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.


On September 27th, the moon was at its biggest and brightest, the closest it would be to the earth for 2015. On this day, many people in Japan practiced Tsukimi–quite literally, “moon viewing.”

But this story doesn’t take place on the 27th. It takes place on the 26th.

Being a big fan of our closest celestial friend and one to take notice of it at any time of year, I always loved that there are so many cultural activities in east Asia surrounding the act of viewing the moon. I have spent four previous harvest moons in Japan and noticed all the specials in the stores from Tsukimi Burgers (burgers with egg, because the egg is round like the moon) to dango with rabbits on the packages (instead of a man on the moon, the shadows are said to resemble a rabbit bounding rice cake, though please allow me to point out it should be a hare and not a rabbit because rabbits are not native to Japan). However, I had never engaged in the act of offering dango to the moon, appreciating susuki (pampas grass) decorations under the moonlight, or anything the tea ceremony offers surrounding this nature-viewing event.

Unsurprisingly, there are many tools and tastes set aside specifically for moon viewing, or in celebration of the moon. For instance, chestnuts and sweet potatoes are also in season around this time, so they are often incorporated in the decorations or sweets. Furthermore, the containers for tea that might usually have a gold interior instead have a silver interior because the moon is associated with a silver color. Then of course, you have a plethora of scrolls and tea bowls inspired by the moon or by viewing it, thereby making for a wide of array of decorations that are only used at this time of year.

Of course I was looking forward to all of that, but I was not entirely looking forward to the ceremony itself. Or rather, I was not not looking forward to putting on a kimono immediately after returning from a week out of town, fighting with the obi I had been having trouble with, and somehow looking presentable for a five hour ceremony after a five hour bus ride. Ironically, Japan’s “silver week” of three holidays in a row fell into the same week as the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, meaning my plans were stacked right on top of each other. A bit of an oversight on my part, and I cursed my over-confidence in my time management abilities as I hurriedly showered and ironed my kimono and tried to control my not-fully-dried hair. Luck was on my side, however, because I managed to tie my obi alright on the first try and only had the obi-age left to tie in the taxi.

I did not, however, bring a camera. Please bear with my verbal account instead of photos that would not do justice to a the night scene anyway.

We–about twenty people–held the ceremony at a restaurant built in the mid Edo period called Rinsuitei, which has a tea ceremony appropriate tsukubai (water basin) in the garden over looking the mouth of the Ohashi River and Lake Shinji. We heard many stories about this building and its history as the night went on, such as how they had switched to a lower tsukubai in recent years, as the term refers to a place where one must “stoop down” into a humble position as they wash their hands. Originally, they had a tall one in place, as the feudal lords of Matsue would often visit that place. They could not be expected to stoop down. Instead, they would stand there as one servant poured the water over their hands, and another would dry them with a towel. Even in hand-washing, a lord cannot be expected to get his own hands dirty. Obviously.

Our space was spread across enough rooms that we had three moon and moon-viewing related scrolls to view, as well as multiple spots for seasonal plants as decorations—in the waiting area in the hall where gourds were on display, along the hallways where Chinese lantern plants were rich in red and gold tones, in the waiting room where a flush array of wild flowers looked just as wild as if they were still in the dirt, in the alcove surrounded by windows where plump vegetables and dumplings were offered before the moon, and in the ceremony room itself, where there was a hanging boat vase set on the floor of the tokonoma (decorative alcove). I’ve seen these used hanging in the tokonoma, but this one was set with its chains trailing it like waves, implying that the boat had stopped so that the people (or in this case, flowers) on board could view the moon.

We started with the arrangement of the charcoal to prepare for the ceremony, and that is a ceremony in and of itself. This was followed by dinner, and it was the most delicious tea ceremony meal I have had yet. I even enjoyed the sake, which I typically don’t have much of a taste for! I had very pleasant conversation with O-san, the very kind old man who started practicing tea ceremony the year before I did.

While the three hosts who set everything up for us were cleaning up after dinner and preparing for the tea, the rest of us headed back out into the garden and the waiting room. The moon was visible over the roof of the annex next to us, making its only appearance from behind the clouds that we could see. The clouds surrounding it nonetheless lit up just as brightly.

The fourth generation owner of Rinsuitei joined us for the koicha (thick tea, most formal) part of the ceremony so that he could explain the scrolls and their meanings to us. He went us to tell us more about the feudal lords that dined there back in the day, and that the sign with the name of the establishment hanging inside the tea room was the calligraphy of Lord Fumai. O-san and I sat on either side of him, highlighting his words with expressions of “ehhhhhh?” to show our appreciation for the newly acquired knowledge.

“What we really don’t know much about is why my great-grandfather purchased this place in the Meiji Period.”
“Oh? There’s no information about that? He must have been rich to purchase it.”
“Yes, but we have no idea what he was doing before that to have gotten so rich,” he finished with an expression that suggested dubious ideas he may have entertained throughout the years.

The thick tea was extremely smooth and left a sweet aftertaste that spread throughout my palette, and we observed the tools by candlelight. The dim lights highlighted the silent movements of the host preparing the tea, providing just enough illumination to see each other’s faces.

We turned the lights back on during the more relaxed usu-cha (thin tea) portion, so we all got a very good look at the tea cups passed around, the one being served to the highest guest showing off an Edo craftsman’s sense of humor since you had to finish drinking all the tea before you could see the moon (the character 月 written on the bottom of the bowl). Part way through, as often happens in parties for twenty people or so among a school or two, some of the other students were asked to jump in and prepare tea for the other guests so that the busy hosts could have a break. I was one of these, and I could tell by using the tools–the sleek dark tea scoop, the textured tea caddy–that they were of a higher caliber than what I usually use in practice.

We shared the dango which one of the hosts had made as the moon offering, and to wash it down, most of us had second cups of the thinly prepared matcha. Because using and observing a variety of tools and decorations is part of the fun of the tea ceremony, the hosts asked everyone before they set out the second cups of tea before them, “This is different from the tea bowl you had before, right? If not, I’ll give it to the person next to you and get a new one.” I really, really liked the second bowl I used and perhaps took more time than usually granted to observe it, as it was like two bowls in one, or one melted over the first one or something.

The evening ran long, and the shy 14th day moon hid behind the clouds for most of the celebration. Despite all the caffeine, I was feeling much more relaxed at the end of the ceremony than I was when I arrived that afternoon. It reminded me why I was attracted to the tea ceremony in the first place.

It grounds you to the moment, treating each one as something that will never come again. It’s a brief respite from the world, cleansing all your senses with the quiet sounds of water, the sweet and bitter tastes and fragrances, and the carefully selected tools and decor to behold in your hands or just with your eyes. Despite the respite, it grounds you to your place in time and space, and brings you together with good company as you take in the details of the moment and appreciate those details together.

There may be more tsukimi tea ceremonies in the future, but this one is now in the past, a moment never to be repeated, but one I’ll remember for a long time.

While walking home one day, I noticed a big white moth lying on the pavement. I think moths are pretty, so I stopped to observe it. Almost immediately, it started running towards my shoe and hopped on.

My shoe is not a flower, little friend!

I can’t imagine what the people in the cars driving by must have thought of the American stopping to take a picture of her shoe. I tried to shake it off, but it wouldn’t budge, so I tried to burshed it off with my hand, and then it started crawling on my hand. With much coaxing, I got it to hang on to a willow branch instead. Though I wouldn’t take it home with me or anything, it was fun to get a good look at it.

I notice a lot of different white moths the region, and instead of having a destination, many of them just seem to hang in the air. There is nothing like coming across a grove of sunlit blue hydrangea in the forest and seeing the air flicker with white moths. The frustrating thing is that it’s the kind of exchanting moment that isn’t captured very well by photography!

Uh… no, not sure how the car got there… following the exchanted moths, maybe?

Other times they are more blended in the surroundings, and only in enjoying those surroundings do you notice them. For example, this white moth, as well as a slightly smaller one in a different shape, were both chilling out on this flight of sunspotted shrine steps.

Other times they’re much more noticeable among their surroundings.

Am I strange for enjoying the moths so much? There are also plenty of butterflies of different colors and sizes, and many of the big black ones remind me of lace. I also enjoy spotting lizards–and once even a little frog!–on the steps up to my apartment and around the outside walls. To try to tie this entry together a bit instead of just posting every animal encouter that lasted long enough get a photo, I have just a couple more white animal favorites from here in Matsue.

This isn’t the only migratory swan I’ve seen–Lake Shinji is a favorite spot for them, and sometimes you see crowds of them (though I was never close enough to get a picture). I haven’t seen them much around the shores with more human activity, though, so it was a surprise one day while I was eating lunch by the northeast boardwalk and it calmly and silently paddled by, against the waves.

This other encounter was while walking through Kyomise, a charming little shopping district in Matsue south of the castle.

I had never noticed cats in that store before, but then again, the doors are usually open–perhaps they only prowl when the shop is closed!

Not only is it sakura season, it’s hanami season!

Literally, it’s flower-seeing (花見), but hanami is not only a matter of seeing flowers–it’s a matter of going somewhere special to have a picnic and appreciate nature with your friends. Pack your plastic tarp, get some beer, and get some food from the local vendors, it’s time to relax! Assuming you don’t have allergies, anyway.

My friends I went to the town of Unnan, specially the area known as Kisuki. It’s one rated as one of the top 100 cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan. Accordingly, it’s well prepared for flower-viewers with manju (sweet dumplings) of all kinds and street food vendors everywhere from the parking spot to the picnic spot. That being said, though, they don’t detract from the sight and atmosphere.

The main spot for the cherry blossom festival is along the Kuno River, a stream that runs along the Hii River. The rest of the town remains fairly quiet, at least from my observation as we were driving around later.

Tree tunnels!

This is where we sat, too.

There are cherry blossom good all year round in Unnan, including fancy scarves and other items dyed with different parts of the flowers and the tree. The last time I was there, my friend bought me a little jar of perserved buds. They’re used for making a brew to drink on very special occasions (such as weddings), but can also be eaten as is. They’re surprising salty! I thought they might be nice with crackers and cream cheese, so I brought all these things for our picnic.

I figured out later than they go well with Nutella, too.

And riceballs! I’ve also heard they make good additions to sugar cookies. Maybe next year.

The hot water makes them open. These are yae style blossoms, apparently!

Carbonation, however, does not make them open. It was worth a shot.

The biggest mistake we made with our hanami was bringing too many things for the picnic. By the time we got to the Okuizumo winery for lunch, none of us were hungry anymore!

Despite being so salty, they don’t have much fragrance. Always worth trying to find a scent anyway–the flowers are really soft, more so than many other kinds of blossoms!

More varieties of sakura here and here.

“When, in spring, the trees flower, it is as though fleeciest masses of cloud faintly tinged by sunset had floated down from the highest sky to fold themselves about the branches. This comparison is no poetical exaggeration; neither is it original; it is an ancient Japanese description of the most marvelous floral exhibition which nature is capable of making. The reader who has never seen a cherry-tree blossoming in Japan cannot possibly imagine the delight of the spectacle. There are no green leaves; these come later: there is only one glorious burst of blossoms, veiling every twig and bough in their delicate mist; and the soil beneath each tree is covered deep out of sight by fallen petals as by a drift of pink snow.” — Lafcadio Hearn, ‘In a Japanese Garden’

One doesn’t have to be especially well-versed in Japanese culture to know that the cherry blossom–the sakura (桜)–holds a special place in the Japanese heart. While in China they are likened to the physical beauty of a woman wearing pearls (this is the root of the written character, originally written 櫻), and in western flower language it was associated with a good education, in Japan it’s laden with not only associations with inner and outer beauty and purity, but also with life itself–specifically, its transience. In a number of ways, it was especially representative of the samurai–as it is first among flowers, so the samurai should be first among men, and if both the flower and the man must be short-lived, they should go out with a bang (or petal-blizzard, as the case may be).

While it is still a reminder of transience, in modern times it serves as a reminder to go out and have a picnic.

Right now, you can’t go anywhere without seeing cherry blossoms of multiple colors and varieties, though the 5-petal pale colored ones are most abundant (a variety called someiyoshino).

These are yae style blossoms with lots of fluffy petals.

This type is called oshimazakura and is pure white. It has a fragrance unlike most other varieties.

The first time I went out of my way to see the cherry blossoms was at Senju-in, a temple northeast of Matsue Castle on a hill overlooking the city. It is famous for a shidarezakura (weeping cherry tree) that is over 200 years old, and is typically one of the first to bloom around the area. If you go during the day the temple will serve you tea, but if you go at night, the canopy of blossoms quivering softly in the wind are lit up, and you can enjoy the view of the city as well. In addition to the shidarezakura, the temple also has a someiyoshino and a yaebeni-shidarezakura (which blooms later in a more of a crimson color). I went on a very still, quiet night, and while the cherry blossoms don’t have much fragrance themselves, the scent of incense and the flowers at the gravesite lingered in the air, and it was also a perfect night for moon viewing.

I wonder if the other flowers get jealous?

Of course, this is only one of many famous sakura spots. Another popular place to take the day to relax is the Tamatsukuri Onsen area, where there are about two kilometers straight of someiyoshino cherry trees along the Tamayu River.

The Matsue CIR ninja are on patrol to make sure visitors do not get attacked by falling sakura shuriken! That is, until we take a break at the ashi-yu (hot spring foot baths).

Special thanks to Jinjer Templer for this shot! Check out his nightime Tamatsukuri Onsen cherry blossom pictures, too.

More full-bloom cherry blossom viewing pictures are here.
More varieties of sakura here and here.

We’re probably all familiar with the rose–but how about its native Asian cousin, the camellia? While Camellia Sinensis is the plant that tea leaves comes from, C. Japonica comes in a wide variety of blossoms. It’s known here as 椿 (tsubaki), and it is one of the symbol flowers of Matsue. In Western flower language the camellia stands for an unpretending sort of excellence, and the Japanese Hanakotoba are more along the lines of modesty and loveliness beyond reproach (or in a white camellia’s case, a cool beauty). It also has connotations with love–an ideal love, or slightly different meanings by color. A red camellia may mean “I’m in love” or “I have a reserved kind of love,” whereas a white camellia might have more to do with waiting. Many camellia varieties may have buds for a few months before blooming–I’m willing to bet that’s where they got the “waiting” part!

There was a variety of camellia that bloomed through most of the winter all through town (and which smelled very sweet!), but most of the more unique varities–or even the most basic red ones which first come to mind when someone pictures them–all burst into bloom around the same period of time earlier in March, and are still continuing to bloom now. The big pink ones right outside my office just opened up over the past few days! While I’m always excited to see what varieties are peaking over the fences around the neighborhood, one of the best places to see them is in the camellia forest on the western Matsue Castle grounds, home to about 450 camellia trees. The San’in Camellia Club just held their 44th camellia show on the castle grounds over this past weekend, too.

Now here’s a whole bunch of pictures I’ve been collecting over the past few weeks:

There are some other connotations associated with the camellia that I’ll bring up in my next entry about them.

The Matsue Castle Festival started this weekend and will go on through the beginning of April so as to catch the whole sakura season. There were some blooming already, but most of them are still buds. I was just happy that it was the first time I’ve gone out without a coat this year! The castle grounds were bustling with activity, as everyone was out enjoying the weather.

The plum garden is about done with its show for this year…

…but the cherry blossoms are making an early start.

And the samurai are fired up as usual. Watch where you point that thing!

While I was on my way elsewhere and taking an extended detour through the castle grounds, I had a lot more time than I thought I would, so I finally stopped at Herun-no-Komichi (Hearn‘s Little Street–it’s a road he liked to take on his way to work). This is a little shop on the way to the Inari shrine at the northwest entrance to the castle grounds. I had always been curious about it, and on this particular Sunday the universe–especially the weather!–aligned itself in such a way that I felt compelled to stop there for a few minutes.

Besides an array of dango (dumpling) and tea combos, grilled riceballs, and shijimi clam miso soup (a local specialty), you can also get a couple old Izumo favorites: zenzai, which is an azuki (sweet red bean) soup with mochi (pounded sticky rice), or bote-bote cha.

Speaking of Shijimi clams, here are a few! Most of the shijimi clams consumed in Japan come from Lake Shinji, but they aren’t typically this colorful.

Of course, the whole decor was perfectly timed with the seasons–more to come on these featured flowers later.

Not that I was there to see flowers–there were plenty to see outside around town already! Rather, I was summoned by the tantalizing sight of dango. Have you heard the phrase “hana yori dango“? It means “dumplings over flowers”–something practical is worth more than something pretty!

They had a few varities to choose from, including sakura dango coated in a salty miso sauce. Since I was having matcha with mine, I went with a tea flavored one coated in a sweet azuki paste instead. They’re all heated up and coated to order.

That one’s mine!

Flowers may fade fast, but I can’t say the dango lasted very long either. I don’t usually eat dango, but I was in such a mood for it than I got some more at a different shop at the opposite end of the castle as I was passing by again at the end of the day. Herun-no-Komichi’s style is to coat the dango, but other kinds of dango are made with fillings instead.

With all this talk about flowers, I might as well post some of the other pictures I took on Dango-Day. They aren’t necessarily flowers that people time their outings to go out and view when they’re in full bloom, but I enjoyed them all over town anyway. Finally! Spring is here! There will more flower-specific posts to come very soon, though.

Gyun is a wonderful little sound effect in the Japanese language for “when your heart drops” or you witness something “heart-wrenching”. At last, my first spring in Japan has come!

One of the first flowers to bring in the season is the 梅 (ume, plum blossom). They come in a variety of shapes and colors, from white with five petals to soft pink with pillowy layers of petals to deep mauve with however many petals it wants.

This tree wasn’t as patient of a bloomer as the others and already looked like this by March 2nd.

On the western lower citadel of Matsue Castle, there is a plum forest. Unlike the forests around it, this one wasn’t planted at the time of the samurai, but at some point within the past fifty years or so. At least that’s what I gather after listening to a story from Kimono-sensei–as a high school student, she played on tennis courts where the plum trees are now.

The trees there are mostly of the five-petal variety. At the beginning of March, most of the pink ones were still just buds, but the white ones were already in blooming stride.

A week later I took another walk around here to see how many of the pink ones had opened after we had a couple days of warm weather.

The darker pink ones were still being a little slow!

Indeed they were, and the little forest was fragrant! Both times I went there were old couples, single walkers, parents and children, bike-riders and dog-walkers taking their time to stroll through, but there were more this second time around dusk. When a couple of old ladies walked by, they told me to take a whiff of the blossoms, as this was a unique fragrance that you only get to enjoy at this time of year. I did as instructed (though I had already been sticking my nose in plenty of blossoms by that point) and commented about the scent, and the old ladies replied, “Oh, good! She understood us.” Indeed, life is a little easier when you can communicate with the people around you, but enjoying flowers is a universal language.

Speaking of languages, have you heard of the Language of Flowers? This was a big thing in England and other European countries in the Victorian era, and it’s also a relatively common thing out here in Japan, too. It was used then to express feelings that could not be stated in explicit words, such as “I am starting to have feelings for you” or “I am passionately in love with you” or “I hate you and will get my revenge”. Certain combinations of flowers carried complex messages, and even having a flower delivered upside down could express a very specific sentiment. However, the Japanese Hanakotoba sometimes have different connotations from their Western counterparts (though they probably retain more of the Western meanings than Western countries do!), and instead of mostly being used in conversational gift bouquets, they can represent ideas in many contexts.

While the basic connotation with plum blossoms is “oh, spring is on its way! Oh, and Hinamatsuri is on March 3rd,” it can also be associated with many forms of beauty–everything from a patient, elegant, noble sort of beauty to a more independant, intense, glamous beauty. My personal associations with plum blossoms, with rounded petals rather than nibbed petals like cherry blossoms, is that they’re cute. I also think of the plum trees in the back corner of my neighbor’s yard and that they let us take some of their plums once, Chinese paintings of plum blossoms, and all the sour ways plums get used in Japanese sake, candy, and lunch boxes.

What do you associate plum blossoms with?

It’s Kouyou season!

Kouyou (紅葉) literally means “red leaves,” and while maple leaves do tend to take center stage, there are plenty of shades of other colors to enjoy as well. I had a little free time yesterday so I took a walk around the castle grounds, and was very refreshed to see all the different colors and how the fallen yellow leaves contrast the black stones, and how the green and red leaves contrast the black castle, and how bright they all were against the grey sky. I took the time to take note of what kinds of trees were in which places so can look forward to seeing them again in future seasons. For now, there are still more colors to come–it’s nice that autumn takes its time here!

Kouyou is not simply of a matter of noticing the leaves are changing–Japan has nature-viewing down to a science.

As much as I like noticing the leaves throughout town, there are certain spots that are very well known as leaf-viewing spots (thank you, Luc, for assembling the list corresponding to this map!):

1. Kagikage Valley 鍵掛峠(かぎかけとうげ)
2. Mount Daisen Sky Resort 大山スキー場 (だいせんスキーじょう)
3. Kinmon Gate 金門 (きんもん)
4. Lake Ono 大野池(おおのいけ)
5. Sekka Valley 石霞渓(せっかけい)
6. Kiyomizu-dera Temple 清水寺(きよみずでら)
7. Yuushien Garden 由志園(ゆうしえん)
8. Matsue Castle Jozan Park 松江城山公園(まつえじょうざんこうえん)
9. Gakuen-ji Temple 鰐淵寺(がくえんじ)
10. Adachi Museum of Art 足立美術館(あだちびじゅつかん)
11. Tachikue Valley 立久恵狭(たちくえきょう)
12. Ichibata Yakushi Temple 一畑薬師(いちばたやくし)

While there are stunning pictures of these places around the net…

…I’m still fond of the little places nearby.