My plan for today was simple: go to Matsue Castle and come home later to eat some leftover curry. However, today did not turn out like that. I did make it to the castle, but so many other things happened afterwards that I was floored by how much I’d almost missed out on. Shimane continues to surprise me!
First off, the Matsue Castle grounds do not just consist of Matsue castle. They also include a shrine and a twentieth-century building known as the Kounkaku.
The Kounkaku is a welcome center built in 1903 and it was originally built to accommodate the Emperor of Japan while he visited the area.
Now, it’s used as a general events space, historical landmark, and tea room! The team room is a tiny restaurant just to the left of the entrance and is known as the Kamedayama Tea Room (spelled in kanji as 亀田山, or “Turtle Field Mountain”). They offer a lot of cafe eats and treats, but they also serve some local herbal blends. One of those blends being Kuromoji tea.
I don’t know exactly what kinds of herbs are used to make this but it’s delicious! Sort of sweet, sort of floral, and a spicy-soothing sort of aftertaste. Not to mention, the cup it comes in is beautiful.
So after finishing up here, I went on to the castle. Matsue Castle sits at the top of a hill, so you can get some great views of the city!
What I didn’t realize, though, was that the castle employs volunteer tour guides for international visitors. One of said guides found me and, since I was the only foreigner around, he ended up giving me a private tour of the castle! Which, by the way, if you don’t know much history about Japanese castles, it’s fascinating and you should absolutely do some research. Here’s some of the things I learned from the tour guide:
At one point, there were about 20,000 castles in Japan, including larger castles (like Matsue’s) and smaller forts. That changed when the Tokugawa Shogunate united the country and the number of castles dropped to about 200. After time and World War II passed by, a lot of major castles suffered severe damage and had to be reconstructed. Today, there are only about 12 castles in Japan that maintain their original structures. Matsue Castle is one of them. The interior is made from some of the same wood it was built with about 400 years ago and so much of the castle’s design is built to last.
If you look closely at some of the pillars in Matsue Castle, you’ll notice that they’re a few different pieces of wood fitted together. This construction method was used because for one, it was easier and cheaper to construct massive pillars that way, and for another, it allowed the pillars to be more flexible in case of an earthquake.
Working your way through the castle’s floors, you’ll find sights like a well (that’s said to lead out to a pond in the back of the castle, but no one has ever checked) and artifacts from the castle’s heyday. Among these artifacts are several suits of samurai armor, some of which were donated by descendants of warriors who defended the castle.
Eventually, when you make it to the top of the castle, you have a view in all directions of Matsue City. One of these views looks out on a particular set of mountains known as “The Sleeping Buddha.”
These mountains are so named because they look like The Buddha lying down to sleep. There is some debate, though, as to whether he’s lying on his side or his back.
Chatting with the tour guide, I really realized how much of a small area I’m living in! It turns out, my guide had been talking with an ALT from Oda City just a few days before. Not only that, but his mother graduated from one of the junior high schools that I’ll be teaching at! Small, small towns. Small, small world.
After my guide and I reached the top of the castle, he offered to show me an Inari Shrine that was just down the way, and I said I wanted to see it. Basically, if you exit the castle and go down a path just behind it, you’ll pass by the pond that the well inside the castle is said to lead to, and then end up at this shrine.
If you like foxes, visit every Inari Shrine you can, because fox statues are everywhere! My guide told me that foxes are seen as symbols of a good harvest because they eat mice, who eat rice, and they’re said to be messengers of the goddess, Inari (goddess of rice and fertility). One thing about this shrine, though, you can’t bring dogs. They even had a sign talking about it.
According to my guide, foxes are afraid of dogs. So it’s thought that if someone brings a dog into the shrine, the deity will run away!
All around the shrine, you see larger stone foxes, and tiny ceramic ones. The ceramic foxes are for sale, and people buy them to offer prayers. Some of the stone fox statues, I’m told, were built in the Edo Period!
After walking around the shrine, my guide and I parted ways. But before he left, he told me about a museum just down the road dedicated to the writer, Lafcadio Hearn. I wasn’t planning on stopping there today because I was feeling tired and almost ready to go home, but I ended up going to the museum anyway and I’m so glad I did!
Basically, Lafcadio Hearn was a writer born in Greece and raised in Ireland. Over the course of his life, he became fascinated with folklore, ghost stories, and little-known cultures. Eventually, he moved to Japan and became an English teacher in Matsue. While in Matsue, he met Setsu Koizumi, the daughter of a samurai family, and wrote several English books about Japanese culture and mythology.
Setsu would tell Hearn traditional folktales as she knew them, and Hearn translated them into several English collections. He also published books about aspects of Japanese culture that he found enlightening, such as the common hobby of trapping bugs and keeping them in cages. According to the Lafcadio Museum, he once said, in a university lecture, that the Japanese and the Ancient Greeks were the only ones who really appreciated insects.
Later, when Hearn married Setsu, he took her last name and changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi.
I’m really not doing Hearn justice with this crash-course description because Hearn is basically a writing rock star. He lived such a full and interesting life, and the city of Matsue really seems to revere him. In a printed guide of the museum, the museum’s director is quoted saying, “Hearn was not bound by the prejudice of Western centrism. His open mind gave him great insight into the essence of Meiji era Japan, and he made proposals for Japan’s future.” In other words, at a time when Japan was rapidly Westernizing and the West made little to no effort to understand uniquely Japanese cultural aspects, Hearn fully embraced them and (much like other giants like Kakuzo Okakura) wrote books in an attempt to explain to Westerners what they should understand about Japan.
Right next to the museum is Lafcadio’s former residence. It’s small, but it has gorgeous gardens!
Oh, and did I mention? Matsue Castle, the Lafcadio Memorial Museum, and the Lafcadio Former Residence all offer discounts on tickets for foreign visitors!
So that was my day. I didn’t plan most of it and I definitely would have done more, but after the museum and the residence, I actually was tired and ready to go home. I’m absolutely coming back to this area of Matsue some other time, though!
It continues to surprise me just how good Shimane is at hiding things. For one, it was a prefecture I’d barely heard of before being sent to live here, and I hadn’t heard of Izumo or Matsue at all. But every time I go out to visit someplace in the area, I find something I wasn’t quite expecting that makes everything so much better. I’m beginning to think that Shimane is one of the best-kept secrets in Japan. And now that I’m mentioning it, if you come here, try new things, put yourself out there, and most importantly, be nice. Don’t be THAT tourist. Be willing to keep an open mind and discover where the road might take you, because it can take you to some great places!