When your feudal lord is a tea master, high quality tea is the decree. During the Edo period, Matsudaira Harusato, Lord Fumai, established his own tea school in Matsue, Shimane, his own style of tea ceremony, and commissioned teahouses in what would become one of Japan’s most important tea centres. Rivers and canals flow beyond the castle walls through this pretty capital, known as The Venice of Asia, while gardens venerate the surrounding land. The tradition of tea that has been infused here over centuries has created a culture steeped in romance and purity of life.
Pola Inc., the esteemed Japanese cosmetics house, holds the annual Japan Beautiful-Skin Prefecture Grand Prix. Every Prefecture is ranked according to the beauty of their women’s skin. Shimane has been awarded number one year after year. What’s the secret? In addition to the pristine environment, it has to do with the simple lifestyle that involves the appreciation of tea and time.
Kyoto-style tea emphasizes ceremony, but in Shimane it’s about casual enjoyment in everyday life. Matcha, whisked, frothy, bitter tasting and nutrient-rich is ubiquitous and invigorating. After just one day, I want to be a matcha man.
As with so many teahouses that dot the landscape, the emphasis is on the panoramic views of meticulous gardens—an essential ingredient to the calming tea experience. At Meimei-an Teahouse, established by Lord Fumai in the 18th century, the view of the castle through the tea garden is marvelous. Seated on the tatami floor of the Kiharu open-air café at the Matsue History Museum, popular wagashi chef and “Contemporary Master Craftsman” Tsugio Itami showcases his daily selection from the confectionary bar, offering his original wagashi prepared a la minute. For all things green tea, we visit Nakamura Cha Ho’s green tea emporium, including tea infused with cherry blossoms. Earthenware and green tea pots with intricate designs are specific to different styles of tea and ceremony. In the garden teahouse we sample a range of high-grade matcha.
There is no shortage of exquisite gardens in Shimane. In the centre of Daikonshima (radish island), we dine at Yuushi-en Garden on crab soup and shijimi clams. Seated facing the window we admire the magical vista. Is it even real? Or is it a vivid painting? Walking through this manicured oasis and its 250 types of featured peonies, we’re intoxicated by the sweetness in the air. Upon exit, an adjacent ginseng museum is a magnet for those seeking roots, juice and beauty products.
The Adachi Museum of Art has been recognized by the Journal of Japanese Gardening as Japan’s number one garden for 11 consecutive years. Every pebble, every leaf, every blade of grass is immaculately maintained. Following the winding path, each vantage point is more breathtaking than the one before. The long narrow windows of the garden teahouse appear as poetic hanging scrolls. It’s as if the Gods and the gardeners fell in love. I could stare at this landscape all day knowing that I’m gazing upon the most awe-inspiring display of horticulture in all Japan.
Peacefully meandering through Matsue by the Horikawa Gondola under low hanging trees, past turtles, ducks, river fish and exotic birds, we lean forward, pressing our faces against the table to avoid decapitation. The bridges are so low that, while singing Japanese folk songs to us, our boat captain pushes a button to close the awning within an inch of our heads. This is the best way to view Matsue Castle, one of Japan’s few remaining originals, and the architecture of this samurai era town.
As the sun sets over Lake Shinji, we watch as couples and families gather at yet another designated viewing spot. It is amazing that a people can care so much about every moment and every detail, and it is their attention and respect for these refinements that make the greatest impressions.