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.

The lantern I made for Suitoro 2013, featuring Matsue Castle, the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat, and my own spin on “Enishizuku.”

When asked about the best times of year to visit, I usually tell people to come to the San’in region–especially the Izumo region–in May or October. Everyone knows that cherry blossoms are spectacular throughout Japan in April, but I think the more impressive flower displays are in May. As for October, that’s Kamiarizuki.

The Japanese calendar has classical names for every month, and October is typically known as Kannazuki (神無月), “the month without gods.” However, only in the Izumo region is it known as Kamiarizuki (神在月), “the month with gods.” Put simply, this is because the many thousands of kami from throughout Japan are congregating in and around Izumo Taisha for a meeting.

Just to be clear, the Japanese calendar is sort of whack and many holidays are not celebrated according to the times they were originally meant to be celebrated. Kamiarizuki, although the phrase nowadays typically is in direct reference to Gregorian October, is not even a month long. Futhermore, it changes every year according to the old calendar. In 2014, the meeting of the gods is from December 1 to December 8. There will be events going on at Shinto shrines–most notably and especially Izumo Taisha, of course–over the course of that time, and many pilgrims do flock to these events.

But like the divide between religious Christmas and mainstream Christmas, the mainstream celebration of Kamiarizuki is festive and quite noticable, and even more of the public takes part in this. After all, it is a whole month long, and there are even free shuttle buses to and from Matsue Station specifically for everything going on around the castle.

In Matsue especially, October also implies Suitoro, the lantern festival. Hundreds of lanterns–everything from square paper lanterns decorated by children or by local professional artists to stone lanterns carved out of Kimachi stone–are placed around Matsue Castle every night the weather permits, and on the weekends they extend out to the surrounding streets, including around the Shimane Prefecture office and along Shiomi Nawate, one of the top historic streets of Japan across the moat from the castle mountain.

Click for source and more photos (Japanese)

Besides the Matsue Castle Grand Tea Ceremony I already posted a handful of entries about, there are many events both during the day and during the evening on weekends. Some occur every year, others change slightly. For instance, the Samurai Residence (home to a middle-ranking samurai family which the street, Shiomi Nawate, is named after) is usually open late and has free evening admission so that people can enjoy concerts held there.

The backdrop for the concerts at the Samurai Residence

Matsue Castle also has later admission to enjoy the view of the lanterns, and the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat which cruises around the historic moats all day long runs a special night course to enjoy the view from below. The stage set up at the main entrance to Matsue Castle usually has some form of Kagura dance as well as other San’in region performers. Food stalls from local restaurants? But of course.

Last weekend I checked out an outdoor cafe and art exhibition set up to enjoy alongside the concerts at the Samurai Residence in which everyone working there was dressed in Taishou era style clothes, and then walked along the lantern-lit moat to go see a concert at Matsue Castle. Still, along the way, there was such a sence of peace in the glow of the night air–cool, but not yet frigid, quiet, but not silent. Groups of people–including families with teens, families with small children, families with grandparents leading the way most enthusiastically–were coming and going. Single wanderers, like myself, passed here and there, listening in to other’s conversations as acquaintances ran into each other.

“Oh! Fancy seeing you here!”
“Yes, I live close by, but you imagine that this is my first time to come enjoy Suitoro this year? Haha.”
“I came last weekend, too. Will you be going to the concert tomorrow?”
“I probably can… did you ride the boats yet?”
“Not yet… tonight I came for the shakuhachi concert.”
“Ah, I wanted to see the cafe! I think I’ll try the plum lemon tea.”

It’s like going out to enjoy the Christmas lights, only it’s not from your car, it’s up close and in person. It’s not just about the lights–it’s a chance to appreciate what others have created. Each performance, each booth and stall, each and every single handmade lantern, all unique and produced from the heart.

While walking along the moat, eyeing the lit-up boats and the reflections of the lights from all around on the water’s surface, whereas on the other side of the street the Edo period walls are lit just as much as necessary, I cannot help but wonder how many artists have passed that street in its hundreds of years of history.

Ah, but then again, I am an artist—and I have likely walked that street hundreds of times by now myself.

Another view of the lantern I made last year–yes, that is Lafcadio Hearn, who also happened to be an artist and took many walks along Shiomi Nawate.

Back home somewhat early that night, I could still hear the sound of October in Matsue–enormous do drums echoing through the city, as the neighborhoods break out their treasures from the store houses, pass the sake around, and practice the flute and drum tunes for a parade that has been celebrated since the Edo period–Do-gyoretsu. It rumbles like a distance thunder, but unlike the thunder, the beat goes on as it always had in the past. But we don’t live in the past–the familiar beats and echoes of the drum parade accompany the lantern festival, a modern traditional as much a part of local character as Kamiarizuki itself.



Yes, those are filled with sake.

——

Yesterday was Sunday, October 19th–the third Sunday of October, and therefore Do-gyoretsu, the drum parade. It was hard to spot the people I knew–it’s hard to tell if there were more participants or spectators, as it draws such a crowd. Furthermore, the weather was sunny and warm, perfect for a parade.

By the evening, however much the sounds of the drums lingered in after parties throughout the neighborhoods, the atmosphere of Suitoro took over again, and the night had just as perfect weather as the day. Windless, cloudless, and comfortably between warm and cool.

A perfect night for tea.

The local junior college tea ceremony club had set up a special event this weekend in cooperation with the special night-time Horikawa Sightseeing Boat canal cruises. Besides getting the enjoy the view of the lights along the streets, trees, and surface of the water, the boat was also lighted with its own lanterns and even a flower decoration attached to one of the posts, and there was just enough space for eight guests, two boat operators at either end of the boat cooperating in low-light navigation, and two students in kimono with a tea space set up for preparing tea.

In the low light it was hard to appreciate the appearance of the Horikawa boat themed wagashi and the individual tea cups, but the quietness of the night made everything else more noticable–the warm, autumn taste of the chestnut included in the wagashi, the fragrance of the charcoal used in the ceremony, the smoothness of the tea, and the subtle motion of the boat. I’ve ridden this boat countless times and could give the whole tour myself instead of interpreting, but it nonetheless felt very surprising and mysterious to see the 400-year-old stone walls of the castle, take a sip of tea as the boat was turning, and then see the lanterns decorating the street when I took the cup away.

The boat was full of people I didn’t know, and for once I was totally engaged in conversation on account of being the foreign face at a tea ceremony, and the others talked among themselves, perhaps assuming I couldn’t understand. A couple ladies with thick Izumo accents were trying to remember where the best soba restaurant on Shiomi Nawate was (came from just out of town, likely), an older couple were asking the boat operator when they’d be bringing out the kotatsu this year–ahh, November 10th, I see–(they were likely Matsue locals), and at last the quiet middle adged man asked if the tea ceremony on the boat happens all the time–what’s more, are these lanterns always there? He had immediately painted himself as a tourist–and as luck would have it, this Kanazawa native showed up on a perfect night for tea and lanterns! The older couple went on to tell him that if he thinks the boat ceremony is nice, he should have been there for the Grand Tea Ceremony and couple weeks beforehand.

I decided just to hold my tongue for once and let it look like I’m not the know-it-all I am. The silence was a welcome break from my usual chatter-filled, cultural exchange lifestyle, and I was content to simply observe the passing October moments.

Matsue is often called Mizu-no-Miyako (水の都: City of Water) not only for its place nestled between the 5th and 7th largest lakes in Japan as well four different onsen and border along the Sea of Japan, but especially for the castle canals. Many Edo period castle canals have since been filled in or reduced to only their inner moat, but Matsue retains both inner and outer moats. Many of the streets around the city have been designs around working with the moats to protect the castle and may attacks difficult for intruding armies. Those streets are still the same as well, and though they never needed to prevent an army from advancing an attack, I suppose they are helpful for preventing vehicles from speeding too fast through town.

Pretty typical Matsue scene at Shiomi Nawate, a preserved historic street along the north moat, where the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat always passes. These are some of my favorite pine trees in the world, though this photo doesn’t do them justice.

Another thing that hasn’t changed much since the Edo era is the local people’s love of tea, especially the tea ceremony. Lord Fumai‘s influence remains very present, and not in a gimmicky way. While the Grand Tea Ceremony (大茶会) on the Matsue Castle grounds on the first weekend of October is nationally famous, there are other tea ceremonies and tea events that welcome hundreds of guests throughout the year.

This spring, in a style very fitting for the city of water and tea, there was a floating tea house set up at the northwest corner of the castle mount, called this Ohoribata Chaseki (お堀端茶席, a little clumsy to translate but something like “Tea on the Moat” at its simplest and “A Tea Ceremony on the Banks of the Horikawa” at its most pretentious.)


Held over the course of two spring weekends, anyone could stop in and buy a ¥1000 ticket. It just so happened to be an Omotesenke style ceremony, the style I practice, so I brought my tea-tools to be prepared. This was not necessary, as it was set up for any guest to relax and enjoy themselves, with all the utensils provided and handy explanation from a master as the host prepared the tea. During large public ceremonies that anyone can attend without any previous tea knowledge, usually the host only prepares the first one or two cups of tea while others prepare the rest of the tea in the back so as to speed up the process a bit. In a more private ceremony, the host would prepare the tea for everyone. Another difference is that in a private ceremony the guests would pass along the sweets and come forward to take the tea themselves, but in a public ceremony not everyone knows how to do this, so everything is brought directly to the guests. Therefore, a public ceremony requires a lot more manpower backstage–usually this is a very tiny space, but set apart so as to be non-intrusive to the ceremony.

We started with wagashi right away as we enjoyed the shade and coolness at the water’s edge. This was the first was someone uncomfortably warm days, but the atmosphere inside the tea room was perfect.

As the host wordlessly prepared the tea, another tea master explained the ceremony, decor, and tools to the guests in a way that both practitioners and laypeople could appreciate.

Tea ceremony and the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat. It could only get more Matsue-like if there was En-musubi tied in or something.

After the abbreviated ceremony, we were invited to observe the tools.

The chawan (tea bowl) is Rakuzan pottery. Along with Fujina and Sodeshi, this is one of the three representative styles of Matsue pottery, and it was a favorite of Lord Fumai’s. This particular bowl was made by the father of the current head of the Rakuzan school.

The natsume (tea caddy) is Yakumo-nuri, a local style of lacquerware. One of the characteristics of Yakumo-nuri is that the pattern gets brighter as the piece ages. The chashaku (tea scoop) is also local craftsmanship, and it was made from wood that was removed from the castle during renovations several years ago. Hence, the individual name of this chashaku is “Chidori” (plover) because Matsue Castle is nicknamed Chidori-jo (Plover Castle). For other styles of chashaku, the host can choose from a selection of gomei seasonal names, so a single chashaku can have multiple names. This special type of chashaku, however, doesn’t change identities with the seasons.

They say that the shape of the tea remaining in the tea caddy says a lot about how steady–or unsteady–the hand of the host was.

The ceremony felt very brief, but it was gratifying that the master explaining the ceremony could tell I practice the ceremony–and lucky that he didn’t notice me forget a few bows during the sped-up process, oops! Though this ceremony wasn’t hosted by my school, naturally, everyone knew my Omotesenke teacher by name. There were many other tea events going on that weekend, including a longer, reservation-only ceremony at Gesshouji Temple (where Lord Fumai is buried) that included a meal, but I had other things to do. Nonetheless, my things to do put me on the same route as a few of the ladies who attended the same ceremony I did and who were off to enjoy the ceremony at Gesshouji, and it was fun to enjoy the weather, the spring flowers, and general talk of tea on the way.

When someone visiting me in Matsue says they want to go drink tea, I usually drown them with a list of options for places to go enjoy some wagashi (traditional Japanese confectioneries) and matcha (powdered green tea, the type used in the tea ceremony). To say it has a thriving culture here would be a bit of an understatement.

That said, most places that cater to casual visitors don’t have any expectations of the recipients knowing the formalities of tea or the complex taxonomy of wagashi. They are served as simple hospitality; a way to relax. Usually this takes place within view of beautiful garden or within a tranquil temple, but the weekly Matsue Chafe takes places within an old-bank-turned-craft-fair. Welcome to Karakoro Kobo!

In addition to handmade works and other souvenirs on sale throughout this public gathering space, this place is known for workshops such as making magatama jewels (also a big thing in the Izumo region, worth touching on another day), making silver wedding bands, or making your own wagashi. The Chafe is held every Sunday with two servings of matcha and wagashi for 500 yen, including serving it with the whisk if you’d rather try frothing it up yourself.


The name 茶ふぇ (“Chafe” (chah-feh) ryhmes with the Japanese word for cafe, “kah-feh”) is a play on words, as 茶 means “tea”. Relaxed hospitality is of prime importance to hosts. While there is a seasonally decorated tea room to observe and ladies in kimono preparing the tea in back, guests mingle at benches and tables, and engaged in conversation. This too is a pun: the Japanese word for chatting is しゃべり (shaberi), but they use the term 茶べり (chaberi). Chit-chat or tea-talk, however you want to spin it.

I had my first cup of tea served warm, and it came with a freshly prepared Karakoro wagashi original.

This is a namawagashi, a malleable, moist type typically made with plant ingredients and molded around a sweet, smooth azuki center. They typically come in motifs that mimic nature, and this is based on a loquat, called “biwa” in Japanese. (It just so happens there is similarly shaped lute-like musical instrument with the same name.) They dusted some cinnamon on the end of this wagashi–it was a nice touch that offset the sweetness a bit!



The cup featured good old (or should I say new?) Izumo Taisha.

It is hard to walk into Karakoro Kobo without walking out feeling a little more arts-and-crafty, especially when the hosts come by with bamboo leaves and say, “Let’s make sasabune!”



Tada! It’s a little toy boat. There is a little fountain to float them in, too.

Or you could use them to serve the higashi (dried sweets) with the second cup of tea. I had mine served cold in this crab cup. Ironically, I had spied a bunch of river crabs on my way there that morning.


From now until the end of the rainy season (the end of July), they are holding a special Enishizuku Chafe. Many bars and clubs around town are also participating an Enishizuku Cocktail Collection, offering limited time cocktails on rainy days and sunny days throughout the month of July. My interests lie more in tea than in alcohol… then again, I didn’t become a tea drinker until I was 19–the first time I had matcha it was so bitter I could never imagine growing such a taste for it. Come to think of it, I didn’t develop a taste for coffee until very recently. Maybe my taste for alcohol is coming soon.

Back to the Chafe, I was soon joined by a pair of twin two-year-olds. They were at that cute stage when they’re talking, but with baby-talk pronunciation. When I asked how old they were, they said “Nisshai!” instead of “ni-sai”, and as they shared their second of helping of higashi with me, they said “Oneechan, doJO!” over and over (instead of “Oneechan, douzo”—“Here you go, Big Sister!” It’s so nice when I’m still referred to as ‘oneechan’ instead of ‘obasan’…). What really surprised me was how they drank the matcha with such relish! The bitterness doesn’t bother them at all, and when I asked about the caffeine, their mother laughed and said they’ll still usually go right to sleep. They’re obviously better adjusted than I am.

As if sharing higashi wasn’t cute enough, when I was headed elsewhere I pass by them on one of the many bridges throughout where you can catch a glimpse of the Horikawa Yuuransen, the sightseeing boat that goes through the canals of the castle town all year long. They were waving and shouting things likes, “Where are you going?”.

The passengers on the boat found them just as adorable as I did. By the way, that’s Karakoro Kobo in the background.

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.