A few months back I had the opportunity to meet with the Yamaguchi couple. Mrs. Yamaguchi is the president of Saiundo, one of the major local wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) producers in Matsue, which, along with Kyoto and Kanazawa, is one of the top cities known for wagashi. Saiundo operates in other parts of the San’in region as well, and they have also been involved in wagashi promotion abroad in places like New York City and Paris (see their English product descriptions here).

A motif that’s already come and passed, served with frothy matcha

The main Saiundo shop, a short walk west of Matsue JR Station.

Serving a wagashi market abroad comes with considerable challenges, especially when it comes to namagashi, fresh handcrafted sweets with constantly changing seasonal motifs (at Saiundo, they change every 10 days or so based on designs the artisans propose). Not only does it require educating new markets about the aesthetics of a dessert they may not be accustomed to the tastes of, but it requires having partners they can trust to retain the integrity of the company’s products, and even technical requirements such as special refrigeration. The weather can even provide challenges, as the ingredients used in wagashi are suited to the particular climate of Japan, and the humidity might not even be high enough to retain the right texture!

Within Japan, Matsue not only has the right seasonal weather for wagashi, but by my observation, they also seem to have the right cultural climate given the historical emphasis on tea culture (thanks, Lord Fumai). I asked about this, and asked business owners with a longer history in Matsue than I do, they expressed some challenges they face. A more Western-style sweet tooth has sweet most of Japan, so they have started providing Western style sweets in addition to their wagashi line-up so as to fit a wider range of occasions. Mr. Yamaguchi also mentioned the generation gap and that many high school students today say they hate azuki (sweet red beans), and key ingredient in the world of Japanese sweets. “That’s only because they haven’t had good azuki!” he insisted, obviously quite passionate about this topic.

I have to relate–after having a bad experience with azuki ice cream when I tried it when I was 12, I went almost a decade without being able to look at something the color of azuki without being disgusted. Having grown up in the US with only seeing beans used in hearty dishes like chili and never in sweets, it was also a bit of a mental thing to overcome. Thankfully, I now regularly eat–and enjoy!–wagashi with good quality azuki that retain their bean appearance, but I still am wary of processed azuki in mass-produced sweets.

Another challenge we talked about was the differences in taste. One of my favorite Saiundo products is “Manten,” a kanten (agar-agar, or vegetable gelatin) sweet with a starry sky motif only sold around summer. Because it stays fresh a little longer than hand-molded seasonal sweets, I brought one home to my family. They all thought it looked pretty and were excited to try it, but not a single person ate much. Something about the flavor didn’t sit will with them. Maybe it was not so much the light flavor, but the shocking lack of flavor from something that looked like it should be like Jell-o?

I often hear Japanese people say that Westerners probably don’t take a liking to Japanese sweets because they are used to much sweeter things like cake and cookies, but I’ve noticed that the opposite tends to be true. The first time I had fresh wagashi eight years ago it was too sweet for me to enjoy, despite my love of almost everything sweet. It felt like I was suffering to swallow something like sugar polished and packed into something even heavier and sweeter than any regular spoonful of raw sugar could be, and it made the matcha–which I already disliked due to my distaste of bitter things–taste even more sharply bitter than it otherwise would have been. Haha, my 18-year-old self, little did you know that you would go on to love both wagashi and matcha and consume them almost every week, but the experience still provides some insight I think most wagashi eaters or sellers have not always noticed.

It came up in the comments of my blog at some point and I wish I could remember and credit who said it (I have it narrowed down to a few of you in my mind!), but one of my readers made a very good point: western sweets dilute the sweetness with fats, but wagashi, naturally lower in fats, sugars, and artificial colors and flavors, have little to dilute the sweetness, thereby making wagashi very, very sweet to those who are not accustomed to them.

Perhaps if I had more familiarity with wagashi the first time I had one, I would have been more prepared for the sweetness, and I would have had more of an appreciation for it as edible craftsmanship. Craftsmanship with wagashi is something Saiundo and other wagashi shops in Matsue continue to encourage, and I happened to visit during an exhibition of edible sculptures. For instance, they occasional do weddings, and they had some examples of their personalized arrangements there.

And yes, those ones in front are what they look like–Shimane Prefecture’s official mascot, Shimanekko!

It’s very common to see wagashi sculptures that have plant motifs, like the following.

Camellia (tsubaki) are one of the representative flowers of Matsue, and this whole display is titled “Matsue.” The other key featured is the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat, which is seen at all daylight hours cruising around the Edo period moats than remain a key part of the city layout.

Speaking of celebrating local culture, two of the most impressive sculptures were of Izumo Taisha as it supposedly stood in the Kamakura Period, and a Yamata-no-Orochi mask as used in Iwami Kagura theater style. (However impressive, I’m not sure the sugar head spews real fire like the Iwami Kagura heads do.)

My favorite of all of the displays was this one that seemed to have a certain charm that reminded me of home. It probably felt western to me given the emphasis on fallen leaves, and given that wild squirrels are not really a thing in Japan.

Over the course of our conversation, a few small children came up to the second floor to view the displays, asking questions the whole time, like if these things were all wagashi and therefore all edible. Mr. Yamaguchi proudly answered each of their repeated questions, like “What color are wagashi usually?”

The comment they kept repeating to themselves was “wagashi sugoi… wagashi sugoi…

Wagashi are cool… wagashi are amazing…

The San’in region is known for its cloudy weather, and with clouds comes rain.
Likewise, it is also known for its deep ties with En-musubi, a mysterious power that brings people together and binds fate.
So of course the two should go hand in hand, right?

Matsue has entire tourism campaigns–including hotel and restaurant deals, themed cocktails and desserts, and seemingly scavenger hunts–all themed around Enishizuku (縁雫), the “drops of En” that bind everyone together.

These raindrops, however filled with mystical fate-binding power they may be, fall on everyone indiscriminately. Enter the Dan-Dan Kasa program, a cooperative project between two local NPOs to provide free umbrellas–marked by their stickers and special crates outside of frequented buildings–that tourists can take as needed. Well, in my case, you don’t have to be a tourist to take them. Thankfully I’ve forgotten enough umbrellas everywhere to have made my contributions back to this program I’ve benefitted so much from.

There are some particularly “Matsue” umbrellas that I’ve always liked, but have never allowed myself to purchase because I know how likely I am to forget them somewhere when I walk back outside into sunny weather. They’re sturdy, wide, and chic, with various colors–especially red–lined with black on the outer edge and marked with the small Enishizuku label. You see these everywhere, and they evoke a strong sense of Matsue’s character.

When it comes to Matsue and umbrellas, I also picture the large red one in Karakoro Square, which provides shelter from both the sun and the rain. Even if people haven’t gotten the lay of the land enough yet to know what you mean by “Karakoro Square” they usually light up with an “aha!” moment if you mention the giant red umbrella.

Obviously this feels more like it should be a June post than a Halloween post in keeping with the officially recognized Rainy Season (tsuyu), but really, rain is a year round occurence here. It may feel more like an October post given the especially powered-up En-musubi in the air during Kamiarizuki, but if you go by the old agricultural calendar, the gods still aren’t here yet for a few weeks.

But the timing is appropriate, I assure you! Here is a local ghost story about umbrellas.

The Red Umbrella, based on Michiko Hara’s adaptation in Kazukiyo Takahashi’s new compilation of Matsue ghost stories:

There once was an umbrella shop along the canals leading from Matsue Castle to Lake Shinji. The only son, named Denkichi, was nearing age 30 and was well-known for his filial piety. In addition to learning his father’s craft, he also kept the shop tidy, prepared the daily meals, and did the laundry all by himself.

“It’d be so nice if you could get married soon,” his sick mother said from where she was bedridden. “If you had a bride, then at least you wouldn’t have to go so far as to do all the cooking too.” They had taken her to see a local specialist who said that her condition was incurable, but it could be treated with medicine. This medicine, however, was very expensive.

In order to attain the money for this medicine, Denkichi fervently studied from his father and produced umbrellas, but in his haste, he added too much oil to the paper of a number of them and they became too thick to close. There was no fixing them, so rather than wasting them he painted them red and lined them up in front of the store as signs.

One spring evening, while Denkichi just happened to be outside the shop, he was approached by a man with one attendant who said he was actually the lord of Matsue going around town in disguise, but the sudden rainfall was causing him distress. Therefore, without knowing that the lined up umbrellas could not close, he had his attendant give him a sum of money to purchase them, and after taking them, they left.

However, that money, which would have gone towards his mother’s medicine, turned into a handful of leaves a short time later. Denkichi realized he had been tricked by a fox, and vexing though it was, there was nothing he could do.

A few days later when Denkichi was on his way home from selling umbrellas in the Kawatsu area of town, he came across the feudal lord who happened to be out enjoying a stroll at Mt. Rakuzan. “Ah! It’s that fox!” Denkichi growled. “Thought you pulled a fast one on me, didn’t you? Didn’t you! You pay up right now! Right now! That’s money for my mother’s–”

He had been coming at the fox threatening to hit it with an umbrella, but unfortunately for Denkichi, that was not a fox but the real lord of Matsue. “Insolent fellow, what do you think you’re doing?” one of the lord’s retainers shouted, and then swiftly stabbed Denkichi, leaving him for dead as the samurai class was privileged to do to the commoners.

When Denkichi’s parents received his body later, they wailed, crying out that he was such a good son and wondering how this cruel fate could have happened. Though nothing could stop their tears, there was no way they could take up complaint against the feudal lord or seek justice.

That night, around 3 o’clock in the morning, the lord saw an umbrella monster with a red, uncloseable umbrella. It seemed to carry with it a samurai with one of the bamboo bones of the umbrella stabbed through his abdomen like a sword, and from that corpse red blood began pouring unceasingly all over the lord’s white sheets. The lord grabbed his sword and swung it at the monster, but the monster itself disappeared, leaving only its twisted, angry face and the continuing stream of blood.

By morning, there was no trace of blood, but his experiences of the night still left the lord terrified. He suddenly remembered the umbrella vendor that had been slain the day before, and he sent one of retainers to investigate. When the retainer returned, he reported, “It seems he was a young man well-known for his filial piety.”

“I see,” said the lord, and then he ordered, “From now on, purchase all of the umbrellas made by this shop, and when it rains, line them up along the canals so that anyone may be free to use them.”

He was never bothered by the umbrella monster again, and to this day, you can still see red umbrellas lined up along the canals of Matsue on rainy days.

The gods are here
It’s Kamiarizuki
Better light the way!


Here in Matsue
We call this Suitoro
Lantern Festival


Around the Castle
On a breezy night time stroll
Handmade lanterns gleam


Each one unique
Celebrating the city
In various styles

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

Not only on foot
You can view them by boat too
City of Water~

Click for source and more photos (Japanese)

It’s not on a Tuesday, and it’s not in the usual season, and it’s not in New Orleans… but that’s not been stopping everyone in Matsue from having a good time and celebrating the culture of New Orleans every October for the past four years.

The Matsue New Orleans Club started as a social club for people with similar interests in New Orleans, especially jazz. In addition to other jazz events throughout the year, they started putting on Little Mardi Gras to do out-reach to children. The city has been very supportive of this, especially since New Orleans has been Matsue’s Friendship City for over 21 years now. Likewise, the City of New Orleans has also been very supportive, as well as very impressed. School bands, as well as other interested community members, learn to perform jazz numbers and parade through the streets and hand out not-so-easily-attained-in-large-quantities Mardi Gras beads to the spectators who come to watch in the castle town’s shopping streets.

This year, the parade went from near Matsue Castle down to the Ohashi Bridge and then back to the Shimane Civic Center for ongoing live performances. Although the layout of the city has largely remained unchanged since it was planned over 400 years ago, you’d almost think this city was built for parades, especially since the Ohashi Bridge provides such a picturesque spot for both spectating and showing off.

After a number of the elementary through high school bands paraded through, members of our regular visitors and assisting organizers, the Khachaturian Band, walked in ahead of the Shimane University brass band.

Once everyone made it to the bridge, we all squished there under the radiant blue skies for the battle of the bands, heading it off in a medley of practiced “When the Saints go Marching In” renditions. Although the San’in region is known for shadow more so than for sunshine, this was the second time we’ve hosted delegations from New Orleans in conjuction with Little Mardi Gras, and both times the visitors have brought us amazing weather.

The blue sky over Ohashikan, a ryokan that overlooks the Ohashi Bridge and Ohashi River.

On the flip side, Mardi Gras 2014 was rained out in both New Orleans and Matsue, with some sort of shared fate. However, the cycle of luck goes on–on both our sunny 2013 and 2015 parades, the Saints won both weekends (and as of when I’m writing this, so far this season that is the only game the Saints have won. Looks like we better hold more parades).

While there is some Saints influence seen throughout the parade, music remains the focus, and while each band shows off, the others duck down low for everyone to take their spotlight, which they pop up ready for the moment their name is announced. It all builds up to everyone performing unison, everyone from elementary school students to traveling professionals.

After that, and a few comments from our visitors to rile everyone up for more celebration, it’s time to turn the parade back around for a second go, this time back towards the castle.

One of the biggest differences between Matsue’s Little Mardi Gras and the big carnival that goes on for weeks in New Orleans, besides the obvious lack of floats, is that Japan isn’t so keen on throwing prizes (unless you’re throwing stone-hard mochi and shooting arrows in shrines, yeah, that’s perfectly acceptable). Therefore, instead of “throws” they’re more like “hand-outs.” Although the organizers always make sure to prepare beads, this year the delegates from New Orleans went all out with specialized Krewe beads, vintage doubloons, King Cake babies, cups, scarves, and then some.

The parade keeps growing every year, but looks like the bar just got set higher! Hopefully we’ll have some more visitors from New Orleans next year to ensure more good weather.

Although I have three other cities in other prefectures that I consider additional homes in Japan due to the ties I’ve made through extended or multiple homestay experiences, I’ve never introduced myself as being from Seki, Tahara, or Hirakata. I have had the pleasure instead of introducing myself in the Kanto and Kansai regions, and even in New Orleans, as being from Matsue. I wasn’t lying, really! I was there to represent the city as one who is part of the city! Do not be fooled by my features, I came from Matsue!

Speaking of New Orleans, we just had a group visit for a TOMODACHI Initiative exchange program, the second part of a two-year grant. Last year the Japan Society of New Orleans hosted a group (and I got to tag along as part of the official city delegation!), and we got to return the hospitality this time.

The Friendship City relationship between Matsue and New Orleans, due to their shared links with Lafcadio Hearn, is now 21 years old and I’ve had the pleasure of being a key person for a very active period in their exchange history. Besides being the primary point of contact and managing all the communication and translation at official and often unofficial levels, I also teach people in Matsue about New Orleans. At first I was hesitant to do this because I had only basic familiarity with this very, very unique city, but I’ve learned a lot and got to learn even more by actually visiting there and being some of the representative eyes of Matsue. Now it is up to the group we just hosted to go back and tell the people in New Orleans more about Matsue as they saw it!

Nevertheless, I still most confidently claim that I am from Colorado Springs, and I am very happy to give presentations about my hometown too. I should still try to go to Fujiyoshida at some point and visit my own Sister City…

When I write about traditional culture here in Matsue, I try to show some amount of nuanced appreciation for the aesthetics and history involved.

Sometimes, however, I just need to be a squealing fangirl for pretty things.

Please allow me to indulge a bit in this entry about a local wagashi shop called Tachibana, located off the southeastern banks of Lake Shinji, very close to the scientifically determined best sunset viewing spot (made obvious by the theater-like steps from which large crowds of people gather to admire the free show), a short stroll further south from the Shimane Art Museum. I had gone there after work one fine Tuesday to go see the Atelier Mourlot and 20th Century Lithography in Paris exhibition, and stopped many times a long the way to attempt to capture Lake Shinji’s late afternoon soft, glittery hues on my phone. A hopeless venture, really.

Upon arriving at the museum, I remembered that it is closed on Tuesdays. Oops.

I wandered around a bit, thought I might check out a restaurant in that area for dinner and then catch the sunset before going home, but I couldn’t spot the interesting looking restaurants I thought I had seen from car windows before. I found myself at Tachibana instead, and it was my second time there. I had been there before earlier this past January for this year’s Hatsugama (first tea ceremony of the new year) in the tea ceremony space upstairs. I was already charmed by this entrance way then in the middle of winter:

But being busy with the ceremony, I didn’t even notice this entry way.

Or this area facing the lake.

I’m glad no one was out there at the time so that they didn’t overhear my squeal of excitement, or exclamation of admiration, or whatever the sound that came out of me was. Forget restaurants, I decided. I was getting some sweets instead and I’d just backtrack to a combini for dinner.

Lately I’m a big fan of jellies (think gelatin, not jam) and yokan, as these aren’t too filling, they’re refreshing in hot and humid weather, and they last a long time so I can purchase them spontaneously but wait to enjoy them until later. That said, there were quite a few to choose from so I went back and forth for a long time before eventually deciding on a brown sugar yokan with kinako (roasted soybean flour–more appetizing than it sounds) topping, and a tomato and peach jelly. As suspected I wasn’t a big fan of tomato as a sweet when I tried it a week later, but the brown sugar yokan was the perfect amount of sweetness when I just needed a light pick-me-up. I would said I’d get it again, but the yokan served in little bamboo-model containers also looked tempting…

Speaking of tempting, I had to keep myself from squealing with delight over everything on display in there, much less splurge on all the other sweets on display as well. After making my I-sort-of-kept-myself-under-control-by-only-buying-two purchase, I asked the lady at the counter if I could take pictures, and when she said yes, I allowed myself to go a little crazier.

Ahem. Please excuse my excitement, but…

LOOK AT ALL THESE BEAUTIFUL NAMAGASHIIIII!!!!!!! I was so tempted to get one of those clear ones to hold up against the sunset scenery!!

And speaking of sunset scenery, look! THEY ALREADY MADE MATSUE SCENERY IN EDIBLE FORM!!!

And look! LOOK!! There are so-o-o-o-o-o many adorable higashi here!!

There are even MORE displays of sweets over here, and–what are those on the wall beyond them? Oh no, they don’t just sell sweet things here, they sell silk things too!! Too much aesthetic, ah, I can’t handle it!!

And right behind you, look, look! EVEN MORE SWEETS—and ceramics, kyaaaa!

I need to calm down. Well, I could certainly do so in the cafe space right there, but what sweet would I even choose to enjoy with some tea there? No, Buri-chan, resist, resist! You already made your purchase, get out of there! You still want to catch the sunset back at the art museum. Ah, but I suppose the view from these windows would be just as—no, Buri-chan, go, go! Get out of there!

I did talk myself out of staying there too long and indulging in wagashi all by myself. It’s not as if I don’t have a history of indulging in sweets all by myself when I’m out and about, but I’d like to avoid doing that too often. Besides the whole saving money and not eating too much sugar stuff, it’s such a waste to eat wagashi all by yourself too often. They’re meant to be a conversation piece. They’re made such that you enjoy them the presense of other people, to observe and appreciate them, and discuss their timeliness as a way of enjoying the moment with the company you have in that very moment.

Wagashi are best squealed about in company. Though we are divided by time and space, thanks for enjoying these with me to the limited extended that the virtual world allows and squealing with me in spirit.

One of my favorite memories so far as a CIR in Matsue was the Yakumo International Theatre Festival last November in a mountainous southern district of Matsue. It is held every three years, and over the course of four or five days, professional theater troupes from around the world gather in the village area, experience home stays, and practically backflip over language barriers as they mingle with the local audiences of all ages.

As I am already a big fan of many performaning arts, I was very, very excited to hear about this event. Of course there are regularly traveling professional performances hosted at Matsue’s regal concert hall and culture center, Plover Hall, and at the medium and large size theaters inside the Shimane Civic Center. What I really miss from my university days, however, was getting in free to a wide variety of performances of plays I had never heard of staged in intimate and small settings where the stage takes up the whole world around you. Famous performances in grand halls get you exposed to high culture that often requires some mental effort to fully engage in, but in an intimate setting with a story you’ve never had any exposure to, it engages you directly through the heart.

Therefore, I was excited to not only find out about the festival, but that one of the venues is Japan’s smallest public theater, nestled right into the mountain forest. Shiinomi Theater is a wooden building with seating for 108, designed with class and intimacy in mind. It is managed by a community theater group called Ashibue. Besides the local actors and volunteers of very professional caliber, they also collaborate with professionals from around Japan. I had the pleasure of being invited to one of their practice performances last year to provide some input on how they were tailoring it for a multinational audience, which was a major treat. The director, Tsukushi Sonoyama, left a very deep impression on me. She had an intimidating presence and gave sharp directions, as she had a clear vision and was determined to see it through. I thought she was so cool!

Therefore, even more and more to my excitement, I was overjoyed when I was asked to help with the opening ceremony for the festival. I’ve done the interpreting or English emceeing for a handful of ceremonies, and they’re always fun to some extent while following a typical formula. This, however, was–by design–no run-of-the-mill Japanese ceremony. Director Sonoyama directed it like a theater production, and I was really, really happy to receive her directions on what words to stress, where to pause, where to lead people into applause or prevent them from applause quite yet. It was no simple run-through as usual; I got to receive serious direction from a person whose directing admired. Even though I was speaking into a microphone off stage the entire time and reading from a script, I got to be a theatrical version of myself again instead of a ghost-like interpretor trying not to attract too much attention away from the speaker, or a formal English emcee guiding an audience through a process. I got to be part of an artistic vision.

The days (and long nights) leading up to the opening ceremony gave me a peak into the world of the passionate and serious volunteers who are committed to setting a consistent tone for the festival and seeing it through smoothly. I admired them all, and it built my excitement up even more. I still felt a little apprehensive, though—without a car, how hard would it be to get around all the little mountain venues? Would rural audiences be receptive to so many international theater approaches?

The opening ceremony itself went very well. I did the English emceeing with a Japanese co-host throughout most it, but in the second half he had to leave to be on stage for Ashibue’s opening performance so I did both the English and the Japanese. We only introduced ourselves at the very end of the first half before the intermission, and until that point, a handful of the people who know me at Matsue City Hall (such as the mayor and my department head) thought, “Hm, this voice sounds really familiar… what!? That was Buri-chan!?”

Although there were many, many performances I really wanted to go to, I had some other schedule conflicts that long weekend and could only afford to spend one full day there. I watched three productions: A puppet show with Japanese narration by the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company from Argentina, a multilingual and interactive dance production by CORPUS from Canada, and a play by Magnet Theatre from South Africa that did not really require knowledge of English or French to enjoy, though they blended use of both.

As for my concerns, I found access was not a problem at all, even when it rained. There were free shuttles going back and forth from Matsue Station all day, so even without a car I had no difficulty in getting to the Yakumo village area. Likewise, there were shuttles cycling all the venues sites, including the large Alba Hall and little Shiinomi Theaters, as well as the crafts fair and restuarant area, where the menu each day was inspired by the cuisine of some of the countries that the theater groups came from (prepared by a local chef who is known for doing this at monthly parties full of authentic and vegetarian food). Everywhere you went on that cold autumn day, there was a sense of warmth from the theater festival’s decorations and designs, especially its apple theme with the tag line, “Theatre is food for the heart.”

As for the audience receptions? I of course loved all the productions I watched, but I also loved seeing how it affected the other audience members. After the puppet show I saw people passionately express how moved they were by the performance, including an old man with tears in his eyes. The outdoor dance performance had everyone from kids to old people practically in stiches with laughter, and the dad they pulled out of the audience to play “Fifi” got really into it and looked like he was having a lot of fun, even if he perhaps could not believe what he was doing in front of so many people. The performance by Magnet Theatre was both comedic and movingly dramatic even if you couldn’t understand all the words, and I’m getting chills now thinking back to sitting back in Shiinomi Theater and watching it. Although the scene when they lit stage objects on fire has a lot of impact, I’m thinking more of the scene later on when the daughter realizes the truth that her mother had tried to protect her from the whole time. Ah, I want to cry!

So why do I bring this all up now, even when I don’t even have any good pictures to share?

Because although the next Yakumo International Theatre festival is going to be 2017, this September they are hosting the Little Forest Theater Festival!

There will be a variety of puppet shows, including a repeat visit from the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company, and also Ashibue’s “Gorsch the Cellist.” Unfortunately I will be out of town during the festival this year, but fortunately I will be in town for a couple later stagings of “Gorsch the Cellist.” I’m looking forward to seeing a production at Shiinomi Theater in the crisp autumn air again!

It’s easy to get caught up in routine, to lose sight of the specialness in the scenery around me. I live very close to Matsue Castle and the preserved scenery of the area. I’ve walked Shiomi Nawate, one of the top 100 historic streets of Japan, many hundreds of times, at many times of day, in any kind of weather we get here. Yet for all those times, I still had not visited Yakumo-an’s dessert cafe annex tucked alongside the Samurai Residence a rainy morning this past July.

Yakumo-an is a famous Izumo Soba restaurant (one of many) found along Matsue’s preserved Edo-period street (one of many places to get Izumo Soba around there), and every weekend you see tourists pouring in to enjoy the garden scenery, subdued and retro atmosphere of the wooden buildings displaying the signatures of the famous people who have dined there, and of course, the array of Izumo Soba options. I’ve written about this famous local dish (and how to eat it) before. On a three day weekend, you always need to expect a long wait to get in. While they do serve dessert there as well, the cafe annex is a few openings later along the Edo era blackened wood and white walls, facing the northern moat of the castle.

The entrance to Yakumo-an’s Izumo Soba restaurant

The more subdued entrance to the Yakumo-an dessert cafe

It was a routine Sunday morning, and walking back along Shiomi Nawate with rain both freshly fallen and threatening to fall again, the wetness highlighted the contrast between the abundance of green and the dark black of the bark of the pines along the moat, with droplets lingering on all the pine needles. To the other side, the black trim along the wall was stark against the white-painted walls, and I looked up as I walked instead of straight forward. Why had I never noticed how many different trees were reaching out above the wall? Were those unripe persimmons growing there? Ah, little snails tucked under the black tiles at the top. Oh, pomegranates!

The cafe, unlike its restaurant counterpart, was quiet with only soft jazz and a little rushed gossip between the lady on duty and another lady who had come in to drop something off. I took a seat by the window to look out at the Samurai House and the bamboo forest behind it and watch the umbrella-bearing couples of various ages walk through and observe a taste of a middle ranking samurai’s lifestyle. That bamboo forest is one of my favorite spots to see lit up during Suitoro, the month-long lantern festival every October, but right now there are some orange flowers that have caught my attention against the deep summer greens.

Although the whole menu looks tasty, I decide to go with the signature item, the Fumai-ko (one guess who that is–only my personal favorite local historical figure.) I got it for the matcha jelly, but there was much more than that: ice cream, a fluffy mousse-like matcha concoction above the gelatanious portion, tsubu-an (sweetened and semi-crushed red azuki beans), some soft and tiny mochi (rice cakes), and a sweet source I could not place the flavor of. Thinking back, it may have been made with condensed milk like is sometimes poured on top of Japanese style kakigori (shaved ice).

I will be the first to admit that I’ll take a Western style dessert before a Japanese style dessert most of the time, especially given that I had a strong aversion to azuki for a long time. I didn’t even enjoy fresh and artistic wagashi the first time I had them five years before coming to Matsue. Life has gotten easier since learning to like it, and indeed, it’s gotten a lot better. How amazing is it that matcha and azuki go so well together? It’s hard to imagine a better harmony among the world of Japanese sweets, as if they are made for each other when sweetened a little.

The elements of these dessert harmonized such that every bit was best when at least one element was in combination with at least one other element. I like to have a bit of at least every part of a dish seperately to appreciate each flavor, but this was the kind of dish that was best in combination–any combination. The hardest part was savoring enough of each flavor so that I wasn’t left with too much of a single item for the last bite!

Like many cafes serving traditional Japanese desserts, it comes with a little cup of hot tea to wash it down, usually a bancha. This is picked at a later flush than other Japanese sencha so it is less astringent and more grassy and smooth. Although considered of lower and cheaper quality, this is a nice tea for everyday use, and it doesn’t conflict with sweet flavors. I always like observing the tea cups it is served in.

Maneki-neko (beckoning cats)

Very enthusiastic maneki-neko

I left not-over-hungry, not-over-full, chilled out in both a physical and emotional sense, and aware anew of the treasure trove of a street I live so close to.

Japan has a thing for oysters (牡蠣 kaki), and in the past handful of years many locales have begun harvesting them to attract gourmet travelers. Places like the ever popular Miyajima have long been known for their magaki, a winter delicacy, whereas iwagaki–rock oysters–are a Sea of Japan thing that are especially good during the spring and summer months. Oysters bars have become very popular in fashionable areas of Tokyo. The Matsue iwagaki sold in Tokyo tend to go for a ¥1200, whereas at 17 restaurants in town that sell official Matsue Iwagaki you can find them for as cheap as ¥800 for a single oysters. That’s still a lot of money for what many people all over the world cringe at the thought of putting in their mouths.

As a little personal history, I have been an extremely picky eater for as far back as I can remember. I am especially finicky about textures and how things feel when I chew them, and as a little kid, there was a time I had a mouthful of meat but refused to chew it because I so hated the rubbery bits of gristle. I am still haunted by the seemingly reliable chicken sandwiches in elementary school lunches that suddenly had a rubbery bit to failingly sink my teeth into. I often choose to forgo meat altogether because I’m so picky about lean cuts with good texture. This is part of why I love tofu–it’s dependably smooth.

However, as an adult, I’m quite proud that I’ve taught myself to tolerate–and even enjoy–many foods I used to refuse to touch. I can trace a lot of this back to my first trip to Japan when I was 18, when I tried foods again that I had refused to eat in years, or tried entirely new things, and found that they weren’t all that scary to have in my mouth after all. In fact, many of them were surprisingly pleasant.

Now, almost eight years later, my tastes and eating preferences have been mostly transformed. I still, however, loathe the rubbery sensation of gristle.

So… oysters? In particular, very large iwagaki? No, thank you, I was sure.

However, in the spirit of trying not to be so picky and having had many pleasant surprises over the years, I gave them a shot while visiting the Oki Islands because they were highly recommended. I figured that, if they were anything like sazae (turban shells, another Sea of Japan specialty), then I’d probably best be able to tolerate them covered in curry. Hence, I went with the deep-fried kaki covered in Japanese style curry sauce.

This is an abomination, as any oyster lover would tell you. Not knowing any better, I found them tolerable but not tasty. They were just chewy things in my curry. I decided I was not a fan of oysters.

It turns out, some other Sea of Japan spots with an iwagaki brand outright forbid the deep-frying of their oysters for the sake of preserving the integrity of the brand. Speaking of branding, I was invited to sample some Matsue Iwagaki from the cliffs of Shimane-cho so as to spread the word about this delicacy. I wasn’t particularly thrilled, but hoped maybe I could request some butter fried ones that I saw listed among the ways they are prepared, as I though that might make them more tolerable.

This invitation included a visit to the place where they are harvested. They began harvesting them on ropes with seeder oysters from the Oki islands about 17 years ago. The oysters take about 3 to 5 years to mature, and by then they are covered in plenty of other goods from the sea (many of which are also harvestable, such as the seaweed).

Although you can order them deep-fried or butter fried, grilling them over an open fire until they are half-cooked is a tantalizing option, but steaming them until they are half-cooked seems to be the most popular method. That is, if you’re even cooking them–by and large, every oyster fan I’ve met insists on them being served raw, as that is how you can taste them best.

I don’t care about the taste–what’s going to keep them from being rubbery!? When I mentioned to one of the people who proudly set me up for this taste test, he smilingly–but firmly–corrected me that they are tender, not rubbery. In Japanese, they are ぷりぷり (puripuri). While we were at the port, he also told us about a gigantic buri that was caught there. (I don’t think he knew my name as he was telling this story with me standing right next to him, but all my friends were giving me funny smiles. Yes, I share a name with a tasty fish. Yes, I know, I’m smooth and delicious. Not rubbery.)

They served us two freshly caught, steamed iwagaki each. I added a smidge of ponzu to one and a smidge of lemon to the other, as acidic things are supposed to bring out the thick, creamy flavor of this so-called milk of the sea.

It was… chewy… but… more tender than I expected.

In fact, now that I could actually taste it instead of deep-frying it and drowning it in curry, I could actually see why people like these things. Even the juice in the shell was salty but tasty. I didn’t even mind going for the second helping.

So… oddly enough, I guess I can honestly say they were good… and I might even have enjoyed them, now that I think about it. Now I find it a shame that I didn’t try them raw with no sauce, as apparently that would have been the ultimate oyster experience.

But hey, I do live in Matsue and can take my freshest choice of them anytime they’re in season, April through June. This is easier to do than I thought it would be, but I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you to come out and try them with me. Otherwise, you oyster lovers can just be jealous of these big things at my fingertips.

On May 15, 2015, Matsue Castle was deemed a National Treasure!

It was already Important Cultural Property and one of the twelve remaining original castles of Japan, noted especially for the atmosphere within from its wooden floors, pillars, and stairs, steep and uneven with the same character they had when the castle was completed back in 1611. It is now the fifth castle around Japan to enjoy this status, one that a dedicated citizens’ group had long been working to achieve. Matsue Castle has a history of relying on its citizens, as it was only due to the citizens’ insistence and fundraising to purchase it from the government that it was saved from being burned down during the Meiji Period, when many castles were deemed unnecessary by the Westernizing government and subsequently torn down (only to be rebuilt in concrete years later). The black castle, affectionately nicknamed Chidori-jo (Plover Castle) for its sweeping, gabled roofs, and the original rock walls and moats and canals, and even the town layout designed to protect the castle from intruding armies remain much as the same as they were in the Edo period.

It’s okay to be a little jealous that I get to see this National Treasure every day from my window. Life here is pretty cool.


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