Thanks for all the photos in this entry, XiaoMan!

It’s not quite St. Patrick’s Day, but the Irish Festival in Matsue was held last Sunday with bright, sunny, warm March weather–not weather very representative of Ireland or the San’in region, but it felt lucky!

There are a handful of cities in Japan that celebrate with parades for St. Patrick’s Day, but Matsue is likely one of the only places that incorporates a water parade around the castle moats in addition to the land parade through the streets. There are regulars, and there are also extras who take the chance to dress up in whatever they want (or dress up their dogs), so long as it is green. This year, my favorite was a pair of siblings dressed as Peter Pan and Negiman.






Like the other times I’ve taken part in the festival in 2013 and 2014, the parades were only one element of the festival. Perhaps what draws the most boisterous crowd is The Shamrock, the Irish pub set up in the vault of the Karakoro Art Studio with Guinness on tap, an Irish food and dessert menu, and a constant stream of live performances. Although there is a mix of music and otherwise, you can expect instrumental versions of traditional Irish jigs and even punk-rock approaches to old Irish ballads.

At the same time, larger performances are going on outside of the art studio following the parade. Everything from jugglers to hip hop dancers to marching bands and Yosakoi dancers to aspiring idol groups. Although many of these teams already have red, blue, or gold uniforms, they all made sure to add some green.

Irish Ambassador to Japan Ms. Anne Barrington arrived in Japan last September, and this was one of her stops what will probably be her busiest month yet. This is already her third visit to Matsue, and her first time to see the Irish Festival held here. Although there is no formal exchange relationship in place, Matsue is a key city in Japan-Ireland relations given the connections through Lafcadio Hearn. As a Irish emigrant to Japan mentioned to me, she’s noticed much more public awareness and familiarity with Ireland here as opposed to other cities. There’s a level of enthusiasm for it even among the people who don’t show up to the festival, as everywhere I’ve been this week people have been bringing it up. While not measurable in numbers, inspiring people to have an awareness and curiousity about other cultures without twisting their arms into it is a sign of healthy “internationalization” (a keyword in the goals of the JET Program, however it is that the phrase is supposed to be defined). There is also exchange in more measurable terms, such as a new gift the city is preparing to send to Tramore, County Waterford’s Lafcadio Hearn Garden Project, which is opening later this year.

Ah, that’s one more thing that makes this feel like a typical Matsue-style Irish Festival. It’s totally normal to stand around Matsue Castle and interupt smalltalk with, “Oh, look. A ninja.”

XiaoMan had a fancy camera with a long lens to capture this not-so-rare sight.

Although occasionally spotting ninja around the castle grounds is a fun little part of life here, watching one of them the ninja that attended that day get into a fight with a can of Guinness (and lose) is another little thing that makes the Irish Festival special.

Huzzah! Many international travelers to Japan are aware of the JR Pass, which allows temporary visitors a chance to save on extensive travel throughout the country. For those focusing their travel in any given region there are cheaper area passes, and now the San’in region gets to have its name represented in one–and its JR routes and then some too, of course.

JR West will be offering the JR Sanyo Sanin Pass, effective March 1, 2015, for ¥20,000 (¥19,000 if you order outside of Japan). It includes service on the Nozomi and Mizuho bullet trains between Shin-Osaka and Hakata (Fukuoka), which can get you in and out of the region in either direction. Considering going straight between these two stations would cost ¥15,310 anyway, that means you can get to any other the other (literally) hundreds of stations covered for ¥4,690. Given the depreciating value of the Yen against other major currencies, that’s not much at all.

Map credit goes to Japan-Guide.com. Click the image to read their page about this pass and see a larger version.

Map credit goes to Japan-Guide.com. Click the image to read their page about this pass and see a larger version.

For a consecutive week of travel, this will cover towns to get your Edo Era kick from Hagi to Tsuwano to Matsue to Bicchu-Takahashi and to Kurashiki to even Hikone and Iga-Ueno. For the 8th century history buffs, this will take you from Nara to Izumo and to everything in between. Ocean lovers will enjoy the different views of both the Sea of Japan and the Seto Inland Sea. Even first time travelers to Japan and hit major sites on the Golden Route, like Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima, and still be able to get to a wealth of places off the severely beaten track.

It’s at times like this I sort of wish I didn’t live here, because my work visa makes me ineligible for JR Passes. For a full San’in tour, I’d like to start in Kyoto, work my way through Tottori, then Shimane, and down through Hagi. But then again, I do get to live in the beautiful Edo Era-esque city of Matsue with a view of Matsue Castle and wide breadth of choices for tea and wagashi or fresh seafood, so I guess it’s not that bad of a trade-off.

Side note: Fuji Dream Airlines is starting service from Nagoya Komaki airport to Izumo on March 29th!

Come see us here in Matsue and the rest of the San’in region, Travelers! And keep those passports handy for discounts on admission!

Who says the Shadowy Side can't be sunny?

Who says the Shadowy Side can’t be sunny?

November was a busy month, as anyone planning a wedding in Japan was probably planning to attend at least a few others as well.

I’ve heard it’s good luck to witness a wedding procession on a visit to a Shinto shrine, but I have never had that luck. Turns out the secret is to go on a weekend in spring or autumn–especially November, it seems! I witnessed my first traditional Japanese wedding on November 1st when a friend of mine was getting married at Izumo Taisha–one of several weddings scheduled back to back in the Kagura-den that day.

Quick reminder for newer readers to the blog: Izumo Taisha is one of the grandest Shrinto shrines of Japan, as it is where the 8 million gods from around Japan gather for their annual meeting to discuss En-musubi, which is often translated as “matchmaking” but it’s more nuanced than that–En is any sort of tie or fated relation or encounter you might have. Like most Shinto shrines visitors are not allowed in the Honden (main shrine where the god resides), but the Kagura-den is decorated with Japan’s largest shimenawa (sacred rope) and is a popular spot for Shinto ceremonies.

Although I did not attend the hiroen (wedding reception), when I got home I received a gift from another Japanese friend’s wedding. I was not able to attend that one because of the distance, but sent an o-shugi with my best wishes anyway, and she returned the favor by sending the gift I would have received if I were attending as a guest anyway.

So how does this work? Let me start by saying that Japanese weddings are expensive to attend. I appreciate the gift-giving culture surrounding bridal registries in the US so that guests have the fun of selecting something while being sure the couple will want it and that no one else has purchased it yet, with the general rule of thumb being that if you attend the wedding reception the value of your gift should exceed the value of your meal, and you might bring along extra cash to pin to the bride and groom to help them out. However, there is also something to be said for the usefulness of straight, cold cash. In Japan, you better make sure that cash is only in crisp, clean, fresh bills in a decorative envelope designed specifically for an auspicious occasion such as a wedding. This is o-shugi.

Although the o-shugi package–which you can find at department stores or in convenience stores–has instructions for where to place the money and where to write your name and address, it doesn’t cover all the finer details. Hopefully you’ve made sure to buy an envelop intended for weddings rather than funerals or visits to sick people (as there is a similar set of expectations associated with those), but the bigger question is usually how much to put in it?

After consulting with Japanese friends and checking around the internet for advice, the basic answer is that if you are a friend attending the reception, 30,000 yen (roughly $300) in an odd number of bills (to imply they can’t be slipt evenly in a divorce) is the safest bet.

Even though I did not attend the reception, I was still served lunch for attending the ceremony. Note all the auspicious symbols, such as the red and white knot, the pine, and the sekihan (rice colored with red beans).

“But what if we’re not really close friends, just co-workers?”
“What if I’m not attending the reception?”
“What if it’s a foreign couple who just happens to be getting married in Japan?”

…you might ask. In those cases, I can only suggest you use your best judgement but to err on the side of generosity. Just try to get an appropriate o-shugi envelope and you’re probably already in good shape! Enjoy the chance to dress fancy, because there will be people dressed very, very fancy. The bride will probably have two or three fancy outfits, complete with wigs. If you plan to stay for the after-parties, plan on very high entrance costs.

In the middle of November I attended an outdoor DIY wedding in the woods overlooking Lake Shinji and Izumo En-musubi airport (probably the most appropriately named airport to have close to your wedding venue), and the following weekend I had to end my morning plans early to get back and meet three people stopping by my apartment.

The first was a friend who had forgotten something the day before while she was in town visiting from western Shimane. She was visiting for a wedding.
The second was an old-coworker who wanted to say hi while he was back in town from Tokyo. He was in a bit of a rush to get to a wedding.
The third was a friend who stayed for tea, and was in the midst of preparing for a trip to Osaka for a friend’s wedding.

What plans had I been cutting short that morning?
A samurai bridal procession and wedding at Matsue Castle.


It’s been a few years since the last wedding at Matsue Castle, but it was something I had already heard of before. When I was studying abroad in a different region in 2008, I saw a brief news segment about a wedding taking place in a castle, complete with period dress for all the relatives, a full procession, and a happy feudal lord and princess waving to the crowd from the watch tower. It left a strong imprint on my memory that they had won a nationwide contest to hold their wedding like that and–being the history nerd and samurai fan that I was and still am–I found it cool, but I did not remember which castle it was. I only found out recently that it was the castle I see from my window every day.

Turns out its been a royal comedy of errors in trying to get pictures of this event, as they were supposed to have two this year but the first one was canceled due to the groom’s injury, and I was only able to see the opening procession for the second one. Furthermore, my camera broke and I lost all my data. I ran into Kimono-sensei as she had been busy all morning dressing the wedding party up, and she sent photos to me later, but I wasn’t able to download the data. Instead of snapshots I encourage you to check out the page of outstanding photographs on Made In Matsue, and the 51 second news clip on this site will give you any idea what the ceremony was like.

What I didn’t stick around for was mainly the wedding ceremony at Matsue Shrine (down a few stairs from Matsue Castle’s watch tower) and the wedding proclamation from the tower itself, which would have kept me there until lunchtime. Thankfully the weather was comfortable for the crowd that gathered to wish them well, and I got enough of my period-dress fill to last me until the next Matsue Musha Gyoretsu in early April, as well as my fill of weddings to last until next year.

Sorry for a second reblog in a row (life’s been busy!), but I learned something new about a set of armor–among many–that I’ve passed by several times inside Matsue Castle. Makes me want to learn more about Goto Matabei. Thanks to Rekishi Nihon (Japanese History), always an interesting read!

Japanese History and Culture

Goto Matabei’s Armour.

Among Kuroda Nagamasa’s captains was a samurai named Goto Matabei, a much-respected professional warrior who often proudly boasted of the 53 scars on various parts of his body, trophies of the many wars in which he had participated. He provided fine service to the Kuroda clan during the Battle of Sekigahara.

Although Goto Matabei was fighting under Tokugawa colors that day, he would later side with Toyotomi Hideyori in Osaka, and was killed in the Summer Battle of Osaka in 1615. One of his sets of armour is now on display in Matsue Castle.

Read more about the exploits of Goto Matabei in the book, The Battle of Sekigahara, available now. Order your copy here, now! http://booklocker.com/books/7721.html

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Source – Battle of Sekigahara.

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The lantern I made for Suitoro 2013, featuring Matsue Castle, the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat, and my own spin on “Enishizuku.”

When asked about the best times of year to visit, I usually tell people to come to the San’in region–especially the Izumo region–in May or October. Everyone knows that cherry blossoms are spectacular throughout Japan in April, but I think the more impressive flower displays are in May. As for October, that’s Kamiarizuki.

The Japanese calendar has classical names for every month, and October is typically known as Kannazuki (神無月), “the month without gods.” However, only in the Izumo region is it known as Kamiarizuki (神在月), “the month with gods.” Put simply, this is because the many thousands of kami from throughout Japan are congregating in and around Izumo Taisha for a meeting.

Just to be clear, the Japanese calendar is sort of whack and many holidays are not celebrated according to the times they were originally meant to be celebrated. Kamiarizuki, although the phrase nowadays typically is in direct reference to Gregorian October, is not even a month long. Futhermore, it changes every year according to the old calendar. In 2014, the meeting of the gods is from December 1 to December 8. There will be events going on at Shinto shrines–most notably and especially Izumo Taisha, of course–over the course of that time, and many pilgrims do flock to these events.

But like the divide between religious Christmas and mainstream Christmas, the mainstream celebration of Kamiarizuki is festive and quite noticable, and even more of the public takes part in this. After all, it is a whole month long, and there are even free shuttle buses to and from Matsue Station specifically for everything going on around the castle.

In Matsue especially, October also implies Suitoro, the lantern festival. Hundreds of lanterns–everything from square paper lanterns decorated by children or by local professional artists to stone lanterns carved out of Kimachi stone–are placed around Matsue Castle every night the weather permits, and on the weekends they extend out to the surrounding streets, including around the Shimane Prefecture office and along Shiomi Nawate, one of the top historic streets of Japan across the moat from the castle mountain.

Click for source and more photos (Japanese)

Besides the Matsue Castle Grand Tea Ceremony I already posted a handful of entries about, there are many events both during the day and during the evening on weekends. Some occur every year, others change slightly. For instance, the Samurai Residence (home to a middle-ranking samurai family which the street, Shiomi Nawate, is named after) is usually open late and has free evening admission so that people can enjoy concerts held there.

The backdrop for the concerts at the Samurai Residence

Matsue Castle also has later admission to enjoy the view of the lanterns, and the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat which cruises around the historic moats all day long runs a special night course to enjoy the view from below. The stage set up at the main entrance to Matsue Castle usually has some form of Kagura dance as well as other San’in region performers. Food stalls from local restaurants? But of course.

Last weekend I checked out an outdoor cafe and art exhibition set up to enjoy alongside the concerts at the Samurai Residence in which everyone working there was dressed in Taishou era style clothes, and then walked along the lantern-lit moat to go see a concert at Matsue Castle. Still, along the way, there was such a sence of peace in the glow of the night air–cool, but not yet frigid, quiet, but not silent. Groups of people–including families with teens, families with small children, families with grandparents leading the way most enthusiastically–were coming and going. Single wanderers, like myself, passed here and there, listening in to other’s conversations as acquaintances ran into each other.

“Oh! Fancy seeing you here!”
“Yes, I live close by, but you imagine that this is my first time to come enjoy Suitoro this year? Haha.”
“I came last weekend, too. Will you be going to the concert tomorrow?”
“I probably can… did you ride the boats yet?”
“Not yet… tonight I came for the shakuhachi concert.”
“Ah, I wanted to see the cafe! I think I’ll try the plum lemon tea.”

It’s like going out to enjoy the Christmas lights, only it’s not from your car, it’s up close and in person. It’s not just about the lights–it’s a chance to appreciate what others have created. Each performance, each booth and stall, each and every single handmade lantern, all unique and produced from the heart.

While walking along the moat, eyeing the lit-up boats and the reflections of the lights from all around on the water’s surface, whereas on the other side of the street the Edo period walls are lit just as much as necessary, I cannot help but wonder how many artists have passed that street in its hundreds of years of history.

Ah, but then again, I am an artist—and I have likely walked that street hundreds of times by now myself.

Another view of the lantern I made last year–yes, that is Lafcadio Hearn, who also happened to be an artist and took many walks along Shiomi Nawate.

Back home somewhat early that night, I could still hear the sound of October in Matsue–enormous do drums echoing through the city, as the neighborhoods break out their treasures from the store houses, pass the sake around, and practice the flute and drum tunes for a parade that has been celebrated since the Edo period–Do-gyoretsu. It rumbles like a distance thunder, but unlike the thunder, the beat goes on as it always had in the past. But we don’t live in the past–the familiar beats and echoes of the drum parade accompany the lantern festival, a modern traditional as much a part of local character as Kamiarizuki itself.



Yes, those are filled with sake.

——

Yesterday was Sunday, October 19th–the third Sunday of October, and therefore Do-gyoretsu, the drum parade. It was hard to spot the people I knew–it’s hard to tell if there were more participants or spectators, as it draws such a crowd. Furthermore, the weather was sunny and warm, perfect for a parade.

By the evening, however much the sounds of the drums lingered in after parties throughout the neighborhoods, the atmosphere of Suitoro took over again, and the night had just as perfect weather as the day. Windless, cloudless, and comfortably between warm and cool.

A perfect night for tea.

The local junior college tea ceremony club had set up a special event this weekend in cooperation with the special night-time Horikawa Sightseeing Boat canal cruises. Besides getting the enjoy the view of the lights along the streets, trees, and surface of the water, the boat was also lighted with its own lanterns and even a flower decoration attached to one of the posts, and there was just enough space for eight guests, two boat operators at either end of the boat cooperating in low-light navigation, and two students in kimono with a tea space set up for preparing tea.

In the low light it was hard to appreciate the appearance of the Horikawa boat themed wagashi and the individual tea cups, but the quietness of the night made everything else more noticable–the warm, autumn taste of the chestnut included in the wagashi, the fragrance of the charcoal used in the ceremony, the smoothness of the tea, and the subtle motion of the boat. I’ve ridden this boat countless times and could give the whole tour myself instead of interpreting, but it nonetheless felt very surprising and mysterious to see the 400-year-old stone walls of the castle, take a sip of tea as the boat was turning, and then see the lanterns decorating the street when I took the cup away.

The boat was full of people I didn’t know, and for once I was totally engaged in conversation on account of being the foreign face at a tea ceremony, and the others talked among themselves, perhaps assuming I couldn’t understand. A couple ladies with thick Izumo accents were trying to remember where the best soba restaurant on Shiomi Nawate was (came from just out of town, likely), an older couple were asking the boat operator when they’d be bringing out the kotatsu this year–ahh, November 10th, I see–(they were likely Matsue locals), and at last the quiet middle adged man asked if the tea ceremony on the boat happens all the time–what’s more, are these lanterns always there? He had immediately painted himself as a tourist–and as luck would have it, this Kanazawa native showed up on a perfect night for tea and lanterns! The older couple went on to tell him that if he thinks the boat ceremony is nice, he should have been there for the Grand Tea Ceremony and couple weeks beforehand.

I decided just to hold my tongue for once and let it look like I’m not the know-it-all I am. The silence was a welcome break from my usual chatter-filled, cultural exchange lifestyle, and I was content to simply observe the passing October moments.

Photo from last year's Daichakai taken by the very talented Bernice. Click for more photos!

Photo from last year’s Daichakai taken by the very talented Bernice. Click for more photos!

One of Japan’s three biggest tea gatherings takes place at Matsue Castle and the surrounding area on the first weekend of October every year, and both tea aficionados and novices come together to taste tea from a various of schools and observe their ceremonies. The Matsue Castle Grand Tea Ceremony, a.k.a. Matsue-jo Daichakai, will take place on October 4 and 5 this year, from 9:00am to 3:00pm–or until wagashi run out!

Speaking of wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionaries), it’s not only the various tea schools that will be making special preparations, but the wagashi vendors will also be preparing specially designed wagashi for this event. Those flavors, textures, shapes, and colors will vary across each tent, as will the tea being served. Although matcha (powdered green tea) will take center stage, some schools will instead serve sencha. The sencha schools might appear to have more of a Chinese twist, but two years ago one of the schools prepared koucha (red tea, or more commonly known in the West as black tea) with a distinctly British-Japanese flair!

There will be 11 schools of tea to choose from, each with their own tent. A ticket for one ceremony purchased at the venue is 900yen, or a ticket for three ceremonies will cost 2200yen when purchased in advance from tea vendors throughout the city (800yen tickets are also available in advance). The schools are:

Omotesenke
Urasenke
Mushakojisenke
Sansairyu
Fumairyu-Fumaikai*
Fumairyu-Daienkai*
Urakuryu
Ogasawararyu
Soshinryu
Hoenryu
Hayamiryu

(Recall Lord Matsudaira Fumai is the father of Fumai-ryu)

Comparing the different ways of preparing tea–be it in dainty ways or in warrior-like ways–is one of the best things about having so many schools all together at once. There will also be some special tea ceremonies held at the Matsue History Museum (just northeast of the castle) on the following Sundays from 9am to 3pm so you can try to catch some later that you couldn’t fit in during the big weekend: Oct 12, Oct 19, Oct 26, Nov 2. As much as I’ve liked the space in the history museum for tea ceremonies, I would hate for any tea lovers–or people curious about tea–to miss out on the atmosphere of the first weekend. This page from Bihada Sabo is in Japanese and a little old, but they have some good photos to give you an idea what the event is like.

My plan? Hopefully on Saturday I’ll get to squeeze in three ceremonies for schools I haven’t tried yet, though I might or might not be fitting in a naginata event nearby for part of the morning! There is always such a big line for the koucha ceremony if they have one, so I might head out early and try to get in on the first one. I’ve tried Soshinryu before, but it would be fun to see another sencha style, and round it out with matcha. Not sure which school to go with, but being in Matsue, I supposed one can’t go wrong with one of the Fumai-ryu schools.

As for Sunday, my time is spoken for–the large schools, like Omotesenke and Urasenke, trade out between different teachers/classrooms for who will take responsibility on what day, and my class will be serving tea in the Omotesenke tent. For me personally, that will mean serving wagashi and cups of tea to the guests for most of the day, but I’ll also have a chance to do the o-temae–the preparing of the tea in front of everyone! This will be my Daichakai debut!

I’m a little nervous, but I’ll do my best! Come and see me, and enjoy whatever other tea style styles your fancy while they’re all rounded up together at your convenience–beginners as well as experts welcome~

Side note: This year’s Little Mardi Gras parade in October 5 in the afternoon. Start your day with tea and end it with jazz.

Around 300 years before construction on Matsue Castle started, a nearby mountain was chosen as the highly defensible spot for a castle that would see its share of battle: Gassan Toda Castle, on Mt. Gassan in modern day Yasugi.

Originally built by the Sasaki clan in the 14th century in the Kamakura era, it is more commonly associated with the Amago clan, which stemmed from the Sasaki clan. This branch of the family started when Sasaki Takahisa, orphaned at the age of 3, was raised by a nun. In respect for her, he used the name Amago (尼子), which means “child of a nun.”

When you hear the term “Amago clan” (aka Amako clan), it is usually paired with the term “Mori clan.” In the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japanese history, stated as spanning 1467~1573. There were plenty of battles before and after this period, but this is when Japan was split up amongst several warlords as opposed to power being split between only a few factions. The development was not sudden–many of the clan rivalries were based off of previous loyalities and rivalries leading up to that point, and power was gradually consolidated as clans began pledging allegiance to the more prominent warlords, and these prominent warlords gained the territories that previously been long fought over. Here in the San’in region as well as in other parts of western Japan, the Amago and Mori clans had a long and colorful history of going head to head against each other out here, but many other clans were involved as well, including the clans these clans served, or the clans that served these clans. (Still with me? Good.)

One such servant of the Amago clan was Yamanaka Yukimori, aka Yamanaka Shikanosuke (1545~1578), a famous general loyal to Amago Katsuhisa (1553~1578). He’s a celebrated local hero here in the Izumo region, especially in Yasugi, where there are big campaigns for having one of NHK’s annual Taiga drama based on his life.

The fact that he and his master have the same year of death might have tipped you off that they met a tragic end. Indeed, in was their misfortune to have been active towards the decline of the clan. After Katsuhisa’s father and brother were killed by an internal scuffle and the Mori clan effectively defeated the clan, he abandoned his monkly ways to fight, but was defeated and sought refuge on the Oki Islands. Upon his return, he captured a couple provinces, including what is now eastern Tottori. As the continued their battles with their limited armies, Shikanosuke sought an alliance with Oda Nobunaga, only to find that had only been used and no one came to their aid.

In the end, he and Katsuhisa were defeated by the Mori clan. Katsuhisa was forced to commit ritual suicide there, while Shikanosuke surrendered, but was supposedly captured and killed shortly afterward by the Mori clan anyway. As for surrending instead of following his master in suicide, some say that he sold Katsuhisa out as part of his offer to surrender, and others say that Katsuhisa willingly went along with this plan in an effort to save their remaining men. Whether they displayed cowardice or bravery in defeat, we can at least bet that a Taiga drama would build up an appropriate amount of drama around the end of an otherwise very heroic character.

With the fall of the Amago clan Gassan Toda Castle soon fell to the Mori clan as well, though it had proved to have strong defense until that point. Amago Haruhisa, the leader of the clan, successfully withheld a seige by the Ouchi clan in 1542~1543. It was a major defeat for the Ouchi clan which lead to internal struggles, and the Ouchi clan wound up being wiped out by the Mori clan later. Haruhisa went on to control territories like modern day eastern Shimane, western Tottori and the Oki Islands, but remember how Katsuhisa’s father and brother were killed? That was Haruhisa’s fault.

The Amago clan was wiped out, and although the Mori clan continued to thrive, they were on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara and lost control of their territory in the San’in region (but they remained in the San’yo region).

Enter the Horio clan! Horio Yoshiharu, who was with the winning side, was granted control of the Izumo domain. He moved into Gassan Toda Castle, and although it was in a highly defensible location, it wasn’t in a good spot for raising a bustling economy around it. Thus, they decided to build a new castle in a better location, and Matsue Castle was completed four years later in 1611. Matsue Castle remains one of the 12 last original castles of Japan, but Gassan Toda was not only abandoned, but pieces of it were dismantled and used in the construction of Matsue Castle.


You can, however, still climb Mt. Gassan and see what remains of the castle walls. It has been left fairly quiet, and while there is no longer a castle at the top, there is a little shrine to Ookuninushi (the same god as at Izumo Taisha) at the 197 meter summit. That seems to be a little abandoned though, too…



That said, I tend to really like the allure of things you just happen to stumble upon in the forests.




It’s a quite, peaceful mountain, and Horio Yoshiharu–who died months before the completition of Matsue Castle–was buried in Iwakuraji Temple at the foot of the mountain. However historically inaccurate, the city of Matsue still honors their founder by recreating his march into (what would become) the town and on into the castle keep with the annual Musha Gyoretsu Warrior Parade.

Click for source

While I don’t suggest taking quite that deep of a rest, you can rest up after the short hike up the mountain by visiting Hirose Onsen at the Toda Gassou facility for a nice view of the town. It’s a surphulric onsen–rich in radium-sodium, calcium chloride, and sulfide–and acts as a natural toner that gives your skin elasticity.

Click for source

I can attest to the nice view and smooth skin afterward! I wonder if the Amago clan and the warriors who served them ever had many chances to enjoy the Hirose waters?

Matsue is often called Mizu-no-Miyako (水の都: City of Water) not only for its place nestled between the 5th and 7th largest lakes in Japan as well four different onsen and border along the Sea of Japan, but especially for the castle canals. Many Edo period castle canals have since been filled in or reduced to only their inner moat, but Matsue retains both inner and outer moats. Many of the streets around the city have been designs around working with the moats to protect the castle and may attacks difficult for intruding armies. Those streets are still the same as well, and though they never needed to prevent an army from advancing an attack, I suppose they are helpful for preventing vehicles from speeding too fast through town.

Pretty typical Matsue scene at Shiomi Nawate, a preserved historic street along the north moat, where the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat always passes. These are some of my favorite pine trees in the world, though this photo doesn’t do them justice.

Another thing that hasn’t changed much since the Edo era is the local people’s love of tea, especially the tea ceremony. Lord Fumai‘s influence remains very present, and not in a gimmicky way. While the Grand Tea Ceremony (大茶会) on the Matsue Castle grounds on the first weekend of October is nationally famous, there are other tea ceremonies and tea events that welcome hundreds of guests throughout the year.

This spring, in a style very fitting for the city of water and tea, there was a floating tea house set up at the northwest corner of the castle mount, called this Ohoribata Chaseki (お堀端茶席, a little clumsy to translate but something like “Tea on the Moat” at its simplest and “A Tea Ceremony on the Banks of the Horikawa” at its most pretentious.)


Held over the course of two spring weekends, anyone could stop in and buy a ¥1000 ticket. It just so happened to be an Omotesenke style ceremony, the style I practice, so I brought my tea-tools to be prepared. This was not necessary, as it was set up for any guest to relax and enjoy themselves, with all the utensils provided and handy explanation from a master as the host prepared the tea. During large public ceremonies that anyone can attend without any previous tea knowledge, usually the host only prepares the first one or two cups of tea while others prepare the rest of the tea in the back so as to speed up the process a bit. In a more private ceremony, the host would prepare the tea for everyone. Another difference is that in a private ceremony the guests would pass along the sweets and come forward to take the tea themselves, but in a public ceremony not everyone knows how to do this, so everything is brought directly to the guests. Therefore, a public ceremony requires a lot more manpower backstage–usually this is a very tiny space, but set apart so as to be non-intrusive to the ceremony.

We started with wagashi right away as we enjoyed the shade and coolness at the water’s edge. This was the first was someone uncomfortably warm days, but the atmosphere inside the tea room was perfect.

As the host wordlessly prepared the tea, another tea master explained the ceremony, decor, and tools to the guests in a way that both practitioners and laypeople could appreciate.

Tea ceremony and the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat. It could only get more Matsue-like if there was En-musubi tied in or something.

After the abbreviated ceremony, we were invited to observe the tools.

The chawan (tea bowl) is Rakuzan pottery. Along with Fujina and Sodeshi, this is one of the three representative styles of Matsue pottery, and it was a favorite of Lord Fumai’s. This particular bowl was made by the father of the current head of the Rakuzan school.

The natsume (tea caddy) is Yakumo-nuri, a local style of lacquerware. One of the characteristics of Yakumo-nuri is that the pattern gets brighter as the piece ages. The chashaku (tea scoop) is also local craftsmanship, and it was made from wood that was removed from the castle during renovations several years ago. Hence, the individual name of this chashaku is “Chidori” (plover) because Matsue Castle is nicknamed Chidori-jo (Plover Castle). For other styles of chashaku, the host can choose from a selection of gomei seasonal names, so a single chashaku can have multiple names. This special type of chashaku, however, doesn’t change identities with the seasons.

They say that the shape of the tea remaining in the tea caddy says a lot about how steady–or unsteady–the hand of the host was.

The ceremony felt very brief, but it was gratifying that the master explaining the ceremony could tell I practice the ceremony–and lucky that he didn’t notice me forget a few bows during the sped-up process, oops! Though this ceremony wasn’t hosted by my school, naturally, everyone knew my Omotesenke teacher by name. There were many other tea events going on that weekend, including a longer, reservation-only ceremony at Gesshouji Temple (where Lord Fumai is buried) that included a meal, but I had other things to do. Nonetheless, my things to do put me on the same route as a few of the ladies who attended the same ceremony I did and who were off to enjoy the ceremony at Gesshouji, and it was fun to enjoy the weather, the spring flowers, and general talk of tea on the way.

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.

This. Is. HANAMI!!

While I went all over the place last year to spots like Tamatsukuri Onsen, Kisuki, and Senju-in Temple, I didn’t spend much time at the O-shiro Castle Festival that marks the start of spring, complete with a temporary Edo-style open-air a tea house (one more than usual in the area) serving matcha and sakura-mochi on every clear day. I do so love the scent of sakura-mochi. The castle was worth visiting almost every day for a while, though the best time I went was at noon when the flowers were in full bloom.

Sure, yes, the flowers were great… but I think I might have done more baby viewing that afternoon. Where had all these babies suddenly come from!? Little faces peeking out of carriers while (slightly) older siblings are helped to teeter down the stairs, or babies out for a day with grandma and grandpa, or babies so small you hardly notice their tiny limbs poking out of their carriers. Dads carrying strollers up the stairs while moms huff and puff and follow more slowly, carrying in the baby while walking in heels. Babies barely mobile squirming on the picnic blankets, and for every baby, a smartphone to snap pictures of said baby and their first Hanami (flowering viewing).

I’m pretty sure the babies weren’t all planned for cherry blossom season, but given important beginnings are planned around cherry blossom season, I wouldn’t be too surprised if some were. I think my surprise may just be a combination of not seeing so many young families all congregated in one place so often, and of everyone finding it too cold until that point to bother braving the weather with their tiny bundles. That may apply to more than just babies–everyone dressed up a little more than usual, either breaking in new outfits purchased for spring, or finally breaking out some old favorites again. Haha, take that, winter! Be gone!!

It wasn’t only people with babies at Matsue Castle this particular lunch hour–it was as if everyone was there! The young couples were obvious–holding hands and dressed most fashionably, though a little shriek of surprise caught my attention when one young woman tripped in her high heels. Thankfully her boyfriend already had her hand to keep her from tumbling too far down the steps, and they shared a laugh as she stood back up.

These two, however, made a more graceful couple–at least on a shorter set of stairs.

The old couples were also picnicking and strolling together, more still and quiet than the young families who had brought puppies and baseballs gloves. They took their time, and at one point I overheard an old man ask his wife what in the world she was doing stopping to pick up a fallen blossom, as the two seemed to have differing opinions on the aesthetics of the blossom and its natural place.

That’s a Lafcadio Hearn marker–his students used to have their physical education class here.

The kids are enjoying their short spring break between school years, so there were picnic groups made up entirely of elementary school boys, as well as a few family-run yatai (food stalls) where the kids were helping out as well. A little more so than adults, kids tend to scream like they’re having fun when they are freaking out about the shaved ice machine going haywire.

It is only the students who are on break, as working society is busily taking little more than lunch breaks in the new fiscal year. Thankfully there is cultural reinforcement at this time of year to at least take a midday breather to appreciate the cherry blossoms. One such worker was perhaps slightly older than middle age, but had an appreciation of beauty that was apparent on his face. As he came up the old uneven steps he was already glancing upwards at the blossoms, and he slowed his pace as he approached, smiling with what looked to be a sign of approval. Good job, blossoms. A trio of young recruits were looking a little less than used to their formal black suits, but they still giggled like school girls as they made their way through the grounds. A fourth picked up her pace and to join them, and the others gawked at how fast she had gotten an ice cream cone from one of the yatai.

I didn’t plan on getting anything from the yatai, but it had been a while since I last had a crepe…

Despite how dressed up everyone is, I only noticed one person in kimono, which feels a little less than usual for big events around the castle. She had dressed it up casually and left her hair down, but seemed increasingly warm and tired in it as she looped here and there among the cherry trees. Perhaps her friends hadn’t arrived?

Perhaps what was oddly lacking was serious photographers–sure, everyone was snapping photos on their smartphones, but the big, clunky cameras that so many retirees frequently tote around the castle didn’t seem as present as usual. That’s perhaps because Hanami is best done with the people you love, and best enjoyed in the moment.

I was short on moments, however, and had to get back to work at city hall–though it just so happened that I ran into Mayor Matsuura on my way back, as he was on his way in. Enjoy your midday break, Mayor!

This was just the scene on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and the blossoms throughout the castle keep were lit up until 9pm. On the weekends during the castle festival, there were also Kagura, Dojou-sukui, and musical performances, as well as free samurai dress-up. Speaking of samurai dress-up, this year’s Musha Gyoretsu Warrior Parade had sunny weather for their march to the castle! I was in Tokyo for the kimono contest at the time, but maybe this sort of luck with carry through next year, too! As long as I don’t have anything else to do I’d love to take part again, but it’s so hard to choose what sort of role I’d want. Performing with a naginata was great and all seeing as it is my weapon of choice, but there are so many other props that look fun to try out, be it long and detailed wigs, or bows and arrows… ah! My inner samurai-wannabe is at odds with my inner Yamato-Nadeshiko-wannabe. That’s why being one of the lady warriors was such an obvious choice last time.

Alas, looks like I am getting carried away with the aesthetic thoughts the cherry blossoms arouse–but just when you looks again, they’ve all disappeared.