You might see these photos and think, “oh, I know this place!”

Let me remind you that this is a San’in region blog. This is not Kyoto. This is Tsuwano, the Little Kyoto of San’in!

Like the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Taikodani Inari Shrine is also dedicated to this popular fox deity. Also like Fushimi Inari and other Inari shrines throughout Japan, it has a tunnel of torii gates leading up the shrine, and pockets of little areas filled with fox statues left as offerings. It is said that there are a thousand gates at this shrine, and you can see the bright red shrine with a brilliant trail leading up to it from a ways away on the road, though what appears above the trees makes it look like it suddenly appeared on the mountain. Although it looks like a daunting hike, it doesn’t take very long at all.

Of course, going by car and parking under the shrine is also an option.

Inari, a harvest god who may or may not be a fox (there are different interpretations of this, but the fox association remains strong). A simple internet search would probably reveal countless legends surrounding this deity, perhaps presenting Inari in ways that might even seem contradictory (such as whether Inari is a beautiful woman, an old man, or just a plain and simple fox). One of my favorite little quirks I’ve heard is that there is always a fox hole under the honden (main hall) of the shrine so that the fox can come and go as it pleases, and if they do not build this hole in an Inari shrine, the deity gets angry and curses people. If you’re looking for it, this hole is very easy to spot in Jozan Inari Shrine near Matsue Castle (Lord Matsudaira Naomasa was a faithful Inari follower).

Inari can be a rather difficult god to please and a shrine should not be set up to him/her lightly, so when samurai lords set up shrines line Taikodani Inari in Tsuwano and Jozan Inari in Matsue, they did so whole-heartedly in the hopes that Inari would grant food and riches to their domains. It’s hard to think of an Inari shrine that is not covered with seemingly excessive amounts of large or small offerings hiding around any little corner.

This is also a deity people look to when they want monetary luck. While most shrines around Japan will offer some simple form of omikuji (fortunes on paper slips drawn at random), and larger shrines will offer a couple different kinds, this shrine offered quite a number of options. For example, a lion dance robot or a take-home statue of a fox.

There were all throughout the shrine and I hadn’t done an omikuji for a while, so I picked out one of the cheap ones not worth taking a picture of. Daikichi–great luck!

What really left an impression on me about this shrine is that it was, by far, the shiniest shrine I’ve ever seen. That’s saying something, because I’ve seen a lot of shrines. I do love a good moss-covered shrine with quite atmosphere, but I was very impressed by how smooth and squeaky clean this one was. At least according to the people I pointed this out to, I did not happen to visit after a shrine renewal or anything, it’s meticulously maintained like that all the time.

Look at this. Look at how shiny this shrine is!

Although all shrines are thought to be like a world somewhat separate from this one, the placement and color of Taikodani, especially after the tunnel on the way up to it, did feel otherworldly in a sense I don’t usually get from other shrines. Everyone was smiling and pleasant, and for all I could tell, fussy Inari must have felt pretty pleased with it, too.

They must have remembered to build that fox hole, if what we found on the steps back down was any indication.

For as much as I liked this spot, it was not what I was anticipating most on my trip to Tsuwano. I was there for horses, not foxes. We’ll touch on that in the next entry.


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.

Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!

February 3rd was Setsubun, a holiday in Japan to mark the changing of the seasons and ward off bad luck to make room for good luck. Even my tea ceremony lesson room is decorated with a painting of a sad and comical looking oni. This creature of Japanese folklore is sometimes translated as “demon,” but I prefer “ogre” as sometimes they’re more misunderstood than evil. On Setsubun, the basic practice is to have a member of the household wear an oni mask and the other members of the household chase them around throwing dried soy beans at them, shouting “out with the oni, in with the luck! Out with the oni, in with the luck!” Then everyone eats however many beans for however many years they’ve lived–an 8-year-old would stop at eight beans, but an 80-year-old would have to eat eighty of them.

This was how I celebrated my first Setsubun last year, just hanging out with friends.

However, Setsubun can be a big deal for many shrines and temples, too. In Matsue, the biggest Setsubun festivities are at Kumano Taisha. Like Sada Shrine, it’s historically had a strong influence on the region and has close ties to Izumo Taisha.

Kumano Taisha, Matsue

This is one of the famous shrines dedicated to Susano-o (he’s a pretty big deal in the San’in region). Not only did he rid Japan of the terrible Yamata-no-Orochi, but he taught the earthy inhabitants of the lands how to create fire using tools. Hence, Kumano Taisha is known as a special place for the spirit of fire, and is also famous for its Sanka-sai Fire Festival in mid-October. There is an auxiliary hut on the shrine grounds dedicated to this, known as the Sanka-den.

Speaking of auxiliary shrines, Izanami–both considered Susano-o’s mother and the mother of many other lands and gods–who was killed giving birth to fire has a pretty sizable one here. She’s also kind of a big deal in the San’in region.

Ah, and those vermillion torii gates mark a spot for Inari, too. Commonly known as the fox god (though not necessarily a fox), this kami is thought to provide good harvests and riches, and the Matsudaira clan that ruled over the Izumo domain through most of the Edo period was especially dedicated to him (but sometimes argued “her”). One of the old men at the shrine this day awaiting the Setsubun festivities excited asked if I could read the sign over there. “Do you know this kami? It will give you lots of money! Haha!”

So just what were some of the festivities going on? Setsubun is like the sequel to the Hatsumode New Years visits, with a special emphasis on making sure you’re totally rid of all the impurities or bad luck or illness or disasters that piled up over the course of the previous year. It’s sort of like resetting your luck to start with a clean slate. As part of that, old good luck charms from the previous year are deposited at the shrine to be burned.

Some of the faithful pay to undergo a purifying ritual before the main event starts, while others just make their offerings and say their prayers.

Alcohol is useful for purifying things, so sake is served.

And household hygienic products are useful for similar illness-warding measures, so upon arrival everyone was given a lottery ticket to see what kind of cleanly item they would get to take home. I got soap-scented toilet disinfectant.

As the people gathered in anticipation, I overheard some interesting conversations. Some of the people who received big boxes of tissues complained, “how am I supposed to catch things while I’m holding this?” A man had brought his adult daughter who kept her hoodie on in the light rain, and demonstrated while he suggested how they should dive for fallen items in the crowd. She just have him a flat “no way” in response. Someone who seemed to be in-the-know instructed a guy with a camera about angle the first item would come and where it would hit the crowd. However, no one looked as fired-up as the elderly people, who turned out in the greatest numbers. That may have been because it was a weekday, it may have been because they’re really serious about their Setsubun and have years of perfecting their prize-catching techniques.

The sounds of the drums and flutes within the shrine grew louder, and the priest and the procession of dignitaries wearing traditional Japanese garb on top of their business suits entered the auxiliary hall beside the main hall. The prizes started with an arrow, a traditional good luck charm to pierce through evil influences, shot out into the audience at precisely the angle and distance I had overheard predicted, and people scrambled for it like a home run ball in a baseball stadium. A second arrow was fired after that one.

Then the mayor of Matsue Masataka Matsuura (say that five times fast–I do quite a bit when I’m interpreting) and other dignitaries starting tossing bags of dried soy beans (mame) and small pounded rice cakes (mochi) things got crazy. I couldn’t help but be reminded of our Friendship City, New Orleans, and the shouts of “throw me something, mister” at Mardi Gras. Sure, the scale was different, but the seriousness in catching throws and pocketing as many as you could was perhaps just as enthusiastic. The old people had to make sure they’d take home enough mame to match their years, after all!

As for the mochi, it was still edible but had grown a little hard by then. You know how I know this? Just as I was thinking, “hmm, this is perhaps a little scary” I got smacked in the forehead with a bag of them. Somebody snatched that bag before I could, though. It didn’t hurt, but it was a little red after that (which thankfully cleared up before the TV news crew interviewed me later. I tend to be reporter bait at these kinds of events). At last when the man in front of me bend out to pick something up, I was able to snatch the bag that was on his back, and then I retreated for a better view.

I’m not sure how long it lasted, maybe only ten minutes or so, but they went through a lot of mame and mochi in that time.

When being interviewed on my thoughts later, I was asked what I wished for this year. What? I was still supposed to be making wishes? I just wanted to get my mame! One of the reporters filled in with a typical local catch phrase, “Maybe some En-musubi?” “Uh… sure, yeah!”

Too bad those poor oni don’t get to make any New Year wishes.