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Matsue Travel Guide
Matsue is a the capital of Shimane Prefecture on the Japan Sea coast, and has a population of almost 200,000. The city is located on the Ohashi River on the shores of Lake Shinji (Japan's 7th largest lake). Matsue is famous for its beautiful castle. To English-speakers, Matsue City is of interest for its close connection with the life of the Greek-born author who turned Japanese, Lafcadio Hearn. Onsen hot springs, mountains and beaches are all within easy reach of Matsue.
Matsue City is located on the Ohashi River between Lake Shinji to the west and the saline Lake Nakanoumi to the east. This lake- and riverside location has earned Matsue the sobriquet of "city of water."
Most of Matsue's attractions are in a compact area north of the main JR Station and can easily be enjoyed in a day or two of sightseeing.
Everything there is to know about Matsue: history and evolution
The capital of Shimane Prefecture, Matsue is a city of history. Remodeled in the early seventeenth century by the great strategist Horio Yoshiharu, the city was reputed to be impregnable. The Horikawa, navigable canals, were, at the time of their construction, strategic facilities to slow the enemy in case of an attack. Today they have become true attractions on which it is very pleasant to wander by boat.
The horikawa protected, among other things, Matsue Castle, considered one of the best preserved medieval castles in Japan (it is among the last twelve medieval castles still standing). The building is the cultural center of the city, where many come to admire the moat. However, its gardens are also particularly appreciated during hanami, as well as for its camellias and Japanese azaleas.
Originally founded in 1889, the city was passed from hand to hand over the centuries. Harusato Matsudaira, scholar and master of the tea ceremony, ruled the city in the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century and decided to modernize it. It was then that Matsue became particularly famous for its culinary specialty of clams, but also for its seafood in general and the fish caught in Shinji lake, where fresh water and seawater mix. People come to attend the numerous tea ceremonies given there, but the city also attracts worshippers of the Shinto religion due to its proximity to Izumo, a great religious center.
The city has long welcomed numerous samurai, protectors of the Matsudaira family, and the beautiful Buke Yashiki, former home of samurai, bears witness, as does the tea pavilion Meimei-an. Both buildings are located in the historic center of Matsue, north of the castle on Shiomi Nawate street.
The city's main sight is Matsue Castle (Matsue-jo), which dates from 1611 and is one of only a handful of castles in Japan that has not been destroyed by fire or war. Stronghold of the Matsudaira clan, the black-painted wood of the castle's keep gives a menacing effect to the six-story tower.
Matsue Castle has the second largest donjon (keep) of all the twelve remaining original Japanese castles, is the third tallest at 30m and the sixth oldest. Inside are displays of arms and armor and the original shachi (mythical dolphins) of the castle's roof.
From the top floor of the castle there are fine views over the city and surrounding area including Lake Shinji.
Things to see and do in Matsue
Matsue is intimately connected with the life of author Lafcadio Hearn (aka Koizumi Yakumo), who spent the first year of his sojourn in Japan in the city.
Across the moat from Matsue Castle is Lafcadio Hearn's Old Residence - a delightful, small samurai house and garden, where the writer lived from May-November 1891. It was in this house that Hearn began writing two of his most famous books: Kwaidan, a collection of ghost stories, and his classic Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan in which he describes many of his experiences in Matsue.
Virtually next door, in this area known as Shiomi Nawate, is the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, which displays a selection of Hearn's original manuscripts, the writer's desk, quills & ink pot and a number of his beloved Japanese tobacco pipes.
On the same street is the Buke Yashiki, the house of a samurai named Shiomi, which remains exactly as it was when built in 1730. Visitors can peer into the tatami rooms and walk the garden. The Shiomi family were the chief retainers of the lord in Matsue Castle.
In the grounds of Matsue Castle is the Meiji Period Matsue Kounkaku, a Western-style mansion dating from 1903, and which mixes Japanese design with western architecture. Matsue Kyodokan was built for Emperor Meiji, who in the early years of his reign conducted six grand tours of Japan. Many towns in Japan built places for him to stay on the off-chance that he would visit. He never did come to Matsue.
The castle grounds, known as Jozan Park are wonderful in the cherry blossom season and also contain Jozan Inari Shrine, Lafcadio Hearn's favorite shrine, and home to hundreds of fox statues, both ceramic and stone.
The Meimei-an Teahouse dates from 1779 and is considered one of the best preserved in Japan. The entrance fee includes Japanese tea and a traditional sweet. The Tanabe Art Museum displays a fine assembly of chadogu: tea bowls and utensils connected with the tea ceremony. The museum was established in 1979 and is formed from the personal collection of Tanabe Choemon XXIII, a former prefectural governor of Shimane.
Two new museums close to Matsue Castle are the Matsue History Museum and the Matsue Horanenya Museum. The Matsue History Museum is housed in a modern Edo Period style building with exhibits focused on the 400 year history of this castle town and its connection with the tea ceremony. The Matsue Horanenya Museum explains Horanenya - shinto festivals that take place on boats. Rather than parade the kami in their mikoshi around the local streets, they are carried in procession by a series of brightly decorated boats filled with dancers and musicians.
Nestled against a wooded hillside in a quiet neighborhood about 800 meters from Matsue Castle lies Gessho-ji Temple, the family temple of the Matsudaira clan, lords of Matsue Domain.
This is the final resting place of nine generations of lords who ruled over Izumo and Oki for a little over 200 years. The tenth and final Lord of Matsue moved to Edo (Tokyo) after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and was buried there. A run-down Zen temple already stood here in 1664 when the Matsudaira's took over the domain and castle from the Horio Clan. They appropriated the temple and renamed it Gessho, which means "lit up by moonlight" that was the name of the mother of Matsudaira Naomasa, first Matsudaira lord of Matsue.
Situated on the shore of Lake Shinji, Japan's 7th largest lake, and with the large Matsue Castle moat (horikawa) connecting to the Ohashi, Kensaki, Kyohashi, Yonago, and Kitada Rivers, Matsue, is known as the "City of Water."
Horikawa Boat Tour
The waterways of the city are pleasant and contribute to the ambiance of the city. One of the best ways to see Matsue's sights is by boat, and there are three points around the town where one can board the Horikawa Boat Tour: at the Otemae Pier in front of the main entrance to Matsue Castle, the Karakoro Hiroba Pier near Kyohashi Bridge south-east of the castle, and Fureai Hiroba Pier, north-west of the castle. The circular trip takes 40 minutes, though one can get off at any point and rejoin later.
Yuushien Garden is a classic Japanese circuit garden on the small island of Daikonshima in the Nakaumi lagoon near Sakaiminato. A beautiful place to walk, Yuushien has three traditional Japanese restaurants serving locally-sourced food.
Matsue Vogel Park is a huge bird and flower park just one stop on the Ichibata Railway Kitamatsue Line heading west from the terminus at Shinjiko Onsen Station in Matsue.
To the north east of Matsue is Shichirui and the Meteor Plaza. This strange building, designed by Shimane architect Shin Takamatsu, houses an indoor seawater swimming pool, a 500 seat auditorium, and the terminal for ferries to the Oki Islands as well as a museum dedicated to 6.8 kilogram meteor that crashed to earth here in 1992.
Back in town, the modern Shimane Prefectural Art Museum is located on Lake Shinji, west of the station, and has paintings by Monet, sculptures by Rodin, wood-block prints by Utagawa Hiroshige as well as works by contemporary Japanese artists. The museum is a good place to catch the spectacular sunsets over Lake Shinji.
20km east of Matsue in Yasugi is the recommended Adachi Art Museum, a private museum founded by businessman Adachi Zenko in 1970. The Adachi Art Museum showcases contemporary Japanese art by such artists as Kawai Kanjiro and Yokoyama Taikan, set in an award-winning Japanese garden - usually voted Japan's best. Take the JR train to Yasugi Station and an hourly shuttle bus to the museum or a direct bus from Matsue JR Station (50 minutes).
Gassan Toda Castle Ruins are only about 2km away from the Adachi Art Museum and can easily be visited on a trip to the former.
North of town are onsen hot-springs around Matsue-onsen Station on the Ichihata Line which runs north of Lake Shinji to Izumo. A number of hotels and ryokan operate the baths. The Tamatsukuri Hot Springs are to the south west of town and are some of the oldest onsen in the country.
Jozan Inari is the home of the Shikinnen Shinkousai Festival, one of three greatest boat festivals in Japan, involving more than 100 decorated boats. The festival only occurs every 12 years with the last one held in May 2009.
Matsue and Lafcadio Hearn: International relations
While Lafcadio Hearn is considered a classic author in Japan, we often forget that he was born far from the country and Koizumi Yakumo was an alias, linked to naturalization. Born in Dublin to a Greek mother and an Irish father, Lafcadio Hearn traveled widely in France, the United States, Guadeloupe and finally to Japan, where he became a professor of English in Matsue and fell madly in love with Koizumi Setsu, a samurai's daughter, whose name he took.
Well integrated into Japanese society, he wrote about legends of the Matsue region and several essays on Japan. The house he occupied on Shiomi Nawate street is now a museum that gives a good overview of his life and his work. Today, Lafcadio Hearn remains the guarantor of good relations of the region with the English speaking world, including the area of New Orleans in the United States on which he has written. There are indeed similarities between Matsue, the city of water, and the United States region where bayous are everywhere.
Getting Around Matsue
Lakeline Bus With its distinctive retro livery, there is no mistaking the tourist bus for Matsue city in Shimane. The Lakeline Bus starts from the JR railway station and follows a convoluted loop around the city stopping at all the major tourist spots in the town.
After leaving the station the bus passes the Horikawa Boat Trip boarding point and then heads to Matsue Castle. Going around the castle grounds it stops at the new History Museum and the Lafcadio Hearn House before heading out to Gesshoji Temple.
It then heads south to the shore of Lake Shinji and Shinjiko Onsen and the rail line that heads along the north shore of the lake to Izumo Taisha. It then comes back into town before heading south to the Prefectural Art Museum on the south shore of the lake and then finally back to Matsue Station.
The full loop takes 50 minutes. There is a running commentary, in Japanese, but several large screens show the coming stops in English, Korean, and Mandarin. The Lakeline Bus runs every 20 minutes for most of the day. A single journey is 200 yen for adults, 100 yen for children, or an all day pass is only 500 yen for adults, 250 yen for children.
- By Air - Izumo Airport (35km west) and Yonago Airport are the nearest airports. Izumo Airport has flights to Tokyo Haneda Airport (1 hour, 20 mins), Sapporo (2 hours), Fukuoka (1 hour, 15 mins) Osaka Itami Airport (60 mins) and the Oki Islands (30 mins). Yonago Airport connects with Incheon Airport near Seoul in South Korea with Asiana and also has flights to Haneda and Chubu International Airport in Nagoya with ANA.
- By Train - Matsue is a main station on the JR San-in Line, which connects Matsue to Izumo along the southern shore of Lake Shinji and then continues farther to the west. The slower Ichibata Railway Kitamatsue Line runs to the north of the lake between the two cities and is convenient for Matsue English Garden and Matsue Vogel Park. The nearest Shinkansen is to the south in Okayama, from where local trains (Super Yakumo Limited Express) reach Matsue in 2 hours, 20 minutes.
- By Bus/Car - Matsue is located on Route 9. From Okayama follow the Okayama and Yonago Expressways. There are overnight Highway buses from Fukuoka, Nagoya and Tokyo and daily buses to Osaka and Hiroshima. From Nagoya overnight buses leave Nagoya Station at 9pm and arrive in Matsue around 6.30am.
- By Ferry - There are ferries to the Oki Islands from Shichirui and Sakai-minato operated by Oki Kisen.
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