Ahhhhh, keigo, the infamously most formal, polite form of Japanese, with different forms of usage within it based on whether you are humbly referring to yourself or using honorifics to refer to anything and anyone besides yourself or whatever group you represent. Considering how many game shows there are in Japan, there’s got to be one around here somewhere about which verbs to use in which settings and with which interlocutors. (After all, even Japanese people need refreshers and instructions on proper keigo use.)

That said, keigo is a very standard part of actively used Japanese, not a separate language. I suppose after nearly four years in a Japanese office this improvement shouldn’t be surprising, but there is a big difference in satisfaction between answering keigo questions correctly on N1 of the JLPT and actually using it in a way that sounds natural in daily life.

違う: 【ちがう】(CHIGA-u)
to differ (from); to not be in the usual condition; to not match the correct (answer, etc.); to be different from promised
Example: 違う文化について学びたい。// Chigau bunka ni tsuite manabitai. // I want to learn about different cultures.
Example: この漢字は違うよ。// Kono kanji wa chigau yo. // This kanji is wrong.

異なる: 【ことなる】(KOTO-naru)
to differ; to vary; to disagree
Example: 異なる文化について学びたい。// Kotonaru bunka ni tsuite manabitai. // I want to learn about different cultures.
Example: この名前のつづりが異なる。// Kono namae no tsudzuri ga kotonaru. // The ways to spell this name differ.

(Kanji definitions from KanjiDic2.)

I do not claim to be a kanji expert. I can usually read a newspaper without difficulty, but if you asked me to read aloud I might struggle on a few words here and there. I, like many modern Japanese people, have also forgotten how to write a lot of kanji which I used to be tested on in school because I usually type them instead of write them. It’s sort of like how proper spelling in English is said to be a dying art form.

Are you ready for some beauty science?

Let’s start with a repost of a comic about Tamatsukuri Onsen, one of Japan’s original beauty onsen, a downright fountain of youth according to the Chronicles of Ancient Izumo.

I’m going to preface this by saying I’m not an expert. I just really like going to onsen and have picked up some nerdy knowledge and onsen guides here and there. I am not a chemist or a beautician. I can say, however, that I have noticed some changes in my skin quality over the course of my time in Shimane, which, for the past few years, have been ranked #1 for beautiful skin based on its humidity, hours of sunlight, life habits, and other environmental factors. I didn’t really believe this over the course of my first winter here when I had terribly dry skin due to indoor heaters, but when I started thinking skin care in terms of texture rather than acne (or lack thereof), I found that following skin care advice I’ve heard here really works well.

But beyond that, knowing nerdy things about onsen I enjoy anyway is plain fun. So let’s dive in! (No. No diving at the onsen. Don’t be Faux Pas Man.)

Onsen, which are all at least 25 degrees C at their source and contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements, can be categorized in some of the following (sometimes scary-sounding) ways:

Simple onsen (単純温泉: tanjun-onsen)
The most common type of onsen found throughout Japan, with relatively low concentrations of chemical elements (general 1g/kg and below). Good for people with sensitive skin.

Hydrogen carbonate onsen (炭酸水素泉: tansansuiso-sen)
Good cleanser and for giving you smooth skin.

Sulfate onsen (硫酸塩泉: ryuusan’en-sen)
Works like a toner and supplies moisture to skin.

Iron onsen (鉄泉: tetsu-sen)
Water with somewhat light brown color, good for people prone to anemia.

Chloride onsen (塩化泉: enka-sen)
Helps your skin to retain moisture and gives it a damp texture (in a good way).

Sulphur onsen (硫黄泉: iou-sen)
Antibacterial properties make this good for treating skin ailments. Also considered good to detox your system, and for helping your skin retain moisture.

Radioactive onsen (放射能泉: houshanou-sen)
Includes things like radium onsen and radon onsen. Good for pain relief.

Carbon dioxide onsen (二酸化炭素泉: nisankatanso-sen)
Basically, carbonated onsen. However, the gas bubbles are too tiny to see. Said to promote blood flow, these are relatively rare in Japan. (Shimane has one in the little town of Iinan, named Ramune Onsen. Gee, I wonder how it got that name.)

These chemical elements should be indication on a sign somewhere around the onsen, based on how much of them can be found per 1kg. Just because these are the primary chemical elements which any given onsen might be known for, it doesn’t mean they’re limited to those characteristics.

You also want to note the onsen’s pH balance. Onsen with pH balances from around 6 to 7.5 are the gentlest to your skin. Alkaline, particularly 8.5 and above, are supposed to be good cleansers. Higher acidic concentrations are good for their antibacterial properties (but always remember to keep hygiene in mind when visiting an onsen!).

If you’re looking for beautiful skin, you also want to keep an eye out for metasilicic acid (メタけい酸 metakeisan) content. H2SiO3 is a very simple, diluted silicic acid thought to stimulate collagen, which is what gives your skin a springy, youthful texture (in other words, it prevents wrinkles). Back to that Tamatsukuri Onsen comic up there, the joke is that when the onsen was introduced in writing about 1,300 years ago, the research team found all the locals partying in the hot springs, young and old alike. All of them had youthful, springy skin. Nowadays, onsen aficionado attribute this to the high concentration of metasilicic acid, at 110mg. In order to be considered a good beauty onsen, most would aim to have at least 50mg.

I mentioned that in Japan, people think of skin care in terms of texture (or whiteness, but that’s a totally different topic). They have a number of fun words to describe what skin should feel like, many of which don’t have a full equivalent in English. Some of the common ones are:

つるつる tsuru-tsuru: slick and smooth
すべすべ sube-sube: smooth and sleek
ぺたぺた peta-peta: skin moist enough to make a little sound when you lightly press your fingers to your skin
うるうる uru-uru: damp, moist, well-hydrated skin
さらさら sara-sara: silky and soft
もちもち mochi-mochi: a springy texture (yes, like a good rice cake)
しっとり shittori: retains its moisture really well

Or at least, if I had to try really, really, really hard to differentiate between things like uru-uru and shittori this is my sense. I’m not a professional linguist either, I just happen to be mostly fluent in Japanese. And I do like gitaigo (or gi’ongo, in peta-peta‘s case?).

And I like onsen. That too.

Hopefully this will help to make your next visit to an onsen more interesting. Throw these terms into conversation with your friends, and then make up observations about the smell and color and feel of the onsen water and pretend you’re taste-testing on a food competition show or something. Your friends will either think you sound really cool or they will be tempted to dump a bucket of cold water on your head to make you just shut up and enjoy onsen for the simple pleasure that they are.

I confess, I have not actually picked up much Izumo dialect, thought to be rather hard to understand even for native speakers. I’m not so sure how far that goes. I have had difficulty understanding little old ladies in the countryside when I’ve asked for directions, but otherwise I can usually understand whatever someone is saying based on context. Locals always tease that Izumo-ben must be difficult to understand since I’m a foreign speaker of Japanese, but it doesn’t really work like that. As a non-native speaker, I have years of having to understand words in context that I’ve never formally studied, so listening to Izumo-ben doesn’t feel strange.

Using Izumo-ben, however, is a different story. I can sort of hear and parse out in my head how it works, but the only aspects I’ve picked up have thinking with verb endings like “-choru” or sometimes adding “-ken” to things for a little emphasis, but I don’t think “-ken” is limited to this brand of Inaka-ben (country dialect) anyway. When people teach me phrases I can usually imitate them, but this is usually only for their entertainment and I never commit them to memory.

The major part of Izumo-ben that anyone and everyone should pick up, though, is the phrase for “Thank-you”: Dan-dan.

You hear it everywhere, and it’s such a short, snappy, and catchy phrase that there’s no reason not to try using it. Even though I typically hear people use more standard ways of expressing thanks, the locals do smile warmly and get excited at the sound of people from other parts using that phrase. It carries a lot of local character, and it always goes over well when everyone from Japanese tourists to foreign diplomats use the phrase. You also see and hear it used throughout the area, like in the “Dan-dan kasa” program, a free umbrella-loaning service found through the city of Matsue (I’ve benefitted from this program almost as much as I have contributed to it by forgotting my umbrellas in public places all the time).

You would also hear it used for the outdoor hot-food festival held throughout the city and especially on Sundays throughout the month of February, the Matsue Dan-Dan Shoku Festa.

I’ve broke this down in an entry last year as follows:

まつえ暖談食フェスタ
まつえ is “Matsue” written in phonetic hiragana instead of in kanji, as usual (松江).
暖 is “warmth” and read here as dan.
談 is “conversation” and read here as dan. Pairing them together is like “warm conversation” and sometimes people translate the name of the festival as “heart-warming.”
だんだん, Dan-Dan, is Izumo dialect for “thank-you,” one of the most commonly heard and actively used Izumo phrases.
食 is “food/eat” and read here as shoku.
フェスタ is short for “festival.”

So you could call it anything from “Matsue Festival for Food That Brings About Warm Conversation” to “Matsue Thanks-For-The-Warm-Food Festival” but I find “Dan-Dan Shoku Festa” is most catchy.

Now that we’re heading into a cold snap here in January, I thought for sure we’d be looking forward to some Dan-Dan Shoku Festa material soon, but what is this? The Matsue Shoku Matsuri??

Apparently they changed it this year because the Dan-Dan pun was a hard sell to travel companies. But I am very disappointed with the name change! I feel no sense of local character and warm from a bland name like “Matsue Food Festival.” Give me back my Izumo-ben pun and get some local flavor back in this name!

Sigh. At least we get four Sundays of outdoor food fests instead of only three this year. There are as follows:

January 31, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
In front of JR Matsue Station (Area A)
(Includes the annual “En-musubi Shichifukujin Nabe”, the “Seven Lucky Gods Fate-binding Hot Pot” which serves 800 people yet can disappear rather quickly–to date, I’ve only made it in time for a serving once)

February 7, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Matsue Castle grounds (Area B)
(Special features include handmade wagashi from artisan Itami-sensei and Matsue Castle Rifle Troupe performances at noon and 2pm, but you can get Itami-sensei’s wagashi at the Matsue History Museum cafe Kiharu all year round and the Teppo-tai performs at the museums on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of every month anyway, so…)

February 14, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Kyomise shopping district (Area C)
(If you find it too cold to stay outside, many of the fancy restaurants around this shopping district are also doing special things that day)

February 21, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Tenjinmachi (around Shirahata Tenmangu Shrine) (Area D)
(Seeing as Tenjin is the god of scholarship and we’re coming up on entrance exam season, there’s a special “Tenjin Goukaku Okage Nabe”—which I’d roughly translate as “Pass Your Tests Thanks to Tenjin’s Hot Pot.”)

The area south of the Ohashi River

The areas south of the Ohashi River


The areas north of the Ohashi River

The areas north of the Ohashi River

Furthermore, the San’in region is Crab Country. See more details (and puns) about the crab culture in this entry, but also be aware that the “Kani-goya” (Crab Shack) event going on a 10 minute walk east of JR Matsue Station along the Ohashi River is already underway. This year it’s January 16 ~ February 29, open 11:00am through 10:00pm. This event is all about indulging in regional crab, having them cooked right in front of you and making a raucous with your buddies as you tear into them.

I like crab if someone else gets the meat out for me, but I supposed this is a craze I don’t really understand. I’ll stick with the array of fancy Sunday market foods.

And I will still stubbornly call it the Dan-Dan Shoku Festa, thank you very much. Yes, I am feeling a little salty over the loss of this pun.

It’s the season to better oneself with New Year’s resolutions and ask for a little divine help in doing by visiting shrines and temples for Hatsumode, squeezing in your prayers along those of all the other visitors and trading in the old good luck charms for freshly powered new ones. Hirahama Hachimangu Takeuchi Shrine, located in southeastern Matsue, is especially popular with people who are seeking longevity, trying to avoid bad luck, seeking prosperous business, safety for one’s family, and especially traffic safety. Though they may have the specialties they are known for, no shrine is limited to their specialities, and many general wishes are made at any given place as well.

The primary deity at Hachimangu shrines is Hachiman-jin, considered a god of war in Shinto and in Buddhism. Historically he has been popularly worshipped by the samurai class, along peasants have worshiped him as a harvest god (though Inari is usually the more notable harvest god, and samurai like local hero Matsudaira Naomasa had a notable devotion to the fox deity). Seeing as success in war is a not a common wish for many people in Japan nowadays, the “safe return from war” seems to now translate as “a safe commute home with no traffic accidents.” Furthermore, although Hachiman-jin is not readily associated with success in passing one’s exams (Tenjin’s the obvious choice there), one could consider exams a sort of battle in and of itself.

With that in mind, these statues seem right at home in the most well-known Hachimangu shrine of Matsue.

First, we have a frog.

Frogs are frequently used for good-luck puns, since they are called kaeru in Japanese. This is synonymous with “to return,” such as in “many returns of good fortune.” In this case, it more blatantly refers to the safe return home of both people and their cars. The statue is called “Buji Kaeru.” This phrase means “return home safely” (無事帰る) but in this case, you could call it the “No Mishap Frog.”

It makes sense to have something like at a shrine well-known for its good graces it is supposed to provide in avoiding traffic accidents (among many other special intentions you could also select ema (prayer boards) for).

Then there’s the Daruma next to it. The Yaruki Daruma.

Daruma is the Japanese name for Bodhidharma, a monk said to have transmitted Chan/Zen Buddhism to Japan. In Japan, it is popularly said that he meditated so long that his legs fell off due to atrophy, and cute, round, and humorously serious Daruma dolls are a popular symbol for the merit of hard work (though if your legs fall off, I’m not sure how fortuitous that can really be). They are found at Shinto shrines throughout the country, with many shrines putting their own spin on how to use the simple and recognizable doll. A common practice is to purchase a Daruma when you have a goal in mind, and to paint on one eye. It is after you attain the goal that you needed to work hard for that you paint on the other eye. You can put any kind of spin on accomplishing any kind of goal, such as Yaegaki Shrine‘s blue and pink En-musubi dolls for couples.

The Yaruki Daruma provides willpower (yaruki) for studying. We all need a little help with this sometimes, right? I know I do. The sign next to the Yaruki Daruma says:

Willpower Daruma
冷頭静修: Cool your head and study quietly.
Pour some cold water on Daruma-san’s head and then say your prayers.

Pouring water on statues when saying prayers is a pretty common practice throughout Japan, such as pouring hot water on the Oyukake Jizo at Matsue Shinjiko Onsen (and yes, his name is literally “the Jizou to pour hot water on”). I like how stark the advice is on this statue. It’s not just a blanket “study, study, study!” command, it’s “hey, COOL IT and sit down and be quiet and DO THE THING.”

The advice seems even more effective when you imagine this face saying it to you.


I take no credit for this pun, allow me to just point out that Tottori 20th Century Pears are indeed delicious, and around September or so they sort of take over the entire prefecture.

So what else is there to say about these pears, besides that they’re delicious?

These pears, first cultivated in 1898 right before the turn of the century, are also known as “Nijisseiki” or “Nijusseiki” among both Japanese and Western horticulturists, as one of the only green varieties of Asian pears among an array of russet varieties. Like other Asian pears, it is crisp and sweet, fragrant, and with a grainy texture. They’re large and often shared as gifts, decoratively cut to be shared and enjoyed raw.

Click for source

But no famous local product in Japan would ever thrive on its own fame simple by being served raw. First, you need to make an ice cream flavor out of it, no matter what it is.

From Tottori Hana Kairo, a very big and lovely flower park.

Next, you need to make a curry out of it.

More appetizing than it looks, especially right after visiting the Tottori Sand Dunes.

It needs to be available for sale all over your respective region.

In the surrounding regions (like my local grocery stores) people need to go on a frenzy ordering them in advance, fully expecting to pay top dollar (er, uh, yen) for the shiniest of fruits. Having people pay to pick their own fruits in season is a given, and at this time of year, anyone should be able to drive through the area and see trees heavy with plastic-bag-covered fruit. Tottori has this all covered with their 20th Century Pears.

But they take it even further–yes, the Tottori Nijisseki Pear Museum is a real thing. I have not had the pleasure of going myself, but the more I think about it, the more interesting it looks. Having taught a very detailed class about American culture by way of peanut butter, I can tell you that a close look into a single plant-based food has can be extremely enlightening.

Although pears (梨) make a good pun for nothingness (無), don’t underestimate them. The ones I have received as gifts were indeed some of the tastiest pears I’ve ever had.

I hang out with a lot of non-native speakers of Japanese. The conversation usually goes just fine, but every so often you run into words you can’t remember due to lack of use, and things like this happen.

Another thing that happens is that you start picking up the weird language habits of your friends, like the mistakes you repeatedly hear them make or phrases they fall back on a lot. Even though I know it sounds weird, my brain still picks them up! Thankfully the same thing happens with native speakers. My keigo has improved by leaps and bounds by hanging around a crowd that practices things like tea ceremony and kimono, but sometimes I catch myself sounding like an old lady.

One day, a friend asked me to go to Manai Shrine and Rokusho Shrine with her.

What? I thought. Usually I’m the one asking people to drive me out into the countryside hunting for mythological shrines.

Naturally, I agreed, as these two have been on my visit list since I wrote that first Kojiki manga about Izanagi and Izanagi. Manai Shrine is up a long flight of stone steps and quietly hidden away against a mountain, which made it strike me as a counterpart shrine to Kamosu Shrine, which is dedicated to Izanami and located in the same general area. Rokusho Shrine was located directly next to the local Izumo government offices back in the Heian period, so it was used as an organizational base for all the shrines in the area.

All three of them have the same crest, the character 有 (ari, “to have”) inside of a tortoise shell. The tortoise represents longetivity and is therefore lucky, while 有 is made up of the characters 十 (“ten”) and 月 (“month/moon”), which, when paired together as 十月 mean “October” (or at least, they referred to the 10th month of the agricultural calendar beforehand, but that’s been a mess since the Gregorian switch). Of course, the 10th month is special here in the Izumo region. While it is traditionally referred to as Kannazuki (“the month without gods,” written 神無月 (gods-nothing-month)), only here is it referred to as Kamiarizuki (“the month with gods,” written 神在月 (gods-exist-month), but can also be written as 神有月–there’s that 有 again!). This is because the 8 million gods from around Japan congregate at Izumo Taisha during that time.


Back in the old days…

We visited Manai first, and found it quiet and sparse, in a refined sort of way.



Rokusho turned out a bit more interesting, as we found the remains of some recent festival. “Nan darou…” we both trailed off many times as we noticed things around the shrine, the straw weavings and the gohei (paper streamerson small sticks) left around the trees. “Nan darou… I wonder what this is…?” We found other little things, such as a handwashing font partially hidden under the trees at a back entrance, a boat possibly for use on the nearby Iu River, and a basketball hoop. “Nan darou…”




What really brought my friend out to those southern hills and valley at the outskirts of Matsue was not the shrines so much as the Manai Waterfall, which the nearby shrine was named after, and is said to be holy water with healing properties. It is about three meters high, and nestled away up into the hill, and we made a few rounds around the neighborhood following a handful of different maps trying to find it. “Doko darou… where could it be…” we said over and over.

We asked directions from an old lady taking a break from her gardening who answered us in very thick Izumo dialect, and later on we asked directions from an old man with a dialect almost as thick. He was cheerful and helpful, but trying to be those things sometimes comes off as discouraging. “You’ll see that sign for the soumen shop, and it’ll be right up behind it, you can’t miss it! But nobody’s used it for years, they don’t make nagashi-soumen there anymore. Nobody bothers with the waterfall anymore. It’s nothing much. But yeah, there’s a parking lot, and you’ll find the waterfall right there! It’s too bad about the soumen…”

Little did we inner-city dwellers know about this supposedly famous nagashi-soumen (soumen is a type of thin, white noodle, and when served nagashi-soumen style it slides with water down a bamboo shoot and you try to catch it as it goes by–a popular thing to do in summer). I saw one big sign for it by the road as we passed around the tiny neighborhood and the hill a few times, but mistakenly thought it was referring to the building it was fixed to instead of to the little abandoned stall we found by the other sign the old man told us to look for.



The view from the parking lot

As soon as we stepped out of the car, we heard the sound of water, and found its source much sooner than we expected. Filled though the neglected pond was with fallen leaves, the water was perfectly clear.

“Maybe we should wash our hands with it?”
“A rinse couldn’t hurt.”
“You think it’s safe to drink? Dou darou… I wonder…”
Dou darou… maybe fill your water bottle and then take it home and boil it?”
“Ah, good idea.”
“What will you do with it?”
Nan darou…
“I wonder if it works. Dou darou…
Dou darou…

I took a look around the forested area and noticed this little sight next to the pond.

“Hey, it’s an Inari statue… hhm, the head’s fallen off. That’s unsettling.”
Nan darou…”
Nan darou…”

And then we found another by a tree behind us.

Nan darou…”
Nan darou ne…”

Beyond the tree, there was a little blocked off clearing of mysteriously placed rocks, and the carved ones were not legible.

“I wonder why we can’t go here?”
“I wonder if there’s something buried.”
“I wonder what it says.”
Nan darou…”
Nan darou…”

Neither of were particularly wary, merely curious. We stood and looked up at the branches and fresh spring leaves high above us, rustling in the wind on that cloudy April afternoon. The light and sounds were different in that space from the sleepy neighborhood and rice fields below, the forgotten gathering spot for catching noodles sliding down the supposedly holy water.

“Hmm.”
“Hmmmm.”
“That’s pleasant.”
“Yeah.”
“I’m glad we found it.”
“Yeah, me too.”

We went on trading our darou‘s throughout the rest of that shrine hopping afternoon in the southern stretches of Matsue, and the heart of where the Izumo region used to be ruled from.

February in Matsue means it’s time to feast, in the “let’s go gourmet!” sort of sense. Throughout next month, Matsue will celebrate its 13th annual Matsue Dan-Dan Shoku Festa. The name is a pun, so let’s delve into linguistics for a moment:

まつえ暖談食フェスタ
まつえ is “Matsue” written in phonetic hiragana instead of in kanji, as usual (松江).
暖 is “warmth” and read here as dan.
談 is “conversation” and read here as dan. Pairing them together is like “warm conversation” and sometimes people translate the name of the festival as “heart-warming.”
だんだん, Dan-Dan, is Izumo dialect for “thank-you,” one of the most commonly heard and actively used Izumo phrases.
食 is “food/eat” and read here as shoku.
フェスタ is short for “festival.”

So you could call it anything from “Matsue Festival for Food That Brings About Warm Conversation” to “Matsue Thanks-For-The-Warm-Food Festival” but I find “Dan-Dan Shoku Festa” is most catchy.

There will be gourmet events going on at hotels and restaurants throughout the city throughout the month, but the three “Dan-Dan Gochisou Ichiba” (Dan-Dan Feast Markets) are the most bustling with activity and variety. In addition to food stalls common at events throughout the year or that come from out of town specifically for this food festival (from as far as Miyazaki Prefecture, given the Kojiki myth connections!), you can expect live entertainment and visits from local characters like Shimanekko, the mascot of Shimane Prefecture fighting in the top ten spots for mascot of the year so several years but still has not quite made #1 (keep at it, Shimanekko! Your dance is the best!).

This is a photo from a different event, but I see these guys a lot and thought their product was tasty. Meat-wrapped rice balls aren’t unique to the San’in region, but these “Niku Maki En-Musubi” are made with Shimane beef and Shimane-grown rice. This is also a pun: Niku (meat), Maki (wrapped), Musubi (a term for rice balls), En-musubi (see below).

I’ll bet the Matsue Young Warriors will be there again. They’re always coming up with seasonal shows and displays, and last year they taught the crowd about Matsuba crabs. Even outside of a busy event with lots of visitors from out of town, it feels very normal to see a samurai sitting in your local JR station.

This year, the Feast Markets are on the following Sundays:

February 1:
10:30am – 3:00pm, in front of JR Matsue Station

February 8:
11:00am – 3:00pm, Kyomise shopping area, Minami-Tonomachi shopping area, and Karakoro Art Studio (north of the Ohashi River and southeast of Matsue Castle)

February 15:
11:00am – 3:00pm, Tenjinmachi shopping area and Tatemachi shopping area (Near Tenmangu Shrine, sort of between the JR station and the Shimane Art Museum)

The homepage is in Japanese, but you can see more details and maps here.

One of the (literally) biggest things visitors and locals alike anticipate is the “En-Musubi Hot Pot of the Seven Gods of Fortune.” The first year, I was not fortunate enough to be one of the 800 people served from this enormous hot pot, but last year I certainly felt lucky to get there in time. They certainly do not skimp on the seafood!

Photo from the Dan-Dan Shoku Festa Facebook page (click photo for source).

Speaking of seafood, this year the “Buri-shabu” at the Feb 1 market has my name on it. There is also a month-long crab event going on, but that requires special reservation, and we’ll talk more about crabs in the next entry anyway.

Besides the hot pot, there are plenty of other specials making liberal use of the catchphrase “En-musubi.” It’s been a while, so let’s break this phrase down again:

縁結び (sometimes written phonetically as えんむすび)
縁, en, is a phrase translated in many ways, but often loses its nuance when translated. It can be any kind of tie of fate or relation, be it between romantic pairs, friends, business partners, or even your relationship with Mother Nature. Used like “I have en with that person” as opposed to “that person is my en.” People pray for good en, but this is more about relations and encounters rather than generalized luck (運, un).
結び is a noun based on the verb 結ぶ (musubu, to bind or tie).
Therefore, 縁結び is like “binding fates” or “ensuring good encounters” but often given the rather limiting translation of “match-making.”

En-musubi is a big San-in catch phrase for many reasons based in local mythology, but especially because Izumo Taisha is where the gods throughout Japan gather to discuss En-musubi each year, which is kind of a big deal.

And since En-musubi is applied in any way possible here, of course it applies to food–sometimes in clever ways like in the case of zenzai, but at other times just by creating a lunch special and calling it the En-musubi plate.

Besides those various February En-musubi specials, there will be a sweets market at the first Feast Market with an En-musubi theme as well. That’s got my name on it, too.

When watching a naginata match, be it a small local match or the regional championships, there will usually be a program printed with the names of all of the participants included in bracket form so that the audience can follow along, mark who advanced where, and how the judges were split between determining the winners. Single matches can go on for what feels like a really long time, or they can be over before you’re even had a chance to locate the kids you’re cheering for. It can be exhausting to closely observe a long morning of match after match after match, but once you get the rhythm of it, it gets a lot easier to tell what’s going on. That doesn’t always make it easy to catch all of the details, though.

Seeing as I don’t always see my classmates’ names written down because we mostly interact on a vocal basis, it’s always fun seeing for the first time how their names are written. Given that a single, common-sounding name can have numerous ways of being expressed in kanji (or–surprise!–hiragana or katakana phonetic characters instead), it gives you a glimpse into how their parents’ generation thinks, and what trends have seemed to emerge in the previous decades.

A trend that many Japanese people find somewhat worrying is Kira-Kira names. Think Western celebrity baby names or other lists of the most cringe-worthy, “did they actually let them put that on the birth certificate?” names. Although civil servants do turn down names like “Pikachu” despite it’s clever potential kanji, there is still a rising trend in bending the laws of kanji readings to fit things they would not usually say, or choosing creative ways of writing common names, or coming up with entirely new names for their special-snowflake children. I find it really funny when I go to a small elementary school, see a board with all the students listed, and a good handful of them all have the same trendy name but each of them have different kanji. However, there is a push against them not just for those children who will sometimes be stuck with ridiculous or unfortunate names, but because it could genuinely make their lives more difficult. One point Kira-Kira opponents like to refer to is ambulance workers, and how trying to get an unusual name correct would cost them precious time.

I cannot comment of the validity of all of their concerns, but I can tell you even with my outside perspective that a lot of names sound weird. However, there are a lot of very tempting kanji out there to use! That makes reading lists of names, especially of the current generation of elementary school students and below, very interesting. However, I’m not the only one who had no idea how to read some of them. Their peers didn’t know some of the ones we saw listed, and even the adults around us weren’t sure and had to ask people who knew the kids personally.

But it’s not just personal names! Although some surnames are far more common than others and some kanji are used and used and overused in surnames, Japan has a very, very varied set of surnames. Sometimes two names written with the same characters have different pronunciations. Is it Nakajima or Nakashima? Both! Is it Nishikori, or Nishikiori? If you’re in this part of Shimane, probably Nishikori (as in Nishikori Kei, the recently famous tennis star born in Matsue). Is it Takata or Takada? Kanamori or Kanemori? But sometimes, it’s “what in the world is that kanji???” Even worse when you’ve got a common-sounding surname but a really, really complex way of writing it, so much so that it won’t normally pop up while typing in Japanese text. You find people just give up and address things to you in hiragana.

At least everyone taking part in the naginata matches has their name clearly displayed on their uniform and armor, so even if you can’t read it, you can at least recognize it–hopefully fast enough to keep track of everything else going on in the match.