In Japan, April is not only cherry blossom season, but also the start of the new fiscal year and the new school year. Although New Years is the biggest holiday of the year and clearing out a lot of the staleness of the past year, spring feels most appropriate for new beginnings. New employee recruits and transfers are getting to know their coworkers at flower-viewing picnics, and s school opening ceremony without cherry blossoms would be like a Christmas without cake.

Girls and boys, be ambitious!

This. Is. HANAMI!!

While I went all over the place last year to spots like Tamatsukuri Onsen, Kisuki, and Senju-in Temple, I didn’t spend much time at the O-shiro Castle Festival that marks the start of spring, complete with a temporary Edo-style open-air a tea house (one more than usual in the area) serving matcha and sakura-mochi on every clear day. I do so love the scent of sakura-mochi. The castle was worth visiting almost every day for a while, though the best time I went was at noon when the flowers were in full bloom.

Sure, yes, the flowers were great… but I think I might have done more baby viewing that afternoon. Where had all these babies suddenly come from!? Little faces peeking out of carriers while (slightly) older siblings are helped to teeter down the stairs, or babies out for a day with grandma and grandpa, or babies so small you hardly notice their tiny limbs poking out of their carriers. Dads carrying strollers up the stairs while moms huff and puff and follow more slowly, carrying in the baby while walking in heels. Babies barely mobile squirming on the picnic blankets, and for every baby, a smartphone to snap pictures of said baby and their first Hanami (flowering viewing).

I’m pretty sure the babies weren’t all planned for cherry blossom season, but given important beginnings are planned around cherry blossom season, I wouldn’t be too surprised if some were. I think my surprise may just be a combination of not seeing so many young families all congregated in one place so often, and of everyone finding it too cold until that point to bother braving the weather with their tiny bundles. That may apply to more than just babies–everyone dressed up a little more than usual, either breaking in new outfits purchased for spring, or finally breaking out some old favorites again. Haha, take that, winter! Be gone!!

It wasn’t only people with babies at Matsue Castle this particular lunch hour–it was as if everyone was there! The young couples were obvious–holding hands and dressed most fashionably, though a little shriek of surprise caught my attention when one young woman tripped in her high heels. Thankfully her boyfriend already had her hand to keep her from tumbling too far down the steps, and they shared a laugh as she stood back up.

These two, however, made a more graceful couple–at least on a shorter set of stairs.

The old couples were also picnicking and strolling together, more still and quiet than the young families who had brought puppies and baseballs gloves. They took their time, and at one point I overheard an old man ask his wife what in the world she was doing stopping to pick up a fallen blossom, as the two seemed to have differing opinions on the aesthetics of the blossom and its natural place.

That’s a Lafcadio Hearn marker–his students used to have their physical education class here.

The kids are enjoying their short spring break between school years, so there were picnic groups made up entirely of elementary school boys, as well as a few family-run yatai (food stalls) where the kids were helping out as well. A little more so than adults, kids tend to scream like they’re having fun when they are freaking out about the shaved ice machine going haywire.

It is only the students who are on break, as working society is busily taking little more than lunch breaks in the new fiscal year. Thankfully there is cultural reinforcement at this time of year to at least take a midday breather to appreciate the cherry blossoms. One such worker was perhaps slightly older than middle age, but had an appreciation of beauty that was apparent on his face. As he came up the old uneven steps he was already glancing upwards at the blossoms, and he slowed his pace as he approached, smiling with what looked to be a sign of approval. Good job, blossoms. A trio of young recruits were looking a little less than used to their formal black suits, but they still giggled like school girls as they made their way through the grounds. A fourth picked up her pace and to join them, and the others gawked at how fast she had gotten an ice cream cone from one of the yatai.

I didn’t plan on getting anything from the yatai, but it had been a while since I last had a crepe…

Despite how dressed up everyone is, I only noticed one person in kimono, which feels a little less than usual for big events around the castle. She had dressed it up casually and left her hair down, but seemed increasingly warm and tired in it as she looped here and there among the cherry trees. Perhaps her friends hadn’t arrived?

Perhaps what was oddly lacking was serious photographers–sure, everyone was snapping photos on their smartphones, but the big, clunky cameras that so many retirees frequently tote around the castle didn’t seem as present as usual. That’s perhaps because Hanami is best done with the people you love, and best enjoyed in the moment.

I was short on moments, however, and had to get back to work at city hall–though it just so happened that I ran into Mayor Matsuura on my way back, as he was on his way in. Enjoy your midday break, Mayor!

This was just the scene on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and the blossoms throughout the castle keep were lit up until 9pm. On the weekends during the castle festival, there were also Kagura, Dojou-sukui, and musical performances, as well as free samurai dress-up. Speaking of samurai dress-up, this year’s Musha Gyoretsu Warrior Parade had sunny weather for their march to the castle! I was in Tokyo for the kimono contest at the time, but maybe this sort of luck with carry through next year, too! As long as I don’t have anything else to do I’d love to take part again, but it’s so hard to choose what sort of role I’d want. Performing with a naginata was great and all seeing as it is my weapon of choice, but there are so many other props that look fun to try out, be it long and detailed wigs, or bows and arrows… ah! My inner samurai-wannabe is at odds with my inner Yamato-Nadeshiko-wannabe. That’s why being one of the lady warriors was such an obvious choice last time.

Alas, looks like I am getting carried away with the aesthetic thoughts the cherry blossoms arouse–but just when you looks again, they’ve all disappeared.

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).


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.

Cettia diphone, the Japanese Bush Warbler (or Japanese nightingale), known here as 鶯 uguisu).

While they are typically associated with the coming of spring and have many poetic names to that effect*, I first noticed these little birds while I was taking a winter walk around Matsue Castle and saw a few of them playing in the bare, snow-laden bushes. At the time, they weren’t making their signature “Hō-hoke-kyo” chirp**, but I did enjoy their twinkling voices. Cute as they were, they were a little too fast for me to take a picture of.

Now that it’s spring, however, I’ve been asked a few times: “Have you heard the uguisu yet? They sing hō-hoke-kyo.”

Yes, and I’ve seen them plenty, too!

Here’s what Lafcadio Hearn had to say about them in his essay, “In a Japanese Garden“:

Wild uguisu also frequently sweeten my summer with their song, and sometimes come very near the house, being attracted, apparently, by the chant of my caged pet. The uguisu is very common in this province. It haunts all the woods and the sacred groves in the neighborhood of the city, and I never made a journey in Izumo during the warm season without hearing its note from some shadowy place. But there are uguisu and uguisu. There are uguisu to be had for one or two yen, but the finely trained, cage-bred singer may command not less than a hundred.

It was at a little village temple that I first heard one curious belief about this delicate creature. In Japan, the coffin in which a corpse is borne to burial is totally unlike an Occidental coffin. It is a surprisingly small square box, wherein the dead is placed in a sitting posture. How any adult corpse can be put into so small a space may well be an enigma to foreigners. In cases of pronounced rigor mortis the work of getting the body into the coffin is difficult even for the professional dōshin-bozu. But the devout followers of Nichiren claim that after death their bodies will remain perfectly flexible; and the dead body of an uguisu, they affirm, likewise never stiffens, for this little bird is of their faith, and passes its life in singing praises unto the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law.**

With this in mind, I played the call of the uguisu to my friend’s parakeet. Now that got it chirping!

*Poetic names:
harudori or harutsugedori: “spring Bird” or “spring-announcing Bird”
hanamidori: “flower-viewing bird”
utayomidori or kyoyomidori: “poem-reading bird” or “sutra-reading bird”**
Might also be referred to as a sasako bird in poetry.

**Hō-hoke-kyo is an abbreviated name for the Lotus Sutra.

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.

To follow up the previous post about camellia, one of the first things I ever learned about them was that unlike most flowers, they don’t just lose their petals little by little.

Although some varieties do shed petals somewhat profusely.

Rather, most of them just roll off the tree in their entirely and hit the ground with a plop–pottori!–and this reminds some people of heads. Therefore, the darker association with camellia is that they can signify an untimely, sudden death.

Of course, there are plenty of other flowers with morbid meanings, and it’s not as if this is the first thing that comes to mind people see these flowers. In the Edo era, when the castle town of Matsue was founded, these bushes were planted in abundance because their oil was used for polishing katana–nowadays it mostly used for polishing hair. Some people might also be reminded of the 1962 Akira Kurosawa film Sanjuro and their use as a plot device in that movie (not to mention part of the title character’s on-the-spot name).

Whatever the association might be, where there are camellia bushes (or trees, as the case may be!), there are fallen blossoms on the ground, and I rather enjoy them. It’s hard to say why–maybe because it’s interesting to see where they wind up, or maybe it’s similar to how people feel when they see cherry blossoms scatter?

We’re probably all familiar with the rose–but how about its native Asian cousin, the camellia? While Camellia Sinensis is the plant that tea leaves comes from, C. Japonica comes in a wide variety of blossoms. It’s known here as 椿 (tsubaki), and it is one of the symbol flowers of Matsue. In Western flower language the camellia stands for an unpretending sort of excellence, and the Japanese Hanakotoba are more along the lines of modesty and loveliness beyond reproach (or in a white camellia’s case, a cool beauty). It also has connotations with love–an ideal love, or slightly different meanings by color. A red camellia may mean “I’m in love” or “I have a reserved kind of love,” whereas a white camellia might have more to do with waiting. Many camellia varieties may have buds for a few months before blooming–I’m willing to bet that’s where they got the “waiting” part!

There was a variety of camellia that bloomed through most of the winter all through town (and which smelled very sweet!), but most of the more unique varities–or even the most basic red ones which first come to mind when someone pictures them–all burst into bloom around the same period of time earlier in March, and are still continuing to bloom now. The big pink ones right outside my office just opened up over the past few days! While I’m always excited to see what varieties are peaking over the fences around the neighborhood, one of the best places to see them is in the camellia forest on the western Matsue Castle grounds, home to about 450 camellia trees. The San’in Camellia Club just held their 44th camellia show on the castle grounds over this past weekend, too.

Now here’s a whole bunch of pictures I’ve been collecting over the past few weeks:

There are some other connotations associated with the camellia that I’ll bring up in my next entry about them.

The Matsue Castle Festival started this weekend and will go on through the beginning of April so as to catch the whole sakura season. There were some blooming already, but most of them are still buds. I was just happy that it was the first time I’ve gone out without a coat this year! The castle grounds were bustling with activity, as everyone was out enjoying the weather.

The plum garden is about done with its show for this year…

…but the cherry blossoms are making an early start.

And the samurai are fired up as usual. Watch where you point that thing!

While I was on my way elsewhere and taking an extended detour through the castle grounds, I had a lot more time than I thought I would, so I finally stopped at Herun-no-Komichi (Hearn‘s Little Street–it’s a road he liked to take on his way to work). This is a little shop on the way to the Inari shrine at the northwest entrance to the castle grounds. I had always been curious about it, and on this particular Sunday the universe–especially the weather!–aligned itself in such a way that I felt compelled to stop there for a few minutes.

Besides an array of dango (dumpling) and tea combos, grilled riceballs, and shijimi clam miso soup (a local specialty), you can also get a couple old Izumo favorites: zenzai, which is an azuki (sweet red bean) soup with mochi (pounded sticky rice), or bote-bote cha.

Speaking of Shijimi clams, here are a few! Most of the shijimi clams consumed in Japan come from Lake Shinji, but they aren’t typically this colorful.

Of course, the whole decor was perfectly timed with the seasons–more to come on these featured flowers later.

Not that I was there to see flowers–there were plenty to see outside around town already! Rather, I was summoned by the tantalizing sight of dango. Have you heard the phrase “hana yori dango“? It means “dumplings over flowers”–something practical is worth more than something pretty!

They had a few varities to choose from, including sakura dango coated in a salty miso sauce. Since I was having matcha with mine, I went with a tea flavored one coated in a sweet azuki paste instead. They’re all heated up and coated to order.

That one’s mine!

Flowers may fade fast, but I can’t say the dango lasted very long either. I don’t usually eat dango, but I was in such a mood for it than I got some more at a different shop at the opposite end of the castle as I was passing by again at the end of the day. Herun-no-Komichi’s style is to coat the dango, but other kinds of dango are made with fillings instead.

With all this talk about flowers, I might as well post some of the other pictures I took on Dango-Day. They aren’t necessarily flowers that people time their outings to go out and view when they’re in full bloom, but I enjoyed them all over town anyway. Finally! Spring is here! There will more flower-specific posts to come very soon, though.

Gyun is a wonderful little sound effect in the Japanese language for “when your heart drops” or you witness something “heart-wrenching”. At last, my first spring in Japan has come!

One of the first flowers to bring in the season is the 梅 (ume, plum blossom). They come in a variety of shapes and colors, from white with five petals to soft pink with pillowy layers of petals to deep mauve with however many petals it wants.

This tree wasn’t as patient of a bloomer as the others and already looked like this by March 2nd.

On the western lower citadel of Matsue Castle, there is a plum forest. Unlike the forests around it, this one wasn’t planted at the time of the samurai, but at some point within the past fifty years or so. At least that’s what I gather after listening to a story from Kimono-sensei–as a high school student, she played on tennis courts where the plum trees are now.

The trees there are mostly of the five-petal variety. At the beginning of March, most of the pink ones were still just buds, but the white ones were already in blooming stride.

A week later I took another walk around here to see how many of the pink ones had opened after we had a couple days of warm weather.

The darker pink ones were still being a little slow!

Indeed they were, and the little forest was fragrant! Both times I went there were old couples, single walkers, parents and children, bike-riders and dog-walkers taking their time to stroll through, but there were more this second time around dusk. When a couple of old ladies walked by, they told me to take a whiff of the blossoms, as this was a unique fragrance that you only get to enjoy at this time of year. I did as instructed (though I had already been sticking my nose in plenty of blossoms by that point) and commented about the scent, and the old ladies replied, “Oh, good! She understood us.” Indeed, life is a little easier when you can communicate with the people around you, but enjoying flowers is a universal language.

Speaking of languages, have you heard of the Language of Flowers? This was a big thing in England and other European countries in the Victorian era, and it’s also a relatively common thing out here in Japan, too. It was used then to express feelings that could not be stated in explicit words, such as “I am starting to have feelings for you” or “I am passionately in love with you” or “I hate you and will get my revenge”. Certain combinations of flowers carried complex messages, and even having a flower delivered upside down could express a very specific sentiment. However, the Japanese Hanakotoba sometimes have different connotations from their Western counterparts (though they probably retain more of the Western meanings than Western countries do!), and instead of mostly being used in conversational gift bouquets, they can represent ideas in many contexts.

While the basic connotation with plum blossoms is “oh, spring is on its way! Oh, and Hinamatsuri is on March 3rd,” it can also be associated with many forms of beauty–everything from a patient, elegant, noble sort of beauty to a more independant, intense, glamous beauty. My personal associations with plum blossoms, with rounded petals rather than nibbed petals like cherry blossoms, is that they’re cute. I also think of the plum trees in the back corner of my neighbor’s yard and that they let us take some of their plums once, Chinese paintings of plum blossoms, and all the sour ways plums get used in Japanese sake, candy, and lunch boxes.

What do you associate plum blossoms with?