(Editing note: For the sake of my sanity, I am going to put all the photos in a photo album at the bottom of the post, rather than trying to embed them all.)
Lesson for the wise traveler: When offered western breakfast or Japanese breakfast, always go with the Japanese option, no matter how un-enticing cold fish seems first thing in the morning. Needless to say I learned this the hard way — our hotel offered eggs and sausages or rice and fish for breakfast, and feeling somewhat sick of the typical Japanese fare, I opted for the western alternative. Big mistake. The eggs were poorly cooked, and I spent the rest of the day feeling queasy. There’s just something basic that the Japanese don’t quite get about breakfast — although I do appreciate that I can get tea easily all over the place. So then we took off across the mountains to get to Matsue.
The mountains were beautiful — rugged and steep, spotted with villages and striped with rivers, roads, and railways. It’s easy to see why people didn’t move around a lot historically — traveling through these mountains without modern transportation would be difficult and time consuming. The video above unfortunately misses some of the more dramatic landscapes since we were valiantly attempting not to be sick for significant portions of the trip. We also noticed a mysterious castle half-way to Matsue, which Jen had missed in her castle-tour planning, and while we weren’t able to add it to our itinerary, it’s on the future to-do list now.
When we got to Matsue the temperature had dropped considerably, so we ate a hurried bento-box lunch, lugged our stuff to the hotel, and then set off (well-bundled) for Matsue Castle. The castle sits on a hill in the middle of town, so we explored the grounds, including a temple just down the hill which a whole flock of herons had nested around. They were building their nests, and one heron would go out and collect sticks, bring them back, and the other would integrate the sticks into their growing nest.
Once we got all the way up to the castle we shed our shoes (as is normal for these old restored buildings, and really any number of restaurants, houses, etc. in Japan) and climbed up. The castle had lots of displays — models of the way the town and castle would have looked through different times in history, impressive sets of armor and helmets, swords and bows and arrows, descriptions of important points in history revolving around the castle, and finally, some great views from the very top. As with all the castles, the building itself is also beautiful, with dark, weathered wood, steep staircases, and all kinds of defensive features, not the least of which are the 20-foot stone foundations, crowned with the castle itself and its strategic holes for dropping rocks/oil/shooting arrows. The castle towers are also the last line of defense — before you get there you have to overcome the moat, the multiple rings of walls, the outer turrets, and maze of interior buildings and defenses. Some of the castles are more defense-oriented, while some of them were built during more peaceful times as administrative centers.
The castles are also usually ringed with beautiful gardens and temples, and Matsue was no exception. After we exited the castle we wandered through gardens, past a spring called ‘hair whirl pond’ because, as the sign said, when low it resembled the whirl of hair in the bottom of a drain. How… poetic? We saw an Inari shrine, and then headed over to a historic samurai’s house, which has been preserved so that visitor’s can see how the samurai would have lived. Interestingly enough, the samurai house was the least pretty of the three we saw on this trip — the other two, the merchant’s house in Kurashiki, and another coming up outside Shimonoseki, were more spacious and attractive. I’m not sure if that’s a function of this particular house, or a general trend. There is a strong emphasis on the division of space, between private family-space at the back of the house, and public rooms and guest rooms toward the front.
Next up on our itinerary was Gesshoji temple and the accompanying Matsudaira graveyard, housing the tombs of a number of important personages, lined with hundreds of stone lanterns and also housing a very large turtle statue, which is rumoured to get up and walk about late at night. I found the graveyard actually creepy — and graveyards don’t usually phase me at all, but it was cold and silent, and something about the stone lanterns all in attendance on their dead lords, just struck spine-tingling chord. The turtle on the other hand was pretty cute, and like the terp statues around UMD, I felt the need to rub its nose for luck.
We debated our next move thoroughly, since it was freezing, and the wind off the water was only more so, but lake Shinji is beautiful and has a lovely island, complete with Tori, and some wandering scholar statues which stand guard over the river mouth into the city. So we got off our trolley and and braved the wind, also getting some fun shots of a very colorful kimono in the process. Once the next trolley came by though, we were frozen-through, and ready to call it a day. We did a little shopping for O-miyage (Japanese souvenirs from specific places, usually food) and then found a lovely little seafood restaurant to have dinner. I had 100-year plum wine, which I love, it’s made a little like brandy I guess, but it’s sweet and tart at the same time. We also got Hotaru Ika (firefly squid — they’re small squid that glow in the water, and are in season from march-may in a couple of specific areas around Japan.) which came in a really pungent honey mustard sauce. We also got some little steamed clams (another local specialty) some grilled fish, and a seafood pizza (less authentic, but more filling). Unfortunately we got sortof driven out of the restaurant by the guys next to us who were chainsmoking. We got back to the hotel and did our best to make our clothes stink less of smoke, then crashed.
The next morning we decided to grab some breakfast then head back to watch the herons some more. The locals looked at us like we were crazy, with our bottles of tea and our cameras, but it was a nice way to start the day. Then we grabbed our bags and got back on a train, this time headed for Shimonoseki!