After the quiet remoteness of Yunotsu, Matsue was a shock. Hesitating before a wall of tourism brochures, I made selections: Matsue’s castle, some matcha tea culture, and the Adachi Museum of Art.
Adachi Museum of Art
I was lazy. I ought to have taken a local train from Matsue to JR Yasugi, followed by a complimentary museum shuttle bus to the Adachi Museum of Art. But I reckoned that with only ten hours to explore Shimane prefecture’s capital city, it was a better use of time to take a taxi.
The 35 minute taxi ride wound up costing just over ¥8000.
It’s immediately obvious from the size of the parking lot and from the fact that the museum has a free dedicated bus shuttle that this garden was a place so special people were willing to travel out of their way to get here.
The “museum of art” refers as much to the outdoor gardens as it does the work of the Japanese artists showcased inside the buildings.
A U.S. magazine that focuses exclusively on Japanese gardens ranked this as the best garden in Japan for a whopping 19 consecutive years. The beauty of the Adachi Museum of Art’s garden is such that it is often referred to as a “living Japanese painting”. Since gardens in Japan are as a rule gorgeous, I was wildly curious to see what made this one so special.
The garden is also a picture.”Adachi Zenko, museum founder
The museum offers a special discount for international guests. Instead of the ¥2300 for adults, international visitors pay ¥2000. Since I was very obviously a foreigner, the woman at the ticketing desk politely asked to see my passport. After showing my passport, I tried to explain that although I was an American, I lived in Yokosuka and did not really qualify for the international discount. No matter – she gave it to me anyway.
I made a beeline for the main attraction, a space with solid walls of crystal clear windows looking into the garden. Safe in the air-conditioned space, the view outside was one of utter perfection, the appearance of an untouched utopia. Every angle was a calendar-worthy picture.
It was somewhat surreal to be observing a garden solely through the window. At other points in the well-designed museum space, there are open-air views.
I think one can make a compelling argument that some of the joy of a garden comes from interaction, from being able to wander through it, being able to sniff and play in it. My favorite gardens are the ones I can go through.
It’s only in separation that the garden becomes art.
Near one particularly exquisite garden viewpoint was a ceremonial tea space Juraku-an offering matcha tea. Since matcha had been on my list of experiences to try that day, I stopped and paid the ¥1000 fee to enter.
Matsue is said to have the strongest matcha tea culture in Japan, with the region reported to consume matcha at a rate five times the national average.
The space was very cleverly designed; the windows to the gardens positioned so that I was initially tricked into thinking I was looking at two gorgeous artwork scrolls.
The matcha was carefully prepared using hot water boiled in a traditional, pure gold Japanese kettle that was rumored to invite longevity and good luck. The cup of matcha was accompanied by a red bean confection that perfectly balanced the slightly bitter matcha. The combination was utterly satisfying.
Post-tea, I continued through the museum buildings to focus on the man-made art indoors. The exhibits showcased Japanese artists’ skill in woodwork, ceramics, and paintings. Regardless of the medium, the unifying theme focused on nature and man’s relationship to nature.
It was a lovely way to spend the morning.
I took the free shuttle from the museum to JR Yasuga station, and caught a local train back to Matsue. From there, it was a short 2 kilometer walk from the train station to Matsue Castle. However, the August sun was so fierce that my shirt was soaked through by the time arrived. I hit up two different beverage vending machines en route.
Matsue’s castle was constructed between 1607-1611. It is unique among castles in Japan in that it is one of only 12 castles to survive in its original wood form.
Once again, at the admission counter a woman requested I complete a COVID contact form and requested to see my passport for an international discount. Not wanting to misrepresent myself, I tried to explain I was an American who lived in Japan, not a “true” tourist. Despite this, she insisted on the discount.
Given Matsue castle’s great beauty and importance, one might expect there would have been more visitors on a Sunday afternoon. The reason there were far fewer might stem from the fact that the castle can only be navigated by five sets of steep stairs. That, and the fact that the temperature was careening past the mid-90s.
At the entrance, visitors were requested to remove their shoes. Plastic bags were provided for guests to carry their shoes while touring the castle. Electric fans tried valiantly to circulate air, but it was a futile attempt. We visitors navigated the steeply set stairs in socks or bare feet, squirting sanitizer on our hands in between floors.
By the time we reached the top floor, every person was wiping sweat and fanning themselves using whatever fan or brochure they had. The views were lovely, and the breeze surprisingly refreshing. However, I didn’t linger long.
Descending, I followed a route behind the castle that led to a wonderful wooded garden. There were no visitors on this particular path, which made me nervous. I consulted the map to make sure I had not wandered into an unauthorized area.
Since there was no one present and the humidity made it difficult to breathe, I removed my mask and headed for Jozan Inari shrine. There had to be a few hundred stone and ceramic foxes at the shrine, and I marveled at my luck at being the only person there.
I tossed my coin, said a prayer, and decided to check out an ancient samurai residence. The former samurai house had been constructed during the Edo period, and the setting was idyllic: it was by the castle canal and a long row of trees. From these trees were strung several wind chimes that emitted pleasant sounds as they responded to the breezes. It was from this vantage point that I decided to go on a Horikawa boat tour.
Exploring the Canals by Horikawa Boat
The canal that had been designed as a security measure to protect Matsue castle was now used to give pleasure cruises. There were three pick-up/drop-off points along the moat. The boats accommodated between 10-12 passengers and provided a unique perspective during a 50 minute tour.
I bought a ¥1200 ticket for the 5 p.m. launch. I was starting to get accustomed to filling out the COVID tracing forms, and by this point decided not to protest the international discount. The woman handed me a complimentary hand fan.
Nihongo daijobo desuka? (Is Japanese okay?)
Nihongo wa perfect.
Some tourists might be hesitant about needing to understand Japanese. As someone whose Japanese is still very, very rudimentary, let me assure you that you don’t need to understand much to travel in Japan – most of the time there are signs and graphics. And if there’s not a graphic, the Japanese will physically demonstrate what it is they want you to do.
From such hand gestures, I knew to remove my shoes before getting on the boat. After we were all seated, the boat driver demonstrated the boat roof compression system.
Although I had read about the compression system that allowed the boat to slide under the lowest canal bridges, I had initially thought the roof was a gimic. Now, as the roof slid down, we all yelped and slithered onto the deck. When the roof compressed, it COMPRESSED.
It was like being the peanut butter in a sandwich.
In the fight to get low, I came within centimeters of smacking heads with the woman across from me. Although masked, we grinned over the unexpected humor of it all – flexibility and some creative contortion is required. As the tallest person on the boat, my movements were the least graceful.
The boat driver flashed four fingers for my benefit and indicated we could expect the roof to lower four more times. With that, we were off.
The canals were extraordinarily lovely, and from this vantage point we were able to experience a perspective we never could have walking. I was surprised by the number of ducks diving for food, by the egrets, and by the utter beauty of the bridges: old stone, new stone, old wood, vine covered. One of the best reasons for choosing a canal tour on a hot summer day is that it is several degrees cooler on the water.
The boat driver provided steady narration on the castle. As we passed under a bridge she sang a sweet folk song.
It was a fantastic late afternoon experience.
Sunset by Shinji Lake
I now moved with urgency to Shinji Lake, said to be one of finest places in Japan to see sunset. All the posters and photos I had seen online of the lake sunset showed the sky in spectacular oranges, reds, and purples. The sun that had shown so brightly all day was now under threat from rain-bearing clouds. I got a few rain splashes heading toward the lake.
The sun heroically won out. A group had already gathered at different vantage points around Shinji Lake; pretty girls in bright patterned yukata, couples, families with young children. I sat on the steps and enjoyed the strong breeze coming off the water. In the distance I could make out two barges, presumably for the summer firework celebration.
Different cultures have different ways of celebrating sunset. Unlike places like Santorini or Key West, there’s no wild cheering, no clinking glasses of alcoholic beverages, no hugging or high-fiving random strangers.
The Japanese simply enjoy watching the sun set, and they do so quietly. It felt like a peaceful, ordinary and natural way to spend a summer evening.
I liked the experience of just being there so much that even though my stomach was rumbling, I decided to stay put.
The sun might have just set, but it the sky was about to get lit up all over again.
By complete chance, my visit aligned with the Matsue Suigosai Fireworks, held the last week in July/first week of August. Had it not been for COVID, there would have been food stalls lining the streets and filling the air with the aromas of summer festival foods, of karaage chicken and yakisoba noodles.
Alas, the food booths were closed. Nonetheless, as twilight built into darkness there was a steady build-up of viewers eager to see the fireworks. The sun might be depended upon to set, but a fireworks display did not happen every day.
It wouldn’t be Japan if it didn’t start and end exactly on time. The fireworks erupted at exactly at 8 p.m.
As with the sunset, there was a minimum of human sound. Only gasps of appreciation. In a country in which 95 percent of the population still wore masks, and which contact tracing was still routine, this colorful, glorious explosion of fireworks gave reason to hope.
It was a semi-return to normalcy.
If You Go
International discounts are offered at almost every tourist destination. So long as COVID continues, expect to fill out contact tracing forms. Discounts are offered at many attractions to international guests who present a passport.
The Adachi Museum of Art gardens are exquisite, but require some effort to get to. They are worth it. To really appreciate the indoor/outdoor nature experience, give yourself at least 2-3 hours.
I happen to adore matcha. There are many tea houses where guests can experience the tradition the classic way, with local confections. Matsue is the right place to gorge on it…go ahead, celebrate tea time!
One of the highlights of visiting Matsue was the canal tour. In the summer, it is wonderfully refreshing to be on the water, and in the colder months, the boat offers heated blankets to keep guests comfortable.
Because the boat roof does compress to fit under the oldest historical bridges, the tour is best suited for those without mobility limitations. If you’re tall, expect to have some good-natured fun as you contort. Hey – it’s an adventure!