The San’in region is known for its cloudy weather, and with clouds comes rain.
Likewise, it is also known for its deep ties with En-musubi, a mysterious power that brings people together and binds fate.
So of course the two should go hand in hand, right?

Matsue has entire tourism campaigns–including hotel and restaurant deals, themed cocktails and desserts, and seemingly scavenger hunts–all themed around Enishizuku (縁雫), the “drops of En” that bind everyone together.

These raindrops, however filled with mystical fate-binding power they may be, fall on everyone indiscriminately. Enter the Dan-Dan Kasa program, a cooperative project between two local NPOs to provide free umbrellas–marked by their stickers and special crates outside of frequented buildings–that tourists can take as needed. Well, in my case, you don’t have to be a tourist to take them. Thankfully I’ve forgotten enough umbrellas everywhere to have made my contributions back to this program I’ve benefitted so much from.

There are some particularly “Matsue” umbrellas that I’ve always liked, but have never allowed myself to purchase because I know how likely I am to forget them somewhere when I walk back outside into sunny weather. They’re sturdy, wide, and chic, with various colors–especially red–lined with black on the outer edge and marked with the small Enishizuku label. You see these everywhere, and they evoke a strong sense of Matsue’s character.

When it comes to Matsue and umbrellas, I also picture the large red one in Karakoro Square, which provides shelter from both the sun and the rain. Even if people haven’t gotten the lay of the land enough yet to know what you mean by “Karakoro Square” they usually light up with an “aha!” moment if you mention the giant red umbrella.

Obviously this feels more like it should be a June post than a Halloween post in keeping with the officially recognized Rainy Season (tsuyu), but really, rain is a year round occurence here. It may feel more like an October post given the especially powered-up En-musubi in the air during Kamiarizuki, but if you go by the old agricultural calendar, the gods still aren’t here yet for a few weeks.

But the timing is appropriate, I assure you! Here is a local ghost story about umbrellas.

The Red Umbrella, based on Michiko Hara’s adaptation in Kazukiyo Takahashi’s new compilation of Matsue ghost stories:

There once was an umbrella shop along the canals leading from Matsue Castle to Lake Shinji. The only son, named Denkichi, was nearing age 30 and was well-known for his filial piety. In addition to learning his father’s craft, he also kept the shop tidy, prepared the daily meals, and did the laundry all by himself.

“It’d be so nice if you could get married soon,” his sick mother said from where she was bedridden. “If you had a bride, then at least you wouldn’t have to go so far as to do all the cooking too.” They had taken her to see a local specialist who said that her condition was incurable, but it could be treated with medicine. This medicine, however, was very expensive.

In order to attain the money for this medicine, Denkichi fervently studied from his father and produced umbrellas, but in his haste, he added too much oil to the paper of a number of them and they became too thick to close. There was no fixing them, so rather than wasting them he painted them red and lined them up in front of the store as signs.

One spring evening, while Denkichi just happened to be outside the shop, he was approached by a man with one attendant who said he was actually the lord of Matsue going around town in disguise, but the sudden rainfall was causing him distress. Therefore, without knowing that the lined up umbrellas could not close, he had his attendant give him a sum of money to purchase them, and after taking them, they left.

However, that money, which would have gone towards his mother’s medicine, turned into a handful of leaves a short time later. Denkichi realized he had been tricked by a fox, and vexing though it was, there was nothing he could do.

A few days later when Denkichi was on his way home from selling umbrellas in the Kawatsu area of town, he came across the feudal lord who happened to be out enjoying a stroll at Mt. Rakuzan. “Ah! It’s that fox!” Denkichi growled. “Thought you pulled a fast one on me, didn’t you? Didn’t you! You pay up right now! Right now! That’s money for my mother’s–”

He had been coming at the fox threatening to hit it with an umbrella, but unfortunately for Denkichi, that was not a fox but the real lord of Matsue. “Insolent fellow, what do you think you’re doing?” one of the lord’s retainers shouted, and then swiftly stabbed Denkichi, leaving him for dead as the samurai class was privileged to do to the commoners.

When Denkichi’s parents received his body later, they wailed, crying out that he was such a good son and wondering how this cruel fate could have happened. Though nothing could stop their tears, there was no way they could take up complaint against the feudal lord or seek justice.

That night, around 3 o’clock in the morning, the lord saw an umbrella monster with a red, uncloseable umbrella. It seemed to carry with it a samurai with one of the bamboo bones of the umbrella stabbed through his abdomen like a sword, and from that corpse red blood began pouring unceasingly all over the lord’s white sheets. The lord grabbed his sword and swung it at the monster, but the monster itself disappeared, leaving only its twisted, angry face and the continuing stream of blood.

By morning, there was no trace of blood, but his experiences of the night still left the lord terrified. He suddenly remembered the umbrella vendor that had been slain the day before, and he sent one of retainers to investigate. When the retainer returned, he reported, “It seems he was a young man well-known for his filial piety.”

“I see,” said the lord, and then he ordered, “From now on, purchase all of the umbrellas made by this shop, and when it rains, line them up along the canals so that anyone may be free to use them.”

He was never bothered by the umbrella monster again, and to this day, you can still see red umbrellas lined up along the canals of Matsue on rainy days.

I’ve frequently been asked what the first thing I noticed in Japan was. The answer was easy: “It’s humid.”

On more trips that not when I’ve entered Japan, it’s been in summer. While August–considered the height of summer–is said to be hot and relatively dry, I certainly don’t find it dry. Well, I don’t find most of the months dry, except the depths of winter, that’s usually because indoor spaces dry out easily with the artificial heating. Even in winter, however, we have snowfall here in the San’in region, and when it’s not snowing, it’s raining.

Oh yeah. Rain.

This region gets a lot of rainfall. We don’t get as many typhoons because they tend to peeter out after leaving the Pacific shores, but they still have plenty of water to expend when they get here. In response to the amount of precipitation, a common trait of Izumo style Japanese gardens is that the stepping stones will be relatively high so as not the get the tips of your kimono unnecessarily wet.

This is one of the entrances to Kangetsu-an, a tea house inside of Fumon-in Temple which was one of Lord Fumai's favorites.

This is one of the entrances to Kangetsu-an, a tea house inside of Fumon-in Temple which was one of Lord Fumai‘s favorites.

Although people in Japan will proudly declare that Japan has four seasons, you’ll also find that tsuyu–the rainy season, also sometimes called baiu–tends to be declared as a season of its own, so it’s more like five seasons. But even that can get much, much more complex, so you could have 24 seasons instead. In the Chuugoku region at the western tip of Honshu (including both the San’in and San’yo areas), this typically starts on or around June 7. This year it officially started on June 4 according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.

I wouldn’t mind rain if it wasn’t so wet.

There are some upsides to tsuyu here, though. In Matsue, the rain is known as Enishizuku, the droplets that bind us all together in common fate. Or, you know, there are invisible strings in the rain droplets in Matsue that lead you to someone you have yet to meet–who knows who will drop into your life with the rain? I wonder if the En-musubi in the water has anything to do with Izumo–home of the ultimate En-musubi power spot, Izumo Taisha–being “from whence clouds come” (出雲: “emit” “clouds”)?

There are Enishizuku themed drinks at bars around the city only available on rainy days, but you’d be more likely to find me at a tsuyu matcha cafe inside Karakoro Art Studio making leaf boats.

Or I might be at Gesshoji Temple, enjoying a cup of matcha while observing the famous hydrangea or teasing a monster tortoise and slipping on the old stone paths.

Or I might be gratefully dashing through puddles while using a Dan-Dan umbrella. These are part of a program in which they took the umbrellas people forget in public and mark them specifically for public use. I’m certain I’ve contributed at least a couple umbrellas to this program, but I’ve more than reaped the benefits when I’ve been walking around without my forgotten umbrellas. The “Dan-Dan” in the title means “thank you” in Izumo dialect.

Or I might be inside grumbling about how I can’t get my hair to behave in the additional humidity.

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).

14420-turtles

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.

It has been said that in Japan, people dress for the calendar date instead of the weather. I’m inclined to agree.

When traveling or living in another culture, it’s always worth taking note of how your wardrobe compares to the level of modesty and neatness of those around you so as to be respectful. When preparing to live in Japan, one piece of advice I heard here and there is that people will not tell you directly if you’re showing too much skin, but instead will ask if you’re cold as an indirect way of saying “cover up! That’s not appropriate!” In my experience, I’ve been asked this a few times when wearing short sleeves, but I think the surprise is less about it being immodest and more about how no one else is doing it–at least not on that particular date. This is very different from the culture in which I grew up, in which dressing in layers for the sake of being able to add and remove layers so as to adjust to changing temperatures indoors or outdoors is commonplace and considered practical. In many places around the world, however, practicality is not of prime importance when it comes to fashion choices (especially if kimono are any indication of that).

Furthermore, when it comes to the calendar date, it’s not just clothing that adjusts to fit the theme. In the tea ceremony as well, there are a lot of tools used seasonally, or you switch between summer and winter tools at specific times of year. They don’t match up exactly, however–it’s more chic in Japanese aesthetics to use a motif of some occurence in nature that hasn’t quite started yet. For instance, wearing a kimono or using a tea cup with cherry blossoms in full bloom is a way of saying “look what’s coming soon!” but if you were to use them in full bloom, it would feel a little like you’re trying to upstage nature. Furthermore, using them just after the event would just make you look like you’re behind in the season. Keep in mind that these are general ideas, not hard and fast rules, and there is a lot of flexibility allowed in appropriateness. However, in part due to the tendency to use motifs a little in advance, and in part due to the one-month speed-up of the old holidays with the new calendar, you find some seasonal changes being made long before it would make practical sense to do them. This especially drives me a little crazy towards the later parts of summer and winter, when the tools have already changed before the weather has, which means we’re using tools for hot weather when it’s still chilly outside or using tools for cold weather when it’s still hot and humid!

But alas, practical sense and aesthetic sense are not always in agreement, though it’s especially nice to appreciate both senses when they align on the right calendar dates.

Be on the look-out for some spring-themed entries coming up, full of snapshots… however fashionably late they are.

This has been an odd winter in the San’in region, which is typically known for the amount of snow it gets compared to sunnier parts of the country. I was told by many people to expect a very cold winter this year. However, while Tokyo had been experiencing heavy downfalls, we had usually been experiencing rain as opposed to snow.

As striking as Matsue Castle appears on a sunny day, there is a sense of it looming over the city on such dreary January days as this, and I can’t help but be reminded of how Lafcadio Hearn described it:

…solid as when first built long centuries ago, a vast and sinister shape, all iron-grey, rising against the sky from a cyclopean foundation of stone. Fantastically grim the thing is, and grotesquely complex in detail; looking somewhat like a huge pagoda, of which the second, third, and fourth stories have been squeezed down and telescoped into one another by their own weight. Crested at its summit, like a feudal helmet, with two colossal fishes of bronze lifting their curved bodies skyward from either angle of the roof, and bristling with horned gables and gargoyled eaves and tilted puzzles of tiled roofing at every story, the creation is a veritable architectural dragon, made up of magnificent monstrosities—a dragon, moreover, full of eyes set at all conceivable angles, above below, and on every side. From under the black scowl of the loftiest eaves, looking east and south, the whole city can be seen at a single glance, as in the vision of a soaring hawk; and from the northern angle the view plunges down three hundred feet to the castle road, where walking figures of men appear no larger than flies.

(“The Chief City of the Province of the Gods”, from Lafcadio Hearn’s “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” 1894.)

Matsue Castle is sometimes nicknamed “the Black Castle”, given that it wasn’t covered in flame resistant white paint like many other surviving original castles of Japan were. It’s managed to survive both rain and lightning despite the lack of this finishing touch. The castle isn’t the only black sight that only seems blacker on a dark, wet day. The area is also lined with many black pines, many of which (not pictured here) are very old have grown into large, unique shapes that necessitate supporting the trees with wooden pillars as they loom over the sidewalks and canals.

Rain or no rain, Sunday means tourists, and I frequently see at least a few of them climbing of the stairs from the Otemae (main) entrance at the southeast end of the castle hill. This is the most photogenic approach to the castle, for sure, with its neatly shaped rock walls and lookout towers. As a reminder, this is the area where they’re planning on rebuilding a historically accurate main gate, and the 5,000,000 yen reward for usable historical photos and materials until March 31, 2014 (so a final push, please help us promote that.)

In May, those bare branches will bloom in to unusual, furry-looking nanjamonja fringe.

While I like visitors to be able to see the castle in all its sunny glory, I live here and see the 400-year-old tower on a daily basis, and frequently take walks around the castle hill even in winter, so I’ve seen its many faces in many different kinds of weather. While sunny days are splendid, it has more mysterious character in the rain.

Matsue Shrine, on the approach to the castle tower

One of the places I find the most character is in the castle’s stone wall. While you can enjoy the alluring, smoothly cut and fitted styles when approaching from the south, I usually like to leave the castle from the north gate–that is, the back gate. This leads to the forest area that the Horio clan decided to leave primarily to nature to protect. Here, the fitted stone walls in which the rocks were mostly left in their natural shapes, melt away into the hills and trees. Eerily quiet as this other world on the back of a tourist location may be on a sunny summer day, the rain highlights the textures of the features that have stood quietly back there for four hundred years of history.

Somebody else thought to wander around my favorite spot. Go find your own, dude, this quiet corner is mine!

If the name is any indication, they used to wash horses in this pond. Now you’ll usually find aquatic birds instead, especially in winter when many of them migrate here. If anyone is, I’m sure they’re enjoying such ducky weather.

Given the choice, though, I’ll typically take sunshine and flowers. Speaking of, March at Matsue Castle means the camellia exhibition, the fragrance of the plum garden, and the start of the spring festival to celebrate the cherry blossoms!

Click for source

Click for picture source!

Click for picture source!
Technically, the entire Mt. Kameda encircled by the canal is Matsue Castle, though usually people picture the castle tower. I stroll around the castle a lot, though where I go depends on what's blooming (camellia and plum blossoms are my favorites, though you can find cherry blossoms and autumn leaves all over the main areas), or if there is an event going on, or what the weather in general is. During Suitoro (the lantern festival in Sept/Oct) there are hundreds and hundreds of lanterns all over the main castle areas and walkways, as well as around the canals, I didn't even bother trying to indicate a sight that is everywhere. The Inari shrine would probably be Lafcadio Hearn's suggested spot, so I included it.

What do you get for venturing outside on a day like this? You get wet, that’s what.

Yuushien Garden is located on Daikonshima (otherwise known as the Yatsuka district of Matsue–now where have we heard that name before?), a island on Nakaumi, a brackish lake between Shimane and Tottori. When I hear “Yuushien” I think peonies. Okay, so sometimes I think of ginseng too, but I mostly think of peonies. After all, the sight and scent of 30,000 of them floating in the pond while thousands more were on display around the rest of the garden (and the rest of the island) was an unforgetable experience.

While no season can compare to full season, there are peonies blooming all year round at this garden, and the winter peonies (kan-botan) are a special sight from December through February. While peonies in Flower Language (hanakotoba) can mean royal style, riches and honor, pompousness, and (surprisingly) shyness, the winter peonies in particular have a noble, high class association. At Yuushien, these seasonal peonies have their own little straw huts to protect them from the weight of snow, and photographers flock to capture the bright blossoms against the white landscape.

I had no such luck. We had snowglobe like days during the week, but my Sunday at Yuushien was rain, rain, rain, rain.

I didn’t get to see the snowy scenery and rain is certainly not my favorite weather, but it did give me a very different view of the garden than I had only a very sunny, very crowded day last May during Golden Week (right around the height of the peony season). Rain brings out the textures in the garden landscape, especially in the ponds, moss, and volcanic rock that Daikonshima is made out of (and that’s why its soil is so good for peonies and ginseng).

Despite the general subdued tones of winter, there were still very vibrant, impressive peonies. In my years of studying East Asian cultures I have frequently heard them referred to like the Queen of the Flowers, and the Queen enjoys her spotlight in any weather. But, my dear Queen, there are so many other little things to notice in the sleepy garden winters! Can’t you let them have a little spotlight, too?

No? You really insist on photobombing, don’t you?

Setting the royal flower aside for a moment, let’s take a look at some of the rest of the rainy day views Yuushien provides in February.












Alright, Your Elegance, you haunty, flower, you! There will be more photos in your honor coming soon.

In the meantime, I’ll just wrap up with a statue we interpreted thus.

Today is officially Tanabata, the one night of the year when the seperated lovers, herdsman Hikoboshi and weaver Orihime, are allowed to meet! These two are otherwise known at the stars Altair and Vega, which are typically seperated by the Milky Way.

“But wait!” those of you familiar with this holiday might say. “That holiday is July 7th! The seventh day of the seventh month!”

Yes and no. It depends on which calendar you’re going by, and for that matter, which part of Japan you reside in.

Japan has a crazy number of calendars they function by. Anyone who has ever filled out any kind of official form in Japan may have run into confusion over whether to write their birthdate according to the Western calendar or according to the Japanese year-keeping system, which changes according to the reign of the emperor (we’re in Heisei Year 25 right now). What’s more, there is an even older year-keeping system which dates back to the founding of Japan and is only used to record dates in very limited circumstances.

When it comes to yearly calendars, there has long since been influence from China and the lunisolar calendar a good portion of the Asian continent was functioning according to (or calendars similar to it). Many traditional holidays were also imported, or at least held on certain days according to the former Japanese calendar. While we’re mentioning calendars and almanacs, there are even ones that cycle more frequently than the days of the week do, and are only used now for determining things like auspicious wedding dates.

When Japan westernized, they adopted the Gregorian calendar with much more vigor than many of their Asian neighbors did. While the lunar new year is still celebrated at the start of the lunar new year in other countries, in Japan, all New Years festivities are timed according to the Gregorian January 1st. That means that while China will still be in the Year of the Snake until January 31st, 2014, Japan will start the Year of the Horse a month ahead of time. I’m born in January, so this causes some confusion when I tell people what year of the zodiac I was born in.

This means that holidays celebrating seasonal changes have also been changed so that they are too early for the season they are celebrating. Hence, Japan instituted the optional tsuki-okure (“month delay”) system. This means that although a holiday may be nationally recognized according to its date on the Gregorian calendar, different regions of Japan may choose to celebrate it one month after that date.

I bring this up because the San’in region practices tsuki-okure. Like the Touhoku region the weather is a bit cooler, so holidays that commemorate warmer and warmer weather are celebrated in appropriately warmer weather. Hence, Doll Day (usually March 3) is April 3, and Children’s Day (usually May 5) is June 5. Instead of delaying the festivities until those dates, what typically happens is that they start celebrating on the dates according the Gregorian calender (since everyone else is already doing it) and just keep the decorations out a month longer. If you are on a trip to Japan and missed the doll displays or carp banners, now you know where to go.

Back to Tanabata, yes, that would technically put it at August 7th, which still doesn’t quite match up with the old lunisolar calendar. The one-month delay is just meant to get a little closer to the original date. That said, Tanabata festivals typically aren’t held on any preappointed day; instead, individual shrines (and companies or whatever other entity) will choose a date that is convenient. Theoretically, though the starry lovers only meet for one night, you could say the Tanabata season goes on for over a month.

The basic way to celebrate Tanabata in Japan is to write a wish on a tanzaku (strip of paper) and hang it on a decorated sprig of bamboo. You find this in shrines, in shopping malls, or any other public gathering space. Towards the end of the season, they look a little heavy with everyone’s wishes.


It just so happens that on July 7th, we held the closing ceremony for the 23rd Japan-America Grassroots Summit 2013 in Shimane. As far I saw, it seems the summit was a great success, with at least 80 Americans visiting places all over Shimane for homestay and cultural exchange experiences (just a side note, this is a great way for Americans of any age, occupation, or language ability to visit Japan (or host guests with they go to different parts of the states–you’re next, San Diego and Tijuana!)). As part of the ceremony, we had the Americans take part in this 1200-year-old tradition.


As for what the locals have been writing…




Speaking of summer holidays and tsuki-okure, this is right around when a lot of the country celebrates O-bon (think Day of the Dead, only its three days). The timing varies, but several areas choose to line up this holiday a little more closely with its lunisolar date, usually roughly August 15. (The area around Tokyo seems to have a distaste for tsuki-okure, though, so theirs is around July 15. However, the holiday atmosphere still lasts through August because everyone is gone visiting their hometown then!)

To mark the deceased spirits’ return to their world after a brief visit with their living relatives, it is common to float lanterns down a river or the like, toro-nagashi. In Matsue, this year’s toro-nagashi will be on August 16, at the Ohashi River which bisects the north and south sides of the city.



It’s both a little late to be posting these pictures from last year, and a little early to be posting them now–today marks the first day of O-bon here, so the spirits have only just arrived.

One Saturday morning, I was eating an apple. A good, healthy choice, right? Well, then my post-braces retainer along the back of my teeth broke off. Thanks, apple.

A big non-sarcastic thanks to my dentists, though. They were able to get me in that afternoon to fix it and give me a brief cleaning. As happy as I am with their service, I was a little grouchy about having to spend my Saturday at the dentist. I was wearing in new shoes, and they hurt. As I was taking the neighborhood streets back home, it started to rain, and I was without an umbrella.

But, what was this? A little tiny shop decorated with flowers? Selling wagashi (Japanese confectioneries)? Yes, please!

Was this an act of enishizuku, perhaps? A little ironic to go straight to a sweets shop on the way home from a dental cleaning. I have no excuse–I’m really, really not keeping up on that New Year’s resolution to cut down on sweets. They just keep jumping out from every corner around here, I don’t even have to go looking for them! I’ve identified the places where I’m most likely to encounter the temptation to buy Western sweets, though I still occasionally find myself seated with a slice of some fancy concoction in front of me and wondering how I got there.

Not that I was going to say no once it was in front of me.

But the wagashi! They’re everywhere here, everywhere!! There are the major shops with long histories that provide the signature wagashi of Matsue (which, along with Kyoto and Kanazawa, is known as one of the major wagashi-producing cities of Japan), and there are little shops like this scattered throughout town. This is Isshunan, and while there isn’t much space inside for more than one person to shop at a time, there is quite a bit to look at.




Since I entered, I felt I couldn’t leave empty handed. I got a small, simple manju, but that wasn’t all I walked out with. The shop owner, a very cheerful, grandmotherly lady, insisted I borrow an umbrella.

Which meant, therefore, that I would have to make another trip there to return the umbrella. Oh, darn! (I’m being sarcastic here.)

I couldn’t just go home empty handed then either, could I? On the day I returned the borrowed umbrella, I got these “Matsue Picture Scrolls.” I could have gotten one, but whether I’m gluttonous or generous, I don’t know. I got a whole package to share with my neighbors (really, I did share!).

Inside these lightly sweet pancake-like scrolls is semi-crushed azuki.

One of the nice things about wagashi, besides the variety of shapes, flavors, and sweetness levels, is that they are typically free of artifical perservatives and are typically lower in sugar and fat than their western equivalents.

Therefore, I don’t feel as guilty about consuming them multiple times a week.

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

This kind of time travel is completely normal.

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

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

Oh? Is it snowing again?

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

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

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

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

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

Wow, hand-written typos. Sorry about that–apparently my English has been suffering more than I thought. Or I just wrote faster than my brain could think.

This was my experience with this particular school of tea, which was held in the Meimei-an. I’ve read about the tea ceremony, sure, but that doesn’t make me prepared for the practical elements of attending a ceremony–like the terrible embarrassment of not having brought my own utensils for partaking of the wagashi (confection).

Then again, I think I was placed towards the front of the room not only for my own viewing purposes, but perhaps for everyone’s amusement. The ceremonies during the Daichakai are for everyone to try out and experience different styles of tea, after all, so unlike ceremonies you might be personally invited to, there were 12~15 guests all being served tea by not only the host, but the host’s assistants. Given the occasion I think I was forgiven for not having any formal practice (most of my tea ceremony experience has been rather laid back an informal), but I’d like to change that while I’m living in a place with such a rich tea culture.