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.


I’ve now been practicing the tea ceremony for three years!

Those are willow branches behind me hanging in the alcove as a New Years decoration, not wires hooking me up to the ceiling. I promise I am not a tea ceremony performing robot.

Those are willow branches behind me hanging in the alcove as a New Years decoration, not wires hooking me up to the ceiling. I promise I am not a tea ceremony performing robot.

Besides my obvious change in how I view tea tools, I’ve also picked up a lot more of the mindsets I’ve admired for a long time, which were the main reasons I wanted to try it in the first place. I’ve long since had difficulty living in the moment, letting my mind wander to times which my memory paints in nostalgic colors, or running ahead either to worries for the long term future to do my to-do list for when I am in an entirely different place from the present. Either way, it robs me of what is right in front of me, be it my lunch or a friend who I assume will always be there.

You can find a lot of meaning in the actions and elements of the tea ceremony. The ritualistic cleansing of the tools is done to show your guests that you are using clean tools, and the peaceful setting cleanses your guests’ senses–the soft sound of water boiling or the clack of the tea scoop against the tea bowl, the subdued decor and subtle harmonizing details, the scent of incense in the hearth, the texture of the tatami under your feet sliding along the floor, the refreshing and deep taste of the matcha. Each silent bow has its own message it communicates, from “I will now begin the ceremony” to “thank you for the delicious tea.” Both social rank and common humility are recognized in the tea room, but ultimately, it is an intimate time which the host and the guests share and enjoy together, never to come again in quite the same way. In both a literal and figurative sense, it is both bitter and sweet.

Indeed, it involves some “ceremony,” but the Japanese term 茶道 (sadou), can just as well be translated as “the way of tea.” It is a mindset, an approach. Perhaps the phrase you hear more often in Matsue, though, is not that it has 茶道 culture, but 茶の湯 (cha-no-yu) culture. This “hot water for tea” implies more than a noun, but something that flows.

If you want to learn about traditional Japanese culture, the tea ceremony has many of the elements you’d look for: pottery and other craftsmanship, scrolls with paintings and calligraphy, flower arranging, kimono, wagashi, and so on. Each one of those elements is its own world to dive into, and the tea ceremony ties them all together with its own depth that keeps getting deeper over the centuries.

Perhaps more important than its depth is its simplicity.

Ultimately, it’s about enjoying tea with your guests.

Right there, in the moment.

It’s any given dinner party that’s been running late, and the little seafood restaurant with decorative scrolls, flowers, and dolls throughout the room we’re taking up has served us matcha (green tea made from powdered tea leaves) at the end of the meal. Casual though the setting is, my tea ceremony training kicks in, so I’m sitting formally in seiza and turn the cup two times clockwise before downing it in three sips or so.

A talkative man sitting on the other side of the table takes notice. “You drank the tea very well.”

“Ah… well… yes. Thank you.”

A friend smiles and fills in for him that I practice tea, which leads us to finding out he and I both practice the omotesenke school of tea and that he knows my teacher. As we talk a bit more, he lets us all in on an open secret: “Actually, in Matsue, you’re a little uncultured if you don’t know how to drink matcha. Most people have at least a little practice.”

This isn’t surprising to me, and I’ve heard similar comments from many other people. I’ve spent time in other parts of Japan and had wide social groups there, but here in Matsue, a much larger proportion of my social circle has practiced the tea ceremony to some extent, or at least has enough passing familiarity to know the basics and be able to explain them, be it to foreign guests or Japanese guests from parts of Japan where the tea ceremony seems more archaic. That’s not to say everyone is an expert (though there are plenty to be found here).

However, to say that Matsue is stiff about tea rituals would be incorrect. Rather, Matsue’s tea culture started to take a strong hold when the tea ceremony had already developed into something like a Pokemon trading card frenzy, in which rich people were all seeking the fanciest of tools, and artisans and merchants were selling off second-rate tea cups for exorbitant prices given the amount of prestige they could associate with their use. In many ways, the the world of tea (chanoyu) had become a world of ego and showing off ownership of expensive tools.

19-year-old Matsudaira Harusato (later known by his tea name, Fumai), grew up in the bustling city of Edo (later known as Tokyo) and saw the ebbs and flows of high culture there. As much as he was accused of having his head stuck in his tea cups instead of on preparing to be the lord of the financially troubled Matsue domain, he wrote “Mudagoto” (“Useless Words”), which was a criticism of modern tea culture, in which he stated:

Making chanoyu a luxury, exhausting beauty to make it splendid is a distressful thing… rather, it can be made an adjutant to governing the country well.

In response, Matsue’s popular tea culture cuts many of the frills. Although there are many social elements tied directly to a system of hierarchy and harmony and a wealth of tools enough to fill 18 volumes worth of “Kokon Meibutsu Ruiju” (“Classified Collection of Famous Utensils of Ancient and Modern Times”), ultimately, chanoyu is about drinking tea.

It’s not to say that no one drinks sencha (green tea made from steeped leaves), but the uncited but often quoted fact that Matsue drinks more matcha per capita than the rest of Japan does is also unsurprising. Besides the Grand Tea Ceremony every fall and other tea events throughout the year, on a walk between JR Matsue Station and Matsue Castle I can already call to mind seven or eight casual places you can stop in for a quick cup of matcha with wagashi refreshment, and that’s before you even get to the ten or so other places that come to mind once you get to the castle area and beyond. Quite often I wander in just to take a look at tools and I wind up being served a cup of matcha I didn’t order.

When I hang out at people’s houses, a lot of them have working knowledge of how to prepare matcha and have at least one decent tea cup and chasen (tea whisk) with which to serve tea. While being served a cup of sencha while visiting people may be common elsewhere, many homes here regularly serve matcha, not just for special occasions. What’s more, it’s a local custom to serve two cups of tea, not just one.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, back in Edo period, especially when Fumai was the ruling lord, he gave the domain a financial overhaul and then Matsue had extra cash on hand with which to indulge in tea culture. Besides documenting the aforementioned list of valuable tea tools and compiling a treasure trove for the domain of over 800 exquisite tools, the common people had more money to afford to drink matcha. While different kinds of sencha are made from different flushes of leaves from different parts of the tea bush grown in different conditions, matcha is made from only the very top leaves in stricter conditions, and the best grades of thick matcha only use the very, very top leaves. Hence, drinking matcha on a regular basis will take a bigger chunk out of your household budget than regularly drinking sencha will, but the townspeople grew quite a taste for it.

Given the city’s proximity away from the more active trade and travel routes and relative self-sustainability with local rice and seafood, the culture here was less influenced by the changes going on outside of the region, and therefore had a strong base for a self-developed culture. This is still evident today, as while much of the rest of Japan is caught in a post-bubble era, in the San’in region, it’s more like, “bubble? What bubble?”

But why serve two cups of matcha at a time? There’s an early Edo period reason for that I’ll touch on in the next entry. In the meantime, it’s always worth taking a look at the flip side of all of this. Although matcha is part of the cultural face of Matsue, people are individuals, each with their own lifestyles that may or may not fit an image of the city.

On a visit to an elementary after-school club, the students prepared matcha for us as thanks for the things we had prepared for them before. It was quite an affair—there were old, broken chasen everywhere, yokan chomped on from the ends of toothpicks, and cups/tea bowls for everyone. It seems the kids were supposed to bring their own. Some had beautiful chawan that they brought to school in sleek wooden boxes labeled with the tea bowls’ credentials, while others brought miso soup bowls or tupperware. There was frustration as they could not get the tea to froth, and a handful of the kids who had some experience walked around all their schoolmates and the cups of hot tea everything to go grab the chasen and froth everyone elses’ tea. A friend of one of the club members told me later that they had originally planned to serve manjuu, but something went haywire and they switched to cutting up youkan at the last minute. There were a couple hushed complaints about the taste of matcha while the kids snapped at each other to hurry up because the guests’ tea was getting cold. This was after we had already waited in the office for a little while as the kids did all the preparation.

Serving matcha to us as an introduction to Japanese culture was something the kids thought of a long time ago, and only when asked directly by the teacher if I had ever tried matcha before did I admit that I practice the tea ceremony. As expected, that made her and the few students who were paying attention a little embarrassed, but the teacher played it off well by pointing out loudly to the rest of the club members that I am so interested in Japanese culture.

However, instead of stopping there, I really appreciate what she said next.

“Most of these kids have never had matcha, believe it or not. Even though it’s Japanese culture, a lot of Japanese people pay no attention to it at all. Kids, a show of hands, please. How many of you drink matcha at home?”

Out of 20-something kids, less than a third raise their hands.

The teacher’s point is proved. As nice as it feels to celebrate surface culture, one should always be aware of the culture of how people actually live their personal lives. Still, I can’t help but think there would be fewer hands going up in other places.

That’s still a lot of matcha.

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


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!

I’ve frequently been asked what the first thing I noticed in Japan was. The answer was easy: “It’s humid.”

On more trips that not when I’ve entered Japan, it’s been in summer. While August–considered the height of summer–is said to be hot and relatively dry, I certainly don’t find it dry. Well, I don’t find most of the months dry, except the depths of winter, that’s usually because indoor spaces dry out easily with the artificial heating. Even in winter, however, we have snowfall here in the San’in region, and when it’s not snowing, it’s raining.

Oh yeah. Rain.

This region gets a lot of rainfall. We don’t get as many typhoons because they tend to peeter out after leaving the Pacific shores, but they still have plenty of water to expend when they get here. In response to the amount of precipitation, a common trait of Izumo style Japanese gardens is that the stepping stones will be relatively high so as not the get the tips of your kimono unnecessarily wet.

This is one of the entrances to Kangetsu-an, a tea house inside of Fumon-in Temple which was one of Lord Fumai's favorites.

This is one of the entrances to Kangetsu-an, a tea house inside of Fumon-in Temple which was one of Lord Fumai‘s favorites.

Although people in Japan will proudly declare that Japan has four seasons, you’ll also find that tsuyu–the rainy season, also sometimes called baiu–tends to be declared as a season of its own, so it’s more like five seasons. But even that can get much, much more complex, so you could have 24 seasons instead. In the Chuugoku region at the western tip of Honshu (including both the San’in and San’yo areas), this typically starts on or around June 7. This year it officially started on June 4 according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.

I wouldn’t mind rain if it wasn’t so wet.

There are some upsides to tsuyu here, though. In Matsue, the rain is known as Enishizuku, the droplets that bind us all together in common fate. Or, you know, there are invisible strings in the rain droplets in Matsue that lead you to someone you have yet to meet–who knows who will drop into your life with the rain? I wonder if the En-musubi in the water has anything to do with Izumo–home of the ultimate En-musubi power spot, Izumo Taisha–being “from whence clouds come” (出雲: “emit” “clouds”)?

There are Enishizuku themed drinks at bars around the city only available on rainy days, but you’d be more likely to find me at a tsuyu matcha cafe inside Karakoro Art Studio making leaf boats.

Or I might be at Gesshoji Temple, enjoying a cup of matcha while observing the famous hydrangea or teasing a monster tortoise and slipping on the old stone paths.

Or I might be gratefully dashing through puddles while using a Dan-Dan umbrella. These are part of a program in which they took the umbrellas people forget in public and mark them specifically for public use. I’m certain I’ve contributed at least a couple umbrellas to this program, but I’ve more than reaped the benefits when I’ve been walking around without my forgotten umbrellas. The “Dan-Dan” in the title means “thank you” in Izumo dialect.

Or I might be inside grumbling about how I can’t get my hair to behave in the additional humidity.

Soba is a typical noodle dish that may come to mind when you think of Japanese cuisine. Served hot or cold to suit the weather, you dip the thin buckwheat noodles in dashi sauce as you slurp.

Or at least, that’s how I used to think about soba. Having gotten so used to Izumo Soba, I now find regular soba rather bland in comparison. Where’s the deep color? Where’s the aroma? Where’s the nutty taste and firm texture? Why bother making a mess with dipping when I can just stir the sauce in and eat it as is?

Regular soba is made with flour from the tiny unhulled buckwheat seeds, which makes for a rather uniform (and typically factory-prepared) consistency, but Izumo Soba is made using the entire seed, hull and all. This not only makes for more texture and taste, but also more nutrition.

A big close up on ting buckwheat hull (thanks, Wiki.)

Furthermore, Izumo Soba is still typically handmade (you can see photos of the process here on the Haneya restaurant homepage), and these makes for variations in each restuarant’s brand. Some people are very fierce in defending their favorites, and seeing as I’ve only tried a handful of the different Izumo Soba restaurants swarming around Izumo Taisha and Matsue Castle. Provided you don’t have a buckwheat allergy, eating Izumo Soba is pretty much essential when visiting the region, and the place I take people usually depends on where we happen to be standing around lunchtime or what kind of scenery we want, or wherever we can squeeze into the establishment on especially busy days!

Another difference you may have noticed in the above photo is how Izumo Soba is served. While you might usually picture soba served on a bamboo mat, this is charming, but it doesn’t make it very easy to take noodles with you on the go. The bentou-box approach has become pretty standard for Izumo Soba, especially when served in Warigo Soba style (I have yet to even hear of an Izumo Soba restuarant that doesn’t offer Warigo Soba). In this form, it is stacked in three little boxes and an extra box on top with the toppings.

The toppings are mostly similar to what you’d expect in other soba servings–strips of dried seaweed, chopped green onions, maybe some katsuo flakes. However, instead of wasabi, Izumo Soba is usually served with momiji-oroshi. Literally translated, this grainy red topping is “grated maple leaves” but it is really a mixture of grated daikon radish and spicy red pepper. However, the toppings are not limited to this–I’ve also have Izumo Soba served with raw quail egg or sticky grated yam. Part of the fun of Warigo Soba is that you can try out different ratios and combinations of flavors in each dish. You add dashi (the sauce) on top and stir it all together before you start slurping, but you can add the leftover dashi to the the next dish for a strong flavor since it’s already soaked up some of the flavors in the first dish.

On that note, here is a handy video explaining how to eat Warigo style Izumo Soba like a pro!

Notice that drinking the water the soba was boiled in is an option. It’s known for how healthy it is, and has a smooth, light texture and flavor. One of the other popular ways to eat Izumo Soba is in the original water it was boiled in, with some flavor added to make it a nice broth. You can add additional toppings to this from there, and some establishments are known for their own touch on this, such as how Yakumo-an adds duck meat.

Way back in the Edo period when there were very clear distinctions between what different classes of people ate in the caste society, soba was considered commoner food (bare in mind that sushi started this way, too!). Despite how many members of the samurai class turned their nose up at such simple fare, one of the Izumo domain feudal lords was known for his love of good soba. While Matsudaira Harusato (better known by his tea name “Fumai”) is commonly associated with promoting tea culture (still very noticable today), he is also known for sneaking out of his quarters at night go dine at the cheap soba joints!

Nakamura Chaho credits him with the following words:

I drink tea, look for good tools, eat soba,
Garden, watch the nature’s beauty, and
Without other desire, laugh loudly.

I don’t know about Lord Fumai, but I usually desire dessert even after a satisfying soba meal.

It seems that weird ice cream flavors around Japan making use of the local speciality products (or at least making use of the creativity of the locals) has been a big topic around the internet lately, which I did not notice until I had people asking me if I’ve tried any weird ice cream flavors. Well, yes, but it’s not as I go looking for them. It’s more so that you can find them anywhere and my friends and I think, “gee, that’s interesting” and give it a shot. I wouldn’t say they were especially weird (but perhaps after living in Japan for a while my definition of weird has shifted), but I do have a favorite among them.

You can probably guess that I’m leading up to soba-flavored ice cream.

I tried this at a new Michi-no-Eki (a fancy style of road stations or rest stops throughout Japan, many of which are sights in and of themselves) in Unnan, located south of Izumo and Matsue (together with Okuizumo and Yasugi, these five cities/towns make up what is commonly know as the “Izumo region”). This Michi-no-Eki is called Tatara-ichibanchi and has a special focus on introducing local mythology (especially the Yamata-no-Orochi 8-headed giant serpent, which resided in Unnan), with the help of Shimane’s volunteer tourism ambassador, the scowling Yoshida-kun (whose day job happens to be attempting to take over the world). (Recall that Yoshida-kun and company have also volunteered their villianous services in telling Lafcadio Hearn‘s “Kwaidan” ghost stories.)

One of the gastronomical options at this rest stop is the Izumo Soba restaurant, Murage, and they offer this ice cream on their menu. In addition to the buckwheat seeds on top that provide a little crunch, their add components of the soba to the ice cream itself, and it’s a light, refreshing flavor. Unlike other flavor adventures which were more for the experience than for partaking of the treat again, this I would be happy to eat again just to enjoy it!

Izumo Soba is much the same way. It’s not only something I eat with people visiting, but it’s something I pick up at grocery store and use in my daily life, too. It’s not only for the experience as described–it’s simply really good soba.

Lord Matsudaira Harusato, perhaps better known by his tea-name Fumai, is the man person responsible for Matsue and the wider Izumo domain’s lingering obsession with tea and wagashi (traditional Japanese confections), but he’s also frequently credited with the introduction of Bote-Bota Cha, a tea (yes, a tea–not a soup!) designed to stretch food rations and fill one’s famished stomach. This may just be a legend it actually does have folk origins, but it’s one of the many famine-recovery efforts put in place during the reign of this particularly famous feudal lord of Matsue, (Horio Yoshiharu and Matsudaira Naomasa are also particularly famous, but Fumai’s sake-loving son? Not as much).

Whatever the case, the commoners of the domain took quite a likely to it, and it remains part of the things-to-try-in-Matsue menu, along with Izumo soba, shijimi clam miso soup, zenzai, and the classic matcha and wagashi pairing. There are a number of places with their own various charms or fame all along Shiomi Nawate (the preserved Edo period road along the north side of the castle moat) and other paths in and around the castle once frequented by Lafcadio Hearn that serve all or a selection of these dishes, and at least one such place sells bottles of tea specifically prepared for Bote-Bote Cha. If you’re between sighting seeing at the castle and catching the sunset at Lake Shinji or catching your ride back out of town and you feel like you’re in a hurry to try every one of the aforementioned items, or you’d like to try some local beers, or if your traveling partner insists on having something completely different to snack on while you get your fill of specialties, then the Chidori Tea House, located next to the tourism information office and toilets near the main entrance to the Matsue Castle grounds, may be your best bet.

Or, if you’re a local like me who regular takes walks around the castle grounds, then this is a nice spot to take cover from the rain and warm up, or a place to cool down on a hot summer day. Sometimes you run into samurai in there, but I recommend trying to get there before or after the lunch rush!

The first times I had Bote-Bote Cha, it was a bit of an afterthought following Izumo soba and otherwise. It’s just tea, after all. And it’s not as if I have the shrunken stomach of a starving Edo-period townsperson. This time, however, I decided I’d try it on an empty stomach, and then get some dango or something on the other side of the castle.

So, famished townspeople and travelers, this is what you can expect from modern-day Bote-Bote Cha.

I repeat: this is tea, not soup. You’re supposed to dump the fillings in and drink/slurp them along with your tea, with the spoon to help. It’s certainly not the texture you’d expect from tea, especially since it’s a collection of textures many Western tongue may not be accustomed to. I once heard about a radio personality visiting Matsue and ordering this dish, and struggling for the right words to describe what he was consuming. I wish I could have heard that!

The starving people who relied on this may not have always had such a selection, and today’s Bote-Bote Cha may look extravagant, but that’s because it’s morphed from survival food to foodie item. Furthermore, in a city so steeped in tea culture, they couldn’t let this tea get away without being ceremoniously prepared. There are sometimes tea ceremonies dedicated to the preparation of Bote-Bote Cha, and while I haven’t taken part in one myself (yet), some of my Omotesenke classmates have done the tea preparation.

You too can take home a special chasen to prepare the frothy, salty hojicha!

For the usual, unceremonious Bote-Bote meal, no need to be shy. I probably should have slurped my fillings more with my tea, but I was enjoying the hojicha so much that I had a few too many mouthfuls of that first, and wound up needing to eat a lot of it with the spoon.

So, about that dango

Well, to my surprise, the Bote-Bote Cha on an empty stomach was rather satisfying. I wasn’t stuffed, but I wouldn’t have been able to say I was hungry, either. Famine food is effective!

…but seeing I wasn’t starving, I got some dango anyway. Funny how that works.

This is not my comic, nor my translation–Tenmen gets full credit for that (and please check out her blog, Tea in Translation–it’s a great resource! ). Nevertheless, it features good old Lord Fumai and some of the history of the Izumo domain, of which Matsue was the capital. Fumai’s love of tea (and its tools) still reigns strong in this region.


Matsudaira Fumai was a famous tea master of the Edo period and lord of Matsue. You can get an idea of his love for tea from this comic. Remember, it is read from right to left.

He Didn’t Show It….

Asahi Tanba: Lord, the treasury is completely empty.
Matsudaira Fumai: Hmmm… How to restore the funds of the country…?

MF: I recommend raising the land tax, complete austerity, and promoting new industies.
AT: Yes, my lord.

AT: Lord, the treasury is full!
MF: Well done. Since we have the money, maybe I’ll buy that tea bowl I’ve been wanting.

AT: The treasure is empty….
MF: Hehe.

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It had a bit of a late start here, but tsuyu–the rainy season–is now upon us. Gray through the days are and uncontrollable though my hair is in all the humidity, there is a bright highlight to this season: ajisai, aka Hydrangea. These were some of the first flowers to be taken from Japan to Holland for study, however they were quite surprised when the deep blue flowers they saw in Japan grow into a firey pink once they planted them at home. This is because hydrangea have different colors depending on the pH level of the soil. Acidic soil will lead to blue flowers and alkaline soil will lead to pink flowers, but there is any range of blues and pinks and purples and whites in between.

This flower also has numerous possible meanings in modern hanakotoba (the language of flowers), some of which make sense with the color-changing tendancies: Capriciousness, arrogance, a persevering love, an energetic girl, ruthlessness, wantonness, a boastful person, betrayal, or even “you’re cold” or “you’re beautiful, but so cold!” Just by looking at this collection of meanings I can just imagine what kind of romance they might signify.

Of course, flower language isn’t a terribly old thing in Japan–it has a lot of its roots in Victorian flower language, so it’s taken on a lot of those meanings since Westernization. This native Asian shrub has been brightening the rainy season for centuries, and is the flower of choice to decorate the graves of the Matsudaira clan in Matsue.

Gesshouji is known as the hydrangea temple of the San’in region, and is is where the feudal lords who ruled over Matsue for 10 generations (following the short-lived Horio and Kyogoku ruling clans) are buried. The first of this Matsudaira line, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu‘s own grandson Naomasa, ordered Gesshouji named in honor of his mother who is buried there as well. Naomasa’s is the largest grave there, but the 7th generation lord, Harusato (aka tea-loving Lord Fumai), also has a rather will decorated grave, and a special grave for used tea whisks. A ceremony is head every April on the anniversary of Fumai’s death to bury the used tea whisks and thank them for their service.

The other Matsudaira lords are also buried through the foresty temple, which each grave decorated in its own unique ways (including special motifs for Fumai’s lesser-known sake-loving son).

Tranquil though it is, the graves are hundreds of years old, so as I was observing the flourishing hydrangea…

…my peaceful state of mind was quite suddenly interupted by a mis-step.

Had anyone had witnessed it I’m sure they would have laughed at my face.

But enough about me. How about more hydrangea?

There is plenty more to say about this temple than just one post will justify. It’s best just to see it for yourself–they provide an English guide, as well as tea and wagashi (how could they not with Fumai buried there?), and a small museum of Matsudaira clan artifacts. That, and my camera ran out of battery just before I sat down to tea this time. This kind of atmosphere, thick with the scent of flowers and rain, is best enjoyed in person, is it not?

Of course, this entry doesn’t even begin to touch on Gesshouji’s most fearsome ghostly residents… that is a story for another time.

He’s waiting quietly… and I think he may be grouchy because of that.

In 10th month, most of Japan must go without their local kami, because they are all convening for their yearly meeting to decide how they’ll be influencing people in the year to come (more or less on an individual basis). Out here in the old Izumo province, however, we celebrate Kamiarizuki (literally, “the month with gods”) because they gather at Izumo Taisha (the second most important Shinto shrine).

Having kami around is generally a felicitous thing, so paired with the three day weekend, there were plenty of things to do in Matsue this weekend. I didn’t make it to everything I was invited to, but I fit in quite a bit. You’d think it would be hard to draw a crowd for anything going on because of how much is going on, but there was some giant outdoor gathering for everyone this weekend.

For starters, the Daichakai (“Big Tea Party”). I had been looking forward to this one for a while. Different schools of the tea ceremony set up tents around the castle grounds to do constant introductions of their respective styles.

A little hard to have an intimate ceremony with that many people, but it works.

The way it works is that you buy a ticket (or three), then turn in the ticket at the reception area of whatever style you want to try. They give you a colored and numbered ticket to turn in at the next open ceremony (the color indicates which time slot you have, the number is for organization purposes). There is typically a tent to wait in or observe flower arrangements. Once they start, everyone finds a seat in a rather orderly fashion, and one host prepares the tea while another explains the actions and decorations and characteristics of their style. The first and second guests (typically) receive tea prepared in front of everyone, while the other guests receive tea prepared behind the scenes by other practitioners. Before received the tea, everyone eats a fancy little wagashi (traditional Japanese sweet, which comes in all kinds of clever shapes and colors, and is usually identical in their level of sweetness–as in very, very sweet). In contrast, the tea is usually very bitter, but the contrast is refreshing.

Inside the tents, everyone is seated on a nice clean chair, and the ceremony typically goes pretty fast, meaning they probably serve several hundred guests over the course of two days. Instead of paper cups, in my experience every guest got to use a fancy cup/bowl, since appreciating the tools is also an important element of the tea ceremony.

This is Houenryu, which was very popular. This was more of an east-west fusion, with black tea instead of green tea, and European style China instead of traditional Japanese tools.

I didn’t participate, but I did enjoy the glimpse of tasteful fusion I did get.

I tried Soshinryu first, which served the tea in a more Chinese fashion–a delicate cup filled with loose leaves, which you keep pushed back with a matching lid as you sip the brew. It was served with an orange and pink and purple wagashi evoking maple leaves and filled with anko (sweet azuki bean paste).

After that I tried Fumairyu, the local style started by Fumai-ko. That had a lot of wabisabi influence (this is a rustic Japanese aesthetic that appreciates imperfection), and was a matcha (thick green tea made from powdered leaves), and had an orange and purple wagashi that looked simple like a piece of gyoza, and was once again filled with anko.

The following morning I went out to Meimei-an (the historic tea house), as this is one of the rare occasions when you can actually take part in a tea ceremony inside. It was removed from everything else and hidden away up a hill, so it certainly felt more formal. This was the Musha-Koujisenke, which was also matcha and had a green, purple, and pink wagashi coated in a sticky azuki bean concoction.

Lucky for me, kimono attire was not required. An umbrella would have been nice, though. Ninja rain attacks out of nowhere.

After the Daichakai, we went down to the south side of town for the annual Oden Summit. Oden is a seasonal food, and while there is a usual menu of Japanese ingredients, it pretty much consists of any collection of food items served in a hot broth (usually a fishy kind). It’s not quite like soup–you don’t eat it with a spoon, but take bites of the items and they gush with broth. It’s a bit of a comfort food, if you’re used to it.

This is closest to what comes to mind when I think of oden, though not necessarily shaped like Himeji castle (not a pine tree).

There were several Matsue vendors (with everything from traditional to Italian style), but also vendors from other prefectures (and Korea). I tried a couple traditional varieties and a kimchi one, but the curry flavored oden was my favorite.

After that, we checked out an event that seemed to have something to do with Nikoniko Doga (which is like, the Japanese version of YouTube, only with more active promotion? Does that sound like the best way to put it? I don’t have an account, so I don’t know…). It seemed to be aimed at a younger crowd, but there were plenty of people showcasing products and companies and organizations from everywhere.

While attendees at the Daichakai were dressed in fine kimono and western formal wear, youths here were also putting extra effort into the way they dressed. I liked seeing both styles!

There were performing groups and individuals on stages, and a group learning a dance to a pop song, and some famous (?) people giving autographs who people lined up to meet them, and then some wandering performers.

Practically across the street from the Oden Summit and lining any available space between the art museum and Lake Shinji, there was the Mizube Arts Festival, full of food and craft and clothing vendors, and jungle gyms for kids, painters working on giant canvases, and performers (both on large and small stages, or just on the grass with microphones, costumes, choreographed fighting and dramatic background music).

Also, notice that island in the distance behind the stage? This is one of the only weekends when you can visit it. So I did! But that’s a post for another time.

By the way, the kami aren’t actually here yet. They still meet meet according to the 10th month of the old Japanese lunar calendar, whereas the humans have switched to the Gregorian calendar.