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Friday, June 13, 2008

Japan Trip Day 6: Matsue ah! (with apologies to Bashō) 日本旅行6月5日

 
The Matsue City Hotel 松江シティホテル

Back in early 1989, I moved to Tōkyō 東京 and soon found myself working as an English teacher. One day, a student of mine returned from a visit to Matsue 松江, population 194,000 and the capital of Shimane Prefecture 島根県, bearing English-language brochures and maps of the city, and suggesting I should check it out. 19 years later, I finally got around to doing so. Better late than never, I suppose.

The primary sightseeing attraction is Matsue-jō 松江城, a five-story wooden castle dating from 1611. Japan is full of concrete reproductions of feudal-era castles, but there are only about a dozen original structures still standing, and I was to visit two on this trip. Matsue-jō is now the centerpiece of a park called Jōzan-kōen 城山公園, and is located near the prefectural government building. Inside are displays of armor and weapons, and the original shachi 鯱, auspicious mythical dolphins that were often placed on castle rooftops.

The top floor of the castle provides a 360-degree view of the city. Nearby is the Matsue Historical Museum 松江郷土間, a two-story mansion built in 1903 in the hope that the emperor 天皇 would stay there on a visit (it never happened). The Meiji era 明治時代 was an exciting period for Japan in terms of architecture, and it's a pity there aren't more buildings from that time still in existence.

After visiting the castle and the historical museum, I walked through the park, exited Jōzan-kōen on its northwest side, and entered Shiomi Nawate 塩見縄手, an era of old samurai 侍 houses, many of which are now museums, restaurants and teahouses. The first two buildings I stopped in at were related to Lafcadio Hearn 小泉八雲, one of the first Western writers to introduce Japan to Western readers. I've long been interested in Hearn's fascinating biography (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lafcadio_Hearn), and read his "Kwaidan" 怪談 during my early years in Tōkyō. First stop, therefore, was the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum 小泉八雲記念館, containing many items from Hearn's daily life in Japan, and a detailed chronology of his life story. Then it was on to Hearn's Old Residence 小泉八雲旧居, where the writer lived for six months in 1891. The front and back gardens of the house are still very similar to how Hearn described them in his essay "In a Japanese Garden", and it was easy to see how and why he fell in love with Japan soon after arriving in the country.

Two other places I visited in Shiomi Nawate included the Buke-yashiki 武家屋敷, the largest remaining samurai house in Matsue, and the Meimei-an teahouse 明々庵. It was while I was at the latter that I had to take refuge from the rain for the only time during my trip.

I'd like to pause for a moment to note that many of the attractions in Matsue, including the castle, Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, Buke-yashiki and the moat ride, all offered substantial reductions in entry fees for foreign visitors. The staff at the tourist information office near the train station were also incredibly helpful, pointing me in the right direction as to where I could try to buy tickets for a Hanshin Tigers 阪神タイガース baseball game (sold out, alas) and suggesting several places where I could check my email. Clearly, Matsue is a city that welcomes the visitor from abroad, and I wish more localities in both Japan and Taiwan could do the same.

Meanwhile, back on the tourist trail, I was feeling pretty hungry. If there was one complaint I had with Matsue, it was that it was often difficult to find a reasonably-priced place to eat. In the end, however, and for a nice change of pace, I had a Southeast Asian-style fried chicken in lemon sauce lunch, washed down with a Chang Beer from Thailand, at a small cafe down the road from Shiomi Nawate. Feeling fortified, I next ventured to the Karakoro Art Studio カラコロ工房, on the site of a former bank that has now been converted into galleries, craft shops and a cafe, the latter from which I bought a cup of chocolate ice cream, and relaxed in the courtyard of the complex. If only I could be financially secure enough to live like that every day! Then it was time to get on one of the boats that takes tourists around the castle moat and canals. What was great about these boats (other than the 40% gaijin 外人 discount, of course) was that I had it all to myself, and you could get off at different points, and re-board later. Which is what I did, by paying a visit to the Matsue Horikawa 堀川 local beer hall to sample one of the microbrews 地ビール on offer, a very good pale ale.
I would've liked to have sampled some more, but it was getting on in the afternoon, so I got back on the boat and completed the journal around the moat.

I spent the rest of the afternoon on errands (the aforementioned tracking down of baseball ticket availability, and locating access to the Internet), and then headed down to the shores of Lake Shinji 宍道湖, the 7th-largest in Japan. The lake is noted for its spectacular sunsets, and on this day I wasn't disappointed. The view of the sun going down over tiny Yōme-ga-shima island 嫁ヶ島 was one of those moments best left to poets to express. I, on the other hand, savored the experience afterwards over a tonkatsu 豚カツ dinner, washed down with a draft beer 生ビール, at a Gusto ガスト branch conveniently located nearby.


So, was it worth going to Matsue after waiting all these years? Hell, yes! I would even wager that Matsue would be a nice place to live. Not the most exciting, perhaps, but pleasant enough, and close to both the mountains and the sea. I don't remember the name of the student who first told of this city, but I would like to thank her for the suggestion nonetheless.

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