A few weeks ago, a friend and I had an afternoon open, so we figured we would go check out the Tottori Hana Kairou (Tottori Prefectural Flower Park) garden I’ve always heard so much about.

Turns out it’s not just one garden, it’s a series of several gardens. The flowers and trees seemingly stretch on forever, taking advantage of the natural surrounding hills and valleys and view of Mt. Daisen to create the illusion that the series of little worlds stretches out into more and more and more little worlds.

The flowers in this area vary according to season, but for this season I couldn’t help but hear the Wicked Witch of the West in my head.

I didn’t take enough photos to do it proper justice, as I was busy using a number of my senses to enjoy the park. This sign outside the herb garden made me quite happy–these people encourage enjoying plants like I enjoy plants! Quite often their textures get ignored in favor of their appearances or scents, and I get weird looks for touching the leaves and petals (for whatever seems it won’t damage me or the plant, anyway). At least the people in this part of the garden won’t think I’m weird, right?

I didn’t even take any pictures of the lilies, the signature flower of the garden, which were already in a bright bloom. The rose were taking center stage in many areas, especially with a temporary rose exhibition going on. As one small part of that, in encouraging people to interact more with their flower subjects, they had a set of very perfumed roses showing of the different types of scents roses carry.

That’s not to forget the orchids.

It was such a pleasant world of color that I don’t have too much else specific to report about the gardens (just an overwhelming sense of “oooh, pretty!”), but a couple non-floral things of note:

1. Concept benches! Along the elevated track circling the gardens, they had a number of creative benches designed and constructed by schools and other organizations.

2. Ice cream! Following up on a recent post about local specialties produced in ice cream form, I couldn’t pass up the park’s Tottori 20th Century Pear soft serve. Pear wouldn’t usually be my flavor of choice, but I’ve had these pears once before, and they were among the tastiest fruits I’ve ever eaten. I found it refreshingly tasty, but my friend more comments–that it was more like a sherbert, and that that halfway through she detected a flavor like apple juice.

And now for a little more prettiness:

Allium in flower language: “the correct assertion” or “infinite sorrows.” Would one of those sorrows happen to be that it can smell like onion?

It’s Golden Week so people have time to travel, which means every pocket of Japan is flooded with visitors right now. Even better, this period of consecutive public holidays coincides with extremely pleasant, picnic-perfect weather.

I can’t stress enough what a great time it is to see peonies at Yuushien Garden while thousands and thousands and thousands more are on display than usual, but as we know, peonies tend to be show-offs, and there are plenty of other seasonal flowers to enjoy at this time.

One of my favorites I hadn’t seen much before moving here was fuji (wisteria, witten as 藤, not 富士 like Mt. Fuji!), and from the highway you can see large purple trees towering out among the forests, and one of my favorite seasonal sweets from Kiharu, a charming cafe inside the Matsue History Museum, is an original wagashi with a delicate fuji motif.

That photo is from the wisteria at Yuushien among all the peonies, but one of the most pleasant and easily accessed (and free!) places to view them is Matsue English Garden, which is what it sounds like: A garden in Matsue designed and maintained in English style, with varying heights and shapes and botanic selections around the meandersome garden paths. Located right outside one of the closest railway stations to Matsue Shinjiko Onsen station (the easternmost on the Ichibata Railway that leads to Izumo Taisha), you can walk right in and go straight to wandering the garden, or there are like displays and exhibitions or fairs going on within the glass-walled hallways surrounding the garden.


On a sunny day, light floods all of the enclosures, including the hot house or the stage area which is home to a couple of giant ficus trees I’m very fond of and some other unusual plants I still am not sure of the identity of. While I haven’t eaten at the restaurant there (but enjoyed ice cream or home cooked treats from food fairs), I imagine it is also well lit as it provides a view of Lake Shinji, which the garden is on the northern banks of.

But the upclose view of Lake Shinji is free, too. There is a grassy green lawn to stretch out or run around on at the southernment most point of the garden, overlooking the lake, or you could take a stroll down to the boardwalk. We held the closing ceremony and reception of the 23rd Japan-America Grassroots Summit 2013 in Shimane in this back area last July, and it proved to be the perfect space to accomodate so many mingling visitors and performances. It’s no wonder people plan weddings there.

But, you know, I live right by Lake Shinji too and have no shortage of good views of it. There is something in bloom all year around (most notably a wide variety of seasonal roses!), so I was there to see plants and English garden design!

And of course, early May means wisteria, which are best viewed from within the tunnels they hang from when arranged in gardens, observing the speckled sunlight and the purple hues in varying rays and shadows.

Miss Artemis from Otaku Lounge is a good model as always!

Those of you with access to them, go out and enjoy some wisteria. After all, in Hanakotoba (Flower Language), they mean “Welcome!” However, be careful! They also mean intoxication, including being intoxicated with love.

Speaking of those of you with access, the furry nanjyamonjya trees at Matsue Castle will be blooming soon!

What do you get for venturing outside on a day like this? You get wet, that’s what.

Yuushien Garden is located on Daikonshima (otherwise known as the Yatsuka district of Matsue–now where have we heard that name before?), a island on Nakaumi, a brackish lake between Shimane and Tottori. When I hear “Yuushien” I think peonies. Okay, so sometimes I think of ginseng too, but I mostly think of peonies. After all, the sight and scent of 30,000 of them floating in the pond while thousands more were on display around the rest of the garden (and the rest of the island) was an unforgetable experience.

While no season can compare to full season, there are peonies blooming all year round at this garden, and the winter peonies (kan-botan) are a special sight from December through February. While peonies in Flower Language (hanakotoba) can mean royal style, riches and honor, pompousness, and (surprisingly) shyness, the winter peonies in particular have a noble, high class association. At Yuushien, these seasonal peonies have their own little straw huts to protect them from the weight of snow, and photographers flock to capture the bright blossoms against the white landscape.

I had no such luck. We had snowglobe like days during the week, but my Sunday at Yuushien was rain, rain, rain, rain.

I didn’t get to see the snowy scenery and rain is certainly not my favorite weather, but it did give me a very different view of the garden than I had only a very sunny, very crowded day last May during Golden Week (right around the height of the peony season). Rain brings out the textures in the garden landscape, especially in the ponds, moss, and volcanic rock that Daikonshima is made out of (and that’s why its soil is so good for peonies and ginseng).

Despite the general subdued tones of winter, there were still very vibrant, impressive peonies. In my years of studying East Asian cultures I have frequently heard them referred to like the Queen of the Flowers, and the Queen enjoys her spotlight in any weather. But, my dear Queen, there are so many other little things to notice in the sleepy garden winters! Can’t you let them have a little spotlight, too?

No? You really insist on photobombing, don’t you?

Setting the royal flower aside for a moment, let’s take a look at some of the rest of the rainy day views Yuushien provides in February.

Alright, Your Elegance, you haunty, flower, you! There will be more photos in your honor coming soon.

In the meantime, I’ll just wrap up with a statue we interpreted thus.

In my ongoing pursuit of the Japanese arts, I finally got to try out ikebana: flower arranging. You might have guessed from my onslaught of flower viewing posts last spring that I like flowers, but I’ve never done ikebana, save the one time Tea-sensei received some difficult to use by very pretty wild flowers, and let me have a go at trying to arrange them. She always reinforces that in tea (or at least the omotesenke school), you always try to arrange the flowers like how they’d appear in nature. Not so for the Sogetsu school of flower arranging, though it was Tea-sensei who introduced me to Flower-sensei.

The sogetsu school makes arrangements based on three major supporting elements which, for beginners, are at certain points and angles and lengths. There is lots of flexibility as you go on, though. I brought along my partner in the arts Tanya, my Russian CIR friend, but it turns out she’s already studied sogetsu before and was way ahead of me! I started by trying to keep it as close to as Flower-sensei instructed me.

When using a wide, open bowl, you stick the stems on a spiked tool called a kenzan.

Sometimes you have to be a little forceful when stabbing flower stems.

Flower-sensei prepared two types of flowers for us to work with: beniaoi and snapdragons.

Beniaoi (紅葵) is a mallow plant. I couldn’t find any Flower Language associated with it.

I finally see why these are called snapdragons in English! However, in Japanese, they are kingyosou, literally “goldfish grass” (金魚草). It can signify a range of meanings, such as a pure heart, foresight, shamelessness, an intrusive person, or “if I had to guess, the answer is NO.”

To my disappointment, Hanakotoba (Flower Language) is pretty much ignored in both sogetsu and in omotesenke. That makes sense because Japan didn’t start obsessing with this until receiving Victorian England’s flower language influence, and most people don’t really know trivial stuff like this. It’s still used a lot in manga and anime, though, and as a fan of shoujo manga I enjoy the extra level of meaning they can add when plastered all over a page. Too bad we can’t all walk around with giant flowers floating behind us to express our feelings sometimes.

Following the most basic guidelines of sogetsu, I completed my first creation!

Meanwhile, Tanya had already completed a piece according to the instructions, and had begun showing off.

So I got a little more creative with mine too, albeit still rather conservative.

Yes, I purposely placed those fallen snap dragons, there! It evokes a sense of impermanence, or something artsy like that. Flower-sensei dusted them out of the way to take her own picture, though. Tanya was more creative and used a fallen snapdragon as a hat for a beniaoi pod.

I appreciate all of my sensei’s patience with me as I try out various art forms, and Flower-sensei was no exception. After finishing up with the flowers, we just hung out in the studio to chat, and as is typical in Japanese hospitality, there was tea and snacks. I was just really surprised by one of them–I’ve seen sugary dried fruits as treats before, but I had never seen bitter melon in a sweet, dried form! I hate this bumpy and appropriately named produce, but I love sweets, so I was more than happy to try it.

Nope. Still bitter. But it was worth a shot.

A few weeks after this delightful little taiken (a very handy word for just “trying it out” and “getting the experience”), I visited Matsue’s industrial high school. At these kinds of trade schools, many students pick up applicable labor or business skills to go straight into job searching as opposed to university, though some go on to enter university programs in architecture or engineering or the like. I had visited them last year as well to listen to their senior project presentations and have a discussion with them, but this year we switched things up a bit by attending their research classes with them a couple times before hearing about their final projects (it was fun to spent more time getting to know them this year!).

One group of students was working on some kind of concrete that can sustain plant life. Or is it cement? I have to confess I know very little about this, though thanks to a college roommate’s very enthusiastic lecture she once gave me on the concrete/cement she made, I at least know there’s a lot of thought that goes into it getting the right combination of ingredients. As part of the ingredients, the students were using ashes from shijimi clam shells (seeing as Lake Shinji is famous for abundant shijimi) and sawdust, and after making the concrete/cement soaked them in water, and then did water tests to see how well they could support life. Unfortunately, not as always as well as they hoped.

Once they had something that wasn’t going to be toxic, they tried out raising different kinds of plants on it. Little seedlings had trouble taking root and didn’t last long, but the moss did alright. The day I joined them, they were doing an ikebana experiment: how well can the concrete/cement support cut flowers?

We collected clippings around the campus, then drilled little holes in the soft concrete/cement to stick our flowers in. There were no rules to abide by, but with sogestu fresh in my mind, I used some of that for inspiration.

The students trusted their instincts instead:

Some flowers wilted within a couple weeks, but others were still doing well a good six weeks later! Sogetsu only started in 1927, so I wonder if concrete ikebana will catch on and be a new style? Or if it’s already being done…?

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.

“When, in spring, the trees flower, it is as though fleeciest masses of cloud faintly tinged by sunset had floated down from the highest sky to fold themselves about the branches. This comparison is no poetical exaggeration; neither is it original; it is an ancient Japanese description of the most marvelous floral exhibition which nature is capable of making. The reader who has never seen a cherry-tree blossoming in Japan cannot possibly imagine the delight of the spectacle. There are no green leaves; these come later: there is only one glorious burst of blossoms, veiling every twig and bough in their delicate mist; and the soil beneath each tree is covered deep out of sight by fallen petals as by a drift of pink snow.” — Lafcadio Hearn, ‘In a Japanese Garden’

One doesn’t have to be especially well-versed in Japanese culture to know that the cherry blossom–the sakura (桜)–holds a special place in the Japanese heart. While in China they are likened to the physical beauty of a woman wearing pearls (this is the root of the written character, originally written 櫻), and in western flower language it was associated with a good education, in Japan it’s laden with not only associations with inner and outer beauty and purity, but also with life itself–specifically, its transience. In a number of ways, it was especially representative of the samurai–as it is first among flowers, so the samurai should be first among men, and if both the flower and the man must be short-lived, they should go out with a bang (or petal-blizzard, as the case may be).

While it is still a reminder of transience, in modern times it serves as a reminder to go out and have a picnic.

Right now, you can’t go anywhere without seeing cherry blossoms of multiple colors and varieties, though the 5-petal pale colored ones are most abundant (a variety called someiyoshino).

These are yae style blossoms with lots of fluffy petals.

This type is called oshimazakura and is pure white. It has a fragrance unlike most other varieties.

The first time I went out of my way to see the cherry blossoms was at Senju-in, a temple northeast of Matsue Castle on a hill overlooking the city. It is famous for a shidarezakura (weeping cherry tree) that is over 200 years old, and is typically one of the first to bloom around the area. If you go during the day the temple will serve you tea, but if you go at night, the canopy of blossoms quivering softly in the wind are lit up, and you can enjoy the view of the city as well. In addition to the shidarezakura, the temple also has a someiyoshino and a yaebeni-shidarezakura (which blooms later in a more of a crimson color). I went on a very still, quiet night, and while the cherry blossoms don’t have much fragrance themselves, the scent of incense and the flowers at the gravesite lingered in the air, and it was also a perfect night for moon viewing.

I wonder if the other flowers get jealous?

Of course, this is only one of many famous sakura spots. Another popular place to take the day to relax is the Tamatsukuri Onsen area, where there are about two kilometers straight of someiyoshino cherry trees along the Tamayu River.

The Matsue CIR ninja are on patrol to make sure visitors do not get attacked by falling sakura shuriken! That is, until we take a break at the ashi-yu (hot spring foot baths).

Special thanks to Jinjer Templer for this shot! Check out his nightime Tamatsukuri Onsen cherry blossom pictures, too.

More full-bloom cherry blossom viewing pictures are here.
More varieties of sakura here and here.

We’re probably all familiar with the rose–but how about its native Asian cousin, the camellia? While Camellia Sinensis is the plant that tea leaves comes from, C. Japonica comes in a wide variety of blossoms. It’s known here as 椿 (tsubaki), and it is one of the symbol flowers of Matsue. In Western flower language the camellia stands for an unpretending sort of excellence, and the Japanese Hanakotoba are more along the lines of modesty and loveliness beyond reproach (or in a white camellia’s case, a cool beauty). It also has connotations with love–an ideal love, or slightly different meanings by color. A red camellia may mean “I’m in love” or “I have a reserved kind of love,” whereas a white camellia might have more to do with waiting. Many camellia varieties may have buds for a few months before blooming–I’m willing to bet that’s where they got the “waiting” part!

There was a variety of camellia that bloomed through most of the winter all through town (and which smelled very sweet!), but most of the more unique varities–or even the most basic red ones which first come to mind when someone pictures them–all burst into bloom around the same period of time earlier in March, and are still continuing to bloom now. The big pink ones right outside my office just opened up over the past few days! While I’m always excited to see what varieties are peaking over the fences around the neighborhood, one of the best places to see them is in the camellia forest on the western Matsue Castle grounds, home to about 450 camellia trees. The San’in Camellia Club just held their 44th camellia show on the castle grounds over this past weekend, too.

Now here’s a whole bunch of pictures I’ve been collecting over the past few weeks:

There are some other connotations associated with the camellia that I’ll bring up in my next entry about them.

Gyun is a wonderful little sound effect in the Japanese language for “when your heart drops” or you witness something “heart-wrenching”. At last, my first spring in Japan has come!

One of the first flowers to bring in the season is the 梅 (ume, plum blossom). They come in a variety of shapes and colors, from white with five petals to soft pink with pillowy layers of petals to deep mauve with however many petals it wants.

This tree wasn’t as patient of a bloomer as the others and already looked like this by March 2nd.

On the western lower citadel of Matsue Castle, there is a plum forest. Unlike the forests around it, this one wasn’t planted at the time of the samurai, but at some point within the past fifty years or so. At least that’s what I gather after listening to a story from Kimono-sensei–as a high school student, she played on tennis courts where the plum trees are now.

The trees there are mostly of the five-petal variety. At the beginning of March, most of the pink ones were still just buds, but the white ones were already in blooming stride.

A week later I took another walk around here to see how many of the pink ones had opened after we had a couple days of warm weather.

The darker pink ones were still being a little slow!

Indeed they were, and the little forest was fragrant! Both times I went there were old couples, single walkers, parents and children, bike-riders and dog-walkers taking their time to stroll through, but there were more this second time around dusk. When a couple of old ladies walked by, they told me to take a whiff of the blossoms, as this was a unique fragrance that you only get to enjoy at this time of year. I did as instructed (though I had already been sticking my nose in plenty of blossoms by that point) and commented about the scent, and the old ladies replied, “Oh, good! She understood us.” Indeed, life is a little easier when you can communicate with the people around you, but enjoying flowers is a universal language.

Speaking of languages, have you heard of the Language of Flowers? This was a big thing in England and other European countries in the Victorian era, and it’s also a relatively common thing out here in Japan, too. It was used then to express feelings that could not be stated in explicit words, such as “I am starting to have feelings for you” or “I am passionately in love with you” or “I hate you and will get my revenge”. Certain combinations of flowers carried complex messages, and even having a flower delivered upside down could express a very specific sentiment. However, the Japanese Hanakotoba sometimes have different connotations from their Western counterparts (though they probably retain more of the Western meanings than Western countries do!), and instead of mostly being used in conversational gift bouquets, they can represent ideas in many contexts.

While the basic connotation with plum blossoms is “oh, spring is on its way! Oh, and Hinamatsuri is on March 3rd,” it can also be associated with many forms of beauty–everything from a patient, elegant, noble sort of beauty to a more independant, intense, glamous beauty. My personal associations with plum blossoms, with rounded petals rather than nibbed petals like cherry blossoms, is that they’re cute. I also think of the plum trees in the back corner of my neighbor’s yard and that they let us take some of their plums once, Chinese paintings of plum blossoms, and all the sour ways plums get used in Japanese sake, candy, and lunch boxes.

What do you associate plum blossoms with?