Monday, September 28, 2015

Shimane Guide: Matsue Edition

A view from the top of Matsue Castle

Matsue is the largest city and capital of Shimane prefecture.It is easy to access by train or bus from any major city in Japan. From Matsue station, nearly everything is within walking distance.

I lived here for a few weeks when I first moved to Japan. I frequented the Starbucks in Matsue Station, which, at the time, was the only Starbucks in Shimane.

If you’re coming from a big city, you are probably interested in a more local coffee experience, so I recommend Imagine Coffee. It is open from 12:00pm-11:00pm, and always busy. I like to grab a seat at the bar counter and chat up the friendly owner.

For sightseeing, Matsue Castle is within walking distance from the train station. The inside of the castle is very basic, as was actually a fortress, and was never designed to be  residence. The gardens around the castle are beautiful and definitely worth some time.
Castle Information in English. 

Nearby the castle is a gem of a teahouse,  Mei-Mei An. It's a bit hard to find, on a small road with a sign in Japanese, up a flights of stairs and tucked into the jungle. But it is well-written about, so it can't be that hard to find. Go here to sample local Matsue sweets and matcha.
MeiMei An's website (in Japanese).
Information in English.
Blogger profile.

One of my favorite things to do in Matsue is walk around the beautiful downtown area by Shinji Lake. There are many artsy stores and restaurants, and at night, I come back out for a night run along the lake. 

Map of Matsue

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Lighthouses, Lattes, Lobster, and Libraries: My trip to Maine

Maine has been on my bucket list for a while. A long while. Since precisely September 2006. And how do I know that so precisely? Because that’s when Vogue published Arthur Elgort’s “The Maine Event” with model Coco Rocha, and I fell in love for life. Maybe  it was because I was looking at those images from my florescent-lit cubicle in sunny Orange Country, California. Maybe it was because I hated the sun and the palm trees and the perpetually warm weather that I dreamed of a life entirely different from the one I was living. I dreamed of the opposite corner of America. A cold snowy place. A place with lighthouses and rocky shorelines. A lonely and isolated place. Somewhere to fall quietly in love.

That place was Maine, and these photos were what fueled a fantasy that lasted nearly a decade.

I tried to go to Maine before. I tried every which way. After all, I'm not the type of person to keep something unchecked on my bucket list for that long. But Maine was put on the backburner when I quit my job in California to travel for two months in Japan, anad a month in Europe n 2008. It was cast aside when I moved to Oregon and started my life over. In 2009 I bought tickets on Greyhound from Boston to Augusta. (Why on earth I chose Augusta I do not know). But that Greyhound bus departed without me. Due to work commitments I had to postpone my trip to Boston, and when I finally went  to Massachusetts in 2010, there was no time for Maine, a mere 2-hour drive north. Maine was moved down the list while I traveled in Scandinavia, the middle east, and Taiwan. Maine was almost forgotten when I moved to Japan, then traveled around SE Asia for 6 months. But when I retuned to Oregon, I received an invitation to a wedding in Raymond, Maine. The date was September 2015. Nine years after the Vogue photo shoot. 

Thus I began planning my great trip to Maine. I knew a few things for certain.

I would go alone. That’s how I always envisioned it. That’s how it had to be. I had many offers for company. My partner, friends in Portland, friends in Boston. But I knew this trip had to be a solo one.

I would rent a car and road trip all over the state. No more Greyhound. Maine is a state you need to explore with independence. There was too much to see and too little time for me to rely on public transportation.

I would explore the coast and inland. The first part of my drive would be along the winding coastline, which all the quaint seaside towns and lighthouses. The problem is, this is also the most touristy part of Maine, and I hate tourists. I wanted to get a look at life on the inside, so I would drive back through the cities and capital.

I would focus my trip on a few things I wanted to indulge, the lighthouses along the coastlattes at every major café in Portland, lobster eaten as many ways as possible, and small town libraries. I made meticulous list. I planned every day of the journey.

When I boarded the plane for my midnight flight to Boston I was overwhelmed with anticipation. This would be a six-hour red-eye journey, then two-hour shuttle bus ride from Boston Logan Airport to Portland, Maine. It didn’t feel real. After nine years of dreaming I was finally flying through the darkness to meet my dream in p the other side. What if reality couldn’t live up to my fantasy? After all, my dream was based on a Vogue photo shoot, hardly a good benchmark for real life. What if I didn’t like Maine? What if I got lonely?  But I had to get ready to face real Maine, and real me….

Thursday, September 24, 2015

First Impressions: Thoughts from Hanoi

I’m sitting on the second floor balcony of a cafe in a busy intersection. The street is shaped like a starfish and we are in the crevice of one of his limbs. In the  morning an incense shop caught fire and perfumed the entire city. I arrived to find only a pile of wet twigs in front of the three-story building. A lone fireman still not he top floor, spraying rusty brown water on the sopping wooden mess below.

Now it’s dusk and the sky is the color of ice. We didn’t see the sun all day due to the fog or the smog, not sure which it is. Everything in the city has a halo in the distance, as though I’m looking out of wet eyes, and the view is slightly better above the surface of the water than below. The sky dims slowly, but early here. It’s not even 5:30 and already I could start using phrases like “after dark.” A brass band of car horns rises from the street below. In the pauses between each piercing trumpet is not silence but the purr of engines, a soft rhythmic drumming. One would hope that as the sky softens the melody would as well, but it doesn’t. As if inspired by the darkening skies the lights flick on and the sound intensifies. When the light evaporates, the music rises to reclaim it’s place.

First impressions are powerful. They also cannot be planned nor are they things that can be prepared for. I would have liked to arrive in Hanoi in the daytime, after having spent seven days in Vientiane and having nothing to do on the last day but pass time, I would have liked to greet the city in it’s daylight hours. To see clearly the streets on which I road for the airport into the city. To have dinner at a proper restaurant and maybe even pass the evening at a cafe. But instead I arrived just after 9:00 pm. Even through the tiny airplane window in the darkness I could see that everything was fuzzy. We didn’t leave the airport with our driver until nearly 10:00 pm. The road was wide and edged with orange lights for miles. Beyond that though was darkness, it could have been wilderness and I wouldn’t have known. Unable to see beyond the road to either side, I was mystified.

When the driver fastened his seatbelt I was immediately wishing that mine worked in the back seat. His driving was not erratic but concerning in some ways. He followed close behind cars, cut them off in narrow passageways. He was predictable at least, and I somehow felt that if I focused carefully on his driving I could control it. As though watching him drive would save us from an accident. The driver’s horn sounded like an oboe. A gentle, pulsating sound with varied notes. I almost wanted him to use it. I waiting in anticipation for someone to leap in front of the car so the pretty oboe could be heard again.

- December 25, 2014, Comga Cafe

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Vietnam Airlines Review

On December 24th, Christmas Eve, I took a night-flight from Vientiane to Hanoi. I didn't think about the correlation with the holidays, so the fact that arriving at 9:00 pm meant that I wouldn't be eating dinner until midnight. Instead I was just happy that the ticket was cheap and that Vietnam Airlines has no recent crashes. 

The one-hour long flight was not memorable, but the best part was the free airline magazine, which was full of colorful propaganda. I wonder if this was translated form Vietnamese into English, because I have a hard time believe that anyone would write such hyperboles in English. My favorite phrases  are "passionate heart and rare literary and martial talents"  and "worked without rest of the revolution of the nation."

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Shimane Guide

Matsue Castle, in Matsue, Shimane

Welcome to My Shimane Guide!

This little-known, little-explored prefecture is a sight for all types: the  savvy traveler, jaded with the beaten path in Japan, the twenty-first century romantic, seeking isolation and adventure, the cultural nomad, on a quest for novelty and quiet excitement.

My first experience in Shimane was when I traveled to the  Izumo Taisha via the overnight train from Tokyo. Since that time, I felt a special connection to this prefecture, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to spend a year living in Kawamoto, Shimane, a town of 3,000 people. During that year, I was able to travel around the prefecture nearly every weekend. I also met many local Japanese people who took me to places I would not have been able to find on my own. I decided that I want to share the wealth of knowledge I acquired, so that any English-speaker thinking of traveling to Shimane on their own will have access to the same resources, or, at the very least, be able to learn about a part of Japan that eludes even the Japanese.

Shimane 101
Shimane is the least densely populated prefecture in Japan. The local industry is largely agricultural. With more and more young people moving out of Shimane to find work in the cities, 1 out of every 8 houses in the prefecture is abandoned.

Shimane occupies a long stretch of coastline on the Sea of Japan. Most of Japanese’s major cities  (Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Hiroshima) are located on the Pacific Ocean side. For those who do not know, there is a big different in climate from the Pacific Ocean side (call Sanyo) to the Sea of Japan side (called San-in). San-in weather is extreme. Winter is distinguished by long months of snow and little sunshine.

Since 2014  Shimane has slowly been picking up traction because  Princess Noriko of the imperial family married the son of the head priest in Izumo Taisha, and now people from all over Japan are making the pilgrimage there. When I first traveled to the Taisha in 2010, Izumo was a ghost town. When I returned in 2014, it was a bustling tourist destination. My photographs of the town and train station are now sadly outdated, and will live forever as a time capsule on this blog. It is likely, too, that this guide will soon be outdated and serve as nothing more as a artifact of a particular place at a particular time. 

I'm breaking this guide up into sections, starting from east to west. Click on the links below to check out each place:

Masuda City Guide

I would also like to promote other English-language bloggers in Shimane, and I will be providing links to their blogs, in various posts.
For general Shimane Information I recommend these website:

More Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan: a photoblog from one a long-tiem resident of Shimane
Iwami Travel: travel information in English
Made in Matsue: an in-dept website about all things in Shimane's Capital city

Other articles about Shimane's strangeness:
Read about our snarky mascot here and here
Women apparently have the best skin in Japan.
Another account of the night train to Izumo.  

Touchdown Tokyo

Every time I fly to Japan, I have this routine of changing clothes in one of the large, accessible stalls in the arrivals lobby. I would do ...