Japan (April 2019): Matsue and Izumo

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The largest city on the San-in coast, Matsue (pop. over 200,000) is the capital of the Shimane prefecture. It is a pleasant city with a center wedged between two lakes (Shinji and Nakaumi), a short distance south of the Sea of Japan. It is home to one of the twelve feudal castles that have survived the Meiji restoration and are considered original. Izumo, some 35 km west of Matsue, is the location of the Izumo Taisha shrine, the second most important Shinto shrine in Japan after Ise. The entire area has been ruled for a little over 200 years by 10 successive lords of the Matsudaira clan, until the beginning of the Meiji era in 1868.

 

Matsue:

 

View over central Matsue from the top floor of the castle, on a gloomy-weather afternoon.

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The Matsue castle was built in 1611 (Edo era). Its keep stands on top of a small hill surrounded by a wide moat and other canals. Despite (or perhaps because of) its dark silhouette and intimidating martial look it has never been attacked. It is the second largest original castle in Japan.

 

The Matsue′s castle keep seen from different viewpoints.

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Views of the castle moat, known as Horikawa.

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Moat and lower walls of the castle at night.

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Jozan Inari shrine, located in the northern part of the castle grounds delineated by the moat. It is surrounded by hundreds of fox statues, some old, some new.

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In the well-preserved former residence of Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). Son of an Irish father and a Greek mother, Hearn was a writer best known for his books about Japan. He spent the last 14 years of his life in Japan, including 15 months teaching English in Matsue. His residence is located north of the castle on the other side of the moat. In one of his books, ″Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan″ (published in 1894), Hearn wrote about the ″monster tortoise of Gessho-ji″ in Matsue (see further down in this page).

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In a former samurai residence (buke-yashiki) built in the mid-18th century, a short distance from the Lafcadio Hearn residence.

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Meimei-an, a tea house built in 1779 by Matsudaira Harusato (1751-1818), the 7th lord of the Matsue domain, who was renowned as a tea master under the name Matsudaira Fumai. Lord Fumai considered that tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism pursue the same goal.

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Traditional Japanese matcha green tea with two local delicacies, served at the Meimei-an teahouse. The green cake, called Wakakusa, is made of young bud of tea plant mixed with rice flour. The yellow one, Nataneno Sato, represents white butterflies in a field of yellow flowers.

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Located 1km west of the castle, the Gessho-ji Buddhist temple is one of the most interesting (and most quiet) sites in Matsue. It is the family temple of the Matsudaira clan. Gessho (meaning ″lit up by moonlight″) was the name of the mother of the first Matsudaira lord, Matsudaira Naomasa.

 

- In the temple′s prayer hall.

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- View from the study/tearoom of the temple over a garden in the back.

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- Paintings, calligraphy, and bronze figurine on display in the temple buildings.

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- The temple is also the resting place of the first 9 feudal lords of Matsue and their family. The 10th (and last) lord of Matsue, who moved to Edo (now Tokyo) after the Meiji restoration, is buried there. Each of the 9 lords occupies a distinct parcel of the cemetery delineated by rows of lanterns and fronted by a Karamon-style gate with intricately carved doors. The parcel of the first lord (Matsudaira Naomasa) is the largest, with a pond and a bridge.

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[The carving on the door on the right represents a guardian at the entrance of the grave of the sixth lord of Matsue, Matsudaira Munenobu.]

 

- Entrance and pond of the parcel of the first Matsudaira lord (Naomasa).

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- Giant stone turtle, called Juzohi-no-Okame (meaning Longevity Monument of the Giant Turtle), located in the parcel of Matsudaira Munenobu. This is the ″monster tortoise of Gessho-ji″ mentioned in Patrick Lafcadio Hearn′s book ″Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan″.

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Views of lake Shinji.

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Light tower on the eastern shore of Lake Shinji.

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Boats on the Ohashi river that connects lakes Shinji and Nakaumi, next to the northern extremity of the Shinjiko Ohashi bridge.

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Unconventional shop located along the northwestern section of the castle moat.

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Izumo:

 

Stone mural in the main street of Izumo. It illustrates the story of Kunibiki (meaning ″Land Pulling″) related in the Izumo Fudoki, a compilation of ancient stories: a local deity finds the land around Izumo too small, looks across the Japan Sea, sees land from in four different places, pulls it across the sea, and attaches it to Izumo, thus making the province larger. A discussion of the possible interpretations of this ″land stealing″ story can be found here.

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Old Taisha train station. Built in 1912 during the Meiji era, remodeled in 1924 during the Taisho era, this station had its service terminated in 1990. Its shrine-inspired architectural style is unusual for a train station.

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Izumo Taisha shrine, the second most important Shinto shrine in Japan, is dedicated to Okuninushi. People come here to pray for harmony in human relationships, especially marriages.

 

- Bronze torii at the entrance of the shrine complex.

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- Views of the main shrine (Honden), where Okuninushi, Shinto god (kami), is believed to reside. Although the shrine has existed since at least the 7th century, this building dates from 1744. It is not open to the public.

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- Large shimenawas (sacred twisted ropes made of rice straw) at the entrances of the Haiden prayer hall constructed in 1959 (left) and the Kagura hall (right and below). The current Kagura hall was built in 1981 and is used for traditional events, such as Kagura dance performances and wedding ceremonies. Its shimenawa is the largest in Japan, 13.5m long and weighing 5 tons.

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- Statues of cow and horse near the entrance of the shrine complex. Rubbing their heads is believed to bring good fortune and wisdom. In Shinto horses are regarded as intermediates between the human world and the world of gods.

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- Sengen Kokusokan (千家国造館), a residence of the Izumo Taisha priest, next to the Izumo Taisha shrine.

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- Bronze statue of young Okuninushi depicting a scene from Kojiki (″Records of Ancient Matters″), a collection of myths and oral traditions concerning the origin of the Japanese archipelago (different from the Izumo Fudoki previously mentioned). The statue is located on the right side of the pine-tree alley (called Matsu-no-sando) leading to the Izumo Taishi shrine.

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Tiny shrine on a large rock called Bentenjima on the Inasa beach, 1.3km west of the Izumo Taisha shrine.

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The Hinomisaki shrine located on the coast of the Sea of Japan some 6km NW of the Izumo Taisha shrine. By facing sunset this shrine is believed to protect Japan during night time.

 

- Left: entrance gate. Right and below: lower part of the shrine dedicated to Amaterasu, the Shinto goddess of the sun and the universe.

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- Upper part of the shrine dedicated to Susano, the Shinto god of the sea and storms (and the brother of Amaterasu).

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Drying fish in the small port next to the Hinomisaki shrine.

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