I’ve blatantly borrowed this title from one of Lafcadio Hearn‘s most famous essays, published in The Atlantic in 1892. A lot of the essay is a detailed and flowery (ha!) description of his garden at his second residence in Matsue–preserved now as it was in Hearn’s day–and is quoted at Japanese gardens around the world, and at least two of which, in New Orleans and Tramore, bear his namesake.

I like Japanese gardens, but I don’t think I can–or would–go into such detail as Lafcadio Hearn. Looking back at this text, so characteristic of his style with his rich descriptions, heavy amount of information, cultural fancies, and fascination for even the lowliest of life forms–or forms that have taken on a life of their own–I can see how he was still in his honeymoon period in Japan when he wrote this. As much glowing praise as his prose gets from Japanese readers and criticism he gets from cynical Western scholars, the fact of the matter is that Lafcadio Hearn really enjoyed that garden in a time when he really enjoyed Japan after he had been anticipating enjoying Japan for quite some time. Furthermore, the words he wrote about Japanese gardens have long survived him and reached the sensitive sides of people’s souls throughout the world.

Perhaps my appreciation for Japanese gardens is not as honed and sensitive as Hearn’s, but you do appreciate them more as you learn more about them and the thought behind their designs. The basic idea that both an expansive Japanese garden like that of the Adachi Museum of Art and a tiny bonsai garden are meant to mimic a natural landscape is already enough to take you from one stage of appreciation to another, and the little details I’ve picked up about traits of Izumo style gardens, such as the elevated rock stepping-stones to keep the hems of kimono more dry in the rain and snow and the use of black pines, give me little things to enjoy looking for when I visit new gardens.

The San’in region is home to a few famous ones, even the garden of Kasuien Minami, a fancy ryokan in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area, has one of the top ranked gardens in Japan. My personal favorite is Yuushien Japanese Garden, famous for its array of peonies (and generally being a gorgeous setting for a stroll any time of year). I went out to see the peony festival again this year with a friend, and the fragrance of the thousands and thousands of peony blossoms, especially those covering the surface of the pond, was once again something that could have induced sweet spring dreams.


Afterward, my friend and I hopped over the Eshima Bridge (that one that looks scary and now has a temporary parking lot just for the people who came out to photograph it) to Tottori to do some shopping, and in the later afternoon hours my friend decided we should stop by her grandmother’s house to get pictures of the kirishima (a type of rhododendron) blooming in her garden. I’ve been to her grandmother’s house a few times before, and I’ve seen the garden, but never really looked at it.

It occurred to me on this visit just how quintessentially Japanese my friend’s family is. I have the pleasure of visiting every few months and have enjoyed seasonal pleasures such as youkan ice cream from Kiyomizu Temple (the Yasugi one, not the Kyoto one), picking home-grown shiitake mushrooms in the forest, viewing three full sets of Girl’s Day dolls, and so on. At her grandmother’s house, we always go straight down the hall to the guest room. The hall has a wood floor, to the right are glass doors and windows looking out on the garden, to the left are the sliding doors to the airy tatami room filled with natural light. There is a vase set on a shelf at one end, and a wooden structure at the far corner of the hallway, and they are both decorated with a few seasonal flowers.

The guest room has a wide, but low table that follows the natural features of the wood, holes and everything, but glossy and warm in tones like the rest of the wood in the house. There are statues and vases and such decorating the wall opposite the garden, and a folding screen with a bird and a few seasonal flowers that would be blooming right around the same time in real life. My friend’s grandmother wasn’t expecting me, and she’s in the adjoining room laying out a few extra sweets to go with the snack she had already prepared to go with the tea. As usual, she’s got everything ready to offer us both the customary two cups of matcha.

And, as usual, we all chill out in the guest room and chat and enjoy our tea and snacks, with no electronic distractions or even any noticeable clock to take our minds away from the moment.

Speaking of timing, we were too late to see the red kirishima bushes in full bloom, as they, like many other flowers, were early this year. Nonetheless, there are still splatters of coral color among the green leaves, and for the greater part of our conversation, a white butterfly with black lines has been ecstatically sampling and savoring them. My friend is none the less very disappointed that we missed full bloom, as apparently that is one of her favorite times to see that garden she’s been visiting with her sisters and cousins for as far back as she can remember. The two of them show me an old photo of them out there, and reminisce about times in the garden, and how it had already been two decades or so since they replaced the koi pond with gravel so that none of the small children would fall in.

The garden, like the guest room, is in meticulously cared for condition. The rocks and gravel are clean in the sunlight, the trees are shapely and full. While I’m still enjoying the sight of the feasting butterfly, their focus shifts to the lush maple tree, fluttering its young, bright yellow-green leaves in the wind. The shadows the leaves make against the large rock behind it are lively.

I’m still at the table while they go to window, and her grandmother kneels in the hallway while my friend borrows her grandfather’s sandals to go get a better look at the maple leaves. Their silhouettes and expressions in the warm afternoon light make me smile at how picturesque they are, and then her grandmother invites me over to enjoy the view and the breeze. They’re both indeed very nice, about as nice as I always pictured this fairy land I dreamed about for years before ever visiting. I’ve been a guest in many other quintessentially Japanese abodes before, including during my own honeymoon period of sorts, but having spent a lot more time around Japan now I have a very different way of looking at this country and culture now. The Japan that I–and other foreigners, and even Japanese people themselves–love to romanticize about does exist, but it’s not a part of everyone’s daily life. For many, Japanese gardens and serving tea to guests, or even having tatami mats is not even a thought in their given or chosen lifestyles. While there are parts of culture that are distinctly Japanese, they are not deeply relevent to many Japanese people, just as much as things like hamburgers and college basketball are major parts of American culture but not ones deeply relevant to me. This is neither positive nor negative, it’s simply things as they are.

Still, I enjoyed being in such a quintessentially Japanese setting, speaking in Japanese with Japanese friends, an experience that would be rare if I lived elsewhere. I could have enjoyed the sunshine and the greenery and the fresh air in a number of other places, or enjoyed snacks and company in any variety of tastes and cultures. Perhaps what really felt so refreshing this time was that I took the chance to notice it, even if not the same level of detail that Hearn observed his Japanese garden.

Right before we left, the butterfly was making friends with another like it, and they fluttered further and further away from the ending kirishima flowers. Just another passing moment, never to be captured again in any haiku, photography, essay, or blog post.



I had a little tea party with some of my favorite trees in Matsue. I’ve written about these unusual trees before, if the photos from that entry are any point of comparison, then this year I got to them a little bit early and the fringe-like petals had not yet gotten so long.

When most people think of the Nanjyamonjya (an affectionate nickname to the effect of “what-the-tree-is-this?”, whereas its usual name is hitotsubatago) as the line of full, fluffy trees near the Otemae entrance to Matsue Castle, at the southeast corner.

There are also a few on the quieter western side, nestled between the plum and camellia gardens.


I started my little tea party in the sunny patch under the most sparse of the trees, mostly using miniature tools I had received as gifts, and enjoying some seasonal sweets from Saiundo, one of the major wagashi producers in Matsue. Every time the wind blew, I was surrounded by falling white petals that made little thumping sounds against my hat. Playful sparrows hopped around above, and I had the view of the nearby sunlight nanjyamonjya and the lush nanjyamonja a short distance away in the shadows.

Despite the various tea events going on, such as the temporary tea house on the castle moat, this was rather unceremonious. Although Matsue is a prime spot for a number of schools of the tea ceremony, in its general daily tea culture, they embrace very casual matcha drinking. Hence, I took it easy.

I made sure to have that second cup, though! I had that one over by the main entrance, as more and more Sunday tourists gradually started making their trips up to the castle tower. These trees are one the first things you see upon entering, so there were comments over and over and over about the sight of them.

“Wow! Look at those trees!”
“What is that?”
“How pretty…”
“They’re so fluffy.”
Hi-to-tsu-ba-ta-go… hmm, never heard of it.”
“Oh, looks like it’s also called nanjyamonjya. Hahaha, nanjyamonjya!

Their curiosity upon seeing these trees was justified, as Matsue Castle is one of only about six places in Japan where these trees are found.

There was also the more typical Matsue Castle views to enjoy–the tower itself, the ninomaru area of the inner keep, the majestic castle walls in the bright sunshine.

But enjoying the tea and the petals was nice enough already.

Until next year, fluffy trees.

A few weeks ago, a friend and I had an afternoon open, so we figured we would go check out the Tottori Hana Kairou (Tottori Prefectural Flower Park) garden I’ve always heard so much about.

Turns out it’s not just one garden, it’s a series of several gardens. The flowers and trees seemingly stretch on forever, taking advantage of the natural surrounding hills and valleys and view of Mt. Daisen to create the illusion that the series of little worlds stretches out into more and more and more little worlds.

The flowers in this area vary according to season, but for this season I couldn’t help but hear the Wicked Witch of the West in my head.

I didn’t take enough photos to do it proper justice, as I was busy using a number of my senses to enjoy the park. This sign outside the herb garden made me quite happy–these people encourage enjoying plants like I enjoy plants! Quite often their textures get ignored in favor of their appearances or scents, and I get weird looks for touching the leaves and petals (for whatever seems it won’t damage me or the plant, anyway). At least the people in this part of the garden won’t think I’m weird, right?

I didn’t even take any pictures of the lilies, the signature flower of the garden, which were already in a bright bloom. The rose were taking center stage in many areas, especially with a temporary rose exhibition going on. As one small part of that, in encouraging people to interact more with their flower subjects, they had a set of very perfumed roses showing of the different types of scents roses carry.

That’s not to forget the orchids.

It was such a pleasant world of color that I don’t have too much else specific to report about the gardens (just an overwhelming sense of “oooh, pretty!”), but a couple non-floral things of note:

1. Concept benches! Along the elevated track circling the gardens, they had a number of creative benches designed and constructed by schools and other organizations.

2. Ice cream! Following up on a recent post about local specialties produced in ice cream form, I couldn’t pass up the park’s Tottori 20th Century Pear soft serve. Pear wouldn’t usually be my flavor of choice, but I’ve had these pears once before, and they were among the tastiest fruits I’ve ever eaten. I found it refreshingly tasty, but my friend more comments–that it was more like a sherbert, and that that halfway through she detected a flavor like apple juice.

And now for a little more prettiness:

Allium in flower language: “the correct assertion” or “infinite sorrows.” Would one of those sorrows happen to be that it can smell like onion?

This has been an odd winter in the San’in region, which is typically known for the amount of snow it gets compared to sunnier parts of the country. I was told by many people to expect a very cold winter this year. However, while Tokyo had been experiencing heavy downfalls, we had usually been experiencing rain as opposed to snow.

As striking as Matsue Castle appears on a sunny day, there is a sense of it looming over the city on such dreary January days as this, and I can’t help but be reminded of how Lafcadio Hearn described it:

…solid as when first built long centuries ago, a vast and sinister shape, all iron-grey, rising against the sky from a cyclopean foundation of stone. Fantastically grim the thing is, and grotesquely complex in detail; looking somewhat like a huge pagoda, of which the second, third, and fourth stories have been squeezed down and telescoped into one another by their own weight. Crested at its summit, like a feudal helmet, with two colossal fishes of bronze lifting their curved bodies skyward from either angle of the roof, and bristling with horned gables and gargoyled eaves and tilted puzzles of tiled roofing at every story, the creation is a veritable architectural dragon, made up of magnificent monstrosities—a dragon, moreover, full of eyes set at all conceivable angles, above below, and on every side. From under the black scowl of the loftiest eaves, looking east and south, the whole city can be seen at a single glance, as in the vision of a soaring hawk; and from the northern angle the view plunges down three hundred feet to the castle road, where walking figures of men appear no larger than flies.

(“The Chief City of the Province of the Gods”, from Lafcadio Hearn’s “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” 1894.)

Matsue Castle is sometimes nicknamed “the Black Castle”, given that it wasn’t covered in flame resistant white paint like many other surviving original castles of Japan were. It’s managed to survive both rain and lightning despite the lack of this finishing touch. The castle isn’t the only black sight that only seems blacker on a dark, wet day. The area is also lined with many black pines, many of which (not pictured here) are very old have grown into large, unique shapes that necessitate supporting the trees with wooden pillars as they loom over the sidewalks and canals.

Rain or no rain, Sunday means tourists, and I frequently see at least a few of them climbing of the stairs from the Otemae (main) entrance at the southeast end of the castle hill. This is the most photogenic approach to the castle, for sure, with its neatly shaped rock walls and lookout towers. As a reminder, this is the area where they’re planning on rebuilding a historically accurate main gate, and the 5,000,000 yen reward for usable historical photos and materials until March 31, 2014 (so a final push, please help us promote that.)

In May, those bare branches will bloom in to unusual, furry-looking nanjamonja fringe.

While I like visitors to be able to see the castle in all its sunny glory, I live here and see the 400-year-old tower on a daily basis, and frequently take walks around the castle hill even in winter, so I’ve seen its many faces in many different kinds of weather. While sunny days are splendid, it has more mysterious character in the rain.

Matsue Shrine, on the approach to the castle tower

One of the places I find the most character is in the castle’s stone wall. While you can enjoy the alluring, smoothly cut and fitted styles when approaching from the south, I usually like to leave the castle from the north gate–that is, the back gate. This leads to the forest area that the Horio clan decided to leave primarily to nature to protect. Here, the fitted stone walls in which the rocks were mostly left in their natural shapes, melt away into the hills and trees. Eerily quiet as this other world on the back of a tourist location may be on a sunny summer day, the rain highlights the textures of the features that have stood quietly back there for four hundred years of history.

Somebody else thought to wander around my favorite spot. Go find your own, dude, this quiet corner is mine!

If the name is any indication, they used to wash horses in this pond. Now you’ll usually find aquatic birds instead, especially in winter when many of them migrate here. If anyone is, I’m sure they’re enjoying such ducky weather.

Given the choice, though, I’ll typically take sunshine and flowers. Speaking of, March at Matsue Castle means the camellia exhibition, the fragrance of the plum garden, and the start of the spring festival to celebrate the cherry blossoms!

Click for source

Click for picture source!

Click for picture source!
Technically, the entire Mt. Kameda encircled by the canal is Matsue Castle, though usually people picture the castle tower. I stroll around the castle a lot, though where I go depends on what's blooming (camellia and plum blossoms are my favorites, though you can find cherry blossoms and autumn leaves all over the main areas), or if there is an event going on, or what the weather in general is. During Suitoro (the lantern festival in Sept/Oct) there are hundreds and hundreds of lanterns all over the main castle areas and walkways, as well as around the canals, I didn't even bother trying to indicate a sight that is everywhere. The Inari shrine would probably be Lafcadio Hearn's suggested spot, so I included it.

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!

My wagashi intake has skyrocketed this year.

Only some of the selection at Kougetsu-an; the really fancy stuff is behind the glass counter (not pictured). The chrysanthemums in the display case here are sugary and edible.

I’ve somewhat given up on–or rather, had to redefine–that New Year’s resolution to consume fewer sweets. Ha! What I was thinking? Well, I suppose there are a lot of good reasons to try to hold this up, but I’ve instead chose to focus on saving fancy desserts for special occasions and enjoying them more mindfully. While I’ve had some very sweet special occasions that merited visiting my favorite fancy Western dessert cafes (and then some), I consume wagashi (Japanese style confections) more often. It’s not unusual to have several per week, as Matsue is one of the three famous wagashi producing cities of Japan. It is a part of the local culture, and besides my exposure to them in daily life, I also started tea ceremony lessons in April. Therefore, once a week, it’s not unusual for me to have two or three of them in a single night.

Not all wagashi are the same sculpted little namagashi masterpieces, though! Many do not have a seasonal motif at all, or are made with a much wider range of ingredients, or they came across more like snack food. While there are a handful of especially famous local chains around town, there are also many small family-size shops with their own original lines of sweets. Kougetsu-an is one of the younger establishments, having only opened in the 1980s.

This is the kind of place where I stop when I need a unique little gift, such as these grape mochi–large, fresh sweet grapes covered in sticky rice coating. The juiciness and chewiness worked very nicely together.

While not unique to Kougetsu-an, they have my kuzu-yu of choice. This is a thick, sweet, soup-like concoction that runs a little smoother than honey made from kudzu vine starch, and has been historically used not only as a comforting sweet, but as a medicine thought to help with headaches or common colds (I’ve tried a more medicinal variety as well, but didn’t enjoy it).

They are contained in single serving pouches like so.

Simply dump the starchy contents into a heat-safe glass, add 100ml of boiling water, and stir. Notice in this variety there are salty little cherry blossoms, like the edible ones sold in Unnan. In such a sweet broth, the saltiness is a welcome contrast.

Got your genki back? I do! Highly recommended for cold winter days. Throughout Japan, kudzu starch is used not only for kuzu-yu, but for firmer wagashi or as a thickening agent in other recipes.

This was a story I heard at Matsue’s Izumo Kanbeno-Sato, told in a very charming setting with illustrations and a talented narrator.

There once was a lonely old man who nonetheless was a very hard worker. Every day, he tended to his fields, without complaint. One day, he found a red cap in his fields, but there was no one around who could have dropped it. Taking a better look at it, he heard a tiny voice. “Dear Ojiisan,” it addressed the old man respectfully, “you’re a very hard worker. I’m a god, and I’ve been watching you. Take this hat as a gift. It will allow you to hear all things, and it will bring you good fortune.”

Gratefully, he accepted it, keeping it on his person. After finishing his labor for the day, he sat under a tree to take a nap, but couldn’t sleep because the crows above him were being so noisy; kaa, kaa, kaa, kaa. “Those crows!” he grumbled. “How can anyone fall asleep with all that ruckus?” Kaa, kaa, kaa, kaa, kaa, kaa.

It then occurred to him to try out the cap he had been gifted with. Doing so, the cacophony subsided, and he could hear human speech coming from the birds above: “The poor village headman over there. Did you hear? He’s terribly ill, and none of the human doctors can figure out what to do to cure him.” “They have no idea it’s because of the snake that died in his storeroom. It’s just a pile of bones by now, but being stuck in there is causing it so much grief that the headman has been sickened by it. It would be such a simple matter to give the snake a proper burial, and then the headman would be healed.” “Yes, but there is no way to tell the humans there. What a terrible misfortune.”

The old man immediately set out for the neighboring village to help the sick man. It took him several hours on foot to crossed the mountain, but he was accustomed to hard work and fatigue did not slow him. When he arrived, he asked to visit the village headman, but his attendants regretfully told him he was too ill to welcome an visitors. “Every doctor has tried to heal him, but to no avail. We’re at such a loss.”

“That’s why I’m here. I know how to heal him.”

“By all means, please! Save our headman!”

He met with the sick man and told him off the snake that died in his storeroom, and that it should be handled appropriately. The villagers found the bones, and then made a proper grave and offered rites to the spirit of the trapped snake. The headman was soon back on his feet, and was eager to express his thanks, giving the old man many gifts to take home with him. Satisfied with his successful good deed, the old man accepted the gifts and returned to his lonely mountain dwelling, where he continued his usual work.

Months later, messengers from the village came seeking his advice on behalf of the village headman’s daughter, who had taken ill. The doctors had tried everything, but could not determine the cause for her illness or the right way to treat her. The old man grabbed his red cap and followed them, eager to help if he was able to.

Upon arriving, he stood outside of her quarters, put on his cap, and listened. All he could hear, however, was the counter of the girl’s labored breathing. He was distressed that he had no way to help, but continued to wait in the village. The night, he did not hear any gossiping crows; only the sound of the trees rustling in the wind. Basa basa basa basa basa basa… basa basa basa basa basa basa…

When he put on his cap, he heard the gingko tree say to its companions, “It is with great regret that I must part with you all…” it said weakly and quietly… “but headman’s daughter’s quarters were built upon my roots. My roots are now damaged, and I will soon shrivel and die.”

The other trees were crying. “It’s so unfair,” the pine replied. “You’re still so young! If only they would tear down those quarters and allow your roots to heal, you could still have a long life. The headman’s daughter would be saved that way, too! But humans are too foolish to know that.”

The old man immediately informed the village headman what he must do to save his daughter. They demolished her quarters, and treated the gingko’s roots. Soon enough, both the tree and the girl began to regain their strength. When the girl was her usual cheerful self again, she insisted that she and her father hold an audience with the old man. “You’re so kind, Ojiisan. You’ve rescued both me and my father,” she said. “There must be some way to repay you! Please tell me anything you want.”

“I have already accepted your gifts before, and my needs have always been met,” he replied. “Although I have managed, I live a very lonely life.”

“Then stay here with us! We’ll adopt you as my grandfather,” she offered. Her father enthusiastically agreed, and the old man felt so welcomed that he couldn’t refuse. He moved in with them, and they all lived very happy, fulfilling lives.

I’ve passed by Suetsugu Shrine countless times, but never ventured inside.

This little shrine is dedicated to Izanami, and was recorded in the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki (Chronicles of Ancient Izumo, 713-733 AD), hundreds of years before the founding of Matsue as we know it today. It used to be on Mt. Kameda instead, but when the city was being laid out, Horio Yoshiharu had it moved to the Chamachi district and named the neighborhood after it (these blocks are still called Suetsugu today, though they use a more modern, abbreviated kanji compound to spell it: 末次 as opposed to 須衛都久). Many people visited Chamachi to pay their respects to the ancient shrine, but after it was damaged in the flood of 1674, the ruling Matsudaira fuedal lord ordered it moved to it’s present location a little further from the banks of Lake Shinji.

The edges of this shrine are covered with all kinds of plants–it looks different in every season when I walk by it.

Nobody’s here except for me in in the reflection, and Izanami hidden out of sight in the honten beyond this space!

The omikuji fortune slips are only 20 yen here, and sold on an honor system. Drop in your change, then reach in and grab one.

This shrine is seldom visited enough that can tie your fortune slip directly to the shrine building instead of to a fence or tree branch.

Good old Taisha-tsukuri style! But what is that under the honten?

Why, it’s a horse… of course.

What I’m really curious about is what used to be here that these gaurdian dogs are still faithfully protecting. Holy trees are pretty common in Shinto worship, but now maybe it’s holy flowers growing out of this very large holy stump.

She’s seen better days.

Simple idea: Build a wall!

Horio Yoshiharu, the founder of Matsue, established the city around the castle–which even today among multi-story buildings is the highest structure in the city–and the only remaining original castle in the San’in region. It’s a castle build on a hill with a stone wall, which most castles in the San’in region were not (notice which castles aren’t around anymore!).

By wall, I don’t mean a single wall–rather, the moat is lined by a wall, higher and higher levels of the hill have their own walls, and the castle tower itself has a base of stone. They wind around the hill, separating different sections and levels that had different defense and storage purposes back in the Edo era.

Did you know?
The entire walled area can be considered Matsue Castle, though many of the outermost gates have since been demolished. What we would consider Matsue Castle proper is merely the tower, one of several buildings that had special functions. Nor was this the feudal lord’s dwelling place–he lived just south of the castle hill, in close proximity to where government affairs were (and still are) handled. Castles like this were designed as a safe getaway place if he needed to take cover from an attack on the city.

Three wall building methods
The stones used were all taken from Nakaumi (the lake bordering Matsue to the east), and then cut and arranged according to the following methods:

Can you find all three types here?

Besides just making it hard to scale the hill unless you have an army of monkeys, parts of the wall were also designed to give the defending armies the upper hand. For instance, a large square platform called the Katen (firing point) was located along the stairs from the forefront gate. Defending armies could easily shoot at attackers from this point, as the attackers would have little choice but to use the stairs.

The thick brown lines are where there are stone walls.

Speaking of stairs, they were built unevenly so as to make it harder for attackers to run up them. The stairs from the forefront gate at the southeast corner are now a little more conducive to visitors (although still a trek if you try to run up them!), but some stairs, like these on the north side, are still a good challenge if anybody really wanted to try to attack.

It seems to me this quiet set of stairs on the west side has been redone, but they’re still a little too steep to run up them easily.

So… rocks. Walls. That’s great. End of story?
Wrong! What in the world are you supposed to make of this carving?

The answer: sanctioned graffiti!
In some ways, these were the builders’ way of signing their work, or possibly for marking which boulders were to go in which places, as many of the carvings where found along the wall marked below:

Again, the thick brown lines are the stone walls.

They may have also been used to keep track of events and construction associated with the wall, as there is one location marked with “安永八” which most likely marks the eighth year of the An’ei period (1779 a.d.), when part of the wall was reconstructed after heavy rains the previous year had damaged it.

The symbol of a weight in the above example was particularly popular, because it wasn’t the mark of a worker, but of the overlord. It was a family symbol bestowed on the Horio clan from Yoshiharu’s first lord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (there would be two more clan symbols added later). While samurai clans each had their own crests, family symbols were a little different, as lower ranking families may have them as well. Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of my knowledge about their use, but here are some examples of the common symbols carved on Matsue Castle’s walls:

I find it really funny that someone is using the symbol of onmyouji Abe no Seimei (the star).

You might notice on the map that the wall doesn’t run all the way around the castle hill, but if you were visiting in person, you would notice the forest around the north and west sides of the hill right away, lining the edges of the moat. Some of the individual parts of the forested area had other functional purposes, but the main purpose of the little woods was for defense.
Why go with trees when you can have such a cleverly designed wall? Well, trees are cheaper, and stone walls have a high labor and material cost, and establishing a whole town around your new castle is rather costly, as well as the moving process. In short, they ran out of budget. Thanks to this lack of money, we get to enjoy a number of trees that are hundreds of years old!