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


Here in Matsue
We call this Suitoro
Lantern Festival


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


Each one unique
Celebrating the city
In various styles

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

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

Click for source and more photos (Japanese)

Dear Susano-o, please grant me some of your wedded bliss!

Following Parts 1 and 2 of the overview of Yamata-no-Orochi sites, we’ve reached the happily-ever-after for Susano-o and Kushinada-hime. Perhaps moreso than for a bloodthirsty and intoxicated giant eight-headed slithering monster, visitors come to the Izumo region seeking their own happy endings.

Here’s that buzzword again: en-musubi.

En originally has to do with any sort of ties different people and nature may have interwoven with each other, but it’s more popularly associated with matchmaking–and there is lots and lots of matchmaking to be done here. Izumo Taisha pretty much specializes in it, and that effect is extended to the rest of the region. Here in Matsue, there are a number of little places specifically known as en-musubi power spots, and finding them is supposed to give you good luck in finding your soul mate–everything from Yaegaki Shrine to a heart in the natural grain of the wood used inside Matsue Castle.

Finding romantic en in all sorts of unintentional places is common throughout Japan. For instance, which a couple of large rocks are found near each other, they are considered Meoto-Iwa (“Husband-and-Wife Boulders”), and they are often tied together with shimenawa, like the pair found in the Mihonoseki area of the Shimane Peninsula.

Click for image source and other Mihonoseki photos!

The Meoto-Iwa representing Susano-o and Kushinada-hime on Mt. Yakumo take this a step further by having a whole family of rocks, including one to represent the fruits of their union. By the time I got to the area while doing my Orochi day tour I had run out of daylight (would have been fine if I went in summer instead of winter!), so I haven’t seen these rocks myself, but here are a couple Japanese blogs that have lots of photos of the hike leading up to the rocks and the view from the top: here and here.

The photo I’ve seen most often is from an advertising campaign for the San’in region that features Nezumiotoko, a well-known character from Gegege-no-Kitaro (thanks for lending him out, Sakaiminato!)

Susano-o is partially to thank for the popularity of en-musubi, seeing as his was one of the first successful marriages in the Shinto pantheon. The heavenly pairings never seemed to end quite as well as the matches made in Izumo, and the fact that Susano-o chose to reside here helps.

This marriage between the God of the Seas (and then some) and one of the earthly kami who populated the land below the heavens was arranged in a rather human-like way. They had wedding preparations to do (which took place at Oomori Shrine), and Kushinada-hime required clean water when we was giving birth to their first child (which is why she chose Kawabe Shrine).

Let’s not forget that a girl has to look good on her wedding day, too. The mirror pond she used to fix her hair is found at Yaegaki Shrine in southern Matsue (the name should sound very familiar if you read Susano-o’s poem!). It’s a major destination for young women who come from all over the country to have the pond reveal their romantic fate. It’s fairly common to see travelers depart from the JR station to take a bus straight there before moving on to the rest of their en-musubi journey.

The pond is located behind the shrine, and the custom is (as it has been since Lafcadio Hearn‘s time, at least) to purchase a piece of paper, then float a coin on it–typically 10yen or 100yen. The most the paper hits the surface of the water, some writing appears to reveal some characteristic about your soul mate–like if they’re a kind person–and then you wait for the paper to sink. The closer to the end of the pond it sinks, the closer that person will be found, the faster it sinks, the sooner you’ll meet them. While the pond takes on a mysterious color filled with sunken papers, there are a few sad papers around the edges that never sank.

It seems like it would be more fun to do with a group of a single girlfriends than, say, with your boyfriend you dragged along.

This is said to be the shrine where Susano-o and Kushinada-hime got married. In general, Japanese society embraces both Shintoism and Buddhism, but for different purposes–Buddhist services are meant for funerals, and Shinto services are meant for weddings. While not as common as Meoto-Iwa, this shrine is also known for its Meoto-Tsubaki, the husband-and-wife camellia trees that grew into each other.

Yaegaki Shrine is also a place many young parents used to visit with special prayer requests for their children to behave. It’s very common for en-musubi shrines to go hand-in-hand with family wellness.

It’s also one of Japan’s unabashed fertility shrines. It’s there if you’re looking for it.

While Yaegaki is free to enter (as most shrine are, compared to touristy temples), you can pay 200yen to see original of one of the very first portraits of a kami–specifically Kushinada-hime, with Susano-o behind her. It seems it dates back to 893ad.

Susano-o and Kushinada-hime decided to make their home at Susa Shrine, around the border of modern day Matsue and Unnan. I have to borrow the photo below because by the time I visited it, it was after dark and I didn’t get many good photos myself. That said, it is indeed a sugasugashii (refreshing) place, as Susano-o described it in the first waka (Japanese poem).

Coincidentally, one of Japan’s most famous poets of the Asuka period, Kakinomoto-no-Hitomaro, has strong ties with the city of Masuda in southwestern Shimane in the Iwami region.

Suga Shrine is not only where the first waka was composed, but it is also said to be the first shrine of Japan.

“First Shrine in Japan”

If a shrine is a dwelling place for a heavenly being, then it would make sense if the first one to dwell on the earth (by his choice or not) resided in it. The earthly kami didn’t really count–after all, Susano-o appointed his in-laws as the caretakers for his holy household.

This was, however, just their starter home. Susano-o would go on to still play more of a role in the Kojiki, though I’m a couple stories away from getting to that. There are also many other shrines honoring Susano-o (as well as Kushinada-hime) throughout the Izumo region, and many of the local styles of Kagura dance depict the legend of the Yamata-no-Orochi. Those will pop up from time to time, but this post will wrap our Yamata-no-Orochi daytrip.

Continued from Part 7

I see what you referenced there, Susano-o.

The link is here, for good measure.

Like the story of Izanagi and Izanami little romp in Yomi, you can visit many places associated with this legend in real life.

Learn about the sites associated with this legend!
Water: How the Hii River inspired the beast
Sake: The potent brew that defeated it
Shrines: For happily ever after

Or start reading the next story!
The White (or hairless?) Hare of Inaba
(But you can also skip ahead to Susano-o’s next appearance)

Or see the Kojiki a.t.b.b. masterlist!
The Kojiki Myths in Manga Form

There are ducks that hang out on Lake Shinji all year long, but there seem to be quite a few in winter. As you can see, it’s a major spot for migratory birds of many varieties–not to mention it has been designated as a wetland of international importance.

I like living so close to the lake–it’s very easy to just wander across the street after work to see the scenery for a few minutes. In nicer weather, we’ll often picnic at the lakeside for lunch–though a few of my friends have had parts of their lunch stolen by the kites (birds of prey, not toys). I wish I had been there to see that!

What do you call a flock of kites? A party? There were two more of them hanging out here, too.

There was a day a few weeks ago when the lake was covered with thousands of birds all at once. I had noticed it while passing by the lake for something for work, and I went by after work to see them again–sure enough, still there, in no hurry. My photos don’t do the scene justice, but it was pleasant to watch for a few minutes.

Since I was taking my time on the way home anyway, I stopped by the Ichibata railroad station at Matsue Shinji-ko Onsen. This hot spring at the northeast bank of Lake Shinji is rich in sulphates and chlorates, and there is a long line of fancy hotels, but for people pressed on time (or money) there is a free foot bath right outside the station.

There’s also a Jizo here to pour some hot water on so he can enjoy the hot springs, too!

When I go to Izumo, I usually take the Ichibata rail road line along the north shore of Lake Shinji, and there are other nice day trips along the way–like ice skating! The rink is located direcly at the northwest shore, next to a nature park, and short walk from a train stop. After a few hours of skating, we were surprised by the very pleasant February weather outside.

The watery fields were reflecting the blue sky, and in the distance we could see a huge crowd of swans.

Much closer, however, a bunch of kites were flying around with each other–and one crow invited himself to the party.

Then the two-car train came. Today it was a Mizuki Shigeru youkai themed train–why hello there, Betobeto-san!

Then we had a forty-minute view of the lake on the way back. This included the sunset, of course–as well as more ducks.

Then there are days when most of the ducks are on the Ohashi River instead of in the middle of the lake. It’s just another part of living in Matsue when a friend calls you up and says, “Hey, are you busy? No? Let’s go watch the sunset.”

Lake Shinji sunset
Which the duck sees every day
Plunk! It takes a dive

Lone as the sun sets
But the sun is alone too
Making quite a pair

Shinji’s depth shrouded
Colored by sunshine fleeting
To the land of clouds

Never parting on
Migration to Matsue
Quack quack quack quack quack

As I continue to flirt with starting real tea ceremony lessons in a city steeped in tea culture, I’ve nonetheless been enjoying lots and lots of tea. I am especially fond of the flavor of matcha, a powdered form of green tea picked and processed in such a way that it has a higher concentration of amino acids than its steeped counterparts, and since it is ingested instead of left in a tea bag, it delivers a greater antioxidant punch. That’s not to mention the taste–though it may be more fiercely bitter than other forms of green tea, it has a deeper and more complex flavor profile. As you can imagine, it is an aquired taste, but once acquired life gets that much more enjoyable.

Matcha’s partner in presentation is none other than wagashi, handmade Japanese confectionaries, which Matsue is a well-known producer of. Despite how much I like sweets, these were also an acquired taste for me, as I didn’t exactly grown up eating sweet bean paste. But now I’ve acquired that taste and can appreciate their wide variety of shapes, colors, and ingredients! Not to mention the combination of intense sweetness and bitterness when paired with matcha–it really wakes up the senses.

While I still can’t call myself a formal practitioner of wagashi or tea, I can still try. On a bit of an impulse a few weeks ago, I finally bought myself some matcha for personal use and the tools needed to keep and prepare it (and while I was at it I got a set of napkins and a utensil for eating wagashi so that I wouldn’t be caught without them again!). This was brought on by a brief wagashi-making workshop I participated in, and it also gave me a chance to use the dorei pottery I made in Izumo last fall!

My first homemade tea ceremony! Except that I was both the host and guest, so it wasn’t really a ceremony (not to mention all the tools and steps I skipped). It was simply nice to be able to combine the matcha and wagashi flavors at home.

First, this is the tea bowl I’d like to say I made myself when the other Shimane CIRs and I were having a training period last fall, but it was mostly me making a mess and the far more talented Sensei fixing it for me. The little carved design was my own doing, at least.

This is more so where my brand of creativity lies…

Furthermore, I made the wagashi myself! Well, the shape of it anyway–in the short class I took part in, the sweet red bean paste and soft colored fondant were already prepared by the people who know what they’re doing. There are longer classes available at the Karakoro Art Studio, which I’m sure I’ll try out at some point. This particular wagashi is modeled on a tsubaki (camellia), which is one of the flower symbols of Matsue.

Click for photo source–this variety isn’t blooming quite yet! There are plenty of another couple varieties blooming around town, though.

I could see myself making wagashi more often than making pottery.

The one in the middle (a chrysanthemum, I think, if not a peony) was prepared by the pros ahead of time, but I made the tsubaki and sakura (cherry blossom). They’re not perfect, but they were pretty anyway~

Since I had a couple more wagashi to work with, the next morning I made it again with the cup I bought at the Watanabe open house late last fall.

It was also nice to already have matcha and a few tools on hand when someone gave me gave me a local brand of wagashi, known as 湖の雲, or “clouds above the lake,” a rather sweet interpretation of the famous sunset scenery at Lake Shinji.

Informal though this little tasting experience was, it was worth a haiku:

In warm hues and tastes
Daylight sweetly melts away,
Consumed in brief time.

As the last of my New Year posts, I have a lot of traditional food to report on.

Soba: Buckwheat noodles
Long noodles signify long life, so it’s good luck to eat these on the last night of the year. Udon noodles are also acceptable, but the Izumo region is moreso known for its soba, which as more of the wheat plant, and is therefore healthier and has a deeper flavor. At the Izumo soba restuarants around here, it’s commonly served in three dishes with different condiments on each (things like seaweed, daikon radish, katsuo (fish flakes), and raw egg are common).

Click for a blog page about Izumo soba and other local specialties (English)

Soba making parties also seem to be a common end of year party activity, and I got invited along to one last month out in Inbei, a rural part of Matsue to the south. Making soba may seem like a simple process (making the dough, rolling it flat, slicing it thinly, boiling it, serving it with fresh condiments), but it requies specialized tools and having an expert on hand helps.

The soba I cut all turned out a little thick…

Mochi and zoni: Sticky rice cakes, and soup made with them
I neglected to take pictures at this, but I joined in a mochi-making party at Matsue’s history museum–a common December activity throughout Japan. Everyone took turns using a wooden mallet to pound the rice in a special basin.

Not my photo, but pretty much like this.

Experienced old men get a very good rhythm together, with one pounding and one turning the mixture (and I have yet to see any fingers get whacked). My favorite person to watch was a little boy who looked about 3 or 4 or shouted with aggressive fighting spirit the whole time.

Inside, we gathered around tables to roll the cakes in flour and pound them flat, then covered them in soy bean powder (it’s sweet) before eating them. If they sit for a while they get hard, but when they’re fresh they’re soft, chewy, and stretchy–and easy to choke on if you don’t chew carefully!

Mochi is a traditional New Year decoration, too. A couple of them get set up on the family altar inside traditional homes as part of the Kagami Mochi. By the 11th of January or so when the New Year festivities wind down to a close, they’ll be so hard that you can break them apart with a hammar and eat the pieces.

Mochi is the main ingrediant in zoni, a soup eaten at New Years. Originally a meal for warriors, the ingredients vary from region to region, but the basic idea is to eat mochi in a broth with some other flavors. When I had it, it was more like typical zenzai (a specialty dessert of the Izumo region with azuki (sweet red beans).

O-sechi: Cuisine that doesn’t require cooking
It’s considered bad luck to cook for the first three days of the new year, so while some families still make their own o-sechi in the days leading up to the new year, many restaurants and stores had been promotions for o-sechi you can order instead. More info here on the Wiki page.

I got to enjoy a wonderful array of it on January 2nd at a party one of my supervisors invited me and the other CIRs to out at his old home in Izumo. It looked pretty much like you’d picture a traditional house party–sitting on cushions on the tatami mats, surrounded by sliding screens and seasonally decorated walls, and an array of food to eat over the course of several hours while everyone talks and plays games.

The shells at the front are from a game that was played in the Heian courts roughly a thousand years ago, called Kai-awase (shell matching) or E-awase (picture matching). It’s like Memory, only with pretty painted scenes from the Tale of Genji on seashells. This a rather old set which we admired instead of playing with.

We opened the stack of trump cards to play games like Babanuki and Daihinmin, and the stack of old cards next to that was for Hanafuda, though a couple cards were missing so we skipped that.

In the back was a nice, unopened pack of Utagaruta or Hyakunin Isshuu from way back when Nintendo specialized in printed games! Well, we opened it. Karuta is a typical New Years game spanning a few hundred years of popularity, in which a set of cards are spread out and someone reads proverbs from a corresponding set of cards. The first person to grab the corresponding card takes it, and person with the biggest stack at the end wins.

Utagaruta is a version played with an old set of Heian era poetry called the Hyakunin Isshuu (a hundred people, one poem each), so it’s commonly called by that name, too. The reader reads a poem on one card, and the players look for the ending verse. You can listen for the words, or if you have the poem memorize, you can grab it as soon as you know what poem it is.

At first I thought it would be hard if you don’t know the poetry, but after I got used to it (and started to memorize where certain cards were), I got a lot faster and came from behind to win the game. Maybe I should start studying this poetry! After all, I was mostly listening for pronunciation since classical Japanese isn’t easy to understand right away. Nevertheless, we paused the game several times for some thoughtful interpretation of the poems.

Finally, today (January 7th) is known as Jinjitsu (Human Day), when Nanakusagayu (seven herb gruel) is eaten. It day for both being kind to humans, and kind to your stomach after all that mochi and o-sechi!

Click for the recipe (Japanese)

The herbs:

Seri: Japanese parsley
Nazuna: Shepherd’s purse
Gogyou: Jersey cudweed
Hakobera: Chickweed/stitchwort
Suzujiro: Turnip
Suzuna: Daikon radish
Hotoke-no-za: Henbit deadnettle

Take care of your tummies, everyone, and have a good 2013!