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By the time I post this, this morning will have been a few weeks ago. It’s probably thoroughly spring, and the cherry blossoms have already passed by now, haven’t they? But from here, we can only see their buds starting to plump.

This was the first day this year when I left my coat at home and went to work with only a sweater and scarf. The sunlight is warm, and there is no wind. There have already been signs of spring in the early bloomers and the weather at night has been making me shed layers of blankets one at a time, but this morning on a brief car ride to the Kyomise shopping district, something seemed distinctly different.

Had I never noticed that willow tree to the northwest of the Matsue Ohashi Bridge? I usually had only anticipated the cherry tree at the opposite end.

Did the water in the Ohashi River always reflect patterns against the side of Naniwa Issui, that fancy restaurant I’ve always wondered about but have never tried?

Had my hair salon with the yellow bricks always done Japanese style hair arrangements as well? If the hakama is anything to go by, this girl has her graduation ceremony today.

Those men chatting outside of Matsue City Hotel, the retro-style one with the clock tower I like. Are they visitors? Or going about their local business like everyone else while approaching 9am on this Thursday morning?

That young women with the peaceful smile on her face as she observes all the buildings in the shopping district, with what looks like her mother and brother two steps behind her. Surely they must be visitors, right? Or are they locals who simply appreciate what a fine place they live in?

The Matsue Ohashi Bridge, with its smooth granite, really does look its best in morning sunlight on a clear day. Is it clear enough to see Mt. Daisen out east? Or does it really look its best as a silhouette against the Lake Shinji sunset? On a morning like this, I’m prone to say the former.

From the windows of a little Showa-style tiny meeting space, waiting for work to start, my coworker and I are observing the aged buildings across the street. They fade into a foregone past, with the times traced in dirt around their windows and features. ‘Some time ago, we were stylish’ they say in quiet pride, as their inside contents are likely a more vivid shrine of pastimes unchanged as the decades have gone on. ‘We were the hot spots then, and we’re still the hot spots now–for those who know, for those as etched by time as we are.’

My coworker and I are not of that time. We look out and ask each other, “Have you heard of Kawakyo? Seems it was in some guidebook somewhere, and foreign tourists ask for directions to it.” “Is it any good? I have no idea. Seems like it would be hard to set foot in just for curiosity. Like you’d need to be taken along by someone who knows.” Its shutters are closed, its sign is dusty. The unassuming entrance makes its contents all the more mysterious.

And the building next to it? “What is that, even? Is the building just a wall?” I have seen oddly-shaped buildings built to fit into triangle corners before, but this three-story home is a fake–at least from our angle, we see the top is only the width of my forearm! Why? Whose home is this? Why does it take up such a wide, taxable area of street space, but with seemingly nothing behind it, but the shadow of a well-known ryokan?

“Ohashikan? Hmm, I’ve of course heard a lot about it, but I’ve only been inside once for work.”
“Yeah, I’ve never been inside, but they have English menus so I made a reservation for my friends there when they were visiting. It happened to be their anniversary, after all. And they like sushi, so I figured they should have some good Sea of Japan sashimi.”
“Should have gone along with them.”
“Yeah, but I was at work. They seemed to like it, though.”
“Especially with the view of the river, it must be nice.”
“Oh! But I have been to the Matsue Club building next to it. We’ve done a couple tea ceremonies in there. The view of the river really is nice.”
“Really! There’s space for tea ceremonies there?”
“You wouldn’t think so, would you? I sure wouldn’t have from the outside.”
“I knew they had a lot of different stuff in that building, but I didn’t think there would be space for that.”
“There’s a Japanese garden on the roof, too.”
“Really? I’d never have guessed!”
“Maybe that’s what’s on the roof, behind that wall, too.”
“It might be…”

Little did we ever notice that little world hidden beyond our view. Never had we thought to look.

Yet everyone thought to comment this morning, “It finally feels like spring.”

I’ve now been practicing the tea ceremony for three years!

Those are willow branches behind me hanging in the alcove as a New Years decoration, not wires hooking me up to the ceiling. I promise I am not a tea ceremony performing robot.

Those are willow branches behind me hanging in the alcove as a New Years decoration, not wires hooking me up to the ceiling. I promise I am not a tea ceremony performing robot.

Besides my obvious change in how I view tea tools, I’ve also picked up a lot more of the mindsets I’ve admired for a long time, which were the main reasons I wanted to try it in the first place. I’ve long since had difficulty living in the moment, letting my mind wander to times which my memory paints in nostalgic colors, or running ahead either to worries for the long term future to do my to-do list for when I am in an entirely different place from the present. Either way, it robs me of what is right in front of me, be it my lunch or a friend who I assume will always be there.

You can find a lot of meaning in the actions and elements of the tea ceremony. The ritualistic cleansing of the tools is done to show your guests that you are using clean tools, and the peaceful setting cleanses your guests’ senses–the soft sound of water boiling or the clack of the tea scoop against the tea bowl, the subdued decor and subtle harmonizing details, the scent of incense in the hearth, the texture of the tatami under your feet sliding along the floor, the refreshing and deep taste of the matcha. Each silent bow has its own message it communicates, from “I will now begin the ceremony” to “thank you for the delicious tea.” Both social rank and common humility are recognized in the tea room, but ultimately, it is an intimate time which the host and the guests share and enjoy together, never to come again in quite the same way. In both a literal and figurative sense, it is both bitter and sweet.

Indeed, it involves some “ceremony,” but the Japanese term 茶道 (sadou), can just as well be translated as “the way of tea.” It is a mindset, an approach. Perhaps the phrase you hear more often in Matsue, though, is not that it has 茶道 culture, but 茶の湯 (cha-no-yu) culture. This “hot water for tea” implies more than a noun, but something that flows.

If you want to learn about traditional Japanese culture, the tea ceremony has many of the elements you’d look for: pottery and other craftsmanship, scrolls with paintings and calligraphy, flower arranging, kimono, wagashi, and so on. Each one of those elements is its own world to dive into, and the tea ceremony ties them all together with its own depth that keeps getting deeper over the centuries.

Perhaps more important than its depth is its simplicity.

Ultimately, it’s about enjoying tea with your guests.

Right there, in the moment.

We celebrated last Sunday, just in time for a few photos from XiaoMan to post today! I was busy with some interpreting work, since this event usually involves at least one representative from the Embassy of Ireland and a large turnout of the local (and surrounding) international crowd.

The day usually starts with a Water Parade, with the usual Horikawa Sightseeing Boats decked out for the occasion.

By the time that concluded, over three hundred participants in the land portion of the parade had gathered at Matsue Castle, and after a brief opening ceremony, we were off! I had some some of the crazy costumes before, but as always, there were plenty of new ones.

This cart played the Mario theme music too!

After the parade there were street performances spread out through the shopping district spanning two sides of the Kyobashi River, a food fair, and some special activities like petting penguins. I was mostly busy emceeing for a Paper-Rock-Scissors competition with Appare-kun, Matsue’s feudal lord mascot. The Shamrock, the Irish Pub in the vault of the Karakoro Art Studio, went on with live performances well into the night.

We haven’t gotten a lot of snow this winter, but there’s still been enough to go get some classic views of the scenery around Matsue Castle.

The retro-style LakeLine Bus goes around all the major tourist spots and transportation hubs in central Matsue, and a day pass is 500 yen.

The “Matsu” in “Matsue” means “pine,” and this is one of my favorite pines among the many around Matsue Castle.

Migratory birds flock here in winter. I think these are all cormorants.

The Izumo-style Japanese garden at the Matsue History Museum, as seen from Kiharu, the cafe inside with its own characteristic wagashi (Japanese confectioneries) which change motifs every month.

The Horikawa Sightseeing Boat makes its rounds, with kotatsu provided all winter.

This is the main venue for the Daichakai on the first weekend of October. Image this space covered with tents for different schools of the tea ceremony to try.

Lookin’ good as usual, you National Treasure, you.

Matsue Shrine, down the stairs from the castle tower.

Winter can be pretty, but it’s cold.

An equestrian statue of good old Matsudaira Naomasa. I say “old” but in this statue, he’s still a baby-faced 14-year-old. A 14-year-old who kicked butt in the Battle of Osaka.

Shiomi Nawate Street, along the northern moat.

Oh no, a ninja snowball attack! Take cover!

Uh oh… a ninja victim. Just one more ghost story to add to Matsue’s list, I suppose.

Thicker walls may be the case in a lot of the city center, but last week I took a walk through an old neighborhood with many wooden houses, and I froze in my tracks when I heard the clear sound of someone practicing shamisen leaking out into the street. Truly one of those “ah, Japan~” moments.

Perhaps I’ve never brought this up, but… the San’in region really likes to welcome visitors with international passports and resident cards. They give you discounts. Lots of discounts.

Although many people taking advantage of the cheap yen also take advantage of the JR Pass (which does reach into and through the San’in region, hitting all the major cities and then some), some of us travelers–as in, those of us who live in Japan and are not eligible for the JR Pass–prefer to take buses. While I do like riding the Yakumo Express to Okayama and then hoping a bullet train from there to Osaka or Kyoto (standard one-way fare between Matsue and Kyoto: ¥12,020), a highway bus between either location is both cheaper (Matsue to Kyoto: ¥10,000) and more direct, and they also have night bus options.

The really obvious bus choice, however, is from Hiroshima. Not only is it faster–much faster, thanks to the new highway–and cheaper, but international visitors get half-off. If you present your residence card or passport when buying your ticket in person, you get a one-way trip through the Chuugoku Mountains for ¥1,950 instead of ¥3,900. This is still in the works, but a local hotel association is considering making the round trip free if you fill out a short survey when purchasing your ticket. Yes, free. This is still in the works, though, and if it works out, it’ll probably only be offered for a year a so.

But how about once you get into the region? Here is a non-extensive list of discounts:

Places offering 50% discount on admission:
Matsue Castle: ¥280
Samurai Residence (Buke Yashiki): ¥150
Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum: ¥150
Lafcadio Hearn’s Former Residence: ¥150
Meimei-an Tea House: ¥200
Matsue History Museum: ¥250
Horan-enya Memorial Hall: ¥100 (Though this is free if you bought admission to the history museum around the corner anyway)
Gessho-ji Temple: ¥250 (yes, that’s the one with the enormous tortoise)
Shimane Art Museum Special Exhibitions: ¥500
Adachi Museum of Art: ¥1,100
Yuushien Japanese Garden: ¥300
Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo: ¥300
Yasugi-bushi Entertainment Hall: ¥300 (That’s where you can watch the silly Dojo-Sukui dance)

30~33% off:
Horikawa Sightseeing Boat: ¥820
Matsue Vogel Park: ¥1,050
Lake Shinji Pleasure Cruise: ¥980

This is such a common-place thing to me here that I forget that’s it’s not as common elsewhere. Be informed, everyone! And I hope to see you out here soon!

NOTE: All prices are subject to change!