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!

Given the choice between mountains and oceans, I’ll usually choose mountains. I attribute this to growing up at the foot of the Rockies, and finding going for a hike among the pines and aspens just a normal way to spend your time. That’s always been very commonplace to me, as opposed to scenes like this:

Going to the beach was always a big deal–you don’t get to enjoy tide pools where there is no tide. It’s still a little strange to me that I live such a short drive from the Sea of Japan, but I usually don’t think about it because Lake Shinji is but a 10 minute walk away. I can see a big beautiful body of water whenever I want! Not to mention the castle moats throughout town and the Ohashi River that bisects the “City of Water.” What with the pleasure boats around the city center and the array of bridges and canals, it’s not surprising that Matsue is sometimes called the Venice of Japan.

Living so close to the coast also does not sink in because of the unusual geography of the Shimane Peninsula. The areas between and around Lakes Shinji and Nakaumi are fairly flat (the Izumo flatlands on the west side are fairly unique nationwide, I’ve been told). This is just north of the Chuugoku mountain range, which sort of cuts this area off from the rest of Japan. Instead of fading out into the sea, however, there is another set of mountains along the northern coast of the peninsula.

Therefore, it’s not as if I have regular ocean views–I have a small wall of mountains to block that view instead of provide a vantage point. Seeing the green hills makes me plenty happy, though. Tsunami are hardly a concern either, and earthquakes are infrequent here to begin with.

On a clear day I can see to Daisen, though!

There are the days, however, when it strikes me: “Oh yeah! I’m right by the Sea of Japan!”

That’s usually on a drive for work or with friends, leaving the city center to head north through the winding roads. There are a handful of beaches I’ve heard quite a bit about, but I’ve only seen a small taste of them. Furthermore, I never manage to get there during good swimming times! Either it’s too late in the day or too late in the season. Besides the colder temperatures, that also means giant jellyfish.

“This place is really busy in summer. Really! Drinks and flotation rental and everything! A lot of these houses are inns during peak season, too! Really…” my friend introduced one of her favorite spots to me when we visited on a rainy day. We saw the beach house structures filled with everything that I’m sure gets a lot of use in hot weather, there just weren’t any people.

That said, the water still looks lovely in cooler weather and the fishing activity is still just as lively. Dried squid is a speciality along the San’in coast, and at Kakahama in northern Matsue there are fishermen and fisherwomen who can teach people how to cut and clean their own squid, which then gets spun and sun-dried. Although it takes several hours to dry it into the kind of snack you can pull apart like jerky and eat with sake, you could probably hunt around for some place to eat some other specialities, such as sazae (turban shells) or kame-no-te (“turtle hand”). Or you could just join the locals who are fishing out there if you have your tools and some patience.

Thanks for the photo use, Alaina! Click for her blog.

Also Alaina’s photo.

Stand back if you don’t want a splash (or slap) to the face! Also Alaina’s photo.

I didn’t touch any squid or do any fishing that day, but I did take a nice walk and snap a few photos of my own. Although Lake Shinji gets some nice waves on windy days, it’s not quite like the crash of the surf or the echoes of a wave-cave.

Along the north coast, the neighborhoods are quiet, and you can walk out your front door to scenes like this:

Those cement blocks are found all over Japan to break the waves that could come on shore.

A seemingly quiet, peaceful spot, right? However, if you turn around, you’ll see this:

This is the site of the Mihonoseki Meteor. On December 10, 1992, right around 9pm, a meteor crashed through the roof and floor of a house in this spot. It was was 25.2cm in length and weighed 6.38kg, and the fireball it created was witnessed from Hiroshima, a few hours south of Matsue. Thankfully no one was injured! The meteorite itself has been studied and is now on display in Meteor Plaza, a museum, heated salt-water pool, and relaxation station attached to Shichirui Port (a good place to depart from to get to the Oki Islands). That heated pool happens to be mineral water from the sea… hmm, I guess that takes away the seasonal swimming excuse.

As special as going to the beach still is for me, I can understand how it may not be as exciting to other people. Case in point, a few weeks back we had a barbecue at a friend’s place, on a seldom-used road right along on a tiny harbor surrounded by docked fishing boats. Before lighting fireworks, I saw a stunning sunset. As we were all getting caught up in saying how nice it must be to live with the ocean at your door step, my friend laughed, saying she had always assumed it was completely normal, and pointed out the places where she’d jump in to swim as it was common sense to do so.

I guess I need to get more beach sense.

I live and work around the northeast bank of Lake Shinji, right by where it feeds into the Ohashi River (which then continues into Nakaumi by cutting through the middle of Matsue). Here’s a bit of trivia: way, way back when, Lake Shinji wasn’t a lake at all, but part of the Hii River! The ancient Izumo flatlands have quite a history of (and culture based around) flooding out there on the west side of the peninsula. Thankfully I haven’t heard of any recent floods!

The boardwalk around that area is a popular spot for joggers, or picnickers like me and my coworkers. Though it’s usually a quiet place to sit (or stretch) and listen to the waves, watch the Shijimi clam fishers at work, or observe the wildlife, last weekend every bit of dry land was covered with people and food stalls. Major roads were blocked off to make way for foot traffic, and only the luckiest few were able to squeeze their way into a lakeside seat (or be lucky enough to have friends who grabbed a spot, as was my case–getting to said friends amoung the crowd was the hard part).

What was the big draw? Matsue’s Suigosai! Otherwise known as the “let’s set off 9000 fireworks over Lake Shinji” festival.

To be more precise, they set off 3000 fireworks for half an hour on Saturday night, and then 6000 fireworks for a full hour display on Sunday night. Fireworks are nothing new to me and I can’t say I’m an enthusiast or anything, but it was probably the best display I’ve ever been to. Besides being so close and watching the reflections on the surface of the lake and the remaining sparks disappear into the water, it was fun being in such a densely packed crowd and listening to the children shout out the shapes that appeared in the sky: “Heart! Smiley face! Watermelon! Umbrella! Circle!!”

At one point, the fireworks seemed to spill off the boat and the sky momentarily went dark. “Was that a dud?” everyone started asking their neighbors, until we noticed softly twinkling lights of various colors floating on the lake. Nice touch!

Seeing as I only had my phone to take pictures with, I’m not aiming to impress anyone with firework photos, and these don’t show the usual height of the fireworks, just the ones close to the water surface. Photos can’t do justice to being there in person at bustling and loud events, after all (cheap excuses, sure–but I was enjoying myself in the moment!).

That said, on less crowded summer nights, the board walk is a perfect setting for lighting small fireworks and playing with handheld sparklers (just hopefully not in as much wind as we did them in).

We were trying to spell “Matsue”… don’t mind my backwards ‘e’.

Fireworks are nice and all, but when it comes down to it, I prefer starlight. Being at sea level with so much moisture in the air, it surprises me how many stars I’m able to see here. The night we all went to light fireworks, a couple of us were lucky enough to notice a shooting star, too.

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?

In Matsue (and the Izumo region in general), anything can be given an En-Musubi (縁結び) label.

To break it down, “en” (縁) is our ties to one another–something like fate. The verb “musu(bu)” (結) means to mind or entwine things together. Therefore, a translation for “En-Musubi” can range from “fated encounters” to “match-making.” While it can include any kind of ties we might have with any person, it is especially associated with finding your soulmate, and there are famous En-Musubi spots all around the region. As it is used in many forms, you’ll probably see the phrase get used a lot here, and yes, there are reasons for why the region is so wrapped up in this: En-musubi is what all the gods get together to discuss while they are having their meeting at Izumo Taisha during Kamiarizuki!

Seeing as we’re all a little tangled in all this En out here, even the rain in Matsue is full of it. That’s why it’s called “Enishizuku” (drops of En):

Since it reaches everyone at the same time, touches everything from nature to man-made structures, we are all bound together by the drops of water… Well, that’s a charming way to think about it, I guess. Even my laundry gets to soak up a bunch of En.

In my experience all of Japan gets a lot of rain, but it seems Matsue is particularly well known for having a lot of rain, and the rain at Lake Shinji has been a poetic topic for many visiting writers. It’s not quite like a typhoon when we get storms here, and while Lake Shinji isn’t as violent as the sea, it certainly puts on a show when the wind picks up. Every thirty years or so Matsue gets a flooding problem, but the worst I’ve seen has been the parking lot in front of my apartment–seeing as that part of town was a marsh back in the Edo era.

Matsue has recently started a public umbrella-sharing program. Since a lot of buildings have places to leave your umbrella when you enter, inevitably a lot of them are forgotten if it looks clear again when you leave (I’ve done this a few times. I really miss one of those umbrellas…!). Participating locations put those forgotten umbrellas in specially marked umbrella stands, and anyone who needs them can take them. I haven’t needed to yet, but I’m sure it will come in handy someday!

Well, whether the weather is cold or whether the weather is hot, we’ll weather the weather whether we like it or not. While rain is not my personal cup of tea, I do enjoy all the moats and rivers and lake views around town. That’s why it’s sometimes called the Venice of Japan–but more commonly called the Mizu-no-Miyako: The City of Water.

…and En-musubi.

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.