We haven’t gotten a lot of snow this winter, but there’s still been enough to go get some classic views of the scenery around Matsue Castle.




The retro-style LakeLine Bus goes around all the major tourist spots and transportation hubs in central Matsue, and a day pass is 500 yen.


The “Matsu” in “Matsue” means “pine,” and this is one of my favorite pines among the many around Matsue Castle.


Migratory birds flock here in winter. I think these are all cormorants.



The Izumo-style Japanese garden at the Matsue History Museum, as seen from Kiharu, the cafe inside with its own characteristic wagashi (Japanese confectioneries) which change motifs every month.


The Horikawa Sightseeing Boat makes its rounds, with kotatsu provided all winter.


This is the main venue for the Daichakai on the first weekend of October. Image this space covered with tents for different schools of the tea ceremony to try.


Lookin’ good as usual, you National Treasure, you.


Matsue Shrine, down the stairs from the castle tower.


Winter can be pretty, but it’s cold.




An equestrian statue of good old Matsudaira Naomasa. I say “old” but in this statue, he’s still a baby-faced 14-year-old. A 14-year-old who kicked butt in the Battle of Osaka.


Shiomi Nawate Street, along the northern moat.


Oh no, a ninja snowball attack! Take cover!


Uh oh… a ninja victim. Just one more ghost story to add to Matsue’s list, I suppose.

On the first glimpse of actual snowfall this season, it turns out it was mostly blustery snow hurling through the sunlight air. It also turns out my friend Y-chan and I already had plans to go to Yuushien Japanese Garden to see the peonies which bloom in cold weather, called Kanbotan. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that Y-chan and I go to Yuushien a lot. You might have also noticed it’s very well-known for peonies.

After all, you can see things like this all year round:



The best time to go, of course, is when the peonies are in their natural blooming season around the end of April and beginning of May. The Peony Festival is right time for Golden Week, and no matter how many holiday travels there are, it’s totally worth the crowd to go see the thousands and thousands and thousands of blossoms of hundreds of varieties blooming not only on the Yuushien premises, but all around Daikonshima Island. I’m afraid I cannot share the fragrance in the air with you, but I can show you pictures.

One of the other big peonies periods is when the Kanbotan are out in the brisk air, protected from wind and snow by charming straw huts. The last time we went was near the end of February so we missed a lot of them, but this time we went in January and got to see not only the blooms, but the blooms with a little bit of snow to set the atmosphere.





Yuushien also hosts work from Japanese and international garden artists, and from January 15 to March 31, 2016, there was/is large collaborations with Shogo Kariyazaki throughout the garden.

The indoor exhibit space felt a little like walking into a Tim Burton movie.

Speaking of peonies, please allow me to introduce my Paeonia suffruticosa Seidai, Yatsuko!

Seidai are a regular spring bloomer, but she's been peaking through early!

Seidai are a regular spring bloomer, but she’s been peeking through early!

I won her at my department’s New Years party, and I’m quite pleased. I named her Yatsuko because the Daikonshima (as well as its small neighboring island Eshima, home to the “scariest” Eshima Bridge) makes up a district of Matsue called Yatsuka. Peonies can be very long-lived plants if not transplanted too many times, and so long as everything goes smoothly to try to get her past US customs, she might do well in Colorado’s climate. After all, peonies need a very cold winter in order to bloom in spring. Matsue exports its prized peonies throughout the world, especially to places like Russian and Holland and Taiwan, and I’m very happy to have one of my own now.

I just really hope I don’t kill her. There’s a good reason I got to Yuushien to appreciate the professionals’ work.

Most light displays are just a Christmas season thing, but this feels so unfair. What about the dark months of January and February? Let’s try to keep them bright too!

Therefore although a lot of the lights have already been packed up and now it’s a matter of enjoying whatever flowers will carry us over to spring, I have saved the photos for now, as there’s no sense in not being able to enjoy them in January (sorry February, you’ll just have to stay cheerful with the Dan Dan Warm Food Festival).

First, we have my favorite garden in the area, Yuushien Japanese Garden. Although my very favorite time to go there is during the peony festival, this was first time going to the nighttime maple leaf display in November. I was only anticipating the leaves; little did I expect the expansive display of lights complete with its own little Mt. Fuji. Although they do some kind of light display every year around this time, the “Golden Island Zipangu” display ran in two version: the autumn leaf version (November 14 ~ December 5) and the Christmas version (December 19 ~ 26).



It’s hard to get a crisp photo when the leaves are shaking in the wind.















Next, we have the Matsue Vogel Park, where you can go any time of year to get your fix of fuchsia and begonias, as the main greenhouse remains a paradise all the time. If you’re like me and you like birds, then the rest of the park is a paradise too. Really, adding Santa costumes to the penguins and light displays and handbell concerts is totally unnecessary embellishment, but they do this every year. This past year it was every weekend in December leading up to Christmas, as well as December 23-25.



No matter what time of year, the Vogel Park is a popular spot for En-musubi photo ops.


Although there were plenty of other light displays going on throughout the region, the last one I went to was Tottori Hanakairo (aka Tottori Prefectural Flower Park), which is really the place to go anytime you wind to run away to fantasy world of flowers. And you know the really nice thing about this one? It’s still going! This year’s event is from November 20 all the way through January 31st. (Sorry, February.)


A small fireworks display… well, nothing compared to the summer displays around the region, but still nice.



Inside the warm central dome, pear flavored ice cream is appealing any time of year.


A Christmas tree made of…


…poinsettias…


…and orchids!



All three gardens/parks off discounts on admission for visitors with foreign passports or resident cards!
gardens

My wagashi intake has skyrocketed this year.

Only some of the selection at Kougetsu-an; the really fancy stuff is behind the glass counter (not pictured). The chrysanthemums in the display case here are sugary and edible.

I’ve somewhat given up on–or rather, had to redefine–that New Year’s resolution to consume fewer sweets. Ha! What I was thinking? Well, I suppose there are a lot of good reasons to try to hold this up, but I’ve instead chose to focus on saving fancy desserts for special occasions and enjoying them more mindfully. While I’ve had some very sweet special occasions that merited visiting my favorite fancy Western dessert cafes (and then some), I consume wagashi (Japanese style confections) more often. It’s not unusual to have several per week, as Matsue is one of the three famous wagashi producing cities of Japan. It is a part of the local culture, and besides my exposure to them in daily life, I also started tea ceremony lessons in April. Therefore, once a week, it’s not unusual for me to have two or three of them in a single night.

Not all wagashi are the same sculpted little namagashi masterpieces, though! Many do not have a seasonal motif at all, or are made with a much wider range of ingredients, or they came across more like snack food. While there are a handful of especially famous local chains around town, there are also many small family-size shops with their own original lines of sweets. Kougetsu-an is one of the younger establishments, having only opened in the 1980s.

This is the kind of place where I stop when I need a unique little gift, such as these grape mochi–large, fresh sweet grapes covered in sticky rice coating. The juiciness and chewiness worked very nicely together.

While not unique to Kougetsu-an, they have my kuzu-yu of choice. This is a thick, sweet, soup-like concoction that runs a little smoother than honey made from kudzu vine starch, and has been historically used not only as a comforting sweet, but as a medicine thought to help with headaches or common colds (I’ve tried a more medicinal variety as well, but didn’t enjoy it).

They are contained in single serving pouches like so.

Simply dump the starchy contents into a heat-safe glass, add 100ml of boiling water, and stir. Notice in this variety there are salty little cherry blossoms, like the edible ones sold in Unnan. In such a sweet broth, the saltiness is a welcome contrast.

Got your genki back? I do! Highly recommended for cold winter days. Throughout Japan, kudzu starch is used not only for kuzu-yu, but for firmer wagashi or as a thickening agent in other recipes.

There are ducks that hang out on Lake Shinji all year long, but there seem to be quite a few in winter. As you can see, it’s a major spot for migratory birds of many varieties–not to mention it has been designated as a wetland of international importance.

I like living so close to the lake–it’s very easy to just wander across the street after work to see the scenery for a few minutes. In nicer weather, we’ll often picnic at the lakeside for lunch–though a few of my friends have had parts of their lunch stolen by the kites (birds of prey, not toys). I wish I had been there to see that!

What do you call a flock of kites? A party? There were two more of them hanging out here, too.

There was a day a few weeks ago when the lake was covered with thousands of birds all at once. I had noticed it while passing by the lake for something for work, and I went by after work to see them again–sure enough, still there, in no hurry. My photos don’t do the scene justice, but it was pleasant to watch for a few minutes.


Since I was taking my time on the way home anyway, I stopped by the Ichibata railroad station at Matsue Shinji-ko Onsen. This hot spring at the northeast bank of Lake Shinji is rich in sulphates and chlorates, and there is a long line of fancy hotels, but for people pressed on time (or money) there is a free foot bath right outside the station.

There’s also a Jizo here to pour some hot water on so he can enjoy the hot springs, too!

When I go to Izumo, I usually take the Ichibata rail road line along the north shore of Lake Shinji, and there are other nice day trips along the way–like ice skating! The rink is located direcly at the northwest shore, next to a nature park, and short walk from a train stop. After a few hours of skating, we were surprised by the very pleasant February weather outside.

The watery fields were reflecting the blue sky, and in the distance we could see a huge crowd of swans.

Much closer, however, a bunch of kites were flying around with each other–and one crow invited himself to the party.

Then the two-car train came. Today it was a Mizuki Shigeru youkai themed train–why hello there, Betobeto-san!

Then we had a forty-minute view of the lake on the way back. This included the sunset, of course–as well as more ducks.

Then there are days when most of the ducks are on the Ohashi River instead of in the middle of the lake. It’s just another part of living in Matsue when a friend calls you up and says, “Hey, are you busy? No? Let’s go watch the sunset.”

Lake Shinji sunset
Which the duck sees every day
Plunk! It takes a dive


Lone as the sun sets
But the sun is alone too
Making quite a pair


Shinji’s depth shrouded
Colored by sunshine fleeting
To the land of clouds


Never parting on
Migration to Matsue
Quack quack quack quack quack

I’ve since recovered, but still enjoying the wide selection of candy-like cough drops. My favorites are plum favored with herbs or ginger-honey-citrus flavored.

Only a little bit longer to go until spring!

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.