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Touchdown Japan: Rural Matsue's traditional Japanese gardens attract foreign tourists

The Japanese garden at the traditional hotel Minamikan is seen on Jan. 27, 2019. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori)
The sun sets over Shinji Lake on Jan. 27, 2019. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori)

MATSUE, Shimane -- An English-language magazine specializing in Japanese-style gardens began ranking the country's best spots in 2003, aiming to identify such venues based on their true beauty and quality, rather than their scale and high profile. Gardens in the Izumo area, in the southeastern Japan prefecture of Shimane, have ranked high as the region represents a sacred hub of such spots.

In the Journal of Japanese Gardening (JOJG), which launched in 1988, the Adachi Museum of Art, which is located in the Shimane Prefecture city of Yasugi, has been ranked as having the No. 1 garden for 16 years. Last year, the traditional Minamikan inn in the prefectural city of Matsue placed third, beat by Katsura Imperial Villa, or Katsura Rikyu, in the city of Kyoto, in the western prefecture of Japan, which placed second.

"I don't know when the journal's judges visited our inn and how they evaluated us. We just saw it in the news that our garden was ranked third," said Yoshiko Minami, the manager at the inn.

The inn began its operations in 1888. The traditional accommodations are located along the Ohashi River running through the city of Matsue, and its rooms on the second floor offer broad views of Lake Shinji. Famous Japanese writer Toson Shimazaki (1872-1943) enjoyed a five-day stay at the inn in 1927, even though he had originally been scheduled to stay for three nights. In the garden, there is a monument of a haiku that the poet Seishi Yamaguchi (1901-1994) composed about Toson staying there.

Such gardens with tea rooms, called Izumo-style gardens, became popular thanks to Matsudaira Harusato (1751-1818), a beloved local feudal lord who was also a renowned tea master who went by the name of Matsudaira Fumai. "Events were held last year, marking the 200th anniversary of Fumai's death. The Izumo region's tea culture received media coverage, which might have affected the ranking of our Japanese garden," Minami said.

Tan Men Zuang, 33, a Malaysian journalist, visited the garden at the inn and enjoyed lunch, as did Angela Zenarosa, a 21-year-old Filipino. Zuang said that she felt relaxed and peaceful in the well-organized and elegant garden and hoped that one day she could build something similar at her own home. Zenarosa told the Mainichi Shimbun that the beauty of the garden took her breath away and the splendor of the city seemed to be condensed into the garden.

More than 10 million tourists visit Matsue annually partly because Matsue Castle was designated as a National Treasure by the Japanese government in 2015. Compared with sightseeing routes based between Osaka and Tokyo, the city is not easily accessible. But the city is proving a drawcard for foreign tourists hoping to see a traditional side of Japan, home to a castle town by a lake and ancient Shinto myths.

In addition to beautiful gardens, another attraction in the city are the Tamatsukuri hot springs. The site has a long and distinguished history from the time of the aforementioned myths, but did not see many tourists before a pathway was built along the Tamayu River that runs along the 16 inns in the area and the city's Tamatsukuriyu Shrine was revived using the traditional art of making Magatama beads.

Moreover, visiting the Tamatsukuriyu Shrine, Izumo Taisha Shrine in the city of Izumo, and Yaegaki Shrine in the city of Matsue has been marketed as "En musubi no sansha mairi" (visit to three shrines to pray to the god of marriage). The pilgrimmage's popularity has spread through word of mouth, and young female tourists come to the Izumo region not only from Japan but other countries in Asia.

Yukiharu Sumi, 45, president of the company "Tamatsukurionsen machi deco," which develops cosmetic products using hot spring water from the Matsue area to enhance smooth skin, commented, "I think it's good that the town appears somewhat deserted and the natural environment has been preserved."

During the summer holiday period, food stalls open up along the Tamayu River and events are held on a stage every night. Matsue, it appears, is returning to its glory days.

(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, Opinion Group)

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