Katae (written 片江 or かたえ) is a little neighborhood nestled into the northern coast of the Mihonoseki portion of the Shimane Peninsula. It’s so separated from everything else that it’s practically its own town, and when talking with the locals there, they speak of Matsue like it’s a big city that is totally unrelated to them. It seems that although they were politically integrated during the nationwide town and city mergers of 2005, there hasn’t been much of a cultural integration, or at least not much of an awareness of themselves as Matsue citizens.

The biggest claim fame this tiny neighborhood has is its early January festival, in which they engage in two New Year customs, Tontoyaki and Sumitsuke. Tontoyaki is the burning of New Years door decorations. In Katae’s tradition the families with boys and girls through about elementary school age display and burn different decorations accordingly, but the big show is for the girls’ decorations. Unfortunately, like many rural towns and neighborhoods of Japan they’ve had a declining population, so the amount of decorations had also significantly decreased from the time my friend’s family was putting out decorations for her. While there used to be four giant, streamered towers of special decorations following the early morning burning of the household decorations, the celebration is now down to two.

It’s hard to tell, but each of those bag-like things hanging from the poles was actually a very elaborate paper decoration.

The main draw takes place a little later, and that is the Sumitsuke. Literally, “ink-applying.” If that translation doesn’t make it clear, you’ll soon find out what it is if you show up to spectate. There are no mere spectators at this event.

This tradition has been going on here for over 250 years, and while it’s not the only one of its kind in Japan, some spectators came from as far away as Kobe to witness and participate. As the two omikoshi portable shrines parade up and down the main street between the houses and the ocean, they are surrounded by people walking around and offering free cups of sake and hearty helpings of fishy snacks to go along with it, and a truck drives by with free drinks in the back for people to share. These locals are on duty this year, while other years they get to stand around by the big dish of free tonjiru (very homemade-ish soup with pork broth) and watch and wait. And who are they waiting for, if not the men carrying the omikoshi or the people handing out free drinks and grilled fish sausage and dried squid?

The people are carry the event (not in quite as literal of a sense) are the people with hands covered in jet black ink. Wetting their fingers with sake, they smear the ink on people’s faces, everyone from tiny babies to the elderly to everyone in between. And everyone wants this—getting this ink on your face will ensure good health for the coming year!

I wore some old clothes I wouldn’t mind getting stained with ink, and checked it out with a friend and her 5-month-old. The festival is held on the second Sunday of January, and those there was a light rain, the weather didn’t feel very cold amidst the brimming activity. Oddly enough we seemed to pick the people with the ink for a couple passes of the omikoshi, be it that we were distracted by soup or by using the bathroom, and the people around us kept making comments about what blank palettes we were. That didn’t stop the retiree photographers with pension money to spend on multiple cameras bigger than their own heads from swarming me like paparazzi, though.

sumi

By about the third time the train started to come by, everyone was ready but me–the hobby photographer crowd and the local cable TV news were all aiming at me while I held the baby and was approached by an old lady who very politely gave me two big dabs of ink on my forehead, two on one cheek, and one on the other. The baby got a single dab, but by the end of the festival her yellow coat was smeared black in several places as she looked around and people watched (or zoned out watching the streamers. It was easy to zone out watching those while waiting for the party to come back around).

What the photographers missed, however, was a few minutes after that when we followed behind the crowd up to the beach where the highlight of the event would take place. Along the way, an old man I had never seen before walked right up to be and grumbled as if something was wrong, and next thing I new, he was pouring beer in his hands and then he rubbed his hands from my cheeks down to my chin. Ah, he really got me this time, I thought, and just as soon as I did he marched back in my direction and swiped his hands around my forehead and temples and then down my nose for good measure. Looks like I’m set up for some really, really good health this year.

As one of my friends later pointed out, I looked like a monkey with the part of my face that was left uncovered. I suppose this is my excitement for the Year of the Monkey showing. Thankfully I am not a Monkey, as you’ll notice later.

Seeing as Katae is situated right along the Sea of Japan, the ocean plays a big role in this winter festival. Where could they be going with those omikoshi?

Right out into the ocean? Why yes, of course.

A brilliant use of brisk weather.

It reminded me how at another winter Mihonoseki festival on the south side of the peninsula the men wear even less and sound even more energetic, and are so distracted that they can’t feel the cold. However, for toshi-otoko, “year-men” born in the same zodiac animal year as that present year, I imagine no amount of distraction could keep them from feeling at least a little chilly.

“Here’s to your good health! Let’s have you start the year by catching a cold!”

Those poor Monkeys.

The festival soon simmered down after that as the omikoshi were parade back up through the neighborhood to return to the shrine, the spectators dispersed, and I remained stuck for a while as photographers documented my thoroughly inked face. Thanks for the snacks and the soup and the good health and a good time, Katae.

“The town where we put ink on each other, Katae”

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The first time I did Tug of War in Japan was amongst a bunch of fathers of kindergarteners at a sports festival almost seven years ago. Sports festivals are a staple among annuals school activities, and Tug of War, or Tsunahiki as it is called here, is a stable of sports festival games.

“Is this your first time doing Tsunahiki? It can get pretty rough!”
“No, we have it in America too. I did it when I was a kid.”
“Eeeeehhhhh?”
“I thought it was just a Japanese thing.”

Given the ceremonious use of straw ropes (shimenawa) through Shintoism and the game’s ancient use in harvest festivals and centuries-old, famous Tsunahiki events throughout the country, I cannot blame them for thinking it was unique to Japan, but a game with such a simple and straightforward objective has been found among ancient cultures all around the world, with no discernable first origins.

Of course, in modern Japan with its array of infamous game show stunts, a straightforward game is often adjusted to draw a crowd, especially if there is a big cash prize like 100,000 yen up for grabs. I’ve been dragged (no pun intended) into similarly reinvented team competitions before, and this time when I heard we were going to the beach for Tsunahiki on Marine Day (a public holiday on the third Monday of July designated for enjoying and appreciating the ocean), I thought we’d be standing in the water as we pulled. That was what the “shoes that can get wet” warning was for, right?

What? No? This “on the ocean” thing was literal??

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Kitaura Beach, facing the Sea of Japan on the Mihonoseki Peninsula portion of Matsue City, hosted the its 18th annual Ebisu Cup: Tsunahiki on the Ocean Competition. There were 18 teams with partipants from as far as the Kansai region, Kyuushuu, and… well… in my case, America. Though only five people could pull on behalf of the team at a time, there were about 590 participants signed up.

Unfortunately for our team of eight people called “Hippare! Global Girls”, only five of us got to try it out because we lost on the first round to the women’s team that wound up winning first place. We put up a really good fight, though! It was really close, and none of us fell off the slippery floating platform for the 30 second competition. After our defeat, we had to jump into the salty water and swim back to shore (as did the victors, to save time on boat rides back and forth). At the shore, there were TV cameras and reporters waiting for me (should have seen that coming), and it turns out I got a brief sound bite on national TV. I would add the link here, but the page has since expired. Translated, my comments were, “It was fun, but it’s a little vexing (to have lost).”

It turned out to be a very, very long day at the beach with matches all day long, but our consolation prize for waiting around and playing in the gentle and clear waters and barbecuing and bashing watermelons while blindfolded was a box full of very sweet melons. Such is how these sorts of competitions work in Japan.

suikawari

Well, my slipper table tennis game improved since last year, so maybe our Tsunahiki and Suikawari (watermelon-spliting) skills will improve by next year too. After all, it’s a global game and we’ve got a lot of other countries to represent!

On my summer vacation to the Oki Islands last year (which was fantastic in so many ways), I took two half-days to try out an art project: mud dyeing.

It was something I decided rather randomly. I showed up on Nishinoshima having only decided that I wanted to see horses (and I saw lots of horses), but I had no plan for the next day. The tourism information office directly across from the ferry port was extremely helpful, and has lots of information lined up to answer my “what shall I do?” question. Not only did they give me suggestions, but they made all the reservations for me. That’s also how I suddenly wound up SCUBA diving the following morning.

Following my dive and my seafood lunch, I went out to start my art project. Mud dyeing starts with bright red rocks like this, one of the many, many geological features in this UNESCO Geo-Park.

It’s broken up into even brighter pieces like this, which we use for the dye. You can also make it into clay for pottery.

It can be used to dye many differents of fabrics, I was sticking with a very simple weave that would make the color show up really well for a tie-dye effect. I enjoyed trying out a bunch of different ways of folding and tying the cloths so that I could see what sort of effects I’d get, but if I were ever to do this again, I’d probably start with a pattern in mind and attempt to stick to it. As you can see in these charcoal tie-dyes, you can do a lot of cool stuff with it if you have some clue what you’re doing.


After binding the parts of the cloth you want to leave undyed, you work the mud water into it…

…and then hang it out to dry.

The following day, I returned to finish up. Usually, in order to get a very deep color, you’d want to leave them out longer before giving them a salt water rinse, but in the interest of time we sped up the process a bit. Off to the beach we went!


The water was super clear and you could see lots of tiny fish until you rinsed the cloths and the muddy color clouded about. While out there in the sun, the lady who taught to do this and I had a fun conversation about her sudden decision to move from Gifu to the Oki Islands after seeing a segment about them on TV, and about how pleasant it is to live among both mountains and the sea. (Later, she also made me lunch, drove me to the port, and just when I thought we had said good-bye, she came back and asked if I wanted ice cream. So we had ice cream together, too.)


While giving them a little more time to dry in the sunshine before packing them up and taking them with me, I took a stroll around the area to see the greenery, the flowers, and the water.




My “designs” turned out kind of cool, but very uncoordinated.


That’s okay. I went to the islands to enjoy going with the flow and doing things in the moment instead of trying to stick to a plan.

Back when I found out I was going to live in Matsue, I read eight of Lafcadio Hearn‘s books in the span of a month to know about the city as he observed it back in the Meiji period. Eight books was a bit excessive. However, this passage from “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” (available for free here on the Gutenberg Project) stuck out and stuck with me:

But of all places, Kaka-ura! Assuredly I must go to Kaka. Few pilgrims go thither by sea, and boatmen are forbidden to go there if there be even wind enough ‘to move three hairs.’ So that whosoever wishes to visit Kaka must either wait for a period of dead calm—very rare upon the coast of the Japanese Sea—or journey thereunto by land; and by land the way is difficult and wearisome. But I must see Kaka. For at Kaka, in a great cavern by the sea, there is a famous Jizo of stone; and each night, it is said, the ghosts of little children climb to the high cavern and pile up before the statue small heaps of pebbles; and every morning, in the soft sand, there may be seen the fresh prints of tiny naked feet, the feet of the infant ghosts. It is also said that in the cavern there is a rock out of which comes a stream of milk, as from a woman’s breast; and the white stream flows for ever, and the phantom children drink of it. Pilgrims bring with them gifts of small straw sandals—the zori that children wear—and leave them before the cavern, that the feet of the little ghosts may not be wounded by the sharp rocks. And the pilgrim treads with caution, lest he should overturn any of the many heaps of stones; for if this be done the children cry.
(Lafcadio Hearn, 1894)

There are two famous caves in Kaka-no-Kukedo, the caves of Kaka. The more broadly advertised one is the “Shin-Kukedo” (“new cave,” or a pun on “cave of the god”), which is where the legend of Sada-no-Okami’s birth took place. The less advertised but nonetheless very well know cave is the “Kyu-Kudedo” (“old cave”), as Hearn described. Today, it is still almost exactly as Hearn described. He is one of many writers who have been attracted to these caves.

This description left such an impression on me that as soon as I heard it still existed, I made it my goal to take the boat tour out to see it. The 50-minute tour runs eight times a day March through November, however, just as in Hearn’s day, it can easily be cancelled if it’s too windy. Going far out to sea, or trying to navigate through the cave, is difficult in rough waters.

I had to try a lot longer than Hearn did to finally make this trip.

Every time I’d make plans with my friends, something would fall through. Either we didn’t plan in time to make it before the end of the season, or there was suddenly pouring rain the day we decided to go, or someone would suddenly fall ill. A few friends who had originally volunteered to go later admitted that they were afraid to go because they might see a ghost there. With so many things out of my control keeping me from getting there, it was tempting to think that maybe it really was haunted.

At last, towards the end of last year’s season, the tour finally (barely) worked out! Sort of… the waves were too high to do the full tour, so we had a slight discount. I was not going to let that chance slip me by, though, so I did the partial tour.

It departs from Marine Plaza in northern Matsue, near an active fishing port and a popular camping island called Katsurajima.

The first stop is the old cave, where the spirits of departed children are said to be hard at work. The boat stops a little ways away, and those who wish to see it can go down a long tunnel with alcoves filled with Jizo statues (at which, the tour operators leave incense while passengers are look around), and then walk around the cave. Jizo is a Buddha of mercy often thought of as a patron of children.

The waves only reach so far inside, and the cave goes fairly deep, beyond where the light can reach. As far as my eyes could make out, the countless little towers of rocks and Jizo statues and offerings went as far back as there was space to put them. A bat flapped around towards the interior parts of cave, and all was quiet.

For as many tries as it had taken me to observe this place, there were many, many grieving parents from who knows how far who had come here to leave a gift for their child, and perhaps construct a tower of rocks to spare them a bit of labor. Among the Jizo statues, there were recent, old, and likely many decades worth of perserved silk flowers, origami cranes, juice boxes and bottles of tea and cans of soda, shoes, toys, and other personal belongings. Although I can see why others would see it that way, I did not find this place creepy. However, there was a weight of sadness and sympathy coupled with a curious wonder at how far these parents had come out of their way to give their children whatever comfort they could.

After that, we went back through the tunnel and to the boat to continue on to a place of new life. Recorded in the 8th century Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki as the birthplace of Sada-no-Okami, primary deity at the influential Sada Shrine, it is only accessible by boat.

However, if the waves are too high, it’s not accessible at all. I had to settle for seeing the outside and imagining the supposedly wonderous view of light from the inside. It seems the best time of year to go is during a short period of time in midsummer when there are special sunrise tours to see the sun rise through the view of the hole. I guess it’s hard to say I did the tour when I only got to see the cave from outside. And apparently this year they’ve started offering an 80-minute tour of several other caves in the area, too! Maybe if I had just been a little more patient…

But hey, watching the waves crash against the rocks was neat and all.


I even got a good view of Mato-jima, the “target island” Baby Sada practiced his archery on!

And riding the waves out there was fun!

While this is the main stage of this legend, there is a spot further inland that I’ll introduce next time.

Japan has a thing for oysters (牡蠣 kaki), and in the past handful of years many locales have begun harvesting them to attract gourmet travelers. Places like the ever popular Miyajima have long been known for their magaki, a winter delicacy, whereas iwagaki–rock oysters–are a Sea of Japan thing that are especially good during the spring and summer months. Oysters bars have become very popular in fashionable areas of Tokyo. The Matsue iwagaki sold in Tokyo tend to go for a ¥1200, whereas at 17 restaurants in town that sell official Matsue Iwagaki you can find them for as cheap as ¥800 for a single oysters. That’s still a lot of money for what many people all over the world cringe at the thought of putting in their mouths.

As a little personal history, I have been an extremely picky eater for as far back as I can remember. I am especially finicky about textures and how things feel when I chew them, and as a little kid, there was a time I had a mouthful of meat but refused to chew it because I so hated the rubbery bits of gristle. I am still haunted by the seemingly reliable chicken sandwiches in elementary school lunches that suddenly had a rubbery bit to failingly sink my teeth into. I often choose to forgo meat altogether because I’m so picky about lean cuts with good texture. This is part of why I love tofu–it’s dependably smooth.

However, as an adult, I’m quite proud that I’ve taught myself to tolerate–and even enjoy–many foods I used to refuse to touch. I can trace a lot of this back to my first trip to Japan when I was 18, when I tried foods again that I had refused to eat in years, or tried entirely new things, and found that they weren’t all that scary to have in my mouth after all. In fact, many of them were surprisingly pleasant.

Now, almost eight years later, my tastes and eating preferences have been mostly transformed. I still, however, loathe the rubbery sensation of gristle.

So… oysters? In particular, very large iwagaki? No, thank you, I was sure.

However, in the spirit of trying not to be so picky and having had many pleasant surprises over the years, I gave them a shot while visiting the Oki Islands because they were highly recommended. I figured that, if they were anything like sazae (turban shells, another Sea of Japan specialty), then I’d probably best be able to tolerate them covered in curry. Hence, I went with the deep-fried kaki covered in Japanese style curry sauce.

This is an abomination, as any oyster lover would tell you. Not knowing any better, I found them tolerable but not tasty. They were just chewy things in my curry. I decided I was not a fan of oysters.

It turns out, some other Sea of Japan spots with an iwagaki brand outright forbid the deep-frying of their oysters for the sake of preserving the integrity of the brand. Speaking of branding, I was invited to sample some Matsue Iwagaki from the cliffs of Shimane-cho so as to spread the word about this delicacy. I wasn’t particularly thrilled, but hoped maybe I could request some butter fried ones that I saw listed among the ways they are prepared, as I though that might make them more tolerable.

This invitation included a visit to the place where they are harvested. They began harvesting them on ropes with seeder oysters from the Oki islands about 17 years ago. The oysters take about 3 to 5 years to mature, and by then they are covered in plenty of other goods from the sea (many of which are also harvestable, such as the seaweed).




Although you can order them deep-fried or butter fried, grilling them over an open fire until they are half-cooked is a tantalizing option, but steaming them until they are half-cooked seems to be the most popular method. That is, if you’re even cooking them–by and large, every oyster fan I’ve met insists on them being served raw, as that is how you can taste them best.

I don’t care about the taste–what’s going to keep them from being rubbery!? When I mentioned to one of the people who proudly set me up for this taste test, he smilingly–but firmly–corrected me that they are tender, not rubbery. In Japanese, they are ぷりぷり (puripuri). While we were at the port, he also told us about a gigantic buri that was caught there. (I don’t think he knew my name as he was telling this story with me standing right next to him, but all my friends were giving me funny smiles. Yes, I share a name with a tasty fish. Yes, I know, I’m smooth and delicious. Not rubbery.)

They served us two freshly caught, steamed iwagaki each. I added a smidge of ponzu to one and a smidge of lemon to the other, as acidic things are supposed to bring out the thick, creamy flavor of this so-called milk of the sea.


It was… chewy… but… more tender than I expected.

In fact, now that I could actually taste it instead of deep-frying it and drowning it in curry, I could actually see why people like these things. Even the juice in the shell was salty but tasty. I didn’t even mind going for the second helping.

So… oddly enough, I guess I can honestly say they were good… and I might even have enjoyed them, now that I think about it. Now I find it a shame that I didn’t try them raw with no sauce, as apparently that would have been the ultimate oyster experience.

But hey, I do live in Matsue and can take my freshest choice of them anytime they’re in season, April through June. This is easier to do than I thought it would be, but I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you to come out and try them with me. Otherwise, you oyster lovers can just be jealous of these big things at my fingertips.

This is a well-known story in the Oki Islands. It’s a story about Yurahime Shrine on Nishinoshima, but it is said to have originated on Chibu. They are both small islands to the west, and Nishinoshima is one of my favorite hiking spots in Japan. Despite all the semi-wild horses that roam Nishinoshima, the island’s mascot is a squid.

One day, Yurahime, who was said to be a daughter of Susano-o*, floated out to sea in a wash bucket for potatoes. What she was doing in the bucket, I do not know.

Along the way, she amused herself by lightly dipping her hand in the water. A squid thought it would be funny to mess with her and yanked on her hand. Some say that it bit her.

As punishment for that one squid that picked on her, giant groups of squid has to gather in the harbor right in front of Yurahime Shrine every year.

(*Some people say that this is another name for Suseri-bime, but I don’t see much to back this up, and that’s just asking for more confusion. At least I’m pretty sure she’s not a potato.)

I don’t know, if I were Yurahime and was trouble by the squid teasing me, I probably would not want bunches of them showing up at my door step.

This is a real occurence, though. So many squid would show up in this harbor that, from the Meiji period through about 1945, there used to be about thirty fisherman’s’ shops set up annually right around the harbor to wait for them, and they come in huge group into such shallow water that they can just put on a pair of rubber boots and then scoop up bucketfuls with their hands.

However, the squid eventually figured this out and stopped flooding the harbor. Or at least, they don’t do it as often any more. Every few years it still occurs, it seems.

However, even if this phenomenon is not quite what it used to be, squid fishing is still a big, big thing on the Oki Islands (and other places along the Sea of Japan coast of the San’in region).

Especially around Oki, fishing for them at night is very common, and they use boats with lots and lots of giant light bulbs. They’re really massive, cool looking things that are also used for decoration around some spots on the islands, and their light is so bright that the seasoned squid fishers have tanned skin from working all night right under them. The squid think that this bright light is daylight and come to the surface, only to caught. Who is the joke on now, squids?

They look somewhat squid-like, too.

They look somewhat squid-like, too.

I didn’t used to like squid, but I’ve come to appreciate it while living here, the translucent raw squid that is often served as part of a sashimi course at fancy dinners. For those looking to try it for the first time, dried squid is nice. One of my earlier interpreting jobs was explaining how to gut the things and prep them for drying, but I didn’t do it myself.

My most distinctive San’in squid memory was last December, on a winter night spent at the Takobana cottages in Shimane-cho, overlooking the Sea of Japan from high cliffs. While making hot pot and playing games with my coworkers and waking up to the sound of the waves was nice, we all shared a strange experience looking out at the sea that night and seeing the bright white lights on the horizon. In the sky, however, they were straight, vertical lines of white light, not reaching down to the horizon and not reflecting off of any visible clouds. If we were not away that it was squid abduction going on, we all would have been convinced that it was alien abductions going on.

Although the most common English translation is “snow crab,” the Japanese term is much more complicated. I also feel “snow crab season” fails to capture the craze in that happens every winter, especially here in the San’in region with entire train trip deals are themed around pigging out on these crabs.


Although Matsue has its own crab craze going on as part of the Dan-Dan Shoku Festa and other parts of Shimane are just as capable of catching and celebrating the winter crab catch, Tottori is really where the crab branding takes place. Snow crabs–typically called Zuwai-gani go by many different names throughout the country, but whatever you call them, Tottori is a top producer. Here in the San’in region, the big name that gets thrown around a lot is Matsuba-gani, supposed named because its long legs resemble pine needles or because fishermen used to burn pine when cooking them. They are harvested in the Sea of Japan, and not to be confused with Benizuwai-gani (red snow crab), which are harvested at a deeper depth in an earlier season and have softer, sweeter meat–but they are also a San’in favorite.

Matsuba-gani does not represent the entire species, either. These are only the males, where are the smaller females with denser meat are called oya-gani are popular in miso soup, a homemade Tottori favorite. Males that have already moulted are called Wakamatsuba-gani and tend to have meat that is more soft and moist.

There are various ways to prepare and eat Matsuba Crab when they are in season around November-March. Boiled, cooked with rice, grilled, you name it, but what I hear most adoring talk of is eating very, very fresh crab raw, when the meat is slick. There is a special process to eating it this way which can be instructed at crab festival events, but I do no such experience to speak of–I don’t have enough crab madness myself to reserve a space at these crab extravaganzas.

I have, however, had a few chances to eat crab meat miso soup, but I cannot recall what kind of crab they were. I’ll just wrap this up by saying that everyone knows Tottori is amazing for crab, but these little guys from Izumo go down like big, sticky potato chips.