Over the past couple of years, nearby Sakaiminato Port has become for a host for a number of cruise ships, and as part of the day tours available for one or two of those lines, there is a visit to the Abe Eishiro Memorial Museum which includes a brief paper making experience. It’s something big groups can accomplish quickly, and they get an easy to carry souvenir that will likely outlast their own lives (or at least, I feel that’s a good guess because this paper can last a thousand years). I went along to help interpret and move these workshops along smoothly and make the most of everyone’s time, and thankfully I had the chance to jump in and try it myself between tour groups.

You start with a frame on top of a screen, with which you scoop the mulch, and then shake a little to even out the material and drain the water from the edges.

Once the material is pretty settled, you drain out the rest of the excess water from the corner.

After that, you remove the frame and transfer the blocks of mulch to a dry piece of cloth. Even if you hold it upside down the mulch won’t fall off, but with a little press it transfers very easily.

After that, you fold up the excess cloth over them, and blot out the water as you flatten the two square piles of mulch.

Next, we had everyone write their names on little tags to press into the wet material, which could be easily pulled off later when the paper is dry. I liked to personalize mine a little more than that.

The paper is then quite simply peeled off the cloth.

The staff then takes the wet papers and applies them to the hot drier, where they are made crisped for about twenty minutes while everyone enjoys the rest of the museum.

And that’s it!

Now the question is how to use these papers, but I suppose I have my whole life to figure that out.


In my time here in the San’in region, I’ve often heard of the Abe Eishiro Memorial Museum out in the Yakumo area of southern Matsue, but I never prioritized going because I figured I had so many other things to do besides go look at paper. But it was worth it for more than just the paper itself!


The memorial museum is tucked in a quiet neighborhood along the mountains, and the rice fields on a drizzling day in spring are just as much as sight as the tourism facility itself.

There was an array of wildlife around the area, including a giant dragonfly that I rescued when it got in as someone was opening the screen doors. Just outside of the main entrance there was a little tray of guppies, and another little fellow who many of us thought was just part of the pottery.

As for where that dragonfly got confused? Here in the main lobby and gift shop, in the gentle atmosphere created by the washi (Japanese paper) screens.

But what is that on the screen? Another confused bug?

Nope. Just paper! One of many decorations along the butterfly-laden window.

Of course, there is also plenty of paper for sale to oogle at, as well as crafts made out of said craft paper.

And it besides the gift shop and museum, there is also a workshop for visitors to try out making paper themselves. This also has its own rustic charm.

My last entry about this spot will focus on the paper making experience.

Paper: one of those simple parts of life that gets more impressive the more you think about it.

Sure, we all know at some level that these sheets strewn about us are made of trees, and that there’s some sort of mulching process that goes into it, and that once the sheets are done you can print on it, cut it, or fold it to bring forth and array of shapes.

But what if I told you paper can hold water, last a thousand years, and remain aesthetically pleasing?

You can enjoy a nice read about the value and craftsmanship of paper on this Japan Times article by Mark Brazil. This, of course, this is a San’in region blog, and the San’in region is not the only one with a strong paper tradition. However, it is home to Abe Eishiro (1902-1984), the first washi (Japanese paper) maker to be designated as a Living National Treasure. Although the washi traditional existed many centuries before he did, he is credited with the creation of Izumo Mingeishi: Izumo region folk craft paper.

Although I say Izumo, I’m referring most specifically to the Yakumo area, which used to be its own village before being merged with Matsue in 2005. The Abe Eishiro Memorial Museum is one of many charms tucked around the Yakumo mountains, and in addition to the museum space and visitor workshop area, the Abe family continues to produce Izumo Mingeishi according to Abe Eishiro’s methods.

Throughout Japan, washi is typically made of different types of mulberry bark, and here in the Izumo region it is made with three types: Ganpi, Mitsumata, and Kouzo.

Ganpi: Considered king of paper materials, this materials won’t have color changes, wards of bugs, and repels water, but the bark takes 20 years to mature.

Mitsumata: paper made with Mitsumata can be used for many purposes, including printing.

A Mitsumata plant on the premises.

Kouzo: most commonly used washi material, as it is very strong–a key characteristic of washi.

Kouzo on the premises.

The article linked above goes into more detail about the length process of turning this bark into paper, which is dependant on the cold, clear water of this region to wash the materials of the various softening agents added to the boiling and mulching processes. Eventually, the bark is ground into mulches like this one that has no color added.

However, when you add color to the paper, it makes it look like the water itself is what holds the dye. This is an illusion, as even when making black paper, the water comes out clear.

They typically take orders for paper, which will determine how much material they use. Here, they are working on an order of black paper, and the craftsman is paying attention to the thickness of the pile as he works. The ingredients are measured out for a particular number of sheets, so if he’s only made a quarter of the sheets and used half the material, he knows he’s been making them too thick (though I’m sure he probably notices sooner than this). He works with mesmerizing rhythm, but still smilingly explains he work to onlookers.

The company workshop is around the corner and a short stroll among the neighborhood and rice fields from the museum, and I’ll focus more of the atmosphere on the museum and surrounding area in my next entry about this topic.

Yes, that’s Abe Eishiro up on the wall, and Izumo Mingeishi all over the window. There are more surprises on that window…

One of my favorite memories so far as a CIR in Matsue was the Yakumo International Theatre Festival last November in a mountainous southern district of Matsue. It is held every three years, and over the course of four or five days, professional theater troupes from around the world gather in the village area, experience home stays, and practically backflip over language barriers as they mingle with the local audiences of all ages.

As I am already a big fan of many performaning arts, I was very, very excited to hear about this event. Of course there are regularly traveling professional performances hosted at Matsue’s regal concert hall and culture center, Plover Hall, and at the medium and large size theaters inside the Shimane Civic Center. What I really miss from my university days, however, was getting in free to a wide variety of performances of plays I had never heard of staged in intimate and small settings where the stage takes up the whole world around you. Famous performances in grand halls get you exposed to high culture that often requires some mental effort to fully engage in, but in an intimate setting with a story you’ve never had any exposure to, it engages you directly through the heart.

Therefore, I was excited to not only find out about the festival, but that one of the venues is Japan’s smallest public theater, nestled right into the mountain forest. Shiinomi Theater is a wooden building with seating for 108, designed with class and intimacy in mind. It is managed by a community theater group called Ashibue. Besides the local actors and volunteers of very professional caliber, they also collaborate with professionals from around Japan. I had the pleasure of being invited to one of their practice performances last year to provide some input on how they were tailoring it for a multinational audience, which was a major treat. The director, Tsukushi Sonoyama, left a very deep impression on me. She had an intimidating presence and gave sharp directions, as she had a clear vision and was determined to see it through. I thought she was so cool!

Therefore, even more and more to my excitement, I was overjoyed when I was asked to help with the opening ceremony for the festival. I’ve done the interpreting or English emceeing for a handful of ceremonies, and they’re always fun to some extent while following a typical formula. This, however, was–by design–no run-of-the-mill Japanese ceremony. Director Sonoyama directed it like a theater production, and I was really, really happy to receive her directions on what words to stress, where to pause, where to lead people into applause or prevent them from applause quite yet. It was no simple run-through as usual; I got to receive serious direction from a person whose directing admired. Even though I was speaking into a microphone off stage the entire time and reading from a script, I got to be a theatrical version of myself again instead of a ghost-like interpretor trying not to attract too much attention away from the speaker, or a formal English emcee guiding an audience through a process. I got to be part of an artistic vision.

The days (and long nights) leading up to the opening ceremony gave me a peak into the world of the passionate and serious volunteers who are committed to setting a consistent tone for the festival and seeing it through smoothly. I admired them all, and it built my excitement up even more. I still felt a little apprehensive, though—without a car, how hard would it be to get around all the little mountain venues? Would rural audiences be receptive to so many international theater approaches?

The opening ceremony itself went very well. I did the English emceeing with a Japanese co-host throughout most it, but in the second half he had to leave to be on stage for Ashibue’s opening performance so I did both the English and the Japanese. We only introduced ourselves at the very end of the first half before the intermission, and until that point, a handful of the people who know me at Matsue City Hall (such as the mayor and my department head) thought, “Hm, this voice sounds really familiar… what!? That was Buri-chan!?”

Although there were many, many performances I really wanted to go to, I had some other schedule conflicts that long weekend and could only afford to spend one full day there. I watched three productions: A puppet show with Japanese narration by the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company from Argentina, a multilingual and interactive dance production by CORPUS from Canada, and a play by Magnet Theatre from South Africa that did not really require knowledge of English or French to enjoy, though they blended use of both.

As for my concerns, I found access was not a problem at all, even when it rained. There were free shuttles going back and forth from Matsue Station all day, so even without a car I had no difficulty in getting to the Yakumo village area. Likewise, there were shuttles cycling all the venues sites, including the large Alba Hall and little Shiinomi Theaters, as well as the crafts fair and restuarant area, where the menu each day was inspired by the cuisine of some of the countries that the theater groups came from (prepared by a local chef who is known for doing this at monthly parties full of authentic and vegetarian food). Everywhere you went on that cold autumn day, there was a sense of warmth from the theater festival’s decorations and designs, especially its apple theme with the tag line, “Theatre is food for the heart.”

As for the audience receptions? I of course loved all the productions I watched, but I also loved seeing how it affected the other audience members. After the puppet show I saw people passionately express how moved they were by the performance, including an old man with tears in his eyes. The outdoor dance performance had everyone from kids to old people practically in stiches with laughter, and the dad they pulled out of the audience to play “Fifi” got really into it and looked like he was having a lot of fun, even if he perhaps could not believe what he was doing in front of so many people. The performance by Magnet Theatre was both comedic and movingly dramatic even if you couldn’t understand all the words, and I’m getting chills now thinking back to sitting back in Shiinomi Theater and watching it. Although the scene when they lit stage objects on fire has a lot of impact, I’m thinking more of the scene later on when the daughter realizes the truth that her mother had tried to protect her from the whole time. Ah, I want to cry!

So why do I bring this all up now, even when I don’t even have any good pictures to share?

Because although the next Yakumo International Theatre festival is going to be 2017, this September they are hosting the Little Forest Theater Festival!

There will be a variety of puppet shows, including a repeat visit from the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company, and also Ashibue’s “Gorsch the Cellist.” Unfortunately I will be out of town during the festival this year, but fortunately I will be in town for a couple later stagings of “Gorsch the Cellist.” I’m looking forward to seeing a production at Shiinomi Theater in the crisp autumn air again!

A few weeks ago, I was invited out to woods of Yakumo-cho, a mountainous district in southern Matsue, to watch a dress rehearsal of a short play performed by Ashibue called “Nijuniya Machi“, taking place in Shiinomi Theatre, an intimate little performance space surrounded by trees. It is a story that takes place in the late Heian era in a rural village where they observe the classically recorded phases of the moon, but their activities at the temple are interupted by a ruff outlaw, and whether the hero is a good man or just an idiot is up for humorous interpretation. As much as I love theater, even the most amateur of productions, there are big differences between people taking part for fun, and people taking part for art.

One look at the stage and the level of detail in the costumes, and I could tell there were very capable people involved. Once the actors hopped on stage and started speaking, I could tell they were far more than simply amateur. After watching the production and making comments, I learned that many of the people involved were not locals, and had come out to San’in region specifically to work on this piece which will be showing at the 5th Yakumo International Theatre Festival.

The festival takes place every three years, and this year there are productions performed by theater groups from Japan, Hungary, Bulgaria, Canada, Argentina, and South Africa. The languages differ, but the groups involved know that there will be linguistic varience among their audience, and have tailored performances to reach beyond words. There will be productions for adults and children to enjoy together in Japanese or various native languages, multi-lingual performances, or performances with no words at all. It seems a lot of people are really looking forward to the wordless performance of “Sheep”, in which the actors–all dressed as sheep–will be performing outdoors should the weather permit.

I was invited to watch and comment on Ashibue’s performance to critique their use of English (see a couple photos on the Asashi Shimbun article here). A few weeks beforehand, the actors had suddenly been told that they were adding English lines to the script to make it more understandable to an international audience. Shocked though they were, they all learned them quite well, and many of the suggestions I made were only because I was listening very critically. The English lines blended well among the Japanese lines, saying what is necessary while matching the flow and mood of the scene, similar to a completely bilingual rakugo performance I was very impressed by when I first moved here. The actors, both from elsewhere and locals–very practiced at their craft–as well as the professionals brought in to oversee the production were all very easy to work with, as they all striving for perfection in what was already a very enjoyable play. Please take a look at Ashibue’s website to get a feel for the style and Shiinomi theater’s charms.

And lucky me… I’ll get to watch the final product at the opening night! It will take place on the larger stage so not everyone will be able to see the costume details quite as well, so even luckier for me, and I already got to see that version.

(But unlucky for you, my photos in no way do it any justice:)


The really hard part right now is choosing which performances I’m going to watch, because there are so many to choose from. I was originally thinking I’d just go for one day, but now I really think I need to be there all four days of performances! After all, there will be food from the represented countries to try as well!

This year’s event is offically October 30 to November 3 (a holiday) with performances open to the public starting on October 31. The next festival will be in 2017, so international theater groups that would like to participate should start looking into it now.

I better get tickets fast if I don’t want to miss anything!

One of the specialty products of Matsue is 八雲塗 (Yakumonuri), aka Yakumo Laquerware. Laquerware has been popular in Japan since the Edo era, as the craftsmen typically were hired to make speciality dishes and utensils for the samurai (the top of the social food chain–though not always the most wealthy!). Around the start of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), one such craftsman named Sakata Heiichi invented the Yakumo method (named after a town south of Matsue, which has since merged with Matsue).

This method requires a series of applying laquer layers and decorative powders (such as gold or silver), and polishing said layers. It requires about ten years to learn. One of the things that makes Yakumo laquerware special is that with time, the gloss becomes more translucent and the colors become more vivid. In 1982, it was designated as a Shimane Traditional Local Craft.

Not that I can tell you much more than that! I’ve found that my talents lie more in 2D art than in 3D art, so I’d best leave this to the masters. While I can’t tell the difference between someone who has mastered the art of laquerware and someone who is simply much better than I am, there are plenty of laquerware artisans in the area.

On an outing to Hirata (an old town facing the Sea of Japan that has since merged with Izumo), I stumbled upon the Shitsugei no Watanabe monthly art show. While Mr. Watanabe himself has been producing laquerware since he was a youth, Mrs. Watanabe gathers works from several local artists and hosts these shows from their home/workshop.

The entrance and welcome sign

The garden in late November

This is the true meaning of an open house, isn’t it?

A selection of chopstick rests

Lots of art to welcome the Year of the Snake

Watanabe-san even had coffee, tea, and a few fine dishes to serve her guests! Sweet red beans, daikon radish, konyaku (a gelatin-like block made from potatoes), fish cakes, and orange peels might not sound appealing to Western palates, but I found it rather nice and a step above everyday fare.

There were more dishes to be found in Hirata than just that! All around the neighborhood, there are lifesize displays of scenes from the Kojiki, sculpted out of dishes!

Look! It’s Izanagi and Izanami being creative!

That’s enough about dishes for now. For now!