On the first glimpse of actual snowfall this season, it turns out it was mostly blustery snow hurling through the sunlight air. It also turns out my friend Y-chan and I already had plans to go to Yuushien Japanese Garden to see the peonies which bloom in cold weather, called Kanbotan. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that Y-chan and I go to Yuushien a lot. You might have also noticed it’s very well-known for peonies.

After all, you can see things like this all year round:



The best time to go, of course, is when the peonies are in their natural blooming season around the end of April and beginning of May. The Peony Festival is right time for Golden Week, and no matter how many holiday travels there are, it’s totally worth the crowd to go see the thousands and thousands and thousands of blossoms of hundreds of varieties blooming not only on the Yuushien premises, but all around Daikonshima Island. I’m afraid I cannot share the fragrance in the air with you, but I can show you pictures.

One of the other big peonies periods is when the Kanbotan are out in the brisk air, protected from wind and snow by charming straw huts. The last time we went was near the end of February so we missed a lot of them, but this time we went in January and got to see not only the blooms, but the blooms with a little bit of snow to set the atmosphere.





Yuushien also hosts work from Japanese and international garden artists, and from January 15 to March 31, 2016, there was/is large collaborations with Shogo Kariyazaki throughout the garden.

The indoor exhibit space felt a little like walking into a Tim Burton movie.

Speaking of peonies, please allow me to introduce my Paeonia suffruticosa Seidai, Yatsuko!

Seidai are a regular spring bloomer, but she's been peaking through early!

Seidai are a regular spring bloomer, but she’s been peeking through early!

I won her at my department’s New Years party, and I’m quite pleased. I named her Yatsuko because the Daikonshima (as well as its small neighboring island Eshima, home to the “scariest” Eshima Bridge) makes up a district of Matsue called Yatsuka. Peonies can be very long-lived plants if not transplanted too many times, and so long as everything goes smoothly to try to get her past US customs, she might do well in Colorado’s climate. After all, peonies need a very cold winter in order to bloom in spring. Matsue exports its prized peonies throughout the world, especially to places like Russian and Holland and Taiwan, and I’m very happy to have one of my own now.

I just really hope I don’t kill her. There’s a good reason I got to Yuushien to appreciate the professionals’ work.

The attention hogs have demanded more sharing of their photos.

Following up on the previous entry, the winter peonies at Yuushien insisted on more photos to show off a little more of their splendor. In addition to the usual year-round displays of color and shape and winter peonyscapes with woven huts to protect them from snow, there is also a temporary exhibition on display until 3/31/2014 that is a collaboration between Holland’s imaginative and futuristic gardener Nico Wissing and Japan’s green magician Kazuyuki Ishihara.

Without further ado, enjoy Shimane’s prefectural flower, famous among peony enthusiasts around the world:


















I’ve got a lovely bunch of peonies, there they are a’standing in a row. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your—oh, who I am kidding, there are no small ones.

What do you get for venturing outside on a day like this? You get wet, that’s what.

Yuushien Garden is located on Daikonshima (otherwise known as the Yatsuka district of Matsue–now where have we heard that name before?), a island on Nakaumi, a brackish lake between Shimane and Tottori. When I hear “Yuushien” I think peonies. Okay, so sometimes I think of ginseng too, but I mostly think of peonies. After all, the sight and scent of 30,000 of them floating in the pond while thousands more were on display around the rest of the garden (and the rest of the island) was an unforgetable experience.

While no season can compare to full season, there are peonies blooming all year round at this garden, and the winter peonies (kan-botan) are a special sight from December through February. While peonies in Flower Language (hanakotoba) can mean royal style, riches and honor, pompousness, and (surprisingly) shyness, the winter peonies in particular have a noble, high class association. At Yuushien, these seasonal peonies have their own little straw huts to protect them from the weight of snow, and photographers flock to capture the bright blossoms against the white landscape.

I had no such luck. We had snowglobe like days during the week, but my Sunday at Yuushien was rain, rain, rain, rain.

I didn’t get to see the snowy scenery and rain is certainly not my favorite weather, but it did give me a very different view of the garden than I had only a very sunny, very crowded day last May during Golden Week (right around the height of the peony season). Rain brings out the textures in the garden landscape, especially in the ponds, moss, and volcanic rock that Daikonshima is made out of (and that’s why its soil is so good for peonies and ginseng).

Despite the general subdued tones of winter, there were still very vibrant, impressive peonies. In my years of studying East Asian cultures I have frequently heard them referred to like the Queen of the Flowers, and the Queen enjoys her spotlight in any weather. But, my dear Queen, there are so many other little things to notice in the sleepy garden winters! Can’t you let them have a little spotlight, too?

No? You really insist on photobombing, don’t you?

Setting the royal flower aside for a moment, let’s take a look at some of the rest of the rainy day views Yuushien provides in February.












Alright, Your Elegance, you haunty, flower, you! There will be more photos in your honor coming soon.

In the meantime, I’ll just wrap up with a statue we interpreted thus.

January in Japan is full of firsts, often signified by the prefix hatsu (初). Among tea practicioners, the first tea ceremony of the year is one of the most festive, and is called Hatsugama (初釜), literally, “first kettle.” Having started practicing the tea ceremony last April, this was my first Hatsugama. Not only that, but it was my first time preparing the tea outside of regular practices.

My omotesenke school had ours on the 18th with 18 participants, and in a city like Matsue where the matcha flows like the canals that trace their way around town, I can imagine we were not the first. It seems a lot of places were booked out the previous weekend, but we held ours in the Matsue Club, overlooking the Ohashi river that bisects the north and south sides of town.

I had passed by this building many times before while walking alongside the river, but like many spaces in Japan, I had never imagined how much bigger it was on the inside. They even had a tsukubai set up next to the tea room. Trivial Japanese time! The tsukubai (蹲), the stone wash basin found in Japanese gardens, is so-called because you need to crouch down (tsukubau 蹲う) next to it.

After cleansing, we greeted each other and entered the tea room.

Can you spot the two CIRs?

The day started with preparing the charcoal for the fire under the kettle. During this part of the ceremony, all the guests sit closely so as to observe how the different kinds of charcoal are arranged to prepare the fire, and what a pleasing red glow they have to warm us up during one of the coldest months of the year.

This was followed by okoicha, the highest grade of matcha prepared to about the thickness of paint. This is shared among three guests or so at a time. While the tea master is preparing the tea, the guests partake of a wagashi (Japanese confections). In the case of omotesenke, New Year sweets are green on the inside and white on the outside, like pine branches covered in snow.

Note the “Yanagiwa” next to the scroll. This is a ring made of willow branches, one of many festive New Year decorations. Gold and silver are also indicative of New Years, and we used heavy gold-painted tea cups for the thick tea.

Following okoicha, we changed some tools and decorations out to get ready for o-usu, the thinner style of matcha that is more commonly consumed–and, thus far, the only kind I know how to prepare. Speaking of preparation…

Setting my tools in place.


Sporting my “I’m trying really hard to look relaxed” face.


I’m about to take the whisk I just cleansed out of the tea cup, which is why it is vertical. In Omotosenke, we whisk it diagonally instead of vertically.


Now to bring in the tea.


I wonder how the tea I made tasted?
Note the kan-botan in the decorative alcove. These are winter peonies, and peonies are big stuff here in Shimane.

I don’t think I made any major mistakes, but it felt like it went by really fast! Given the number of participants, the tea-making responsibilities are split up among a handful of people so I only did the first part of the ceremony before switching out with a few other relative beginners, but although it wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked and I felt nervous, I think it was a success (I’m feeling a little more self-conscious after seeing the photos, though!). I wonder how many more chances I’ll get like this throughout 2014? There’s still nine months to prepare for the Dai-Chakai at Matsue Castle…

After the two types of tea ceremonies, we started our kaiseki meal (though this would usually be eaten before drinking tea). Kaiseki can refer to any sophisticated Japanese meal served in courses, and I’ve enjoyed a number of kaiseki meals at restaurants and ryokan around Matsue for fancy work parties, but this was my first time receiving it in tea ceremony style.

Thankfully I had a teacher sitting near me to explain all the steps as we went along, and though we were all fairly relaxed since most of us are classmates who are already acquainted with each other, there was a higher level of formality than I’ve ever had at a work-party (which I already find amusingly formal before the sake starts flowing. Speaking of, there was plenty of sake at this tea party, too).

I did my best, but I could not stay in seiza for very long by that point. My knees still need more training! If I take part in Hatsugama 2015, it will serve as a good comparison for how much better I get over the course of this year.

I’m ready, 2014! Bring on more matcha!

Another flower post as promised!

Yuushien is one of the most famous gardens in the San’in region (though the most famous would have to be the one at the Adachi Museum of Art located in nearby Yasugi). It is a Japanese-style garden for all seasons; a quiet space to listen to the sounds of the waterfalls, observe the seasonal trees and flowers, feed the fish, and collect your thoughts. That is, unless you go during Golden Week.




It’s not by simple coincidence that iris (aka “sweet flag”) season lines up with Golden Week. Read more on Fumiyaen‘s insightful blog.

Yuushien is located on Daikonshima (otherwise known as the Yatsuka district of Matsue), a island on Nakaumi, a brackish lake between Shimane and Tottori. It used to be a town of its own, and there is a unique dialect spoken only on that island with some influence from the surrounding Mihonoseki Peninsula, Sakaiminato, and general Izumo dialect. It was formed from volcanic rock and you can explore underground lava trails, and those familiar with Japanese cuisine will probably notice that it literally means “giant radish island” (大根島). While I’m sure they probably grow somewhere around there, the island is not actually known for daikon radishes.

Rather, the island was recorded in the 8th century Chronicles of Ancient Izumo as “octopus island” (’takoshima’ たこ島)(though this probably had more to do with someone bringing an octopus to the island than there actually being octopus in Nakaumi–squid are more popular around here!). It was given somewhat similar sounding kanji at some point (‘takushima’ 太根島), which gradually morphed into some similar kanji based on an alternate pronunciation of the aforementioned kanji (‘taikushima’ 大根島), and this was eventually misread as the pronunciation that is currently used today (‘daikonshima’ 大根島).

On of the other theories about the name origin is that it had some ties to what the island of volcanic soil is known for: ginseng! This was traded with Korea and other places back in the Edo era when Izumo province was in financial straits, and is still prized today (and easy to get your hands on).

But this post is not about ginseng, it is about flowers. The other thing Daikonshima is famous for is its peonies (‘botan’, ). The prefectural flower of Shimane, thousands upon thousands of them bloom all over the island, and they are highly prized by peony lovers all around the world. Yuushien is but a central location to see some 180 varieties in a single place, including many varieties that were cultivated on the island. There are always some kind of variety blooming on Yuushien, even in winter when the blooms are protected from the snow by little straw huts. For a few days during Golden Week, however, the pond is filled with over 30,000 blossoms. That’s only a fraction of all the blossoms within the garden at that time, much less within the entire island! As soon as you step into the garden, you might even notice the fragrance before the actual sight. Kudos to anyone who knows what I mean when I say I half-expected to meet Liu Mengmei! Peonies originally came to Japan from China, they just thrived and developed extremely well on this island. As it turns out, there is a Chinese style garden elsewhere on Daikonshima.


Besides vendors selling their own cultivated peonies all over the island during the Peony Festival, there is also an exhibition during this particular period of time, and you can use your garden admission ticket to vote for your favorite cleverly titled variety on display (by the way, foreign visitors get half-off admission to the garden all year round for only 300 yen).

“Old Mountain Lady”, but I wonder which one?

Without further ado, how about we just move on to a sampling of pictures?

Striped varieties were originally cultivated on Daikonshima.


Peonies are huge. Many blossoms seemed to be about the size of my head.





Yellow varieties are not as common, but there were plenty to be seen anyway.







Mascots are a very normal part of daily life in Japan. Each prefecture has their own mascot (and they compete for the best mascot prize every year), companies and organizations will have their own mascots, cities will have their own mascots, even certain aspects of cities will have their own mascots–as is the case with Peony-chan, who represents Matsue’s… well… peonies. Their reputation may already proceed them, though. According to the Japan Times on 11/20/12, “Sales of peonies from Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, are booming in Vladivostok after hitting the market in Russia’s Far East in 2009, virtually selling out every year because of their variety of colors and longevity.” The day Peony-chan came to visit, she was preparing for a trip to Taiwan.

Matsue peonies are especially well known on Daikonshima, where they can be seen all year round–though I’ve heard early May is the best time to see them. That’s when I’m planning on going! The other flower that represents Matsue is the tsubaki (camellia), which I’m looking forward to seeing around the castle in winter.

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While this is the only mascot of this size to pay a visit to my office, I don't see Peony-chan in my daily life as often as I see, say, Appare-kun, the PR champion of Matsue Castle!

Unlike most mascots he’s human(esque) and has a more varied set of expressions than just “happy” and “super happy”, but like most mascots, he can be made into any kind of product, especially edible ones.

I haven’t run into him in person yet, but I have seen his bride Shijimi-hime, based on a Shijimi clam (a specialty product of the area. Most of the Shijimi clams consumed in Japan come from Lake Shinji). This kind of encounter is also completely normal.

There is no mascot I see as often as Shimanekko.

Get it? Shimane (prefecture) as a neko (cat)? And notice the visual reference to Izumo Taisha, with the roof architecture and the shimenawa rope? You noticed that all, right? Of course you did.

Even if you didn’t, you can’t visit Shimane without noticing Shimanekko. Besides Shimanekko on the face of products from pencils to hand towels to cookies to bouncy castles in every place from rest stops to places of legend to your neighborhood convience store, there is also a Shimanekko dance.

Shimanekko and Appare-kun are so popular that they even get drilled with questions about whether or not they are friends and star in commercials for candy companies.

Furthermore, have you heard of the Yura-Chara Grand Prix? I didn’t until very recently either, but apparently many thousands of people did, and they voted for their favorite mascot characters. Out of over 860 entries in 2012, Shimanekko took 6th place! Good job being cute, Shimanekko!