As for San’in region gifts, I suggest things like magatama, wagashi, or Gegege no Kitaro goods.

Or wagashi shaped like magatama, that works too.

Look! My socks have the White Hare of Inaba crossing the Sea of Japan!

100_3346

These were a gift from Kimono-sensei. Water, as a motif, is often expressed in this sort of traditional pattern. The Hare is based on a local legend and is found over and over and over in Shimane Prefecture and still more in Tottori Prefecture. For as much as I am inundated with this White Hare, and for as much as I tend to prefer dull socks over expressive ones, I was excited about these. Thanks, Kimono-sensei! They’ll be a nice San’in souvenir some day.

One of the first San’in souvenirs I got for myself was a magatama–that is, a common shaped bead of ancient, but not precisely known origin. These have been a sign of spiritual power since early times in Japan, and there are large collections of them in museums that have been unearthed from 8th century dig sites and beyond.

While not unique to the San’in region, this area was a major producer of the carved beads, especially those made from agate. The Tamatsukuri Onsen (玉造温泉) area is so called because many magatama were made there (玉造 means “jewel making”). Besides workshops to carve your own magatama, there are many gift stores throughout Matsue–and nearby places like Izumo Taisha–that specialize in magatama and related stone accessories. Although green agate, and to some extent, red agate are most representative of the region’s production, you can find these so-called power stones carved out of many other types of stones as well, varying in quality to suit low and high budgets.

100_3399

Although the agate products are very, very shiny, I got a lapis lazuli one to commemorate my stay in Matsue (the stone being one of my favorites, and the shape being characteristic of the region). I like it, but I do feel a little self-conscious when I wear it here. I feel like I’d look more like a tourist than a local…

However, as a local, there’s a t-shirt I’ve had my eyes on for a long time. It sums up so much about the quirkiness of the region succinctly.

Allow me to introduce the best Shimane t-shirt I’ve ever bought in Tottori:

100_3395

The scowling character is Yoshida-kun, from Frogman’s flash animation cartoon Eagle Talon. This cartoon is known throughout the country, and although he is not from here, Frogman has a passion for Shimane Prefecture. So much so that he’s volunteered Yoshida-kun, one of the team of characters bent on somewhat Pinky and the Brain style world domination, to be a PR ambassador for the prefecture’s tourism attractions, landscape, and culture. Granted, that means he makes simultaneously proud and sarcastic comments about how well kept of a secret Shimane is.

In a Land of the Rising Yura-kyara, where mascots teetering around with big smiles and silly dances have taken over much of mainstream culture, Yoshida-kun is a refreshing dose of cynicism. No offense to Shimanekko, who is quite adorable and deserves to win 1st place in one of the upcoming national popularity contests, but the landscape of local mascots could stand to have more characters like Tottori’s Katsue-san, a starving mascot who represents a 16th century historical event.

Shimanekko, who also has the best dance! Click for source.

Besides Toripy, Tottori’s office bird-pear (or is it pear-bird?), the least populated prefecture of Japan has an unofficial mascot who has had a place in the hearts of the Japanese public since the 1960’s, long before happy, round mascot characters began their dominion over the islands. That is none other than Kitaro, as well as much of the rest of cast of Gegege no Kitaro. This is because the creator, folklorist and adventurer and historian and story teller and veteran and one-armed artist Mizuki Shigeru, is from the port town of Sakaiminato on the western tip of Tottori. The city is laden with reminders of this.

In addition to my Yoshida-kun t-shirt, there is a partner t-shirt featuring Tottori and Kitaro, captioned “Tottori is to the right of Shimane.”

However, long before that, I picked up a Tottori souvenir featuring another iconic member of the cast: Medama Oyaji (“Old Man Eyeball”), Kitaro’s father.

100_3397

There’s no shortage of clever Medama Oyaji products both in Sakaiminato and throughout the San’in region, and there is no shortage of other Gegege no Kitaro t-shirt designs. Actually, there are a number of nicer shirts and ties with more subtle use of the ghastly cast, so you could get away with looking very dressed up until people take a double-take at the spooky imagery.

Granted, you can get away with anything on a tie, I guess. The Shimanekko ties are not surprising in the least, but a co-worker’s Hello-Kitty-meets-One-Piece tie did surprise me a little. It might still be a little while until we see Yoshida-kun ties or Shimanekko kimono accessories, though. When it comes to items I wouldn’t just wear around the house, there are still many options, such as traditionally dyed indigo items or even Orochi Jeans. Next I think I have my eyes on a peony-dyed item from Yuushien Garden, because there’s nothing like Daikonshima in spring.

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.

Although the legend of the White Hare of Inaba (Inaba-no-Shirousagi) takes place mostly in eastern Tottori, the Izumo region celebrates the story in its myth and En-musubi-filled atmosphere. For instance, there are a handful of gift shops around Matsue and Izumo specializing in stones, especially Izumo magatama comma-shaped jewels. These tama were often produced in the region out of local Izumo agate, and are a very characteristic souvenir, so you find them in the major tourist areas–in front of Izumo Taisha, or around Tamatsukuri Onsen (literally “jewel-making hot springs”), Matsue’s samurai street Shiomi Nawate or Kyomise shopping district. However, you never find one of these stores without little stone rabbits sold right next to the array of magatama.

Click photo for source and shop info (Japanese)


Click photo for source and shop info (Japanese)


Click photo for source and shop info (Japanese)

Speaking of Tamatsukuri Onsen, the resort area in southern Matsue is not only lined with fancy hotels, charming shops, and free foot hot springs in the river and its own En-musubi power spot, but it also has little statues featuring legends and characters from the Kojiki, such as this one of Onamuji and the white (or hairless) hare.

“But… but I have no money to pay for medical services. I’m a hare.”

Matsue is full of En-musubi power spots, both old and from only 1999 or so. A more recent example of a spot that everyone visits to collect their luck and take a photo at is along the banks of Lake Shinji on the grass lawn between the Shimane Art Museum and the water. It’s a very, very short walk between this famous spot and the perfect sunset viewing spot, so these “Lake Shinji Hares” get a lot of attention.

Because I see them all the time, both in print and in person, I never think to take pictures of them. The day I did go to take pictures of them, though, my camera was doing something weird and they all got over-exposed. There’s this sense of doom that the hares are taking over.

There is a custom of giving shijimi clam shells from Lake Shinji to the second rabbit for good luck in matchmaking.

“Give… me… your… SHIJIMIIIII…”

I don’t get it either.

The legend is also celebrated with a large statue on the ground of Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine. Hmmm… but what would little Onamuji be doing at Izumo Taisha?

Click photo for source.

The Japanese approach to religion is sometimes a little more worldly than eternity-focused. That’s not to say there isn’t a deeper side of religious practice, as there certainly is a depth and variety of it, but practices like leaving beer as an offering for Buddha are completely normal.

Alcohol is a somewhat universal offering, is it not?

The requests you can make of a Buddha–in this case, the very merciful Jizo-sama–can be surprisingly shallow in light of other religious practices, but nonetheless very popular. There is plenty of scholarly research about Japanese perceptions of beauty and beautiful people which I don’t need to go into here, but suffice to say that people–especially young women–can and do go on beauty tours. One of the places they come to is Tamatsukuri Onsen, on the southeast bank of Lake Shinji.

Our local hot springs--highly recommended!

Shimane is known as the best prefecture in Japan for beautiful skin, but the Tamatsukuri hot springs in particular are known as the Baths of the Gods. Besides mythological records of the Izumo region like the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, we also have the 8th century encyclopedia of the Izumo region, the Izumo-no-Kuni-no-Fudoki (one of the most complete anthropological and geographical records of Japan for that time period), in which these hot springs were described as a place where the young and old alike would party in the baths that kept their skin looking young and pretty. Today it’s not just the locals, but vacationers staying at the ryokan (fancy inns) or just strolling through the area who take advantage of these waters and beauty products made from them.

That’s why signs like this on the outskirts of the ryokan area are only slightly surprising.

“There are lots of BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE around this area, so keep your eyes peeled!”

While the historic shinto shrine, charming shops, foot baths along the Tamayu River and the luxury hotels are probably the things that first come to mind when people think of this area, I thought I’d introduce Seigan-ji, a temple built around the year 1500 and known for its Oshiroi Jizo. It is the 33rd of the 33 Izumo Kannon pilgrimage spots.

More general pictures of Seigan-ji are here (Japanese page), but they don’t have pictures of how to make a very specific request of the Oshiroi Jizo-sama. You start by buying a little prayer tablet, either for your face or your body, on which you write how you’d like to change your body image on one side, and indicate the area on the picture on the other side. You then hang this board next to the Oshiroi Jizo.


After doing so, you apply some white powder to the spot on the Oshiroi Jizo-sama that corresponds to the spot you’d like to change.

The story goes that a high priest did this and the ugly birthmark on his cheek disappeared. People not only do this to remove shallow imperfections, but also for to heal ailments and injuries.

I didn’t do it because I was too flustered with people I knew watching, but as soon as I walked away I suddenly though of everything I would have asked for! Oh well, can’t push my luck. I went home with a little bottle of Tamatsukuri beauty water anyway.

There’s something wrong with this picture–you don’t rinse your hands above the fountain, but in a lower basin next to it so as not to contaminate the water!


I got my bottle for free–and the little old lady taking some for herself was very enthusiastic about the water’s effects.