I don’t have pets, but I do have a giant tortoise in the neighborhood.

No, not like the floods of turtles in the canals. Those ones are charming. Those ones aren’t likely to smash or devour you. Those ones didn’t do anything to receive punishment.

My neighbor is and did.

Long lived as many tortoises are, this guy has been around since before Lafcadio Hearn moved here:

…the most unpleasant customer of all this uncanny fraternity to have encountered after dark was certainly the monster tortoise of Gesshoji temple in Matsue, where the tombs of the Matsudairas are. This stone colossus is almost seventeen feet in length and lifts its head six feet from the ground. On its now broken back stands a prodigious cubic monolith about nine feet high, bearing a half-obliterated inscription. Fancy—as Izumo folks did—this mortuary incubus staggering abroad at midnight, and its hideous attempts to swim in the neighbouring lotus- pond! Well, the legend runs that its neck had to be broken in consequence of this awful misbehaviour. But really the thing looks as if it could only have been broken by an earthquake.

(Lafcadio Hearn’s “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” 1894.)

Hearn’s left a lot of common details out of this brief description. First, let’s address its home, Gesshoji Temple, frequently mentioned in this blog for its famous hydrangea and for being home to the graves of the Matsudaira fuedal lords, such as Naomasa and Harusato (aka Fumai). Each grave is decorated in different ways, including detailed carved gates in Chinese style, often reflecting the taste and hobbies of the lord buried within. It’s always a quiet place, set apart as if in its own world by the thick forest growing in and around it. Francine Prose describes the atmosphere very accurately in this Smithsonian Magazine article:

Something about the temple grounds—their eerie beauty, the damp mossy fragrance, the gently hallucinatory patterns of light and shadow as morning sun filters through the ancient, carefully tended pines—makes us start to speak in whispers and then stop speaking altogether until the only sounds are the bird cries and the swishing of the old-fashioned brooms a pair of gardeners are using to clear fallen pink petals from the gravel paths.

While wandering among the hydrangea–at their height quite soon–and hopefully not slipping on the bumpy old rock paths made slick by hundreds of years of foot traffic and by the fresh rainfall, anticipating the matcha and wagashi waiting for you back towards the entrance of the temple when you’re done with your stroll, and contemplating the peaceful world where the lords’ remains remain, you suddenly run into it.

Better that than it running into you.

I’ve heard a couple versions of the legend aside from Hearn’s relatively innocent version. Sure, the tortoise probably made a big mess of the lotus pond while splashing around in there or just wandering away from his post to geta drink. Constantly being on guard around the graves is bound to make even a stone gaurdian thirsty. But this gaurdian apparently also got bored–and entertaining himself required running amock among the neighborhood, flattening townspeople in the process. In another version of the story, he would even gobble some townspeople up.

Naturally, no one dared to attack the tortoise. What match would samurai swords be for a tortoise made of stone–a seven foot tortoise, at that? At last, a monk came and bound the tortoise to its spot by driving this sealing plaque down its back.

I haven’t heard of it moving around since, and today there is another legend that says it is good luck to rub its head, as that will bring longevity. This seems sure and safe enough during the day, but thankfully the temple usually is closed after dark–if it’s gotten hungry since it’s gotten stuck in place, then perhaps standing so close to it wouldn’t bode well for your longevity.

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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.

Matsue is often called Mizu-no-Miyako (水の都: City of Water) not only for its place nestled between the 5th and 7th largest lakes in Japan as well four different onsen and border along the Sea of Japan, but especially for the castle canals. Many Edo period castle canals have since been filled in or reduced to only their inner moat, but Matsue retains both inner and outer moats. Many of the streets around the city have been designs around working with the moats to protect the castle and may attacks difficult for intruding armies. Those streets are still the same as well, and though they never needed to prevent an army from advancing an attack, I suppose they are helpful for preventing vehicles from speeding too fast through town.

Pretty typical Matsue scene at Shiomi Nawate, a preserved historic street along the north moat, where the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat always passes. These are some of my favorite pine trees in the world, though this photo doesn’t do them justice.

Another thing that hasn’t changed much since the Edo era is the local people’s love of tea, especially the tea ceremony. Lord Fumai‘s influence remains very present, and not in a gimmicky way. While the Grand Tea Ceremony (大茶会) on the Matsue Castle grounds on the first weekend of October is nationally famous, there are other tea ceremonies and tea events that welcome hundreds of guests throughout the year.

This spring, in a style very fitting for the city of water and tea, there was a floating tea house set up at the northwest corner of the castle mount, called this Ohoribata Chaseki (お堀端茶席, a little clumsy to translate but something like “Tea on the Moat” at its simplest and “A Tea Ceremony on the Banks of the Horikawa” at its most pretentious.)


Held over the course of two spring weekends, anyone could stop in and buy a ¥1000 ticket. It just so happened to be an Omotesenke style ceremony, the style I practice, so I brought my tea-tools to be prepared. This was not necessary, as it was set up for any guest to relax and enjoy themselves, with all the utensils provided and handy explanation from a master as the host prepared the tea. During large public ceremonies that anyone can attend without any previous tea knowledge, usually the host only prepares the first one or two cups of tea while others prepare the rest of the tea in the back so as to speed up the process a bit. In a more private ceremony, the host would prepare the tea for everyone. Another difference is that in a private ceremony the guests would pass along the sweets and come forward to take the tea themselves, but in a public ceremony not everyone knows how to do this, so everything is brought directly to the guests. Therefore, a public ceremony requires a lot more manpower backstage–usually this is a very tiny space, but set apart so as to be non-intrusive to the ceremony.

We started with wagashi right away as we enjoyed the shade and coolness at the water’s edge. This was the first was someone uncomfortably warm days, but the atmosphere inside the tea room was perfect.

As the host wordlessly prepared the tea, another tea master explained the ceremony, decor, and tools to the guests in a way that both practitioners and laypeople could appreciate.

Tea ceremony and the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat. It could only get more Matsue-like if there was En-musubi tied in or something.

After the abbreviated ceremony, we were invited to observe the tools.

The chawan (tea bowl) is Rakuzan pottery. Along with Fujina and Sodeshi, this is one of the three representative styles of Matsue pottery, and it was a favorite of Lord Fumai’s. This particular bowl was made by the father of the current head of the Rakuzan school.

The natsume (tea caddy) is Yakumo-nuri, a local style of lacquerware. One of the characteristics of Yakumo-nuri is that the pattern gets brighter as the piece ages. The chashaku (tea scoop) is also local craftsmanship, and it was made from wood that was removed from the castle during renovations several years ago. Hence, the individual name of this chashaku is “Chidori” (plover) because Matsue Castle is nicknamed Chidori-jo (Plover Castle). For other styles of chashaku, the host can choose from a selection of gomei seasonal names, so a single chashaku can have multiple names. This special type of chashaku, however, doesn’t change identities with the seasons.

They say that the shape of the tea remaining in the tea caddy says a lot about how steady–or unsteady–the hand of the host was.

The ceremony felt very brief, but it was gratifying that the master explaining the ceremony could tell I practice the ceremony–and lucky that he didn’t notice me forget a few bows during the sped-up process, oops! Though this ceremony wasn’t hosted by my school, naturally, everyone knew my Omotesenke teacher by name. There were many other tea events going on that weekend, including a longer, reservation-only ceremony at Gesshouji Temple (where Lord Fumai is buried) that included a meal, but I had other things to do. Nonetheless, my things to do put me on the same route as a few of the ladies who attended the same ceremony I did and who were off to enjoy the ceremony at Gesshouji, and it was fun to enjoy the weather, the spring flowers, and general talk of tea on the way.

His famous progeny Matsudaira “Fumai” Harusato comes up in this blog a lot, but the first of the Izumo Province Matsudaira clan was Matsudaira Naomasa (1601~1666) who was probably the Matsue feudal lord most known for his valor.

He was the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate (otherwise known as the Edo period). Though he was born only two years before this period officially started, things weren’t entirely pacified right away, so he had martial experience from an early age. At the tender age of 14 in 1615, he led troops in the Battle of Osaka, which was one of the final big battles to bring in the new era. Sanada Yukimura happened to be fighting on the losing side of this battle, but nonetheless was classy enough to show his admiration for his youthful enemy. He won a lot of recognition from people on his own side as well, and had a career in a handful of fiefs around Japan before being given the Matsue Domain starting in 1638 (seeing as the previous clans had no heirs). The Matsudaira clan would rule uninterrupted for the remainder of Matsue’s feudal history, until 1871 when the whole governing system was abolished.

Naomasa was a dedicated follower of the harvest god (but commonly known as the fox god) Inari, and founded the Jozan Inari Shrine, still found on the northern end of the Matsue Castle grounds today. Lafcadio Hearn was rather fond of this foxy shrine and described its founding thus:

When Naomasu, the grandson of Iyeyasu, first came to Matsue to rule the province, there entered into his presence a beautiful boy, who said: ‘I came hither from the home of your august father in Echizen, to protect you from all harm. But I have no dwelling-place, and am staying therefore at the Buddhist temple of Fu-mon-in. Now if you will make for me a dwelling within the castle grounds, I will protect from fire the buildings there and the houses of the city, and your other residence likewise which is in the capital. For I am Inari Shinyemon.’ With these words he vanished from sight. Therefore Naomasu dedicated to him the great temple which still stands in the castle grounds, surrounded by one thousand foxes of stone.

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

Naomasa also started the Horan-enya ritual, one of the three great boat festivals of Japan. It’s like holy kabuki on boats.

Click for source and small a gallery of Horan-enya photos.

Well, it started as a ritual to save them from a famine, and it evolved over the years after a fishing boat dashed to the rescue of a boat carrying Inari that was getting jostled in the wind and waves of the Ohashi River in the middle of Matsue. It’s only done every 10 years now, and the next one should be in 2019.

Naomasa also founded Gessho-ji Temple, which he named after his mother. All of the Matsudaira feudal lords of Matsue are buried here, and it is also famous for its hydrangea and for a giant stone turtle that used to roam around at night and terrorize people. That’s a ghost story for another time.

Naomasa’s final resting place, surrounded by bright blue hydrangea in the rainy season.

Finally, most visitors to Matsue recognize Naomasa by the equestrian statue of him that stands in front of the Shimane prefecture government office, facing towards the castle (the statue used to be directly in front of the castle, and there is a miniature version of the statue inside). While I haven’t exactly gone looking for them, I can’t say I’ve seen any other statues of 14-year-old samurai, so it’s pretty cool.

Click for gallery source and other historical postcards of Matsue. This one is from 1927.

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.