March 27:

I noticed yesterday that the buds of the cherry trees on my way home are now visibly pink. Took a walk around the castle this morning to see how they’re progressing, and they look ready to burst open at any moment. The forecast for the somei-yoshino, the representative breed of cherry blossom, is that they’ll bloom in Matsue starting March 30. I already saw an early blooming mountain variety in Yasugi on March 15, next to a plum blossom tree in full bloom. There are still some hearty plum blossoms in bloom in town today, but they’re on their last breaths. In these final days of blooming they give off the strongest fragrance, but their petals are already dotting the grass, moss, and sidewalks.

Though cherry blossoms are known for their sentimental scattering, no flowers fall quite as dramatically as the camellia. Like the plum blossoms, they’ve mostly enjoyed their glory for this year, and the bright green, post-early-spring-rain around the Matsue Castle grounds is dotted with trees surrounded by fallen blossoms. They don’t scattered their bright magenta petals like the similar sazanka flowers do, instead they fall with a pottori sound. The sight and sound of a fallen camellia pulls more of my heartstrings than any amount of scattering cherry blossoms can. The stone steps on the western slope of the castle hill are green with moss, fresh grass, and lush new leaves, but they are also decorated with bright fallen camellia heads.

I can’t say I enjoyed them in silence, however, because birds of all sizes are varieties are chattering in large numbers this morning. It’s a wonder how some old trees don’t fall over with that many blue herons sitting at the top branches.

Up by the castle tower, the cherry blossoms take center stage, and while they are almost ready for their spotlight, they are only that–almost.

March 28:

23 degrees this morning, and it felt amazing! The sun poked through, and the dew on the grass was very noticeable.
Some of the somei-yoshino cherry blossoms are starting to peak through their covers.

However, some cold weather varieties are already in full bloom, like the large white oshimazakura at Suetsugu Park. Not only is it full of blossoms, but it has young leaves and fragrance.

Across the street from this tree, several people were lined up in suits outside of the main entrance of city hall, applauded from someone I couldn’t see making their exit. It’s almost the end of the Japanese fiscal year and many people are about to retire or be transferred somewhere completely different. This is a sending-off for some such person, but I don’t know whom.

March 29:

The cats are prowling in the neighborhood–looks like everyone is shaking off winter laziness. A lot of cherry blossoms here have already opened and it’s warm enough to need to open a window. My poor kimono practice partner has a terrible case of allergies and has been doing her best not to sneeze on the silk.

March 30:

The rain was loud all night, but it’s just a light rain this morning. Today at Matsue Castle–where the 3/30 forecast seems fairly accurate–I heard an uguisu–that semi-officially means it’s spring! A stark contrast from the continual rubbery honking of the herons up at the tree tops, but everyone morning has been filled with the sounds and songs of quite a variety of birds. I’ve woken up most mornings lately to sunshine and a chirping chorus.

While we’ve had ducks and other aquatic birds hanging out in mass numbers in our waterways all winter, today the ducks in the castle moat are looking more frisky than usual. I wonder how soon we’ll see turtles families again?

March 31:

Ah-ha, so this is the bird that’s been doing all the screeching! There were a few of them by the southwest turrets of the castle today building nests, sticking their faces in flowers, and happily screeching.

The blue crested herons are still just as busy. Today most of them were heading towards the nests carrying branches; quite industrious on this sunny day. Many have already been sitting in nests for a few days, frequently visited by their partners who they pestered for branches and food, likely.

At work, we’ve had many people coming to say their formal good-byes, and we had a sending off at our own entrance today.

April 1:

Foggy weather this morning, but it soon cleared up into perfect flower-viewing weather, especially considering most of the blossoms are open now. The somei-yoshino are pillowy and white, but I am more attracted to the pink varieties, like this cherry tree planted in honor of the Sister City relationship between Matsue and Onomichi.

Not all the camellia are down for the count. This large pink variety right outside my office is a late-bloomer.

April 2:

The cranes were arguing about something this morning. Despite nesting in such close proximity, which multiple nests at one treetop, they can still be a little territorial.

I finally remembered my sunglasses–it feels like I haven’t touched them in ages (though I’m perhaps one of the few people here who uses them without trying to make a fashion statement). In any case, the sunshine feels great.

The bring green grass and clover patches are making their return in the park, but they’re already dotted with scattered cherry blossoms. I wonder how much longer until their dramatic exit? It’s forecast to rain tomorrow…

The good-byes have switched to self-introductions as seasoned workers and young recruits are taking their new posts. It’s also the season for welcome dinners instead of just good-bye parties, and I came across a long train of excited new young employees, split into a few groups as the traffic light separated them on the way to hotels with ballrooms large enough to host them all. Thankfully my division-only party was small enough to talk with everyone and still hear yourself as you scoot along the tatami floors, pour drinks, and get to know each other better.

April 3:

Still sunny this morning!

And not only that, but the somei-yoshino all throughout town–and especially at the castle–have burst into full bloom. A couple unexpected detours in the afternoon led me to some quieter spots around town, such as Cherry Road, which is lined with cherry trees and overlooks the Sea of Japan. Another less famous spot, however, had low-hanging branches that almost looked heavy with fluffy white blossoms, and the shaded grass around the trees was a home for wild flowers that looked down the hill on some cultivated, deep green bushes. The sunlight glittered down upon the whole scene. That was well and good, but then the wind came and the blossoms began scattering–and that, dear Readers, was the mysterious cherry blossom viewing in Japan as I had always pictured it.

April 4:

I woke up to thunder, howling wind, and water crashing around my roof and walls.

Well. The cherry blossoms were nice while they lasted.

April 9:

Hold on–those blossoms are still hanging on! It seems conditions here were perfect for more flower viewing while I was anxious about tornado warnings out in Tokyo.

April 10:

One of the Go-mei (seasonal names for your tea scoop in the tea ceremony) for April is 花吹雪 (hanafubuki, “flower blizzard”). Even the light wind today is making that apparent, as cherry blossom petals don’t need much force to carry them away.

April 11:

The somei-yoshino had looked fluffy and white from far away, but they’re starting to look like deep shades of orange highlighted with spots of blossoms now. The fresh young leaves start with this rustic color, but they’ll turn green by summer and blend in with all the other trees.

Some later varieties are all fluffy yet heavy-looking with yae style blossoms–layers of petals all piled together rather than the iconic five-petaled blossom.

April 13:

On my usual Sunday morning route cutting between the Shimane Prefecture Office and Chidori Bridge–the little getaway route the feudal lord would have used to escape from his residence to Matsue Castle in case of an attack which never happened–I committed the sin of ignoring my surroundings and checking my phone. While consumed in the virtual world held in my hand, a fluttering cherry blossom flicked me in the ear, turning my attention to the last buds clinging to the branches, as well as though among the grass, water, or air that had given up the struggle. The blossom that hit me seemed to say, “I’m still here–look at me now!”

Cherry blossoms are perhaps less known for their grace as they are for their ethereal evanescence–you have to make it a point to view them, because they disappear so soon.

Following the blossoms in the trees, however, “cherry blossom grass” (sakurasou–technically Japanese primrose) tends to stick around for a while. I’m a big fan of brightly colored coverage like this, be it some variety of sakurasou or baby blue rurisou (nemophila), and some areas in Japan are famous for planting entire hilly areas in colors other than green. The wild collection of green plants covering the ground together also have their own rustic appeal, such as the excitement of finding yomogi (Japanese mugwort) which can be ground up and added to rice cakes to makes them green and give them a spring-like aroma. However, if you are more attune to food than to seasons, you might grind up the little leaves in your hand and have the smell remind you of mochi instead of the other way around.


April 15:

Although the bigger cherry blossom tend to hold on longer, the little walkway behind my office is now lined with big white blossoms, though the tree still looks plenty covered as well. It’s very, very sunny today, but the wind is still a little cold. Big waves on Lake Shinji today. We might be getting cloudier weather tomorrow.

April 21:

The turtles are back in all sizes again–I spied some twenty turtles out for a swim or sun bath in the castle moat. Although the hill Matsue Castle sits on is called Jozan (Castle Mountain) now, it used to be called Kamedazan (Turtle Mountain).

14420-turtles

My spring fever had been wearing off until I was interpreting for a group of educators from Thailand, and when we brought them up to Mt. Makuragi for a view of Lake Nakaumi, they were all much more excited by the somei-yoshino cherry tree that was still mostly in full bloom. What luck to see cherry blossoms while in Japan, though true cherry blossom season is mostly over. There are many other varieties in mostly full bloom now, including fluffy pink blossoms that bunch together like pockets of pillows, and green tinted blossoms that at a close view have stripes of pink, but from a distance they trick you–“Ha! You only thought I was leaves, but I’ll bet you’ve never seen leaves in such a soft green tint!”

The group continued to ooh and ahh at all the flowers, very different from the tropical varieties they are accustomed to, and it seem it’s already too hot for many of them. The flower beds throughout the city planted by community volunteers are at their most cheerful right now, and the peonies at Yuushien Garden are just now beginning to wake up. While there are always enough peonies to make a visit just for them, most of the garden seems green compared to my first memories there from May of last year, but the buds are big and ready to take over the garden in an array of bright colors.

We took a brief visit to Izumo Taisha as well–this being my 11th visit there, so perhaps I am somewhat jaded to grandeur of the shrine. However, upon arrival, there was a garden of pink-tinted cherry blossoms that stood out against the familiar green mountains of Izumo, and all of a sudden Izumo Taisha felt new and exciting to me again.

Spring has a way of doing that.

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.

True cherry blossoms season–when the air is filled with thousands and thousands of soft white petals–may be considered over, but other varieties kept on blooming for weeks thereafter. Here is another handful, though still a mere sample of the wide varieties just planted here around Matsue–and probably the last ones I’ll be posting about for this year! After all, I’m so late with this final post that we’ve run clear into other flower seasons (new flowers coming soon, I promise). These ones are all from Suetsugu Park, like the last bunch I introduced.

“Surugadai-nioi”


“Ichihara Tora-no-O” (Ichihara Tiger’s Tail)


“Itokukuri”, similar to the Fukurokuju below.


“Fukurokuju”, named after the Lucky God of Happiness, Wealth and Long Life (see below).



“Gyoikou” or “Gioiko”, the most unique variety I’ve seen. They are a pale green, and their pink stripes appear as they mature. They have some fragrance, too!

The height of someiyoshino cherry blossom season is about over, but there are other varieties of cherry blossoms that bloom a little later. A number of them are in Suetsugu Park, right by Matsue City Hall, so I took a windy lunch break to go take a look.

This type is called Goza-no-ma-nioi, which I’d roughly translate as “the scent of sitting”. That said, I didn’t detect much fragrance, but the bunched blossoms are neat.

Eigenji: pillowy white blossoms, still not much fragrance.

Fugenzou: large, multi-layered blossoms. Still not much fragrance.

At last, I found a couple of very fragrant trees! While there were slight differences in their scent, they both smelled like cherries (which makes sense). Other varieties that I detected fragrance from didn’t strike me as having such a pleasant, fruity smell, so I rather enjoyed these.

I’m not sure what these white ones are called, but I liked them anyway.


Rather large and fluffy petals.


A very pale pink, if you’re looking for it in the younger blossoms.

Out of all the types of cherry blossoms I’ve seen, (I don’t have pictures of them all–there are still more blossom types all over town), I’ve decided youkihi are my favorite. They have more petals, more color, and more fragrance than many others. This is, however, only personal sentiment–cherry blossoms are appreciated for more than these attributes, and the someiyoshino can’t be topped when it comes to the beauty of scattering petals. That’s okay, the youkihi are still around to enjoy one they’re gone!


When I got back to the office after lunch, I found some sakura mochi left on my desk, as someone had brought them to distribute around the office. I’ve been seeing them here and there since February (a little early, but better early than late so as to foretell the coming of the season!).

Basically, they are a soft, thin, lightly flavored mochi (pounded rice) sort of pancake filled with sweet, smooth azuki bean paste, and held together by a cooked, salty leaf. It’s okay to eat them with or without the leaf.

Full bloom cherry blossom viewing photos here and here, while other varieties are here.

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.