I mentioned in the previous entry that I practice the naginata. This is not just for fun in the martial arts hall–I have to protect Lord Horio!

As you can see, the job of a CIR can cover a wide range of activities. Well, not that this was for work, but being placed in Matsue means that I get to take part in things like the annual Warrior Parade which reenacts the moving of Lord Horio and his troops into the new domain of Matsue in 1611. There were several different roles and groups, and I was placed among the lady warriors, meaning I got to look menancing in peach and wield a prop naginata (though dancing with one is different from training with one, both methods are quite fun!). Directors from across the country came together to help train a couple hundred budding samurai for the event, and we started practicing a couple months ago.

The parade was set to take place on Saturday, April 6, during the height of cherry blossom season–especially around Matsue Castle, the finale spot. The weather on Friday was perfect–warm, sunny, not much wind.

But that perfect weather was the problem. Due to the warmth, there was plenty of moisture in the air, and there was a very foreboding weather forecast. We knew ahead of time that there was a strong likelihood of rain on our parade–and not just rain, down pour. On the final practice the night before the parade, the resourceful directors announced the back-up to do it in indoors.

Indoors!? I thought. We can’t spread out across the streets and march across the city? That does not fit my mental image of this event!! I wished really, really hard for sunshine, as I’m sure many of the others did, too.

On the day of the parade, the rain started as soon as I stepped outside in the morning. We all gathered several hours before the parade so we would have time for getting into costume and taking pictures (a huge thanks to all the volunteers who got everyone dressed!), and everyone was still in high, hopeful spirits. With everyone stopping each other for pictures, it felt like everyone got together for a samurai convention or something.


Lord Horio’s wife and daughters had really impressive, detailed wigs, but I didn’t get a chance to snap a picture of them personally. These ladies danced with cherry blossoms branches.


Our group leader and sub-leader looked even cooler than the rest of us! We shall proudly follow them into battle!








Last minute practice sessions–and last minute routine changes!


However, the weather was getting worse and worse.

Late in the morning, they called the outdoor parade off and decided to hold it inside the rotunda instead, though our one practice of the cramped rotunda version the night before had been far less than graceful.

A whole parade in this space? No!! I was so disappointed I wanted to cry.

Crying, however, would not have been a fitting reaction for a warrior, so we all pulled together for more flexible strategy. It took adjusting our the movements we had been practicing for months so as to not injure the crowded audience (or each other!), and even in the moments before we took our turn performing, our group leader whispered new instructions to everyone that we had never brought up before. Samurai must think on their feet, and obey with loyalty! Our performance mostly went well, I think.

These pictures will kind of give you idea about the naginata routine.




Thanks, Jin-san!

Thanks, Jin-san!

Of course, I stopped taking pictures once it was time to go on, but the amazing Jin-san has a gallery here. Watch the video he put together, too:

At the end of the performance, the directors (all grown men) were all crying because they were so moved–at least, I hope that was the case!

Good job, everyone! Let’s do our best next year and be prepared for sunshine!

Matsue CIRs double as ninja and as samurai.

It's usually a thank-you present, it seems...

So it was just a little debacle about using the wrong stamps, whatever. I was more surprised when they called me afterward, having tracked me down by just the first name written on the cards. Then again, seeing as I have post office bank account and this being the neighborhood post office, maybe my face helped too.

Little did they know I loathe polka-dots.

Quite an exciting item to receive! But what could be inside?

I am offended! I demand sponges to clean up this mess.

Yes indeed, I received apology sponges. It’s not the most exciting gift box, but the collective value of the items was probably more than they overcharged me in postage.

As an American, I’m typically happy just to hear a heartfelt apology and leave things be, and I don’t typically mind when people in the service industry make honest mistakes. It happens! In Japan, however, no matter how quickly the offended party may offer forgiveness, the offending party must err on the side of being overly apologetic rather than inadequately apologetic. One of the things that may come to mind is ritualistic suicide of the samurai class. Although seppuku could be handed out as a dignified punishment, this was also done out of one’s own volition to express one’s fault for having offended their lord. In the early Edo period (roughly starting 1600 AD, or around the time of Matsue’s founding as a new castle town), laws had to be enforced about when this style of apology was appropriate, otherwise the samurai class would all too enthusiastically start to kill itself off. That being said, I wouldn’t want to over-simplify the matter of seppuku and its meanings and uses, so I strongly suggest reading Inazo Nitobe’s “Bushido: The Soul of Japan” for an English explanation of samurai ethos aimed at Western audiences.

Although it of course should be taken with a grain of salt, the Japanese Culture Lab has a video to help explain some of the modern methods of apology.

Got all that? Get your sponges together, and let’s all do our best to show our remorse Japanese style next time! I mean that in the most admirable of ways–apologies are an art form.

“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.

If you visit Matsue Castle in winter, you might expect to see some of the following scenes. It is one of the only 12 remaining original castles in Japan, and one of the best maintained with its original materials, so it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the Edo era, seeing almost the same scenery they saw then. For instance, the imposing black castle turned white with snow.

This kind of time travel is completely normal.

Ah, but back in the Edo era, foreigners were not allowed in Japan. I’d be in trouble there!

In modern day Matsue, the castle is a social center that any common people can enjoy. Festivals and events are frequently held on the castle grounds, but any other day, people enjoy the grounds however they please.

Oh? Is it snowing again?

Aha. Yes, it’s definitely snowing again. So much for the view of the city from the castle tower, but this is nice too!

I could see the ducks in the castle moat a moment ago, but the scenery is quickly turning white again…

The weather will not stop the Horikawa sightseeing boat! It runs all year long, but in the winter months they provide heated kotatsu blankets to curl up with while you get a tour of the city. You can do the whole course in about 45 minutes, or you can you get on and get off as many times as you like throughout the day and use it like a water bus. Make sure to bring your foreign passport or foreign residence card for a 33% discount!

Around this time, you’ll probably see this particular variety of camellia all over town. They bloom for a long period of time, and stay very fragrant! The camellia garden and plum blossom gardens on the west side of the castle grounds haven’t bloomed quite yet, but there are many buds right now.

Cold CIRs like me have also become part of the modern scenery around the castle.

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!

This is a story from Misasa, out in Tottori.

Way back in the Edo when class-based fuedalism was strictly enforced, there was once a villager who admired samurai, and hoped to someday be one. What with the laws and class division, however, this was an unattainable dream.

One day while taking a hike up the mountain pass, he took a break and and noticed a samurai seated among the rocks. Knowing that being rude to a samurai could cost him, he made sure to great him politely. “Hello there, Samurai-san. Nice weather today, isn’t it?”

However, the samurai made no reply. The villager ventured to speak again. “Hello there, Samurai-san!”

Still there came no answer. Upon further inspection, the villager noticed that the samurai had died. Well, this is a fine chance if I’ll ever get one! Since the guy’s dead, I might as well fulfill my dream to be a samurai, he thought, and switched his clothes with that of the deceased warrior. As he started back down the mountain, he noticed the local overlord’s procession passing through the streets. Oh man, if I go down there and get caught pretendin’ to be a samurai, I’m a goner for sure!

He made a break for the fields instead of the village, but he did not go unnoticed. The overlord was curious about the samurai he did not recognize. When they caught up to him in the fields, he sent his aide to inquire about the warrior. “You there!” the aide shouted. “State your name!”

Aw, shoot. Now what do I do?

Looking around for any sort of name, he noticed some greens (aona) and dried strips of gourd (kanpyou) in the fields around him. “I am Aona Kanpyou,” he replied.

“I see. Thank you,” replied the aide, who reported to the overlord.

“Ah, Aona Kanpyou. I see,” said the overlord thoughtfully. “Have him to come along to my residence as one of my retainers.”

In no position to refuse, Kanpyou the improvised samurai went along. He was wined and dined that evening and given a room right next to that of the overlord, which was filled with bows and arrows and treasures. Excitedly, he tried one of the bows out.

It just so happened that there was someone who meant to kill the overlord that night, but when Kanpyou let the arrow he was trying out fly, it went through the screen and struck the attacker just before he reached his target. “You saved me,” the startled overlord said. “But how did you know he would attack?”

“It was nothing special, My Lord. I have two eyes, you see–and I only sleep with one of them at once. Until the middle of the night I let only my right eye sleep, and for the rest of the night I let my left eye sleep. That way I can always see what is going on.”

“How marvelously prepared!” he exclaimed. “I shall bestoy on you a great reward!”

Uh oh, this is goin’ a lil’ too well, Kanpyou thought.

The next day he also wound up staying at the overlord’s residence again, and the following day a villager came to make a request of the lord. There had been a very large snake in the pond terrorizing people, and he hoped that the government could step in and help get rid of it. “Very well,” asked the overlord. “Who will go rid them of the beast?”

Geez, that sounds terrible! thought Kanpyou. If this is the kind of thing samurai hafta do, I better get away while I still have the chance. “I will go, My Lord!”

Very pleased, the overlord consented. Before he left, Kanpyou packed his things, including a couple bags of rice flour he purchased. Instead of going alone to make a getaway, however, a few other retainers went along and showed him the way to the pond. Aw, great, he grumbled, With these guys around I can’t make a break for it. Now what am I supposed to do?

Just then, a gurgling sound came from the pond, and a gigantic snake lifted its head out, then charged towards them. Thoroughly frightened, Kanpyou wanted to get away, but there would be no time. Instead, he got the idea to throw the bags of rice flour at it. The snake caught them in its mouth, and it just so happened that the flour got struck in the beast’s throat and choked it. When it fell down dead, Kanpyou breathed a sigh of relief and inspected it.

“Well, that’s that. It’s dead now! Go on, take it back home!” he told the others, who happily did so and told the overlord of Kanpyou’s victory. The overlord rewarded him yet again, but Kanpyou thought, If I hafta do this day in an’ day out, then the samurai life isn’t for me. I’m getting outta this gig before it’s too late!

In the middle of that night, he escaped. That’s the end of the story. Nothing else to it.

But here’s some pictures from modern-day Misasa:

Horio Yoshiharu (1542-1611) (personal name Mosuke) is the founder of Matsue. To say why, we need a brief overview of the period of history he lived in.

Prior of the long period of peace and development in the Edo era (1603-1868), Japan was composed constantly warring fiefdoms, and notable samurai lords such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Oda Nobunaga, and Tokugawa Ieyasu gradually gathering enough supporters to become major figures in shaping Japanese history. Their activity eventually led up to the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and over 200 years of nationwide stability followed.

Yoshiharu was drafted into military service at a young age, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi heard about young Mosuke wrestling with a wild boar. Why he was wrestling with the boar, we can only guess.

These guts proved very useful to Hideyoshi, as Yoshiharu went on to thwart high-profile enemies over the course of Hideyoshi’s campaigns against Oda Nobunaga, and he was awarded land to rule over near Mt. Fuji in the old Totomi Province after major victories. That was how the samurai warlord system worked–if you wanted to rule over multiple fiefdoms, you did so by rewarding the people who serve you. Well-accomplished warriors would rule directly, but still take orders from their overlords. Everyone was happy! If they were samurai, anyway–farmers were probably just happy with whoever wouldn’t terrorize them.

Hideyoshi didn’t live to see the end of the warring states period, though, and after he died Yoshiharu entered Tokugawa Ieyasu’s service, earning property in the old Echizen province facing the Sea of Japan (but still pretty far east of the San’in region). Though he was phasing some of his position over to his son Tadauji at that time, Yoshiharu’s services on and off the battle field were still necessary.

A particularly notable example was at a dinner party he attended with Mizuno Tadashige (an ally) and Kaganoi Shigemochi (a fremeny, if you will–his family had previously served the Oda clan until they surrendered to Hideyoshi and recieved land from him to rule over). Shigemochi got drunk and killed Tadashige, and Yoshiharu therefore killed Shigemochi, thus wiping out the Kaganoi clan and putting the territory fully in Ieyasu’s control. That land would have been in the way of a military manuever enacted soon after, but having Shigemochi out of the way was a big help to Ieyasu.

Though that raised Yoshiharu’s status, he was injured in the battle with Shigemochi, and therefore could not personally partake in the Battle of Sekigahara two months later. Tadauji, however, was present and won honors in his father’s stead. Once Ieyasu took effective control of the country and needed to organize it in such a way that would cement the central government’s control over all the provinces, Horio received his final property to rule over: the Izumo Province.

Here comes Lord Horio, marching through the streets of modern-day Matsue in the annual Musha Gyouretsu (Warrior Parade)!

Yoshiharu and Tadauji hurried out here to the San’in region, stayed in an old castle in present day Yasugi City, and started making plans for building a more suitably located castle. That process is a story for another entry, but you can read about the naming of Matsue right now.

Yoshiharu ruled until he died in 1611, the same year construction on Matsue Castle was completed. He was well-liked and known for having the temperment of a Buddha, and therefore nicknamed “Hotoke no Mosuke” (the Mosuke Buddha).

When the city of Matsue was founded shortly after the historical battle of Sekigahara which thrust Japan into the Tokugawa system of government, protecting one’s samurai lord from attack was of prime importance. Therefore the entire city was planned around the castle–and protecting it.

Thankfully the castle is still unscathed by anything more than time, and while many of the other measures are clearly no longer in effect so as to allow free flow of commoners into the castle grounds, you can still find evidence of these measures throughout the city. For instance, if I take the neighborhood route on the way home from work, I run into this.


Where did the road go? I could have sworn I saw a bridge around here!


Oh, there it is.

In modern times, we’d write this off to pour city planning, but infact this was intended to make continuing straight on a little more difficult. This way, when armies are invading, they have to slow down to march around a tight corner before they can continue across. There are a couple other sites like this in town, and this one is called “Sujikaibashi”.

To the north of the bridge, there was a clearing so that the samurai on the defense could have an easy place to start shooting them with arrows. Furthermore, the bridge was engineered in such a way that it could be very quickly burned down when enemies were approaching.


The area had it’s practical everyday uses, too. This is what remains of the steps now to the canal for everyday water transport.

Another view from the north…

And a view looking west–depending on the time of day, you could blind approaching attackers!

Besides all the kami and youkai, there have been some famous humans here too. Today I’d like to introduce the man on the banner of this blog, the seventh lord of Matsue, Matsudaira Harusato, a.k.a. Matsudaira Fumai (1751-1818).


He’s frequently referred to by his artistic name with an honorfic noting his status: “Fumai-ko”

The Matsudaira clan was not the first to rule Matsue, but they did have the longest succession of leaders during the relatively peaceful Edo period (1603-1868). Fumai is known of course as the ruling lord for 39 years, but also well known as a tea master–so much so a master, in fact, that his created the Fumai-ryu tea ceremony style. He was well known for collecting tea ceremony objects, and he designed the Meimei-an Tea house northeast of Matsue Castle.

When he took office, rumors were spreading about the Matsudaira clan soon losing power because of their terrible financial situation. He therefore enforced several strict budgetary measures and had the region focus on raising and using local products, such as ginseng and cotton. He encouraged thriftiness among the common people, and is credited with introducing Bote-Bote Cha to the local diet to make the most of limited food resources.


Rustic peasant cuisine turned local speciality: azuki beans, mushrooms, tofu, rice, and any other seasonal bits of food boiled in a frothy tea. Add flowers if desired! I like the idea, but I can’t say I’d enjoy eating this everyday… or ever again.

Fumai’s measures turned out to be very successful, and the Matsudaira treasury was built back up.

However, he was a hobbyist–and tea can be an expensive hobby. The amassed fortunes didn’t wind up lasting long because he dipped into the treasury to splurge on old tea tools. But we still get to enjoy those tools today!

As an introduction to this blog, it seemed appropriate to use one of my first experiences on the job here–my first job in Japan. My Japanese is generally functional, but not above these kinds of slip-ups. This is only the first of many!

It is worth noting, however, that I do love bushi–perhaps more recognizably known to English-speakers as samurai. As luck would have it, there is a history of them here, and therefore plenty of material to work with for this blog!