Appare-kun, for reference:

I still have yet to experience wearing one of these things, but having carried one through a backstage area full of expensive equipment to knock over was perhaps experience enough. I run into Shimanekko a lot, but my most recent encounter with Appare-kun, our modern local lord of Matsue Castle who likes to practice tea ceremony and who is married to Shijimi-hime, was when I was emceeing for his paper-rock-scissors competition with a bunch of kids (and then some) at the Irish Festival.

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.

Happy St. Patricks Day! Seeing as it’s a day for everyone to be a little Irish, there are a handful of spots in Japan that take advantage of the chance for revelry, but Matsue maintains a special soft spot for Ireland given the influence of writer Lafcadio Hearn, who was half-Irish. This was one of the biggest, sunniest Irish Festivals yet, though it sounds the Shamrock was even more lively! The Shamrock is the pub that takes over the vault of Karakoro Art Studio for this Saturday and Sunday–yes, of course there is Guinness, as well as a number of though Irish drinks, foods, and desserts using Irish recipes (and by that I mean many of them make sure of Irish alcohol in the cooking). This time I only took part in the parade and some Ceili dancing after the performances following the parade, so I’ll have to take that on good faith. Here are some snapshots of the Irish spirit in Matsue, several of which were taken by XiaoMan, seeing I was preoccupied with walking and waving and dancing and my humble camera has its limits. Thanks, XiaoMan!

Seeing as Matsue is called the City of Water, the events on Sunday the 9th started with a water parade.

This year the parade kicked off from Matsue Castle, where everyone first gathered to ogle at each other’s green ensembles. For many people, celebrating Ireland means a chance get creative with green costumes, and for many performing groups, that also means having taking advantage of having an audience already gathered. A couple of school marching bands are always present, some Yosakoi dancing groups shot their spirit, and even some kids get to show off their respective skills (though its anyone’s guess who has more fun with it, they or their parents).

After some opening greetings, including from our honored visiting Irish diplomats, the Matsue Castle Rifle Troop let off a salute, which was immediately followed by a couple of doves. There weren’t any in the parade, but we had lots of canine spectators decked out in green, too.

Making our way out of Matsue Castle, we passed by the city’s founder, Horio Yoshiharu, who seemed to give his blessing over the parade. I can’t help but find it funny that the Matsue Musha Gyoretsu Warrior Parade coming up in early April finishes up the parade at Matsue Castle instead, but since it’s done to recreated the procession into Matsue that makes sense. Sadly, I will be busy with a kimono contest that weekend and can’t attend this time–bummer! Also, I might add that the bagpiper played through the entire parade, which was pretty impressive, though he sure was out of breath by the end! Kudos to him for a good show.

What’s a modern day event in Japan without mascot characters present? By the way, the man in green (because that’s real specific) is Lafcadio Hearn’s great-grandson.

Yes indeed, those musicians are part of a traditional Irish music group. They perform both nights at the pub. Of course the Irish Festival is about more than just being green! That said, though we do wrap up the day with Ceili dancing, we don’t have much of a dedicated Irish step dance group out here.

But we did have hula dancers.

And a group dancing Michael’s Jacksons “Beat It,” including a group of bystanders who jumped in without warning to join them.

The final event (before everyone everyone packs up and heads inside for the pub for another six hours) was, as mentioned, the Ceili dancing, which the hula dancers graciously practiced in advance and lead us in. I think I picked it up a lot faster this year than I did last year!

To wrap this up, here’s one more photo of the rifle troop because they’re cool and they had a performance at the end of the parade as well. They practiced military drills according to how they would have been done in the Edo era, and by law, they only use antiques. I’m not sure how likely Lafcadio Hearn would have been to see this back in the Meiji era, but it’s a common sight around Matsue today, but they don’t usually have shamrock decorations on their attire.

I still have the step dance music stuck in my head. If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go attempt some Ceili dancing all by myself.

Twice a year, Japan does a nationwide traffic safety campaign. As part of the campaign in Matsue, the police bring in guests to help pass out information pamphlets and reminders to motorists. Maybe we aren’t as exciting as the Susanoo Magic basketball team that was brought in before, but we at least turn a few heads (Mikopi-kun helped with that).





We were told afterward that it was a very lucky day–the weather held out and the wind died down long enough for everything to do the roadside campaign, and there wasn’t a single traffic accident reported the whole day.

May this entry serve as a reminder to everyone, both in and outside of Japan: Obey traffic laws, don’t drive too fast, and always remember to buckle your safety belt!!

Mascots are a very normal part of daily life in Japan. Each prefecture has their own mascot (and they compete for the best mascot prize every year), companies and organizations will have their own mascots, cities will have their own mascots, even certain aspects of cities will have their own mascots–as is the case with Peony-chan, who represents Matsue’s… well… peonies. Their reputation may already proceed them, though. According to the Japan Times on 11/20/12, “Sales of peonies from Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, are booming in Vladivostok after hitting the market in Russia’s Far East in 2009, virtually selling out every year because of their variety of colors and longevity.” The day Peony-chan came to visit, she was preparing for a trip to Taiwan.

Matsue peonies are especially well known on Daikonshima, where they can be seen all year round–though I’ve heard early May is the best time to see them. That’s when I’m planning on going! The other flower that represents Matsue is the tsubaki (camellia), which I’m looking forward to seeing around the castle in winter.

<

While this is the only mascot of this size to pay a visit to my office, I don't see Peony-chan in my daily life as often as I see, say, Appare-kun, the PR champion of Matsue Castle!

Unlike most mascots he’s human(esque) and has a more varied set of expressions than just “happy” and “super happy”, but like most mascots, he can be made into any kind of product, especially edible ones.

I haven’t run into him in person yet, but I have seen his bride Shijimi-hime, based on a Shijimi clam (a specialty product of the area. Most of the Shijimi clams consumed in Japan come from Lake Shinji). This kind of encounter is also completely normal.

There is no mascot I see as often as Shimanekko.

Get it? Shimane (prefecture) as a neko (cat)? And notice the visual reference to Izumo Taisha, with the roof architecture and the shimenawa rope? You noticed that all, right? Of course you did.

Even if you didn’t, you can’t visit Shimane without noticing Shimanekko. Besides Shimanekko on the face of products from pencils to hand towels to cookies to bouncy castles in every place from rest stops to places of legend to your neighborhood convience store, there is also a Shimanekko dance.

Shimanekko and Appare-kun are so popular that they even get drilled with questions about whether or not they are friends and star in commercials for candy companies.

Furthermore, have you heard of the Yura-Chara Grand Prix? I didn’t until very recently either, but apparently many thousands of people did, and they voted for their favorite mascot characters. Out of over 860 entries in 2012, Shimanekko took 6th place! Good job being cute, Shimanekko!

Does Gegege no Kitarou ring any bells for anyone outside of Japan? Here in the San’in region, he’s a very familiar face.

If I had to draw a comparison, then Kitarou is like the Scooby-Doo of Japan. He’s been around for decades as the star of a cartoon filled with ghoulish creatures, has had multiple incarnations over the years, and enjoys a wide audience. However, as far as I know, Scooby can’t shoot his knuckles like missiles. And Scooby probably has more left of his father than just a walking eyeball (that’s not Kitarou’s missing eyeball!). Not to mention Scooby probably doesn’t have a whole city covered in statues and memorabilia of him.

Scooby probably doesn’t have an airport named after him either.

Kitarou’s creator, Mizuki Shigeru, is from the port town of Sakaiminato in Tottori Prefecture. They will find any way to put Kitarou and other youkai (monsters) on anything.





There is more to Sakaiminato than just Kitarou, but a first glance around town would imply it’s just Kitarou. For instance, one of the first places you’ll see after leaving Sakaiminato station is Mizuki Shigeru Road, which has 133 statues of Kitarou, other youkai Mizuki-sensei has compiled research about, characters from other Mizuki series, and Mizuki himself. Almost every business on Mizuki Shigeru Road either is full of Kitarou merchandise or finds some way to incorporate Kitarou into the theme. A normal barber shop is very quickly a youkai barber shop, and a bakery sells bread shaped like Kitarou characters. And because anything goes as long as it has Kitarou, you also find places like this:

Of course no normal item would be acceptable. If it can be made to fit the theme, it will fit the theme! You see these water bottles being sold everywhere, but I only saw this warning once. Even if you can’t read Japanese, you can probably figure it out.

I haven’t actually seen that much of Gegege no Kitarou myself, but I know it well enough to have thoroughly enjoyed visiting. It would have been faster just to take a bus from Matsue, but I took the trains–and even once you get to Yonago station, you know you’re on the right track.

He’s best known for the various versions of the anime “Gegege no Kitarou” but he was the hero of several different related manga Mizuki-sensei wrote (which is not to say he was in every manga!). With a character design consistent but flexible enough to appeal to newer audiences, Kitarou is a classic (although frightening) hero–rather calm and collected, he does his best to beat the bad guys with his set of powers and comrades, and he generally gets along with everyone. Medama-Oyaji–his eyeball father–is also rather popular. Purely because his name means “Rat Man,” I have a soft for Nezumi-Otoko too.

I also learned a lot more about Mizuki-sensei himself, though I had heard the basics a few years back. His introduction, however, merits a separate entry some other time.

Of course, no introduction to Kitarou would be complete without hearing the theme song. Thankfully they’ve retained the same song (just in updated styles) throughout the various Gegege remakes over the years.

And on that note, Happy Halloween!