The San’in region is known for its cloudy weather, and with clouds comes rain.
Likewise, it is also known for its deep ties with En-musubi, a mysterious power that brings people together and binds fate.
So of course the two should go hand in hand, right?

Matsue has entire tourism campaigns–including hotel and restaurant deals, themed cocktails and desserts, and seemingly scavenger hunts–all themed around Enishizuku (縁雫), the “drops of En” that bind everyone together.

These raindrops, however filled with mystical fate-binding power they may be, fall on everyone indiscriminately. Enter the Dan-Dan Kasa program, a cooperative project between two local NPOs to provide free umbrellas–marked by their stickers and special crates outside of frequented buildings–that tourists can take as needed. Well, in my case, you don’t have to be a tourist to take them. Thankfully I’ve forgotten enough umbrellas everywhere to have made my contributions back to this program I’ve benefitted so much from.

There are some particularly “Matsue” umbrellas that I’ve always liked, but have never allowed myself to purchase because I know how likely I am to forget them somewhere when I walk back outside into sunny weather. They’re sturdy, wide, and chic, with various colors–especially red–lined with black on the outer edge and marked with the small Enishizuku label. You see these everywhere, and they evoke a strong sense of Matsue’s character.

When it comes to Matsue and umbrellas, I also picture the large red one in Karakoro Square, which provides shelter from both the sun and the rain. Even if people haven’t gotten the lay of the land enough yet to know what you mean by “Karakoro Square” they usually light up with an “aha!” moment if you mention the giant red umbrella.

Obviously this feels more like it should be a June post than a Halloween post in keeping with the officially recognized Rainy Season (tsuyu), but really, rain is a year round occurence here. It may feel more like an October post given the especially powered-up En-musubi in the air during Kamiarizuki, but if you go by the old agricultural calendar, the gods still aren’t here yet for a few weeks.

But the timing is appropriate, I assure you! Here is a local ghost story about umbrellas.

The Red Umbrella, based on Michiko Hara’s adaptation in Kazukiyo Takahashi’s new compilation of Matsue ghost stories:

There once was an umbrella shop along the canals leading from Matsue Castle to Lake Shinji. The only son, named Denkichi, was nearing age 30 and was well-known for his filial piety. In addition to learning his father’s craft, he also kept the shop tidy, prepared the daily meals, and did the laundry all by himself.

“It’d be so nice if you could get married soon,” his sick mother said from where she was bedridden. “If you had a bride, then at least you wouldn’t have to go so far as to do all the cooking too.” They had taken her to see a local specialist who said that her condition was incurable, but it could be treated with medicine. This medicine, however, was very expensive.

In order to attain the money for this medicine, Denkichi fervently studied from his father and produced umbrellas, but in his haste, he added too much oil to the paper of a number of them and they became too thick to close. There was no fixing them, so rather than wasting them he painted them red and lined them up in front of the store as signs.

One spring evening, while Denkichi just happened to be outside the shop, he was approached by a man with one attendant who said he was actually the lord of Matsue going around town in disguise, but the sudden rainfall was causing him distress. Therefore, without knowing that the lined up umbrellas could not close, he had his attendant give him a sum of money to purchase them, and after taking them, they left.

However, that money, which would have gone towards his mother’s medicine, turned into a handful of leaves a short time later. Denkichi realized he had been tricked by a fox, and vexing though it was, there was nothing he could do.

A few days later when Denkichi was on his way home from selling umbrellas in the Kawatsu area of town, he came across the feudal lord who happened to be out enjoying a stroll at Mt. Rakuzan. “Ah! It’s that fox!” Denkichi growled. “Thought you pulled a fast one on me, didn’t you? Didn’t you! You pay up right now! Right now! That’s money for my mother’s–”

He had been coming at the fox threatening to hit it with an umbrella, but unfortunately for Denkichi, that was not a fox but the real lord of Matsue. “Insolent fellow, what do you think you’re doing?” one of the lord’s retainers shouted, and then swiftly stabbed Denkichi, leaving him for dead as the samurai class was privileged to do to the commoners.

When Denkichi’s parents received his body later, they wailed, crying out that he was such a good son and wondering how this cruel fate could have happened. Though nothing could stop their tears, there was no way they could take up complaint against the feudal lord or seek justice.

That night, around 3 o’clock in the morning, the lord saw an umbrella monster with a red, uncloseable umbrella. It seemed to carry with it a samurai with one of the bamboo bones of the umbrella stabbed through his abdomen like a sword, and from that corpse red blood began pouring unceasingly all over the lord’s white sheets. The lord grabbed his sword and swung it at the monster, but the monster itself disappeared, leaving only its twisted, angry face and the continuing stream of blood.

By morning, there was no trace of blood, but his experiences of the night still left the lord terrified. He suddenly remembered the umbrella vendor that had been slain the day before, and he sent one of retainers to investigate. When the retainer returned, he reported, “It seems he was a young man well-known for his filial piety.”

“I see,” said the lord, and then he ordered, “From now on, purchase all of the umbrellas made by this shop, and when it rains, line them up along the canals so that anyone may be free to use them.”

He was never bothered by the umbrella monster again, and to this day, you can still see red umbrellas lined up along the canals of Matsue on rainy days.

When you hear of the old province of Inaba, you might already be aware of the famous White Hare of Inaba thanks to his role in a popular Kojiki myth. He is not the only famous animal of the region, which is also known for the Inaba-Go-Kitsune—the Five Foxes of Inaba.

Foxes (kitsune) are known throughout Japan as tricksters that are adept are transforming, especially into humans, and especially into beautiful women. Of these local five, one was called “Otonjoro,” based on the name she took while pretending to be a prostitute (joro) in Yoshiwara (the famed red light district of Tokyo back when it was Edo). While acting as “Otomi” she used her trickery to fool around with the men of the big city, but when she got bored of that, she returned home to Inaba Province. This is one of the stories about her.

The villagers could tell she was up to no good in the area, and dreaded falling victim to her tricks. “We should offer a big reward for someone to do away with that Otonjoro,” they said.

Two young men stepped forward, confident in their abilities to best the beast. “We’ll get rid of her, so make sure it’s a really big reward!”

When it was a full moon, they staked out that night in the shadows of a big tree, and soon they saw a big fox come by. Silently, they watched as she placed a leaf from the tree on her head, spun around, and then ever so slowly transformed into a young woman. She took a large stone and plopped it into the river, and when she took it out, it was topped with water plants. This she cradled into her arms, and then it took the shape of an infant. As she walked off with the stone baby, the two young men stalked after her back towards the village.

The fox women came to a house, where the old man and old woman inside welcomed her, thinking it was their daughter and grandchild. The young men watched and listened from the windows, and when the old lady came outside, they addressed her in hushed tones. “Pssst! Old Lady! That woman in your house is a fox–it’s Otonjoro!”

“Don’t be stupid!” she laughed.

“It really is! You’re being fooled by a fox. She only looks like your daughter because she’s in disguise!” they pleaded and desperately tried to gain her trust.

As their voices grew louder, the Old Man soon came outside. “What’s going on out here?”

“Oh, Dear, these two young men are trying to tell us we’re being fooled by a fox.”

“That’s absurd!” he bellowed. “How dare they insult our daughter and grandchild that way?”

“It’s true!” the young men retorted. “If you don’t believe us, throw the baby in a pot of boiling water. It’s not a baby, it’s a stone. The disguise will boil away and you’ll see we’re telling the truth.”

“Fine, if you’re so insistent, that’s what I’ll do!”

They boiled a pot of water and threw the baby in, but to the young men’s horror, the baby did not turn back into a stone. “How can this be?” they asked, incredulous and turning pale. “We were so sure–we saw it with our own eyes!”

The old couple was livid. “How dare you! Because of your accusations, our adorable grandchild is dead! We’re going to have you thrown in jail!”

Before the young pair could fumble any defense on their part, a monk heard their raised voices from outside, and then welcomed himself in to mediate. “Pardon the intrusion,” he said. “I heard what happened, and I do not think you should condemn these men to prison. Doing so will not erase their sin or bring your grandchild back to life. Instead, you should have them go to the temple and become monks, and they will spend their days in there praying for the child’s soul. What do you think of this?”

The old couple agreed, and forgave the young men. Fearful as though they had already been to hell, the young men eagerly followed the old man inside the temple, where they shaved their heads and offered a large fish at the altar. In order to atone for their sin, they began fervent prayers, praying with all their might throughout the night.

Several hours later they were startled by the sounds of people calling their names, and astonished to see that the sun had already rose. With the morning light, however, they saw that they were sitting in the middle of a grassy field rather than inside of a temple. There was only grass where the old couple’s house stood, as it had all been an illusion of Otonjoro’s making. The fish they offered, as well as the the fox they were trying to catch, was gone.

“That Otonjoro!” they growled. “She’s thoroughly had us.”

Vexing though it was, they rubbed their newly shaven heads and returned home.