…have I never written about shijimi clams?

………how could it be that in over 3.5 years of writing this blog, I have never written about shijimi clams!?

shijimiiii

It might be because they are such a ubiquitous part of life in the San’in region–especially the Lake Shinji area–that I take them as given as good rice. Sure, I’ve mentioned them here and there a lot, but I’ve already given Nita rice its own introduction, so it’s about time I do the same for shijimi clams.

…hmm. Where to start?

Best to start where they do: Lake Shinji.

shijimi2

The early morning sight of shijimi clam fishers on Lake Shinji is a familiar and iconic sight from around the central part of Matsue. The lake is home to Japan’s biggest source of yamato shijimi, and there are so many of them acting as a natural filtration system for the brackish water that they can clean the entire lake in three days’ time. Or was it three hours? I forgot, as it was part of a quiz that a proud shijimi fisher gave me one time when he very enthusiastically shared a lot of clammy trivia with us. To illustrate how fast they work, he said, they have a tank of them near the boarding point for the Hakucho boat tour of Lake Shinji, and before departing they pour a bunch of cloudy, dirty water in, and by the time the passengers get back, they get to see that the water has already turned clear thanks to the hardworking clams.

The hardworking, tasty clams.

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Miso soup is a standard part of the Japanese diet, pairing well with almost any kind of Japanese food, and there are limitless in the ways you could prepare it. Here in the Lake Shinji area, that means shijimi soup. There’s no question about it, really. If you go to a fancy restaurant in Matsue or Izumo or Unnan or Yasugi, you’re getting shijimi soup near the end of your multi-course meal of local delicacies. If you go to a more home-style place with a lunch set or dinner set, you’re getting shijimi soup as part of it. If you’re staying over at a friend’s place and they bother cooking Japanese style, you’re getting shijimi soup with dinner and breakfast the next morning. More likely than not, these will all be filled with lots and lots and lots and lots of these little creatures.

Are there other ways to eat shijimi clams, besides in soup? Sure, but I think the only other ways I’ve eaten them were when they were cooked into rice (delicious), and when I prepared them with pasta after I won a huge bag of them and didn’t feel like making soup with them. And yes, it can take some time to get each of them out of the shells with either a pair of chopsticks and some talent or with your tongue and teeth. After so much practice now, though, I don’t usually consider it a struggle. After all, I’ve probably eaten hundreds of these things by now.

Whenever anyone introduces this local specialty product to you, they usually mention–perhaps more than once–how good they are for your liver. Hence, they give people a good excuse to break out the sake with their meals.

They’re hiding in there… and there are lots of them.

If you have a passion for these tiny mollusks you can find out more at Shijimikan, the Shijimi clam center nestled among the ryokan of Matsue Shinjiko Onsen, lining the northeast bank of the lake. I don’t know what you’d find there, though. I haven’t been. Maybe shijimi-flavored ice cream? Actually, now that I think of it, I think I have heard of that.

Even though I don’t exactly have a passion for them, I still find the sight of their tiny black shells familiar and endearing. They wash up along the statue-laden shores surround Shimane Art Museum and lonely island Yomegashima, and I’ve even found some in the parking lot of my apartment, possibly dropped there by the large birds of prey surrounding the city life. It’s considered good luck to leave the shells in front of the second hare statue around the museum (no, I have no idea why), and there are a number of accessories made with them as local souvenirs. They have a bit of an En-musubi meaning to them too, because like a perfectly matched couple, the two halves of each shell will only match with each other.


Okay, so this comic is actually from a month and a half ago, seeing as I’m running out of practice time for the kimono dressing competition. During the hot and humid months I had only been practing folding the obi, but once it was cool enough to wear all the necessary layers I donned my kimono for this year’s competition.

I had been feeling good about my practices until that point. Somehow, I had forgotten what a pain it is to move around in furisode.

I’ve worn heavier kimono before, such as cotton-padded and elaborately woven uchikake bridal kimono (wore over the rest of the outfit) and Heian era style 12-layered juuni-hitoe, and the first things people ever say when they see the pictures is “wow, that must have been heavy!” This surprises me since it never really bothered me. Sure, they were heavy, but not bothersome when you’re elated at the chance to wear them. Plus, I was just doing things on stage or taking pictures for fun. I didn’t actually have to function in them, and I certainly didn’t have to fold an obi in mere minutes while wearing them.

Although the furisode is weighty because of its shin-length sleeves (made weightier by the silk under-sleeves), it’s certainly more managable than the excessively decorative uchikake and juuni-hitoe, but… I take that back, modern furisode can also be excessively decorative if you have that kind of money to spend of them–they are still managable enough for a skills competition. My kimono is also heavier this year than last year because it’s made of chirimen silk instead of rinzu silk.

Rinzu is a sleeky silk, and very shiny:

Click for photo source (Japanese)

Last year I found this relatively easier to move in without feeling terribly weighed down, but this might also have been because I wasn’t using silk inner-sleeves. You can get away with not using them at this level of competition, but I figured I may as well do it in proper form and have the inner layer this time. They are supposed to be only somewhat visible, but sometimes one layer of sleeves falls out of the other layer and you see entirely too much of them.

The pattern I had last year was very busy, and therefore if I had a weird wrinkle or something it didn’t stand out too much. My kimono this year has a much more subtle pattern which is only on certain parts of the kimono (the bottom, the sleeves, and the left shoulder) rather than all over it. Therefore, if my layers don’t match up quite right, it’s easier to tell!

It’s made of a slightly heavier chirimen material, typically a crepe-like silk. Besides kimono, this fabric is used for making all kinds of Japanese-y goods, which you’ve most certainly seen if you’ve ever been to Kyoto. There’s plenty of chirimen crafts throughout Japan, like these shijimi clams (a speciality of Lake Shinji here in Matsue).

Well. Just a few more weeks to practice. Still need to shave my time down a bit, but more importantly, I need to make sure my folds and layers are neat so the deep red chirimen won’t display my mistakes to the world!

Although the legend of the White Hare of Inaba (Inaba-no-Shirousagi) takes place mostly in eastern Tottori, the Izumo region celebrates the story in its myth and En-musubi-filled atmosphere. For instance, there are a handful of gift shops around Matsue and Izumo specializing in stones, especially Izumo magatama comma-shaped jewels. These tama were often produced in the region out of local Izumo agate, and are a very characteristic souvenir, so you find them in the major tourist areas–in front of Izumo Taisha, or around Tamatsukuri Onsen (literally “jewel-making hot springs”), Matsue’s samurai street Shiomi Nawate or Kyomise shopping district. However, you never find one of these stores without little stone rabbits sold right next to the array of magatama.

Click photo for source and shop info (Japanese)


Click photo for source and shop info (Japanese)


Click photo for source and shop info (Japanese)

Speaking of Tamatsukuri Onsen, the resort area in southern Matsue is not only lined with fancy hotels, charming shops, and free foot hot springs in the river and its own En-musubi power spot, but it also has little statues featuring legends and characters from the Kojiki, such as this one of Onamuji and the white (or hairless) hare.

“But… but I have no money to pay for medical services. I’m a hare.”

Matsue is full of En-musubi power spots, both old and from only 1999 or so. A more recent example of a spot that everyone visits to collect their luck and take a photo at is along the banks of Lake Shinji on the grass lawn between the Shimane Art Museum and the water. It’s a very, very short walk between this famous spot and the perfect sunset viewing spot, so these “Lake Shinji Hares” get a lot of attention.

Because I see them all the time, both in print and in person, I never think to take pictures of them. The day I did go to take pictures of them, though, my camera was doing something weird and they all got over-exposed. There’s this sense of doom that the hares are taking over.

There is a custom of giving shijimi clam shells from Lake Shinji to the second rabbit for good luck in matchmaking.

“Give… me… your… SHIJIMIIIII…”

I don’t get it either.

The legend is also celebrated with a large statue on the ground of Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine. Hmmm… but what would little Onamuji be doing at Izumo Taisha?

Click photo for source.

Just one variation on an iconic shot.

Despite being Matsue’s most festive month, October is passing me by and I’m not making it to many events due to being busy elsewhere or too busy doing things at the events to hold a camera! That means I have nothing to show for this year’s Little Mardi Gras parade and live jazz events to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Friendship City relationship between Matsue and New Orleans (besides saying it was great), and only have my memories and few photos of last year’s Dai-chakai and Do-gyoretsu Drum Parade.


October is also one of the only times of year when you can set foot on an iconic piece of Matsue, Yomegashima, the only island on Lake Shinji. Stretching 110 meters east to west and 30 meters across, the island near the southeast bank of the lake and looks like a round slab of flat island that flung onto the surface of the water and stayed there. Actually, that is the scientific theory–possibly lava from someplace like good old Daisen? That would make it very similar to Daikonshima, the volcanic island on Lake Shinji’s sister lake Nakaumi that is famous for its peonies.

Yomegashima is not famous for its scientic origins so much as for its legendary origins, though. It is said that a young bride was married off to a cruel family across the lake, and unable to bare it any longer, she decided to runaway and go back home. In her hurry, she took a short cut across the ice that had formed on the surface of the lake, but just as she was close enough to see the lights of her home village, the ice broke and she fell in and drowned in the icy waters. The gods that were watching took such pity on her that they made the island spring forth in her honor. Hence, it is called “Bride Island.”

I don’t know how long it’s been called this, though–back in the 8th century when the Chronicles of Ancient Izumo was being compiled, it was called something more like “Snake Island,” but it was already called “Bride Island” by the time Lafcadio Hearn arrived at the turn of the 20th century.

The poor drowned bride doesn’t always need to be lonely, though! I went just after the rain had cleared on a day last October when they were sending boats out (they did the same this October too, but I was busy!). Local guides explain scientic and legendary aspects of the island to visitors, and then you can take your time to wonder its 240 meter circumference and then stop and enjoy some matcha (because that’s what all the cool people do out here).

The view from the shore


The view from the boat


The view from the island

One of my first impressions when I arrived was how flat it was and that there were shijimi clam shells underfoot. It’s the most famous of the seven (tasty) wonders of Lake Shinji.


While apparently not totally resistant to waves on stormy days (unless those were very athletic shijimi), the island has been protected by rows of Jodei-ishi, designed by Kobayashi Jodei, a famous craftsman of the Matsue domain in the Edo period when Matsue was actively ruled by the samurai class. The material is Kimachi stone, which is still taken today from the Kimachi area of southern Matsue to carve into lanterns are other such decorative items. The Jodei-ishi that surround and protect Yomegashima today are the same stones that were placed there in the Edo era, and photographic evidence from the Meiji and early Showa periods shows that they were also placed around the Sodeshi Jizo, a pair of Jizo statues by the shores which are almost as iconic as Yomegashima itself in Matsue’s famous sunset scenery.


As for some human efforts made to ease the loneliness of the mythical drowned bride, early photographs show that there originally wasn’t much on the island at all, but early in the Showa period a couple of citizens donated a large number of pine trees so that a small forest grows there now. At the front of the forest, facing the sunset viewing spot on shore, is a torii gate so as to dedicate the island as a shrine to the goddess Benten.

I’ve been to the island by boat, but there is also an annual event you can sign up for to walk out to the island. They set up a walkway just below the surface of the water. I’ve missed this twice, but I hope next time both to try it out for myself and see what a trail of people walking on water would look like! With my luck I won’t have my camera with me, though.

Mascots are a very normal part of daily life in Japan. Each prefecture has their own mascot (and they compete for the best mascot prize every year), companies and organizations will have their own mascots, cities will have their own mascots, even certain aspects of cities will have their own mascots–as is the case with Peony-chan, who represents Matsue’s… well… peonies. Their reputation may already proceed them, though. According to the Japan Times on 11/20/12, “Sales of peonies from Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, are booming in Vladivostok after hitting the market in Russia’s Far East in 2009, virtually selling out every year because of their variety of colors and longevity.” The day Peony-chan came to visit, she was preparing for a trip to Taiwan.

Matsue peonies are especially well known on Daikonshima, where they can be seen all year round–though I’ve heard early May is the best time to see them. That’s when I’m planning on going! The other flower that represents Matsue is the tsubaki (camellia), which I’m looking forward to seeing around the castle in winter.

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While this is the only mascot of this size to pay a visit to my office, I don't see Peony-chan in my daily life as often as I see, say, Appare-kun, the PR champion of Matsue Castle!

Unlike most mascots he’s human(esque) and has a more varied set of expressions than just “happy” and “super happy”, but like most mascots, he can be made into any kind of product, especially edible ones.

I haven’t run into him in person yet, but I have seen his bride Shijimi-hime, based on a Shijimi clam (a specialty product of the area. Most of the Shijimi clams consumed in Japan come from Lake Shinji). This kind of encounter is also completely normal.

There is no mascot I see as often as Shimanekko.

Get it? Shimane (prefecture) as a neko (cat)? And notice the visual reference to Izumo Taisha, with the roof architecture and the shimenawa rope? You noticed that all, right? Of course you did.

Even if you didn’t, you can’t visit Shimane without noticing Shimanekko. Besides Shimanekko on the face of products from pencils to hand towels to cookies to bouncy castles in every place from rest stops to places of legend to your neighborhood convience store, there is also a Shimanekko dance.

Shimanekko and Appare-kun are so popular that they even get drilled with questions about whether or not they are friends and star in commercials for candy companies.

Furthermore, have you heard of the Yura-Chara Grand Prix? I didn’t until very recently either, but apparently many thousands of people did, and they voted for their favorite mascot characters. Out of over 860 entries in 2012, Shimanekko took 6th place! Good job being cute, Shimanekko!