sure.

This spot is very close to Yunokawa Onsen, one of the top beauty onsen of Japan. Therefore, the Michi-no-Eki (like a rest stop and local products center rolled into one) is filled with ginger products–everything from ice cream (no surprise) to cookies to curry. Mmm, curry. Yum. The thought is that taking a dip in the onsen and enjoying cooking with the ginger warms you up through and through, and the warm and fuzzy feeling is aptly described by the Japanese onomatopoeia: poka-poka~~

I live closer to Matsue Shinjiko Onsen instead, and with it the furthest east station on the Ichibata Railway line, Matsue Shinjiko Onsen Station. There is a cafe facing the taxi stand called “Gallery Fleur.” This is my recommended spot to chill (or warm up) while waiting for a train to Izumo.

This is where I go for ginger curry. I repeat: yum.

While I’m still on the topic of ancient history, Japan is often criticized for not having much in the way of cheese, but they already had their own version of cheese back in the 8th century–and I bring it up because it’s one the menu here. It was called so, was soft and slightly crumbly and full of protein, and had a slightly sweet taste. It’s usually much darker than this. Even though I tend to be apprehensive about offensive cheeses, my inner history nerd could not pass up the desire the try it. This felt like a large serving, but it was alright. It reminded me of other cheeses and yogurts, but it’s hard to compare to anything specific.

Fleur also sells an array of decorative items (the layout is different every time I go), and a number of Shussai Shouga products, including the ginger tea I like available by the single pouch instead of in bulk like it would be sold in local product centers and gift stores. The lady who runs the place is very nice and frequently throws in something extra, like ginger candies. They also have a lot of information about Ichibata Yakushi Temple and the Izumonukuni Shinbutsu Reijyo pilgrimage, which combines both Shinto and Buddhist sites.

You can find Shussai Shouga candies, baked goods, teas–or even ginger wine!–at retail-centric places, or purchase the ginger stalks and root whole for pickling in soy sauce as a topping to go with rice. Although I prefer the straight ginger-flavored products, there is a type of ginger red tea in tea bag form that makes me giggle: “Izanami‘s Tears.” I guess being an inhabitant of Yomi made those tears pretty spicy.