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Please see visit-Matsue.com for more details~~

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!

When introducing Matsue to foreign digintaries, the mayor and vice-mayors frequently mention that Lake Nakaumi and Lake Shinji, Japan’s fifth and seventh largest lakes respectively, are Ramsar Convention Wetlands of International Importance. And seeing as February 2, 2016, is World Wetlands Day, I figured they would make a good theme for today’s post.

I’ve already been busy lately writing an article about them (or more broadly, about Matsue as a City of Water) as part of my series of articles about Matsue in the Asahi Shimbun’s online English newspaper, Asia & Japan Watch, which is included in their From Around Japan feature. For as many basic infobites one could say about them–like that they are both brackish lakes, and the famous islands found on them, and the foods for which they are wellknown–I figured it would be more fun here to write about what they mean to me.

daisen

Lake Nakaumi:
–Home to Daikonshima, land of amazing peonies.
–The view I always get to enjoy on the way to Mihonoseki, or to Sakaiminato or to Yonago or sometimes to Yasugi
–The spotlight of the incredible view I get from Mt. Makuragi (yet have never managed to get my own photo of)
–A part of the wide view while climbing Mt. Daisen (which I also have yet to take a photo of)
–Home to the recently famous “scariest” Eshima Bridge
–Birthplace of Benkei, near-legendary warrior of the 12th century (who was thought to weild a naginata, yeeeeah, rock on, Benkei)
–That lake I don’t see as often because I have to cross a few mountains to get to it

Lake Shinji:
–That lake I see pretty frequently because I live and work right by it
–That lake people go jogging next to
–That lake people set off little fireworks next to
–That lake with the really, really big fireworks display
–That lake where I’ve seen every romantic scene from couples walking hand in hand to musicans strumming on their guitars and singing as if to the ducks
–That lake I eat my lunch next to
–That lake I walk by on the way to the art museum
–That lake with really, really nice lakeside landscaping
–That lake that provides shijimi clams
–And that made it into a viral video about a guy standing there in winter fishing for clams and giving viewers a pep-talk that they should never give up
–That lake you can see from the highway when riding a bus up from Hiroshima
–That lake you can see from viewpoints in Tamatsukuri Onsen
–That lake you can see even better from Matsue Shinjiko Onsen, because the lake is right there outside the windows from the onsen
–That lake you can see from Matsue Vogel Park
–That lake you can walk down and touch from Matsue English Garden
–That lake that looks like an ocean on a stormy day
–That lake where a swam calmly glided along next to me one day while I was out there eating lunch
–That lake covered with all sorts of migratory birds in winter
–That lake with fish jumping out of the water in summer
–That lake with the exciting sunset boatride on a windy day
–That lake that looks like a painting when all the shijimi clam fishing boats are out there on a sunny morning
–That lake that defies being captured well on panoramic shots taken on my phone
–That lake that has the sad “bride island”
–That lake that mysteriously fades out towards Izumo, the heart of the Land of the Gods
–That lake which is kind of famous for its sunsets

I confess, I have not actually picked up much Izumo dialect, thought to be rather hard to understand even for native speakers. I’m not so sure how far that goes. I have had difficulty understanding little old ladies in the countryside when I’ve asked for directions, but otherwise I can usually understand whatever someone is saying based on context. Locals always tease that Izumo-ben must be difficult to understand since I’m a foreign speaker of Japanese, but it doesn’t really work like that. As a non-native speaker, I have years of having to understand words in context that I’ve never formally studied, so listening to Izumo-ben doesn’t feel strange.

Using Izumo-ben, however, is a different story. I can sort of hear and parse out in my head how it works, but the only aspects I’ve picked up have thinking with verb endings like “-choru” or sometimes adding “-ken” to things for a little emphasis, but I don’t think “-ken” is limited to this brand of Inaka-ben (country dialect) anyway. When people teach me phrases I can usually imitate them, but this is usually only for their entertainment and I never commit them to memory.

The major part of Izumo-ben that anyone and everyone should pick up, though, is the phrase for “Thank-you”: Dan-dan.

You hear it everywhere, and it’s such a short, snappy, and catchy phrase that there’s no reason not to try using it. Even though I typically hear people use more standard ways of expressing thanks, the locals do smile warmly and get excited at the sound of people from other parts using that phrase. It carries a lot of local character, and it always goes over well when everyone from Japanese tourists to foreign diplomats use the phrase. You also see and hear it used throughout the area, like in the “Dan-dan kasa” program, a free umbrella-loaning service found through the city of Matsue (I’ve benefitted from this program almost as much as I have contributed to it by forgotting my umbrellas in public places all the time).

You would also hear it used for the outdoor hot-food festival held throughout the city and especially on Sundays throughout the month of February, the Matsue Dan-Dan Shoku Festa.

I’ve broke this down in an entry last year as follows:

まつえ暖談食フェスタ
まつえ is “Matsue” written in phonetic hiragana instead of in kanji, as usual (松江).
暖 is “warmth” and read here as dan.
談 is “conversation” and read here as dan. Pairing them together is like “warm conversation” and sometimes people translate the name of the festival as “heart-warming.”
だんだん, Dan-Dan, is Izumo dialect for “thank-you,” one of the most commonly heard and actively used Izumo phrases.
食 is “food/eat” and read here as shoku.
フェスタ is short for “festival.”

So you could call it anything from “Matsue Festival for Food That Brings About Warm Conversation” to “Matsue Thanks-For-The-Warm-Food Festival” but I find “Dan-Dan Shoku Festa” is most catchy.

Now that we’re heading into a cold snap here in January, I thought for sure we’d be looking forward to some Dan-Dan Shoku Festa material soon, but what is this? The Matsue Shoku Matsuri??

Apparently they changed it this year because the Dan-Dan pun was a hard sell to travel companies. But I am very disappointed with the name change! I feel no sense of local character and warm from a bland name like “Matsue Food Festival.” Give me back my Izumo-ben pun and get some local flavor back in this name!

Sigh. At least we get four Sundays of outdoor food fests instead of only three this year. There are as follows:

January 31, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
In front of JR Matsue Station (Area A)
(Includes the annual “En-musubi Shichifukujin Nabe”, the “Seven Lucky Gods Fate-binding Hot Pot” which serves 800 people yet can disappear rather quickly–to date, I’ve only made it in time for a serving once)

February 7, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Matsue Castle grounds (Area B)
(Special features include handmade wagashi from artisan Itami-sensei and Matsue Castle Rifle Troupe performances at noon and 2pm, but you can get Itami-sensei’s wagashi at the Matsue History Museum cafe Kiharu all year round and the Teppo-tai performs at the museums on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of every month anyway, so…)

February 14, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Kyomise shopping district (Area C)
(If you find it too cold to stay outside, many of the fancy restaurants around this shopping district are also doing special things that day)

February 21, 2016, 11:00am ~ 3:00pm
Tenjinmachi (around Shirahata Tenmangu Shrine) (Area D)
(Seeing as Tenjin is the god of scholarship and we’re coming up on entrance exam season, there’s a special “Tenjin Goukaku Okage Nabe”—which I’d roughly translate as “Pass Your Tests Thanks to Tenjin’s Hot Pot.”)

The area south of the Ohashi River

The areas south of the Ohashi River


The areas north of the Ohashi River

The areas north of the Ohashi River

Furthermore, the San’in region is Crab Country. See more details (and puns) about the crab culture in this entry, but also be aware that the “Kani-goya” (Crab Shack) event going on a 10 minute walk east of JR Matsue Station along the Ohashi River is already underway. This year it’s January 16 ~ February 29, open 11:00am through 10:00pm. This event is all about indulging in regional crab, having them cooked right in front of you and making a raucous with your buddies as you tear into them.

I like crab if someone else gets the meat out for me, but I supposed this is a craze I don’t really understand. I’ll stick with the array of fancy Sunday market foods.

And I will still stubbornly call it the Dan-Dan Shoku Festa, thank you very much. Yes, I am feeling a little salty over the loss of this pun.

Mt. Kameda, now known as Jozan and the site of National Treasure Matsue Castle, is home to more than one historic building. Just down the stairs and north of the castle town sits Kounkaku, a Meiji era imperial guest house.

Completed in 1903 in anticipation of Emperor Meiji’s visit, it turned out to be used for instead in 1907 by his son who would go on to be Emperor Taisho. He stayed there for three nights in late May, and the buildings’ original function as a fitting spot to house an emperor was served.

During that time period when Japan was rapidly Westernizing, there was a rush to build Western style ballrooms where people in Western style attire would gather and socialize. Although they had observed many buildings abroad, the buildings in Japan maintained local construction techniques, there by retaining some elements that are very local in character, such as the wooden ceiling found at Kounkaku. In the emperor’s private sleeping quarters as well, the floors are made of tatami mats.


Whereas the floors in his working areas were covered in lush carpets. I’m give or take about the floors, but I love those curtains.

The building served as a prefectural office for a short period of time, and then as the Matsue Folklore Museum for a few decades, but ended with the 2011 opening of the Matsue History Museum nearby in a new (and very nice) building modeled on a high ranking samurai home. Kounkaku was closed for about two years undergoing renovations, and reopened last October both as a general tourism spot and as an event space.

We’ve hosted a couple of receptions for delegates from Matsue’s Friendship City, New Orleans, here on the second floor (it’s tempting to call it a ballroom, but it was not actually designed as a party space). I’ve had a few people ask me if the building was based on Southern plantation buildings, as something about it feels very much like home to them.

I can’t say it feels familiar to me, but I do feel at home in buildings that transport you back to ages long ago. Great care was taken in preserving the buildings’ integrity while adding accessibility options and toilets to the back of it outside of the original building. The paint colors are as close to the original as we have sources to indicate, and all the locks and keyholes, marbled Meiji glass, and wooden door remain the same. Even the knicks in the wood from years of use remain as they are, adding character akin to freckles to a building that remains proud and regal.

My affection for the state of the building made me alarmed when I was consulted about adding a cafe to the downstairs.

I could see why it seemed like a good idea on the surface, but I was consumed with how many ways a good idea could go wrong. There was some talk about opening a Cafe Du Monde chain there, given the connections between Matsue and New Orleans and that Japan is the only place where the chicory coffee and beignet shop allows any chains. If they put enough effort into maintaining the character of both Cafe Du Monde and of Kounkaku I though that had potential to be very impressive, but the company that owns the Cafe Du Monde chains in Japan–and made an abomination of them by selling breakfast hot dog sandwiches and not even providing beignets at its Kyoto Station location–likely would not allow the city such flexibility to try to honor the original. What’s a more, a chain—-if it were any kind of coffee shop with a recognizable name in Japan, that name would inevitably be all over the Meiji architecture, during the imperial guest house into a shrine to modern commerce and convenience culture. With those fears in mind, I strong advised that unless they could made an independant shop with commitment to a Meiji style atmosphere and menu, it would be safer not to chance it with a commercial enterprise.

Granted, my advise was only asked for in passing, but I doubt my influence went very far. There were other who also loved the building who had even more grave concerns, such as keeping the Prfectural Cultural Property from going up in flames due to electrical fires.

The cafe opened at the same time the building reopened to visitors last fall. And to my pleasant surprise, the Kamedayama Tea Room was not a name I recognized.

I should know by now that Matsue loves its castle town atmosphere too much to let it be sold out in the name of progress. Even the castle tower itself only stands today because a Meiji period citizens’ group pooling money together to buy it from the government to prevent it from being demolished in a nationwide effort to toss out the old and unnecessary remnants of feudal Japan. Likewise, they would not let just any cafe operate inside of a building as special as Kounkaku.

As the name suggests, it is named for the mount on which Matsue Castle stands. Due to strict fire prevention guidelines placed on designated cultural properties, there are limits to how much electricity the cafe can use, and no open flames are allowed. As such, the food is prepared off site and kept cooled and/or heated up on the premises, thereby although reducing noise. Visual noise is also kept to a minimum with the sleek and understated design of the furniture and dishes.

So far I’ve only tried an Earl Grey with persimmon cheesecake, as well as one breakfast there, but they do have an appetizing lunch menu as well. I am also very intrigued by the Kuromoji Tea, a brew hailing from the nearby Oki Islands and long since a favorite in Shimane Prefecture. I’ll bet it’s fragrant, and I’m saving trying it for a time when I don’t need a kick of caffeine.

It’s now also the closest spot to Matsue Castle to grab lunch or stop in for tea time. Of course, that doesn’t mean the springtime picnics around the castle are likely to decrease.