Katae (written 片江 or かたえ) is a little neighborhood nestled into the northern coast of the Mihonoseki portion of the Shimane Peninsula. It’s so separated from everything else that it’s practically its own town, and when talking with the locals there, they speak of Matsue like it’s a big city that is totally unrelated to them. It seems that although they were politically integrated during the nationwide town and city mergers of 2005, there hasn’t been much of a cultural integration, or at least not much of an awareness of themselves as Matsue citizens.

The biggest claim fame this tiny neighborhood has is its early January festival, in which they engage in two New Year customs, Tontoyaki and Sumitsuke. Tontoyaki is the burning of New Years door decorations. In Katae’s tradition the families with boys and girls through about elementary school age display and burn different decorations accordingly, but the big show is for the girls’ decorations. Unfortunately, like many rural towns and neighborhoods of Japan they’ve had a declining population, so the amount of decorations had also significantly decreased from the time my friend’s family was putting out decorations for her. While there used to be four giant, streamered towers of special decorations following the early morning burning of the household decorations, the celebration is now down to two.

It’s hard to tell, but each of those bag-like things hanging from the poles was actually a very elaborate paper decoration.

The main draw takes place a little later, and that is the Sumitsuke. Literally, “ink-applying.” If that translation doesn’t make it clear, you’ll soon find out what it is if you show up to spectate. There are no mere spectators at this event.

This tradition has been going on here for over 250 years, and while it’s not the only one of its kind in Japan, some spectators came from as far away as Kobe to witness and participate. As the two omikoshi portable shrines parade up and down the main street between the houses and the ocean, they are surrounded by people walking around and offering free cups of sake and hearty helpings of fishy snacks to go along with it, and a truck drives by with free drinks in the back for people to share. These locals are on duty this year, while other years they get to stand around by the big dish of free tonjiru (very homemade-ish soup with pork broth) and watch and wait. And who are they waiting for, if not the men carrying the omikoshi or the people handing out free drinks and grilled fish sausage and dried squid?

The people are carry the event (not in quite as literal of a sense) are the people with hands covered in jet black ink. Wetting their fingers with sake, they smear the ink on people’s faces, everyone from tiny babies to the elderly to everyone in between. And everyone wants this—getting this ink on your face will ensure good health for the coming year!

I wore some old clothes I wouldn’t mind getting stained with ink, and checked it out with a friend and her 5-month-old. The festival is held on the second Sunday of January, and those there was a light rain, the weather didn’t feel very cold amidst the brimming activity. Oddly enough we seemed to pick the people with the ink for a couple passes of the omikoshi, be it that we were distracted by soup or by using the bathroom, and the people around us kept making comments about what blank palettes we were. That didn’t stop the retiree photographers with pension money to spend on multiple cameras bigger than their own heads from swarming me like paparazzi, though.

sumi

By about the third time the train started to come by, everyone was ready but me–the hobby photographer crowd and the local cable TV news were all aiming at me while I held the baby and was approached by an old lady who very politely gave me two big dabs of ink on my forehead, two on one cheek, and one on the other. The baby got a single dab, but by the end of the festival her yellow coat was smeared black in several places as she looked around and people watched (or zoned out watching the streamers. It was easy to zone out watching those while waiting for the party to come back around).

What the photographers missed, however, was a few minutes after that when we followed behind the crowd up to the beach where the highlight of the event would take place. Along the way, an old man I had never seen before walked right up to be and grumbled as if something was wrong, and next thing I new, he was pouring beer in his hands and then he rubbed his hands from my cheeks down to my chin. Ah, he really got me this time, I thought, and just as soon as I did he marched back in my direction and swiped his hands around my forehead and temples and then down my nose for good measure. Looks like I’m set up for some really, really good health this year.

As one of my friends later pointed out, I looked like a monkey with the part of my face that was left uncovered. I suppose this is my excitement for the Year of the Monkey showing. Thankfully I am not a Monkey, as you’ll notice later.

Seeing as Katae is situated right along the Sea of Japan, the ocean plays a big role in this winter festival. Where could they be going with those omikoshi?

Right out into the ocean? Why yes, of course.

A brilliant use of brisk weather.

It reminded me how at another winter Mihonoseki festival on the south side of the peninsula the men wear even less and sound even more energetic, and are so distracted that they can’t feel the cold. However, for toshi-otoko, “year-men” born in the same zodiac animal year as that present year, I imagine no amount of distraction could keep them from feeling at least a little chilly.

“Here’s to your good health! Let’s have you start the year by catching a cold!”

Those poor Monkeys.

The festival soon simmered down after that as the omikoshi were parade back up through the neighborhood to return to the shrine, the spectators dispersed, and I remained stuck for a while as photographers documented my thoroughly inked face. Thanks for the snacks and the soup and the good health and a good time, Katae.

“The town where we put ink on each other, Katae”

Tamatsukuri Onsen, most famous for its beauty water and as a relaxing vacation spot laden with fancy ryokan hotels, is also an En-musubi power spot. As a quick review for recent visitors to this blog, En-musubi is binding your fate with people or nature or whatever, but is popularly thought of as matchmaking. The San’in region is very, very immersed in the tyings of En, which is why I tend to bring it up a lot.

Reusing old maps? Me? Never. Kamosu Shrine and Shinjiko Onsen are always worth noting even if they have nothing to do with the content of the entry.

Power spots are a recent phenomenon among Japanese tourists, but it’s hard to say whether they have the same lure for international visitors. As a fan of local customs and mythology and folk culture, I find them endearing, but prefer to know which places were considered important before the power spot boom. In a spot like Tamatsukuri, it’s quite fitting that there would be a power spot in the form of an enshrined stone, as the area is historically known as a major producer of magatama jewels (hence the name, “jewel-making hot springs”). That has less to do with the beauty water and more to do with the abundance of green agate mined nearby to produce the comma shaped jewels, thought to bring forth spiritual powers since Japan’s prehistoric times. They remain a popular souvenir from this area, and there are museums and ruins and workshops dedicated to them.

A pretty common theme here, you’ll notice. The area is also a popular cherry blossom viewing spot, which I’ll bring up again later in this entry.

Stones remain a popular theme throughout the onsen area, and are frequently worked into the themes and designs of the ryokan baths and gardens. It’s not as if I would usually carry my camera into an onsen, but I do have a few snapshots of the different baths at Choseikaku, one of the fancier places you can pay to just use the bath and without staying (fluffy towels and a cup of matcha in the lobby are included in the price at this one, but the hours and prices vary according to each hotel). Most day-trippers use the much cheaper Yu~Yu facility, which I find reminiscent of a giant fish bowl in the sky. But I digress, here are the photos I do have:

I know there is something special about a couple of the larger stones on the floor of the bath, but I’ve completely forgotten what it was.


Not only is this bath shaped like a magatama, but it’s lined with precious stones, too!


While we’re at it, here’s one of the outdoor baths (rotenburo). Not my top favorite among the outdoor Tamatsukuri baths, but very nice nonetheless.

This hotel is sort of at the end of a long promenade of them, and while I’ve never stayed overnight at Tamatsukuri, it’s one of my favorite places to take a stroll, be it in hot weather or in cold weather (in which case the free foot baths, especially the hottest ones down at the riverside, are even nicer).

On a typical stay at Tamatsukuri Onsen, you would wear one of the yukata (comfy and casual cotton kimono) your hotel provides for you, stroll around and enjoy the charms of the area before returning to relax in the hot springs and enjoy a multi-course meal before retiring for the night. One of the spots that you would have high on your list to see is Tamatsukuriyu Shrine, and I’m sort of surprised at myself for not having a proper photo of the entrance. In all its picturesqueness, the main torii gate at the entrance is right across from a little arched bridge over the Tamayu River, and then the shaded stone steps head straight up from there to the main shrine area.

But don’t head up the stairs too fast! You need to buy a Kanai-ishi (wish-granting stone) first. The type of little stone you get varies depending on your luck that day.

Then proceed up the stairs and follow these instructions to have your wish granted by the Negai-ishi (wishing stone), a stone thought to hold special spiritual powers given its unusual roundness. You’ll find many Shinto shrines dedicated to oddities in nature. I’ve heard that Mt. Fuji is revered more for its shape than for its height.

Sometimes you’ll be surprised by the line that form around the stone in tourist seasons, so don’t be in a rush to make a wish.

He’s got a protective green stone next to him.

Visitors attracted to Tamatsukuri Onsen for its beautifying properties would probably also be interested in visiting Seigan-ji, the temple next to the shrine with a Buddha that takes away aesthetic imperfections.

Now that we’ve addressed the Negai-ishi, I can finally get to the point of this entry. See that Cake Shop Agate I noted on the map? I want to show you this cake I enjoyed!

Household objects have been left in the photo for some size comparison.

As one of the En-musubi sweets advertised here and there, I’ve had my eyes on this cake for a while, and finally treated myself to one at the Dan-Dan Food Festival that Matsue hosts throughout the month of February. This year I managed to get there in time for the Eight Lucky Gods Hot Pot, a nabe dish full of local seafood, vegetable, and other specialities big enough to feed 800 people. After that I wasn’t as hungry as I hoped to be, which is why I picked out something to take home after wandering in and out of the festival for a few hours. Along with all the edible festivities, there are plenty of penguins and samurai and stuff for entertainment, so please see Bernice’s photos here.

So here it is, the Wishing Stone themed cake, with a collection of tastes and textures but sweetness that is not for the faint of heart. The design on top is a pink magatama and a torii gate, like you find at the entrance to a shrine.

Seeing as Matsue is a city of sweets–particularly wagashi–it’s no surprise that magatama themed sweets have been done before. This is one from Saiundo, a “Wishing Sweet” that comes in five colors and flavors.

Back to this cake, it’s a mix of Japanese and Western desserts, as you’ll notice it is covered in a very soft layer of mochi (pounded rice cake). The overall color scheme is pink and white, as these colors (or red and white together) are commonly associated with auspicious things, like En-musubi.

On the inside… well, let’s see if I can remember everything on the inside, as it all blended together quite nicely. Seeing as Tamatsukuri is a popular cherry blossom viewing spot, with a long stretch of the Tamayu River covered in cherry blossoms before you even hit the ryokan area, cherry is the key flavor, though not as heavy as its taste would be in a Western cherry dessert. As the outside mochi oozes apart, you’ll notice we have cherry whip creme, a little bit of anko, cherry mousse, and some normal whip creme (I think?) and sponge cake. Yum.

A collection of light, delicate flavors, but altogether very sweet, and therefore goes down well with some green tea (I think either sencha or the locally preferred matcha would be fine). Despite its size, it doesn’t last long even if you’re trying to savor it.

In other news, though it’s not cherry blossom season yet, there’s already talk of sakura-mochi. I’ve been thinking about them since spotting them at the food festival, and someone has just brought some to the office. Hurray! Forget En-musubi, I just want more sweets. A dip in the onsen is always nice too, of course.

Said to be the ancestor of the fortune cookie, omikuji are the typical feature of most shrines and temples around Japan, reverberating in wider Japanese culture with restaurant gimmicks and self-made games for kids. The game of fortune roulette boils down to drawing a numbered fortune at random, and seeing whether you have normal luck, great luck, a little luck, or the infamous bad luck. People say that the bad luck fortunes are less common, but on my first trip to Japan, I tried two fortunes. They were both bad.

People also have differing explanations for why you tie your fortune at the shrine and leave it there instead of taking it home with you. If it’s bad luck, you don’t want it to follow you home, so you leave it at the shrine instead. If it’s good luck, you have to leave it there at the shrine in order for the gods to know to give the luck to you. Whichever it is, you typically toss in your 50~200 yen, draw a slip of paper at random, read whatever advice or specific predictions it has in store for you (content varies according to each shrine/temple), and then tie it up on a fence or a tree at the shrine. If you want something to take home, you should buy an o-mamori protective amulet, which come in a variety of decorative styles.

If you follow the rules of o-mamori use, you’d typically buy one for the year or for whatever specific purpose you have in mind (passing an entrance exam or safe childbirth, for instance), and then return the old o-mamori the following year to be ceremoniously burned. For those unable to return to the shrines they visited and especially for foreign tourists, they make charming souvenirs. I don’t really do o-mamori anymore, but I still like drawing omikuji sometimes as part of visiting the multitude of shrines out here in the Izumo region. I don’t get to take anything home with me, though–even if you eat the fortune cookie, you still get to keep the fortune, right? Oh well. I’ve already taken home the one daikichi (great luck) I drew when I was studying abroad years ago, so I don’t need any more than that.

However, on a recent visit to Sada Shrine, most famous for Sada Shin Noh, a dance deemed UNESCO Intangible Heritage, I noticed this little spin on the usual omikuji. Who doesn’t like stickers? The occasional sticker, anyway!

In addition to your usual paper slip to tie at the shrine in order to receive or avoid your fortune, you get a sticker to take home with you signifying some particular kind of luck–happiness, health, longevity, warding off evil, prosperity, etc. This shrine, like many others, is based on an honor system. Toss in your coins and grab whatever package you like.

My fortune, #88, was kichi. Good old-fashioned good luck. In addition to some general advice about how I have to continue to work hard to see my luck begin to blossom like flowers in spring, it went on to provide advice for my career, love life, health, and studies. Stick with what works and be patient, the outlook is good so be confident, watch out for relapses of illnesses but you really have nothing to worry about, stay focused and work hard.

Speaking of hard work, that’s the sticker I got. The daruma is a symbol in Japan for determination, given that you aren’t supposed to be able to knock down a round daruma doll without them getting back up. But why is it round in the first place? Because it’s based on a monk who meditated for so long that his legs fell off due to atrophy. This is supposed to be admirable, but it really just makes me more wary of sitting in seiza. That said, the daruma dolls themselves are a charming and varied culture of their own within wider Japanese culture. Yaegaki Shrine has a whole series of them in different colors based on what kind of goal or wish you have. The don’t have eyes, though–you paint one eye on when you make your wish or set your goal, and you paint the other eye on when it’s actualized.

I can take this little bit of luck for perseverance and success with me, but the fortune stays at the shrine, however cold it would be there on a post-rainstorm December morning.

Mine is the one that isn’t soaked.

With that shiny new luck carried with me, I put on a hard hat to go inspect the roof of the shrine, but that’s for another upcoming enry.

I’ll bet you read the title and thought this would be about Kiyomizu-dera of Kyoto. Surprise! There’s more than one temple of pure water–this one is about a couple hundred years older, and affiliated with the Tendai sect of Buddhism rather than the Kitahosso sect like the one in Kyoto. This one in the San’in region (of course), specifically Yasugi City, Shimane Prefecture, on the border of Tottori Prefecture.

Like a great number of old temples and towns across of Japan, over the course of its history it has gone through many fires and reconstructions. The temple itself is 1400 years old, but the oldest surviving building is its main hall, Konpondo, which was reconstructed in 1393 and renovated in 1992, both times funded by the faithful. After it was tied up in (or burned up in) the battles between the Mori and Amago clans in the warring states era, the Horio clan of Matsue saw to the reconstruction of many of the other buildings.

One of the major things that has earned this temple so many faithful followers is its reputation for yakubarai, or “expelling evil.” Like many other cultures around the world, Japanese culture has notions of supernatural luck and influences, and there are times you are more prone to bad influences than others. In particular, there are certain unlucky ages called yakudoshi when you are especially susceptible. Shrines and temples that specialize in this often have a large sign posted about what ages people need to watch out for.

“How is your destiny at 25 years old?”

Deeply religious people entering these years have the option of paying about ¥5000 (roughly $50 USD) to undergo a purification ritual. I’m not very familiar with these rituals, but I’ve seen some of them advertised as only taking about 15 minutes. I also don’t have any knowledge of how many people have these rituals performed. Others may simply be more cautious than usual during those ages.

While both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples offer yakubarai rituals and protective charms and talismans, they seem to differ on which years are lucky and which ones are not. The first time I saw one of these boards at a Shinto shrine, I was entering the unlucky part of my luck cycle (luck tends to build and then plummet and start over). A handful of years later, and now according to this temple, I am once again entering a bad luck period. Maybe I should time my visits so I only visit places that say I’m having good luck?

There are other reasons for visiting any given shrine or temple, though. Many have reputations as nature-viewing spots (Kiyomizu-dera is known for its cherry blossoms as well as its autumn leaves), and others provide a retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life. We went as just another part of enjoying a hot summer day.

Hot and humid those Japanese summers are, it’s cooler in the forests and up the mountains.

On the short hike up (or down) from the parking lots, there are a handful of inns where visitors stay during the heights of cherry blossom or maple leaf seasons, as well as restuarants providing Buddhist-style vegetarian cuisine.

Besides Konpondo, one of the other famous buildings in the treasure tower, a the 3-story pagoda–the only one of its kind in the San’in region. While many pagodas in Japan are just for viewing from the outside, this is one of the few you can climb up from the inside.

Leave your shoes outside, and climb on up! It was a narrow space and hard to say whether you climb stairs or ladders.


I thought it was fun, but it was even more fun to go with someone who was afraid of heights.

Around the center pillar and on each level, there were a number of little treasures.

I also really liked seeing the complex woodwork. Lacking the mind of an architect, I don’t understand how it works, but it looks neat.


And, of course, there was a stunning view. Can you spot the tip of Lake Nakaumi?

Being named after the pure water the mountain is known for, there are a number of uses for that pure water. Hence, the temple is also known for its youkan, a traditional confection described here in more detail.

We took home some gelato made with said youkan.


It was the kind of summer temple visit that was refreshing in more ways than one.