This is a famous art museum that many visitors to Japan have heard of. After all, it has the top ranked Japanese garden 12 years running! Its prestine landscape makes a strong impact in any season and weather, and the building is designed such that you can view and appreciate it from different angles as if it were a painting or hanging scroll.

Art? Oh yes, there’s that too! Really, there is more to Adachi Museum of Art than just the garden, although it does tend to steal a lot of the show.

Besides Yokoyama Taikan, whose landscapes influences the garden’s design, there are a number of works of fine art, including some expectedly sweet Taisho and Showa era illustrations aimed at children (my friend who I usually go to Adachi with is a big fan). Although I always love a good nihonga (Japanese style painting) of birds and flowers and although I am a big fan of the collection of Uemura Shoen‘s Meiji~Showa period portraits of women in kimono, the part of the museum I find most inspiring is the annex with the contemporary Japanese paintings, which has introduced me to artists like Mori Midori and Miyakita Chiori. I’ve brought home postcards of both their works.

Alas, taking photos of the artwork is frowned upon, so instead I just have some summer snapshots of the garden to share with you.













Around 300 years before construction on Matsue Castle started, a nearby mountain was chosen as the highly defensible spot for a castle that would see its share of battle: Gassan Toda Castle, on Mt. Gassan in modern day Yasugi.

Originally built by the Sasaki clan in the 14th century in the Kamakura era, it is more commonly associated with the Amago clan, which stemmed from the Sasaki clan. This branch of the family started when Sasaki Takahisa, orphaned at the age of 3, was raised by a nun. In respect for her, he used the name Amago (尼子), which means “child of a nun.”

When you hear the term “Amago clan” (aka Amako clan), it is usually paired with the term “Mori clan.” In the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japanese history, stated as spanning 1467~1573. There were plenty of battles before and after this period, but this is when Japan was split up amongst several warlords as opposed to power being split between only a few factions. The development was not sudden–many of the clan rivalries were based off of previous loyalities and rivalries leading up to that point, and power was gradually consolidated as clans began pledging allegiance to the more prominent warlords, and these prominent warlords gained the territories that previously been long fought over. Here in the San’in region as well as in other parts of western Japan, the Amago and Mori clans had a long and colorful history of going head to head against each other out here, but many other clans were involved as well, including the clans these clans served, or the clans that served these clans. (Still with me? Good.)

One such servant of the Amago clan was Yamanaka Yukimori, aka Yamanaka Shikanosuke (1545~1578), a famous general loyal to Amago Katsuhisa (1553~1578). He’s a celebrated local hero here in the Izumo region, especially in Yasugi, where there are big campaigns for having one of NHK’s annual Taiga drama based on his life.

The fact that he and his master have the same year of death might have tipped you off that they met a tragic end. Indeed, in was their misfortune to have been active towards the decline of the clan. After Katsuhisa’s father and brother were killed by an internal scuffle and the Mori clan effectively defeated the clan, he abandoned his monkly ways to fight, but was defeated and sought refuge on the Oki Islands. Upon his return, he captured a couple provinces, including what is now eastern Tottori. As the continued their battles with their limited armies, Shikanosuke sought an alliance with Oda Nobunaga, only to find that had only been used and no one came to their aid.

In the end, he and Katsuhisa were defeated by the Mori clan. Katsuhisa was forced to commit ritual suicide there, while Shikanosuke surrendered, but was supposedly captured and killed shortly afterward by the Mori clan anyway. As for surrending instead of following his master in suicide, some say that he sold Katsuhisa out as part of his offer to surrender, and others say that Katsuhisa willingly went along with this plan in an effort to save their remaining men. Whether they displayed cowardice or bravery in defeat, we can at least bet that a Taiga drama would build up an appropriate amount of drama around the end of an otherwise very heroic character.

With the fall of the Amago clan Gassan Toda Castle soon fell to the Mori clan as well, though it had proved to have strong defense until that point. Amago Haruhisa, the leader of the clan, successfully withheld a seige by the Ouchi clan in 1542~1543. It was a major defeat for the Ouchi clan which lead to internal struggles, and the Ouchi clan wound up being wiped out by the Mori clan later. Haruhisa went on to control territories like modern day eastern Shimane, western Tottori and the Oki Islands, but remember how Katsuhisa’s father and brother were killed? That was Haruhisa’s fault.

The Amago clan was wiped out, and although the Mori clan continued to thrive, they were on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara and lost control of their territory in the San’in region (but they remained in the San’yo region).

Enter the Horio clan! Horio Yoshiharu, who was with the winning side, was granted control of the Izumo domain. He moved into Gassan Toda Castle, and although it was in a highly defensible location, it wasn’t in a good spot for raising a bustling economy around it. Thus, they decided to build a new castle in a better location, and Matsue Castle was completed four years later in 1611. Matsue Castle remains one of the 12 last original castles of Japan, but Gassan Toda was not only abandoned, but pieces of it were dismantled and used in the construction of Matsue Castle.

You can, however, still climb Mt. Gassan and see what remains of the castle walls. It has been left fairly quiet, and while there is no longer a castle at the top, there is a little shrine to Ookuninushi (the same god as at Izumo Taisha) at the 197 meter summit. That seems to be a little abandoned though, too…

That said, I tend to really like the allure of things you just happen to stumble upon in the forests.

It’s a quite, peaceful mountain, and Horio Yoshiharu–who died months before the completition of Matsue Castle–was buried in Iwakuraji Temple at the foot of the mountain. However historically inaccurate, the city of Matsue still honors their founder by recreating his march into (what would become) the town and on into the castle keep with the annual Musha Gyoretsu Warrior Parade.

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While I don’t suggest taking quite that deep of a rest, you can rest up after the short hike up the mountain by visiting Hirose Onsen at the Toda Gassou facility for a nice view of the town. It’s a surphulric onsen–rich in radium-sodium, calcium chloride, and sulfide–and acts as a natural toner that gives your skin elasticity.

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I can attest to the nice view and smooth skin afterward! I wonder if the Amago clan and the warriors who served them ever had many chances to enjoy the Hirose waters?

Please enjoy a few December views of Japan’s highest ranked garden–ten years running!–while I’m organizing photos from the kimono event. These are a few snapshots from my first visit to Adachi Museum of Art, in Matsue’s neighboring town of Yasugi.

Giving the number of shuttles that go directly to and from the museum, you can get there by taking shuttles directly from Tamatsukuri Onsen, Kaike Onsen, Yonago Airport, or Yasugi Station (the next station east of Matsue on the express lines, or four stations down on the local line). As easy as it is for individual travelers to make it there on their own (especially foreign travelers who get a half-off discount on admission!), you can expect to see a line of tour buses out in the parking lot on any given weekend. As such, my friend and I got there at 9am to try to beat the crowds. When we parked outside there were only two buses, but by the time we left there were at least ten!

The garden, a series of small self-contained worlds, varies both by season and by time of day. I visited during the later part of kouyou (autumn leaf) season, and the surrounding mountains of Matsue and Yasugi were all warm hues even on the grayest of days. At this early hour of December 1st, the sun was still relatively low in the sky, so there were slanted rays of light to peak through the leaves in the eastern gardens and cast a heavy shadow over the western dry landscape while illuminating the background mountains. Depending on what kinds of pictures you’re trying to take, the morning light can be a blessing or a curse.

This garden leads to one of two Japanese styles tea houses. The museum also has a restaurant and another cafe, all of which provide different views of the garden. One of the tea houses, Juraku-an, boils the water for the tea in a pure gold kettle.

Many Japanese gardens attempt to create a miniature version of a more vast landscape, with the arrangement of motifs mimicking patterns in nature. The large rocks are mountains, while the white gravel is a river coming forth from the mountains.

The natural mountains of Yasugi also make up part of the garden landscape. This peak is Mt. Katsuyama, where the Mori clan set up camp while battling the Amago clan. The war between these two clans influenced much of the western edge of Honshu before Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogun’s rule.

Just because they use gravel as a water motif doesn’t mean they can’t use real water, too.

At the far right side of this picture in the distance, there is an artificial 15 meter waterfall–a part of the garden which you can see from outside the museum! The Kikaku Waterfall was constructed in 1978.

This was the only snap shot I could get of the pond garden on the east side. The sun was reflecting so brightly off the surface of the water that you can’t see anything in my other ones! With the naked eye, it was hard to look beyond the shimmering surface at the lively fish for very long.

With my simple point-and-shoot camera I didn’t bother trying to get any perfect shots. Even when setting up the shots I did take, it was hard to decide what to try to include and exclude, as even a little change in angle and zoom will result in a different looking world. You’re really only able to take in the world of the Japanese garden with your own eyes and physical perspective, and it was much more exciting to be there in real life than to see photos. There are parts of the pathway to sit and see the framed view of the garden that make it appear like certain styles of landscape painting, or like the scroll of a tea room in the tokonoma (decorative alcove). In place of a scroll in that room on display, they had a window.

In order for the garden to take on an active, immediate level of art, it must be perceived. It is best perceived in person, as your perception changes with every step, and every unique view provived throughout the course of the art museum. As part of the active perceptive space, you continually pass between views of the living garden and series of Japanese paintings, especially collections of Yokoyama Taikan‘s works.

Yokoyama Taikan. “Distant Landscape” (1957). Click on the picture to go to the Yokoyama Taikan page, or on his name to go to the Wiki page and learn more about his style and contribution to modern Japanese painting.

While everyone talks about the garden and posts pictures of it everywhere, it’s still a perfectly good art museum even if it wasn’t part of the garden world. While I didn’t feel the need to go home and plant a maple tree, I did feel the itching desire to go home and sketch birds sitting on plum tree branches.

Sakakibara Shiho, “Japanese White-eyes and Plum Blossoms” (c.1939). Click on the photo to read more about the “Fragrant Flowers” exhibition, Winter 2013.

In addition to the Japanese landscape, portrait, kachou (flowers and birds) and series of other natural subject matters in Japanese style, there are collections of things like ceramics, paintings from modern travels around the world, illustrations for children, and statues. Thanks to the Google Cultural Institute, you can view some the collection here. I discovered Ide Yasuto and Yoshimura Seiji, a couple of promising, imaginative artists who were featured in one of the exhibitions and were honored with the Adachi Museum of Art Award.

Obligatory “I was here” snapshot.

Matsue’s neighboring town of Yasugi is most famous for the renowned Japanese style garden at Adachi Museum of Art and the bumbling but endearing Dojou-sukui folk dance, but got Amago-clan samurai history to boast of, as well as a number of traditional crafts. I had originally heard about the indigo-dyeing classes, but I wound up trying Yasugi-style weaving (Yasugi-ori) first, one of a handful of local styles.

I was invited to the home of a family that produces Yasugi-ori, a style of picture-weaving that originates in the Edo era. After getting to see a handful of their completed projects, I went to the workroom next to the house to try it out myself.

They had one of the looms set up with basic white warp threads (the ones pulled taunt on a loom that you weave through), and had dark indigo and white weft threads (the ones you weave with to fill the pattern) ready for me. They are not limited to these traditional colors in their weaving, nor are they limited to the thick cottony threads prepared. Yasugi-ori was originally made in silk, but today you can put in whatever ribbon you think would have an interesting color and texture–theoretically, anyway. Most people would be surprised when if they went to buy Yasugi-ori and didn’t see the traditional face of Kannon in white and indigo! Another characteristic of Yasugi-ori is that the picture gets stronger and more distinct as you use and wash an item.

To make the picture-patterns, they start by preparing the weft threads for indigo dyeing. It starts with a number of spools of white string…

…which is hung from the ceiling…

…then woven around this thing.

I was told that this is where they divide portions to make a picture. Being easy overwhelmed by crafty things (I’m more comfortable with two dimensional art, thanks!), I can’t really fathom how this process actually works, but the result is that the areas that are to remain white are bound tightly so as not to left any dye seep through.

These threads are long are you can drag them across the room or make a large pile of them, but if you arrange them correctly, the picture-pattern begins to emerge.

Ta da!

In this piece (something to drape over a mirror when it’s not in use), the warp threads are all dyed indigo so as to soften the effect of the white blocks. In other styles, they might dye both the warp and the weft to result in a more stark contrast. You could also use different shades of indigo on a singe thread if you’re patient enough to dye one, bound again, and then dye again… but I am not this patient, so I can say nothing else about the process.

I did finish a little cloth of my own, though! It’s too big to be a coaster for a cup, but I can put it under flower vases and stuff to be decorative. I was so focused on not getting tangled up at first that I was stuck with a very, very simple pattern, but once I got going I regretted that. Once I got the flow of the loom, I could have gotten so much more creative in my pattern! Oh well. I suppose I could always go back and weave more, though I don’t expect to reach Kannon-levels of details.

My first attempt

I’ll bet you read the title and thought this would be about Kiyomizu-dera of Kyoto. Surprise! There’s more than one temple of pure water–this one is about a couple hundred years older, and affiliated with the Tendai sect of Buddhism rather than the Kitahosso sect like the one in Kyoto. This one in the San’in region (of course), specifically Yasugi City, Shimane Prefecture, on the border of Tottori Prefecture.

Like a great number of old temples and towns across of Japan, over the course of its history it has gone through many fires and reconstructions. The temple itself is 1400 years old, but the oldest surviving building is its main hall, Konpondo, which was reconstructed in 1393 and renovated in 1992, both times funded by the faithful. After it was tied up in (or burned up in) the battles between the Mori and Amago clans in the warring states era, the Horio clan of Matsue saw to the reconstruction of many of the other buildings.

One of the major things that has earned this temple so many faithful followers is its reputation for yakubarai, or “expelling evil.” Like many other cultures around the world, Japanese culture has notions of supernatural luck and influences, and there are times you are more prone to bad influences than others. In particular, there are certain unlucky ages called yakudoshi when you are especially susceptible. Shrines and temples that specialize in this often have a large sign posted about what ages people need to watch out for.

“How is your destiny at 25 years old?”

Deeply religious people entering these years have the option of paying about ¥5000 (roughly $50 USD) to undergo a purification ritual. I’m not very familiar with these rituals, but I’ve seen some of them advertised as only taking about 15 minutes. I also don’t have any knowledge of how many people have these rituals performed. Others may simply be more cautious than usual during those ages.

While both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples offer yakubarai rituals and protective charms and talismans, they seem to differ on which years are lucky and which ones are not. The first time I saw one of these boards at a Shinto shrine, I was entering the unlucky part of my luck cycle (luck tends to build and then plummet and start over). A handful of years later, and now according to this temple, I am once again entering a bad luck period. Maybe I should time my visits so I only visit places that say I’m having good luck?

There are other reasons for visiting any given shrine or temple, though. Many have reputations as nature-viewing spots (Kiyomizu-dera is known for its cherry blossoms as well as its autumn leaves), and others provide a retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life. We went as just another part of enjoying a hot summer day.

Hot and humid those Japanese summers are, it’s cooler in the forests and up the mountains.

On the short hike up (or down) from the parking lots, there are a handful of inns where visitors stay during the heights of cherry blossom or maple leaf seasons, as well as restuarants providing Buddhist-style vegetarian cuisine.

Besides Konpondo, one of the other famous buildings in the treasure tower, a the 3-story pagoda–the only one of its kind in the San’in region. While many pagodas in Japan are just for viewing from the outside, this is one of the few you can climb up from the inside.

Leave your shoes outside, and climb on up! It was a narrow space and hard to say whether you climb stairs or ladders.

I thought it was fun, but it was even more fun to go with someone who was afraid of heights.

Around the center pillar and on each level, there were a number of little treasures.

I also really liked seeing the complex woodwork. Lacking the mind of an architect, I don’t understand how it works, but it looks neat.

And, of course, there was a stunning view. Can you spot the tip of Lake Nakaumi?

Being named after the pure water the mountain is known for, there are a number of uses for that pure water. Hence, the temple is also known for its youkan, a traditional confection described here in more detail.

We took home some gelato made with said youkan.

It was the kind of summer temple visit that was refreshing in more ways than one.

I’ve been seeing these manjuu (sweet dumplings) everywhere since arriving in the San’in region.

Turns out they’re a souvenir based on the Dojou Sukui, a 300-year-old comical dance about digging for loaches, but the silly fisher is distracted by things like mud splashing in his face or getting bitten by a leech or his loaches getting away. It’s a well known folk dance all over Japan, but it’s strongly associated with the city of Yasugi. The dance is usually performed with the cries of a-ra-essassa! from “Yasugi-bushi” (“The Song of Yasugi”) as an accompaniment.

Yasugi in relation to Matsue

There is a performance hall in Yasugi where you can watch this dance (and get lessons, I think), but when getting there is a little difficult, there’s always Youtube:

This is just one example. While the basic elements of the jolly dance remain the same, the expressions vary depending on the performer. One very famous performer is Yasuo Araki-san, a very spirited 86-year-old man who has performed this dance all around the world. He speaks at least Japanese, English and Russian, and you can read his English blog intro here. He also shakes hands at any opportunity! I lost count of how many times we shook hands in the two times we’ve met, and when the car I was in was driving away and he couldn’t reach my hand through the window like the passengers in back, he flashed me a peace sign.

I had the pleasure of learning this dance from Araki-san, as well as a short zeni-daiko (coin drum) dance–this is a local instrument that’s bit like a decorated paper towel roll with tassles and filled with coins. Learning the basics of the Dojou Sukui dance didn’t take long, but it requires a little silliness.

We're going on a loach hunt, we're going on a loach hunt!

We’re going on a loach hunt, we’re going on a loach hunt!

Dump the mud out of your basket to find those tasty loaches!

Dump the mud out of your basket to find those tasty loaches!

That silly loach, trying to get away!

That silly loach, trying to get away!

I'm bringing home so many loaches! Won't my mommy be so proud of me! ...Hmm. "Loach" doesn't fit in this American rhyme very well.

I’m bringing home so many loaches! Won’t my mommy be so proud of me! …Hmm. “Loach” doesn’t fit in this American rhyme very well.

Araki-san said my footwork was really good. I wonder what that says about my loach-catching abilities? He enthusiastically encouraged me to go over at any time for more lessons, and I received his official letter of recommendation, as well as a couple pieces of supplies for performing this dance when I leave Japan someday. If I could put together the outfit, it might be fun. We didn’t use them this time, but the dance is performed with a 5-yen coin tied under your nose! …I have no idea why. It seems I still have much to learn from Araki-san.