You probably don’t need to be a health nut to know that ginseng, a human-shaped root full of ginsenosides, is an expensive health product, lauded for its stimulant properties and powering up the immune system–among other systems. Although there is American Ginseng, it doesn’t pack quite the same punch as the Asian variety, commonly known as Korean Ginseng.

I bring this up, of course, because it doesn’t only grow in Korea. Ginseng production is big here in the San’in region, too.

Originally cultivated on Daikonshima (a large island on Lake Nakaumi) in the 17th century, it was sold through an operation lead by the samurai running the Matsue domain as part of an economic recovery plan for the region, it was at its height of popularity around the 1830’s and 1840’s, and it later became a privatized enterprize. When the samurai rain things, they imported ginseng and grew them in the volcanic soils of Daikonshima (also known for the peonies the volcanic soil is so good for). All of the ginseng produced was collectively processed and prepared for sale. This was known as Unshuu Ginseng* (unshuu ninjin, though ninjin is also confusingly the word for not-so-special carrots), known both then and now as a high quality, well-recognized variety. Shimane is still one of the top three producers of ginseng in Japan today.

Mural of Matsue history inside Matsue Castle

*Unshuu (雲州) takes the character for “clouds” from Izumo’s name (出雲) and combines it for the word for “province.” You find these –shuu names for a lot of old provinces throughout Japan. In Japanese, the readers for the characters might change depending how it is combined with other characters.

Why is ginseng production such a big deal? Setting it’s historical popularity as a health supplement aside, growing ginseng is not an easy venture. It takes six years for the ginseng plant to reach maturity enough for the roots to be harvested, and the plant sucks the soil dry of its nutrients–it can take 20 years for that soil for to be suitable for cultivation use again! If you’re a small-time farmer just trying to scrape by, growing this is not a effective use of your resources and time.

That’s where Yuushien Garden comes in for modern day Unshuu Ginseng production. I’ve mentioned this garden many times before as it is my favorite in the region and its peonies are amazing, but I’ve always glossed over the ginseng end of things. But on a not so crowded day, it’s fairly likely you’ll be served a free sample of ginseng tea before you even make it to the ticket booth.

In addition to tea, you can get this supplement in a variety of forms–in soap and beauty products, powder form, even sake! They’re available at various points throughout the walk-through garden course, most notably at the Unshuu Ginseng museum at the end of the course.

It comes in highly potent, sticky form!

Although these are in a form you can purchase and take home with you, I was very excited when I was interpreting for a delegation one time and we got to go to Yuushien for lunch–I had always been intrigued by the ginseng tempura, and I’d finally get a chance to try it! That was not all, however–in the set course of inventive and decorative items they served us that day, they used ginseng in almost everything. I apologize that I did not take pictures that day, but suffice to say that I found it worth spending some extra money on to be able to have it again someday–this coming from someone who has very frequent kaiseki (very fancy multi-course meals) at ryokan around the city. This page is in Japanese and the pictures are small, but it might give you some idea. I can tolerate the tea, but I find the taste of ginseng much more pleasant in in a form you can eat.

That said, I still have yet to try to the ginseng ice cream the garden serves. Someday!


Another flower post as promised!

Yuushien is one of the most famous gardens in the San’in region (though the most famous would have to be the one at the Adachi Museum of Art located in nearby Yasugi). It is a Japanese-style garden for all seasons; a quiet space to listen to the sounds of the waterfalls, observe the seasonal trees and flowers, feed the fish, and collect your thoughts. That is, unless you go during Golden Week.

It’s not by simple coincidence that iris (aka “sweet flag”) season lines up with Golden Week. Read more on Fumiyaen‘s insightful blog.

Yuushien is located on Daikonshima (otherwise known as the Yatsuka district of Matsue), a island on Nakaumi, a brackish lake between Shimane and Tottori. It used to be a town of its own, and there is a unique dialect spoken only on that island with some influence from the surrounding Mihonoseki Peninsula, Sakaiminato, and general Izumo dialect. It was formed from volcanic rock and you can explore underground lava trails, and those familiar with Japanese cuisine will probably notice that it literally means “giant radish island” (大根島). While I’m sure they probably grow somewhere around there, the island is not actually known for daikon radishes.

Rather, the island was recorded in the 8th century Chronicles of Ancient Izumo as “octopus island” (’takoshima’ たこ島)(though this probably had more to do with someone bringing an octopus to the island than there actually being octopus in Nakaumi–squid are more popular around here!). It was given somewhat similar sounding kanji at some point (‘takushima’ 太根島), which gradually morphed into some similar kanji based on an alternate pronunciation of the aforementioned kanji (‘taikushima’ 大根島), and this was eventually misread as the pronunciation that is currently used today (‘daikonshima’ 大根島).

On of the other theories about the name origin is that it had some ties to what the island of volcanic soil is known for: ginseng! This was traded with Korea and other places back in the Edo era when Izumo province was in financial straits, and is still prized today (and easy to get your hands on).

But this post is not about ginseng, it is about flowers. The other thing Daikonshima is famous for is its peonies (‘botan’, ). The prefectural flower of Shimane, thousands upon thousands of them bloom all over the island, and they are highly prized by peony lovers all around the world. Yuushien is but a central location to see some 180 varieties in a single place, including many varieties that were cultivated on the island. There are always some kind of variety blooming on Yuushien, even in winter when the blooms are protected from the snow by little straw huts. For a few days during Golden Week, however, the pond is filled with over 30,000 blossoms. That’s only a fraction of all the blossoms within the garden at that time, much less within the entire island! As soon as you step into the garden, you might even notice the fragrance before the actual sight. Kudos to anyone who knows what I mean when I say I half-expected to meet Liu Mengmei! Peonies originally came to Japan from China, they just thrived and developed extremely well on this island. As it turns out, there is a Chinese style garden elsewhere on Daikonshima.

Besides vendors selling their own cultivated peonies all over the island during the Peony Festival, there is also an exhibition during this particular period of time, and you can use your garden admission ticket to vote for your favorite cleverly titled variety on display (by the way, foreign visitors get half-off admission to the garden all year round for only 300 yen).

“Old Mountain Lady”, but I wonder which one?

Without further ado, how about we just move on to a sampling of pictures?

Striped varieties were originally cultivated on Daikonshima.

Peonies are huge. Many blossoms seemed to be about the size of my head.

Yellow varieties are not as common, but there were plenty to be seen anyway.