by Joe, staff writer of japan-guide.com
2015/01/29 - Crabs, Peonies and Castle Cruises in Shimane
Stretching along the rural southern coast of the Sea of Japan, Shimane Prefecture isn't always thought of among Japan's top winter destination lists. But like many places off-the-beaten path in Japan, Shimane quietly enjoys its own special winter traditions that might make travelers want to put it on their radars. Last week, Schauwecker and I made our way to Matsue City, the capital city of Shimane, to discover a few of the area's unique seasonal attractions.
We started our trip at Yuushien Garden, just a half hour outside of the Matsue city center by car or bus. Sitting in the middle of a small, sparsely-populated island at the center of Lake Nakaumi, the Japanese landscape garden felt like a well-kept secret gem for garden lovers.
The relatively new garden has made a name for itself thanks to its huge collection of peony flowers. The garden features a variety of peony and other flowers year round, but in the winter, a special variety of the fluffy flower is on display, sheltered by special straw covers that protect the huge blossoms from the wind and snow. Walking around the large garden, visitors can also enjoy many other lovely, well-maintained features, including a rock garden, waterfalls, and atmospheric moss-covered rocks.
For visitors who may have missed the ideal timing to see the peonies blooming at their best outdoors, the garden also has an impressive indoor exhibit featuring the flower. The garden invited master gardeners from around the world and Japan to contribute to the display, and stopping in during any season would be worth the visit.
After exploring Yuushien Garden, we made our way to downtown Matsue, to the outer walls of Matsue Castle, one of the city's crown jewels. But our target this day wasn't inside the castle walls but around them. Departing from a handful of small docks set up in the castle moat which circles the castle park grounds, small river cruise boats have become a popular way to enjoy the scenery around the castle.
The small boats, which depart every 20 minutes from a handful of departure points around the moat, are driven around the moat and narrow canals that form the Horikawa River by boatmen and boatwomen who share a bit about the history of the area (in Japanese, although recorded announcements in other language are also available). Along the way, the boats pass under several bridges, some of which are so low that the boats' awnings are lowered almost onto riders' heads. In winter, riders can enjoy the cruise while sitting under kotatsu, low tables with built-in heaters that are covered with a blanket, making for a pleasant and rather unique experience. The 50-minute ride costs only 820 yen for visitors with a passport or residence card showing citizenship outside of Japan.
No visit to downtown Matsue would be complete without stopping at Matsue Castle itself. The castle is one of only twelve remaining "original" castles in Japan that are not reconstructed replicas. In addition to the interesting castle museum inside the main keep, just outside the castle walls, the newly-built Matsue History Museum provides interesting exhibits about the city's and castle's history and is also worth a visit.
To finish our winter Matsue day trip, we hunted down the location of a special local eatery. Only operating from mid January through early March, a small makeshift restaurant is set up inside the garage of a Matsue City Port Authority office building along the Ohashi River serving up one of Shimane Prefecture's delicacies: Japanese snow crabs. The small restaurant calls itself Kanigoya, or "small crab shop".
The crabs, which are caught off the Sea of Japan coast to the north, are brought in daily along with other local seafood catches. Customers at the Kanigoya loaded up a tray with the crab(s) of their choice and other seafood and sides, pulled up a seat and grilled their choices on small portable grills at each table. The atmosphere in the crowded garage was warm and lively, and the crab was absolutely delicious. Even though the tradition is only a few years old, Matsue locals have embraced it enthusiastically, and is a great way to experience the local winter flavor of Shimane for any seafood lover.