Are you ready for some beauty science?

Let’s start with a repost of a comic about Tamatsukuri Onsen, one of Japan’s original beauty onsen, a downright fountain of youth according to the Chronicles of Ancient Izumo.

I’m going to preface this by saying I’m not an expert. I just really like going to onsen and have picked up some nerdy knowledge and onsen guides here and there. I am not a chemist or a beautician. I can say, however, that I have noticed some changes in my skin quality over the course of my time in Shimane, which, for the past few years, have been ranked #1 for beautiful skin based on its humidity, hours of sunlight, life habits, and other environmental factors. I didn’t really believe this over the course of my first winter here when I had terribly dry skin due to indoor heaters, but when I started thinking skin care in terms of texture rather than acne (or lack thereof), I found that following skin care advice I’ve heard here really works well.

But beyond that, knowing nerdy things about onsen I enjoy anyway is plain fun. So let’s dive in! (No. No diving at the onsen. Don’t be Faux Pas Man.)

Onsen, which are all at least 25 degrees C at their source and contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements, can be categorized in some of the following (sometimes scary-sounding) ways:

Simple onsen (単純温泉: tanjun-onsen)
The most common type of onsen found throughout Japan, with relatively low concentrations of chemical elements (general 1g/kg and below). Good for people with sensitive skin.

Hydrogen carbonate onsen (炭酸水素泉: tansansuiso-sen)
Good cleanser and for giving you smooth skin.

Sulfate onsen (硫酸塩泉: ryuusan’en-sen)
Works like a toner and supplies moisture to skin.

Iron onsen (鉄泉: tetsu-sen)
Water with somewhat light brown color, good for people prone to anemia.

Chloride onsen (塩化泉: enka-sen)
Helps your skin to retain moisture and gives it a damp texture (in a good way).

Sulphur onsen (硫黄泉: iou-sen)
Antibacterial properties make this good for treating skin ailments. Also considered good to detox your system, and for helping your skin retain moisture.

Radioactive onsen (放射能泉: houshanou-sen)
Includes things like radium onsen and radon onsen. Good for pain relief.

Carbon dioxide onsen (二酸化炭素泉: nisankatanso-sen)
Basically, carbonated onsen. However, the gas bubbles are too tiny to see. Said to promote blood flow, these are relatively rare in Japan. (Shimane has one in the little town of Iinan, named Ramune Onsen. Gee, I wonder how it got that name.)

These chemical elements should be indication on a sign somewhere around the onsen, based on how much of them can be found per 1kg. Just because these are the primary chemical elements which any given onsen might be known for, it doesn’t mean they’re limited to those characteristics.

You also want to note the onsen’s pH balance. Onsen with pH balances from around 6 to 7.5 are the gentlest to your skin. Alkaline, particularly 8.5 and above, are supposed to be good cleansers. Higher acidic concentrations are good for their antibacterial properties (but always remember to keep hygiene in mind when visiting an onsen!).

If you’re looking for beautiful skin, you also want to keep an eye out for metasilicic acid (メタけい酸 metakeisan) content. H2SiO3 is a very simple, diluted silicic acid thought to stimulate collagen, which is what gives your skin a springy, youthful texture (in other words, it prevents wrinkles). Back to that Tamatsukuri Onsen comic up there, the joke is that when the onsen was introduced in writing about 1,300 years ago, the research team found all the locals partying in the hot springs, young and old alike. All of them had youthful, springy skin. Nowadays, onsen aficionado attribute this to the high concentration of metasilicic acid, at 110mg. In order to be considered a good beauty onsen, most would aim to have at least 50mg.

I mentioned that in Japan, people think of skin care in terms of texture (or whiteness, but that’s a totally different topic). They have a number of fun words to describe what skin should feel like, many of which don’t have a full equivalent in English. Some of the common ones are:

つるつる tsuru-tsuru: slick and smooth
すべすべ sube-sube: smooth and sleek
ぺたぺた peta-peta: skin moist enough to make a little sound when you lightly press your fingers to your skin
うるうる uru-uru: damp, moist, well-hydrated skin
さらさら sara-sara: silky and soft
もちもち mochi-mochi: a springy texture (yes, like a good rice cake)
しっとり shittori: retains its moisture really well

Or at least, if I had to try really, really, really hard to differentiate between things like uru-uru and shittori this is my sense. I’m not a professional linguist either, I just happen to be mostly fluent in Japanese. And I do like gitaigo (or gi’ongo, in peta-peta‘s case?).

And I like onsen. That too.

Hopefully this will help to make your next visit to an onsen more interesting. Throw these terms into conversation with your friends, and then make up observations about the smell and color and feel of the onsen water and pretend you’re taste-testing on a food competition show or something. Your friends will either think you sound really cool or they will be tempted to dump a bucket of cold water on your head to make you just shut up and enjoy onsen for the simple pleasure that they are.

Life is going to be so hard when I’m not a CIR anymore. Really, how can I complain about modeling for photos at a foot onsen? Modeling, although infrequent, is just another part of work, and when someone says, “see? That’s me here on this flier,” I can very placidly reply, “ah, and here’s the most recent one I’m on.”

Going to an onsen sounds great right about now. Thankfully I work right around Matsue Shinjiko Onsen Station, the easternmost stop on the Ichibata Railway which links the heart of Matsue to Izumo Taisha. Like many travel facilities in onsen areas around Japan, there is a free foot onsen there.

However, most train station and rest stop foot onsen cannot compare to the charms of Tamatsukuri Onsen‘s foot onsens–I’m purposely adding an ‘s’ because there are three available, two of which are located at the Tamayu River’s edge. You know what? Forget “foot onsen,” let’s just call them ashiyu. Besides generally warming your whole body up and relaxing tired feet, there are supposedly many health benefits just from sticking your feet in onsen water. Those of you who for whatever reason cannot take a full dip in an onsen (though you really should try to experience that!) can take advantage of the hot mineral water and the beautiful surroundings for free!

Besides the ashiyu themselves, non-bathers visiting Tamatsukuri Onsen can also enjoy strolling the onsen resort streets in rental yukata from Hakobune Tamatsukuri Art Box–assuming your aren’t already borrowing a yukata from your ryokan! Seeing as we were already borrowing the yukata for a different photo shoot we were there to do, former Matsue CIR Bernice set up her tripod to get some of these photos of the CIR team at one of the ashiyu. Squint though we did, these were some of my favorites!

I have two information entries about onsen coming up, one about faux pas and another about what makes the water special. Be on the lookout for them! Or step away from your Internet-enabled device and go take a hot bath, that works too.

Look! My socks have the White Hare of Inaba crossing the Sea of Japan!

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These were a gift from Kimono-sensei. Water, as a motif, is often expressed in this sort of traditional pattern. The Hare is based on a local legend and is found over and over and over in Shimane Prefecture and still more in Tottori Prefecture. For as much as I am inundated with this White Hare, and for as much as I tend to prefer dull socks over expressive ones, I was excited about these. Thanks, Kimono-sensei! They’ll be a nice San’in souvenir some day.

One of the first San’in souvenirs I got for myself was a magatama–that is, a common shaped bead of ancient, but not precisely known origin. These have been a sign of spiritual power since early times in Japan, and there are large collections of them in museums that have been unearthed from 8th century dig sites and beyond.

While not unique to the San’in region, this area was a major producer of the carved beads, especially those made from agate. The Tamatsukuri Onsen (玉造温泉) area is so called because many magatama were made there (玉造 means “jewel making”). Besides workshops to carve your own magatama, there are many gift stores throughout Matsue–and nearby places like Izumo Taisha–that specialize in magatama and related stone accessories. Although green agate, and to some extent, red agate are most representative of the region’s production, you can find these so-called power stones carved out of many other types of stones as well, varying in quality to suit low and high budgets.

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Although the agate products are very, very shiny, I got a lapis lazuli one to commemorate my stay in Matsue (the stone being one of my favorites, and the shape being characteristic of the region). I like it, but I do feel a little self-conscious when I wear it here. I feel like I’d look more like a tourist than a local…

However, as a local, there’s a t-shirt I’ve had my eyes on for a long time. It sums up so much about the quirkiness of the region succinctly.

Allow me to introduce the best Shimane t-shirt I’ve ever bought in Tottori:

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The scowling character is Yoshida-kun, from Frogman’s flash animation cartoon Eagle Talon. This cartoon is known throughout the country, and although he is not from here, Frogman has a passion for Shimane Prefecture. So much so that he’s volunteered Yoshida-kun, one of the team of characters bent on somewhat Pinky and the Brain style world domination, to be a PR ambassador for the prefecture’s tourism attractions, landscape, and culture. Granted, that means he makes simultaneously proud and sarcastic comments about how well kept of a secret Shimane is.

In a Land of the Rising Yura-kyara, where mascots teetering around with big smiles and silly dances have taken over much of mainstream culture, Yoshida-kun is a refreshing dose of cynicism. No offense to Shimanekko, who is quite adorable and deserves to win 1st place in one of the upcoming national popularity contests, but the landscape of local mascots could stand to have more characters like Tottori’s Katsue-san, a starving mascot who represents a 16th century historical event.

Shimanekko, who also has the best dance! Click for source.

Besides Toripy, Tottori’s office bird-pear (or is it pear-bird?), the least populated prefecture of Japan has an unofficial mascot who has had a place in the hearts of the Japanese public since the 1960’s, long before happy, round mascot characters began their dominion over the islands. That is none other than Kitaro, as well as much of the rest of cast of Gegege no Kitaro. This is because the creator, folklorist and adventurer and historian and story teller and veteran and one-armed artist Mizuki Shigeru, is from the port town of Sakaiminato on the western tip of Tottori. The city is laden with reminders of this.

In addition to my Yoshida-kun t-shirt, there is a partner t-shirt featuring Tottori and Kitaro, captioned “Tottori is to the right of Shimane.”

However, long before that, I picked up a Tottori souvenir featuring another iconic member of the cast: Medama Oyaji (“Old Man Eyeball”), Kitaro’s father.

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There’s no shortage of clever Medama Oyaji products both in Sakaiminato and throughout the San’in region, and there is no shortage of other Gegege no Kitaro t-shirt designs. Actually, there are a number of nicer shirts and ties with more subtle use of the ghastly cast, so you could get away with looking very dressed up until people take a double-take at the spooky imagery.

Granted, you can get away with anything on a tie, I guess. The Shimanekko ties are not surprising in the least, but a co-worker’s Hello-Kitty-meets-One-Piece tie did surprise me a little. It might still be a little while until we see Yoshida-kun ties or Shimanekko kimono accessories, though. When it comes to items I wouldn’t just wear around the house, there are still many options, such as traditionally dyed indigo items or even Orochi Jeans. Next I think I have my eyes on a peony-dyed item from Yuushien Garden, because there’s nothing like Daikonshima in spring.

I might not be able to play, but at least I’m able to pose.

Tamatsukuri Onsen, home to the original fountain of youth of Japan, is hosting its second World Slipper Takkyu Competition in the Tamayu Gymnasium. It will be on Saturday, February 21, 2015. Sign-up is open through January 31, see the Japanese page for details.

This is table tennis as you know it, only played with slippers as opposed to rackets. It hearkens classic images of hanging out in your slippers after a dip in the baths and a fancy dinner at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), and spending your free time surprising your travelmates with how competitive you are when it comes to snapping plastic balls across the table (or in my case, across the room should I manage to even hit them). And, you know, you have the slippers on or in your hands instead of on your feet.

Reusing some of XiaoMan’s photos from last year–thanks, XiaoMan!

You know what I found nice about using slippers? They help when it comes to catching runaway ping pong balls. I should know, as I had to catch my fair share.

Like last year, the competition is in three categories: men’s pairs, women’s pairs, and male-female pairs, open to anyone of any age, nationality, and level of ability (or non-ability). It costs 3,000 yen per pair, or participate is free if you’re staying in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area for the trip. What’s more, if you win first place in your category, you’ll get cash back on your stay up to 30,000 yen.

All participants receive some local agricultural and seafood products, but special ones are given away by raffle. Seafood miso soup is also serves to all of the participants while they take a break between matches. Finalists can expect to be there through the afternoon (and probably change into yukata for the final matches), but for those who get some fun out of losing in the morning, there is still plenty of time to wander the scenic streets along the Tamayu river and take a dip in a daytime onsen. It makes for a light taste of a ryokan stay for those who can’t afford the full pampering treatment.

Ashiyu!

If you are really on the cheap, you could use one of the three ashiyu (free foot baths) in the area. You could do so while enjoying my beloved Ice Corotto, but seeing as it will be chilly out, I suggest the veggie soup sold at the neighboring stand. It’s light and refreshing, and there is nothing like being out in cold weather sipping a cup of nutritious and tasty soup while warming your feet at the riverside. Or boiling them, depending on which spot you chose–but that one should be obvious from all the steam.

Seeing as this is a world competition, international guests are highly encouraged to attend, whether residents or tourists passing through enjoying the Tamatsukuri area and the discounts for foreign passport holders and/or zairyu card holders that are found at tourism facilities throughout the San’in region (nudge-nudge, wink-wink, hint-hint). Personally, I highly encourage lots of people from the Western Hemisphere to attend so that I do not fail again in representing half the world.

My straight record of loses should not be surprising.

Last year was fun, but I’m sure there are Americans who could do much better!

Following up the introduction of capricious crow-like creatures called Tengu, and especially Hokibo, the Daitengu of Mt. Daisen, I went looking for one in southern Matsue. For as many times as I’ve strolled through the Tamatsukuri Onsen area (see here, here, and here), I’ve never gone looking for this one.

Considering I already finished a short manga about another famous Tengu earlier this year (which is running in Asiascape‘s online publication, “Interpreting Kurama Tengu“, starting on page 34), I figured it was time to fix that. I was off to hunt down that Karasu Tengu!

The journey starts at Tamatsukuriyu Shrine. Instead of going up the stairs to the wishing stones, you take the path towards the ruins of Tamatsukuri-Yougaisan Castle, one of the castles of the Amago clan. The ruins are hard to see among the changing levels of forest, but at least there are signs you’re on the right track towards the Tengu (and everything else you discover a long the way).






















You’ll notice Japan has a lot of “Top 3” lists. There’s not really any ranking within these lists–if something is in the top three, it does not mean it’s a kind way of saying third place, it means it shares first place with two others of its kind. Of course, you’ll notice that has expanded into “Top 100” lists, at which point I think it’s getting a little out of hand, but there are probably already hundreds of “Top 3” lists to begin with. I guess it just means that you can find a “Top 3” list to suit any of your needs.

And if beauty onsen happen to be among your needs, allow me to introduce you to one of those “Top 3”, Yunokawa Onsen, south of Lake Shinji and five minutes away from Izumo Airport! (Not be confused with Yunokawa Onsen in Hokkaido!)

Click for source

This post is following up two other posts introducing the other places associated with this myth.

This post is following up two other posts introducing the other places associated with this myth.

I cannot take credit for this discovery–rather, Princess Yagami herself was said to have found spied this onsen on her way to Izumo, and she happily refreshed herself from the long journey so she could look beautiful in front of her husband–but we all know how that worked out. Stories go on to saw that she stopped there on the way back as well and nursed her broken heart, but was able to start fresh both body and soul afterward–with lovely silky smooth and springy skin, of course.

But hold up… where in the Kojiki did it say that? Or in the Nihonshoki, the more political history-book like of the two? Or was it in the Izumo Fudoki?

This legend is much more recent, perhaps as late as the Edo period. A lot of people were coming up with new interpretations of the Kojiki around those times, so in wider culture, you tend to be left with a mash-up of interpretations about just which kami is actually which kami. Although there have been movements to go back to the original text and reanalyze it in purely linguistic methods (which, depending on whether you’re reading for the character for their meaning or their sound, could give you very different results!), the interpretation of the Kojiki has constantly been evolving, and this piece of cultural canon is so attached to the original Kojiki story that, at least in terms of general cultural use, it’s not worth trying to separate them.

The crystal clear water is rich in sodium and calcium, and it is classified as both a sulphate and chloride type onsen. Chloride onsen tend to warm up your body even faster, so although this lets your skin soak in the minerals, just make sure to stay hydrated and don’t pass out! But that applies at every onsen, though you’ll notice some are especially hot while others are more lukewarm. At least when I went, it was just right for a rather lengthy evening soak outside in the cool night air.

Nestled among the mountains, it’s the perfect spot for a quiet onsen getaway, though if you’re just in for a brief stop, there is a day-trip onsen for ¥500 at Hikawa Bijin no Yu. On your way out, be sure to stop at the Michi-no-Eki (like a rest stop, only much nicer) next to the statue of Yagami by the entrance to the onsen area. Izumo is also famous for ginger, which also has body warming properties, so in addition to ginger products on sale, they also serve ginger curry–that way you can warm yourself up from inside and out! The ginger tea or candy is easier to take home, though~

I must be a bit biased because I continue to mention Tamatsukuri Onsen almost every time I mention an onsen–the bath of the gods may not be in this particular “Top 3” list, but it was listed as one of the “Top 3” onsen in Sei Shonagon’s ever-famous “Pillow Book” record of courtly Heian life. That means we have two top onsen just south of Lake Shinji which the gods are said to frequent, and they’re a very short car-ride away from each other.

I’ve written about other Tamatsukuri Onsen sweets in the past, but today I’d like to introduce my favorite. It might seem more like a summery treat, but even in cold weather I usually treat myself to these. Hence, as a little break from the incoming summer heat, I have some photos from later winter and early spring trips to the onsen area. Even on cloudy evenings, the cherry blossoms there are lovely, after all.

Although there are places in Tamatsukuri famous for their fresh seafood, cute cafe atmosphere, or even for takoyaki, my favorite is this pair of stalls directly across the Tamayu River from Yu~yu, the cheapest option for a day trip to the onsen if you’re not staying overnight at a ryokan. Although I try to visit a different day trip (higaeri) onsen every time I go for a dip instead of just passing through the area, just because Yu~yu is cheap doesn’t mean it feels cheap. Out of all the ¥400 or so price ranged places I’ve been to, the magatama motifs in the design of the indoor/outdoor baths, the waterfalls, and both dry and wet saunas make Yu~yu feel plenty ritzy so long as you don’t mind having the sky to gaze at instead of a traditional garden. However, the overall design of the building makes me think of a fishbowl in the sky. Yu~yu is not only a primary spot in the onsen area for a somewhat cheaper bathing experience, but also a spot to buy local food products (both fresh and packaged to take home and hand out as gifts), as well as an event space, a spot to buy towels if you forgot to bring them for the outdoor ashiyu (foot onsen), and it’s also one of the biggest parking areas right in the middle of the strip of fancy ryokan–just be forewarned that the parking lot can full up pretty fast on the weekend! There are additional parking lots a little further down the street as well.

Now back to the important topic–sweets. No wait, before that–I just want to add that on a really cold visit to the onsen area, the vegetable and fruit juice vendor sells some really, really nice vegetable soup in a light broth. Sipping that soup while bundled up and sitting at the ashiyu with your friends and watching the snow fall is lovely. See? I don’t just love sweets, I love veggies, too.

Now back to sweets. Allow me to introduce you to the Ice Corotto, an addictive mix of textures and complimentary refreshing flavors that change with the seasons and local availability.

Gyuuhi is very similar to mochi in that it is rice-flour based and soft and stretchy, but it is more delicate in texture, more like a Turkish Delight. I don’t always like the chewing involved for a mouthful of mochi and therefore don’t typically like to eat the ice cream balls wrapped in mochi that I know so many people adore around the world whenever they can get their hands on them at grocers that supply Japanese snacks. However, I have developed quite a soft spot (get it?) for gyuuhi, and I inwardly cheer everytime we have a wagashi at my tea ceremony lessons wrapped in the stuff.

Although gyuuhi is already wonderfully made use of in traditional style Japanese confections, it also matches a more western style sweet like vanilla ice cream very well. Just vanilla ice cream and gyuuhi would be lacking in some flavor, which is where the fruit sauce comes in. The fruit sauce is not limited to fruit–in honor of the local tea culture matcha is a pretty typical flavor, and I recall seeing Izumo ginger on the menu, too. There are usually four to five local flavors to choose from on the hand-decorated menu. Local strawberries and blueberries and grapes and figs and, while we’re at it, kiwis and mangos are all nice, but this particular day I decided to take pictures of the lovely little experience, I went with an uplifting matcha and orange combination.

Although I do like the soft and delicate, springy texture of the gyuuhi and the creamy texture of the ice cream and the thick, icy texture of the fruit sauce, the crumb coating really does pull it all together. It’s sort of like the addictive and satisfying combination of crunchy and soft textures in a Take 5 candy bar, only it’s not so sweet that it makes you feel ill–rather, it’s just sweet enough to be refreshing without being overwhelming. It does plenty to satisfy my sweet tooth.

They are ¥500 for four balls of your flavors of choice, or ¥300 for two. I find two perfectly satisfying. Although there are many charms throughout the onsen area, for me, even if I’m not taking a full bath, it’s just not a trip to Tamatsukuri without a couple little mouthfuls of these and at least a quick dip in my favorite of the free ashiyu available–this is one is right down the stairs to the spot at the Tamayu River in between the vegetable/fruit juice (and soup!) and ice corotto stalls. Just watch out, this is the hottest of the ashiyu in the area, and at its source it’s the hottest onsen water I’ve ever experienced anywhere!

The Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki (Chronicles of Ancient Izumo, 713-733 AD) is among one of the original encyclopedias of Japan, written for each province to describe local geography, culture and customs, plant life and everything.

When the researchers came to the Lake Shinji area, they found that all the locals were partying in the baths, young and old, all together–but everyone had beautiful, youthful skin. The term “fountain of youth” was not so big a buzzword back in the those days, but they instead spoke of the water and its benefits for beautiful skin.

Today, the waters are still known as the baths of the gods, there is a line of skin products made with the water, and there is a spring from which you can draw water to bring home with you. You can buy little spray bottles by the spring if you didn’t bring a container with you, which I see many ladies do. Just a little onsen tip–the heat does make a difference. Instead of just spritzing the water on your face for a home treatment, the more recommended practice is to heat up the water, soak a towel in it, and then rest it on your face for three minutes (laying it on your face such that you can breath, of course!).

Although I know this advice, I’m a bit lazy with it. I usually go to an onsen for the experience and relaxation, not the supposed skin benefits. You probably won’t notice much after one occasional dip in the onsen–however, after those happy weekends when I’ve gone two or three times, I am quite pleased to find that, “hey, I guess this water really does make your skin feel nice!”

Besides actually relaxing in the bath, I like hanging out outside in the onsen area, too. I’ll introduce one of my favorite little bits of Tamatsukuri next time.

Let’s take a trip to a ryokan in our imaginations. What do you see there? Many people might start with the charming atmosphere of the street leading up to the hotel, the owner and workers politely greeting you in kimono and then showing you to your room where you can get changed into your yukata, a comfy cotton kimono you can relax in. Your shoes are left at the entrance, and you will have slippers to use throughout the halls. A dip in the onsen might look relaxing or you might be picturing antics from numerous anime scenes, and afterward, while your body is still warmed up by the hot mineral water bath, you can chill out and drink some milk from a little glass bottle. The ryokan of course has a first-class, multi-course Japanese style meal with a focus on fresh, local products, but after dinner you’re not quite ready to curl up in your fluffy futon and go to sleep.

No, now is the time to challenge your friends to table tennis!

This classical ryokan activity is something everyone is familiar with, but I can’t say I’ve seen any of these tables set up at the ryokan I’ve been to. That said, the Tamatsukuri Onsen area is pretty much everything else you’d look for in an onsen resort area, so they got the idea to invigorate this ryokan-style sport. Just holding a big table tennis match wouldn’t do–to make it more ryokan-like, they replaced all the paddles with hotel slippers, and offered a free stay in Tamatsukuri as the top prize.

Since it’s not likely any other place on Earth is holding the same sort of competition, it automatically became the first world slipper table tennis competition. So as to represent the rest of the world, a couple fellow CIRs and I entered the competition in the mixed-gender doubles match (there were also girls-only and guys-only doubles categories). A big thank-you to them for sharing the photos!

Representing China with Liu, XiaoMan looked just as cool and as competitive as ever.

I, however, must apologize to the United States and by extension to the entire western hemisphere for having been such an embarrassing table tennis representative.

I teamed up with Kim, who was representing South Korea. We had a perfect losing record, but it was still fun!

While other people were talking about how hard it was to hold a slipper instead of a paddle, I found it didn’t make much difference for me. Perhaps I did a little better with a slipper than with a normal paddle. You could hold them anyway you want, so while some people gripped them, others just put their hands inside like a mitten. I thought they were helpful for catching runaway balls.

While I was busy chasing balls I completely missed or sending my opponents chasing after balls that were clearly out, there were many more serious competitors attacking for the bragging rights and for the big prizes. Everyone was awarded a consolation prize for of local dried seafood, as there was also free crab miso soup and rice balls (because the local crab and rice is delicious, of course) for all of the participants. Still, at events like this, you can usually expect to see at least a few people dressing up or otherwise making a show out of it with muscle shirts or, in keeping with the retro-ryokan theme, some kimono.

Since we all lost in the preliminary rounds we went out for lunch instead of sticking around, but I heard later that in the finals that afternoon, each of the participants were given yukata to wear!

Like so.

There was a lot of exposure for the event, though I’m glad I didn’t have my picture in the paper this time because I was wearing my “I am concentrating super hard and do not look like I’m having any fun at all” face even though I really was enjoying it once I got the hang of it. There was also a TV crew there for whatever question-and-answer TV show this was. I had to chase balls around the camera crew sometimes.

It seems the first world competition was a success, and everyone–including people who couldn’t make it this time–is talking about their plans for next year, everything from when to practice and who to team with, and coming up with snappy team names. Maybe with a little more practice I could be a better representative next year, but anyone is welcome to come try their hand at it next March!

Tamatsukuri Onsen, most famous for its beauty water and as a relaxing vacation spot laden with fancy ryokan hotels, is also an En-musubi power spot. As a quick review for recent visitors to this blog, En-musubi is binding your fate with people or nature or whatever, but is popularly thought of as matchmaking. The San’in region is very, very immersed in the tyings of En, which is why I tend to bring it up a lot.

Reusing old maps? Me? Never. Kamosu Shrine and Shinjiko Onsen are always worth noting even if they have nothing to do with the content of the entry.

Power spots are a recent phenomenon among Japanese tourists, but it’s hard to say whether they have the same lure for international visitors. As a fan of local customs and mythology and folk culture, I find them endearing, but prefer to know which places were considered important before the power spot boom. In a spot like Tamatsukuri, it’s quite fitting that there would be a power spot in the form of an enshrined stone, as the area is historically known as a major producer of magatama jewels (hence the name, “jewel-making hot springs”). That has less to do with the beauty water and more to do with the abundance of green agate mined nearby to produce the comma shaped jewels, thought to bring forth spiritual powers since Japan’s prehistoric times. They remain a popular souvenir from this area, and there are museums and ruins and workshops dedicated to them.

A pretty common theme here, you’ll notice. The area is also a popular cherry blossom viewing spot, which I’ll bring up again later in this entry.

Stones remain a popular theme throughout the onsen area, and are frequently worked into the themes and designs of the ryokan baths and gardens. It’s not as if I would usually carry my camera into an onsen, but I do have a few snapshots of the different baths at Choseikaku, one of the fancier places you can pay to just use the bath and without staying (fluffy towels and a cup of matcha in the lobby are included in the price at this one, but the hours and prices vary according to each hotel). Most day-trippers use the much cheaper Yu~Yu facility, which I find reminiscent of a giant fish bowl in the sky. But I digress, here are the photos I do have:

I know there is something special about a couple of the larger stones on the floor of the bath, but I’ve completely forgotten what it was.


Not only is this bath shaped like a magatama, but it’s lined with precious stones, too!


While we’re at it, here’s one of the outdoor baths (rotenburo). Not my top favorite among the outdoor Tamatsukuri baths, but very nice nonetheless.

This hotel is sort of at the end of a long promenade of them, and while I’ve never stayed overnight at Tamatsukuri, it’s one of my favorite places to take a stroll, be it in hot weather or in cold weather (in which case the free foot baths, especially the hottest ones down at the riverside, are even nicer).

On a typical stay at Tamatsukuri Onsen, you would wear one of the yukata (comfy and casual cotton kimono) your hotel provides for you, stroll around and enjoy the charms of the area before returning to relax in the hot springs and enjoy a multi-course meal before retiring for the night. One of the spots that you would have high on your list to see is Tamatsukuriyu Shrine, and I’m sort of surprised at myself for not having a proper photo of the entrance. In all its picturesqueness, the main torii gate at the entrance is right across from a little arched bridge over the Tamayu River, and then the shaded stone steps head straight up from there to the main shrine area.

But don’t head up the stairs too fast! You need to buy a Kanai-ishi (wish-granting stone) first. The type of little stone you get varies depending on your luck that day.

Then proceed up the stairs and follow these instructions to have your wish granted by the Negai-ishi (wishing stone), a stone thought to hold special spiritual powers given its unusual roundness. You’ll find many Shinto shrines dedicated to oddities in nature. I’ve heard that Mt. Fuji is revered more for its shape than for its height.

Sometimes you’ll be surprised by the line that form around the stone in tourist seasons, so don’t be in a rush to make a wish.

He’s got a protective green stone next to him.

Visitors attracted to Tamatsukuri Onsen for its beautifying properties would probably also be interested in visiting Seigan-ji, the temple next to the shrine with a Buddha that takes away aesthetic imperfections.

Now that we’ve addressed the Negai-ishi, I can finally get to the point of this entry. See that Cake Shop Agate I noted on the map? I want to show you this cake I enjoyed!

Household objects have been left in the photo for some size comparison.

As one of the En-musubi sweets advertised here and there, I’ve had my eyes on this cake for a while, and finally treated myself to one at the Dan-Dan Food Festival that Matsue hosts throughout the month of February. This year I managed to get there in time for the Eight Lucky Gods Hot Pot, a nabe dish full of local seafood, vegetable, and other specialities big enough to feed 800 people. After that I wasn’t as hungry as I hoped to be, which is why I picked out something to take home after wandering in and out of the festival for a few hours. Along with all the edible festivities, there are plenty of penguins and samurai and stuff for entertainment, so please see Bernice’s photos here.

So here it is, the Wishing Stone themed cake, with a collection of tastes and textures but sweetness that is not for the faint of heart. The design on top is a pink magatama and a torii gate, like you find at the entrance to a shrine.

Seeing as Matsue is a city of sweets–particularly wagashi–it’s no surprise that magatama themed sweets have been done before. This is one from Saiundo, a “Wishing Sweet” that comes in five colors and flavors.

Back to this cake, it’s a mix of Japanese and Western desserts, as you’ll notice it is covered in a very soft layer of mochi (pounded rice cake). The overall color scheme is pink and white, as these colors (or red and white together) are commonly associated with auspicious things, like En-musubi.

On the inside… well, let’s see if I can remember everything on the inside, as it all blended together quite nicely. Seeing as Tamatsukuri is a popular cherry blossom viewing spot, with a long stretch of the Tamayu River covered in cherry blossoms before you even hit the ryokan area, cherry is the key flavor, though not as heavy as its taste would be in a Western cherry dessert. As the outside mochi oozes apart, you’ll notice we have cherry whip creme, a little bit of anko, cherry mousse, and some normal whip creme (I think?) and sponge cake. Yum.

A collection of light, delicate flavors, but altogether very sweet, and therefore goes down well with some green tea (I think either sencha or the locally preferred matcha would be fine). Despite its size, it doesn’t last long even if you’re trying to savor it.

In other news, though it’s not cherry blossom season yet, there’s already talk of sakura-mochi. I’ve been thinking about them since spotting them at the food festival, and someone has just brought some to the office. Hurray! Forget En-musubi, I just want more sweets. A dip in the onsen is always nice too, of course.