Field Report: Slurping, sipping, and stepping my way around Matsue, Japan (07 July 2015)

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Matsue’s eponymous castle might be its most famous attraction, but a single leisurely afternoon spent in this historic corner of Shimane Prefecture allowed me to sample a few other treasures that I’d completely missed on my first visit here.

That first visit was back in the spring of 2013. At that time, the skies were clear, the sun was shining brightly, and the sakura trees on the grounds of Matsue Castle were crowned with clouds of pale pink blossoms.

Fast forwards to the summer of 2015. The skies were lead-grey, the sun could barely force its light through the thick cloud cover, and the trees were dripping wet with rainwater. But rather than allow the weather to put a damper on things, I decided to slip into a relaxed pace and enjoy the city without puttering about like an overambitious tourist with an overstuffed itinerary.

After my morning visit to the Adachi Museum of Art in nearby Yasugi, I sped back to Matsue on a limited express service. It was right about lunchtime when I arrived, so I poked around the restaurant floor of a department store near the station and settled on Ippuku, a shop specialising in Izumo soba. My original plan was to try this dish on its native turf, but my sightseeing schedule in Izumo ended up consuming most of the available time on the day I was there, so I had my first taste in Matsue instead. (Since they’re neighbouring cities in the same prefecture, I’d still count this as an authentic local-cuisine experience.)

I’d like to write a separate report documenting the meal in more detail, but let’s slurp up a sneak preview.

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This is Izumo soba served warigo style, consisting of three stacked bowls of noodles – each with a different topping – and a selection of condiments on the side. The specific dish I chose on this occasion was the 三宝割子 (sanpō warigo / 860 yen), with the “three treasures” (sanpō) being toppings of egg, tororo imo, and mountain vegetables.

There’s an interesting trick to eating a warigo soba set. The first part sounds conventional enough: add sauce and condiments to the first bowl, mix the lot up, enjoy. Easy peasy.

What might strike some as a tad strange is the part that comes next. After consuming the contents of the first layer, the diner can then pour what remains of the “used” sauce and the topping from the uppermost bowl into the one underneath, adding (if desired) a little more “fresh” sauce and condiments to bring the flavour back up to strength. Once finished, the diner can then tip the mingled residues into the third and final bowl. This way, the sauce accumulates new notes of flavour with every pouring, and each subsequent bowl is enriched by a subtle hint of the toppings in the one that had come before.

With lunch out of the way, I headed north towards the city’s most prominent landmark, Matsue Castle. My target on this occasion wasn’t the castle, however: I’d already been there on a previous visit and chose to orient myself towards another attraction located very close by.

The Matsue History Museum (松江歴史館, Matsue Rekishikan) was a fairly new addition to the cityscape, but its façade – designed to resemble that of an Edo-period samurai mansion – made it seem as if it had been part of the neighbourhood for centuries.

It’s a small but quite excellent facility, and I do recommend paying a visit in order to gain a better perspective on the origins and significance of the many historic sites scattered around Matsue.

After viewing the exhibits, I decided to take things easy and enjoy an afternoon tea break in Kissa Kiharu (喫茶きはる), a tearoom and confectionery shop located within the museum building.

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I ordered a matcha set, consisting of a bowl of freshly whisked green tea served with a small traditional sweet in the shape of a fish. The delicately sculpted confection – a fine example of jōnamagashi (上生菓子), which refers to a particularly high-quality type of freshly made wagashi often served at tea ceremonies – looked like such a beautiful work of art…

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…that I ordered a box to take away with me. There was a large selection of exquisitely designed jōnamagashi on offer, and it was painfully hard to choose just four to include in my package.

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I consumed all four not long afterwards, since fresh wagashi are meant to be eaten within a short period from the time they’re made. (Though tearing apart and chewing on these finely crafted expressions of the Japanese confectioner’s art was almost as difficult as narrowing the selection at the shop.)

With my body relaxed and spirits refreshed, I stepped back out into the rain-soaked city and headed for another area a little further to the west, but still very close to Matsue Castle.

Running for about half a kilometre along the castle’s northwestern moat is a street named Shiomi Nawate (塩見縄手). Along one side of the road is a row of old houses, including a complete samurai residence (武家屋敷, buke yashiki), as well as a couple of sites related to the life of the Meiji-era writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). It’s a great place for a stroll – although the busy roadway does spoil the atmosphere somewhat – and the houses offer a glimpse into the domestic life of prosperous families during the Edo Period.

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With that, my brief second visit to Matsue came to a satisfying close. The following morning, I sped off to another old castle town where the main attraction isn’t its castle, but soaring hills of wind-sculpted sand that are about as out of place in Japan as one can possibly imagine.

All that and more will be told in the next post.

Until then, cheerio.

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