While Shimane Prefecture is not recognized as a place for matcha production, Matsue has remarkably emerged as one of Japan’s leading “Tea Cities” due to the community’s profound love and pride in their tea culture. Traditional tea ceremonies grace every corner of Matsue, complemented by numerous wagashi shops and stores specializing in ceramics.
A Little History
Matsue’s connection to the tea ceremony dates back over 200 years, when Matsudaira Fumai assumed lordship of Matsue. As an accomplished tea master, Fumai shared his passion for tea ceremonies with the people of the domain, establishing the distinctive Fumai-ryu (Fumai School or Fumai-style).
Fumai boldly rejected the prevailing trend of using the tea ceremony as a display of status and wealth. His renowned quote, “Making cha-no-yu (tea ceremony) a luxury, exhausting beauty to make it splendid is a distressful thing,” reflects his commitment to returning to the origins of tea ceremony, emphasizing simplicity over opulence. This uncommon attitude during his time, challenging strict rules and rigid traditions, played a pivotal role in democratizing the pleasure of tea, once confined to the samurai class. This school continues to exert its influence in Matsue’s tea landscape and stands as one of the popular tea ceremony schools practiced not only within the city but also across Japan.
The distinctive attributes of the Fumai-ryu are exemplified by its unique sitting and bowing technique. Unlike most schools where the bow commences by placing hands on the ground directly in front, palms open, forming a triangular shape with thumbs and fingers, Fumai’s style differs. In the Fumai Style, hands are positioned ahead and to each side, fingers closed, and knuckles touching the ground, a unique approach rooted in the samurai heritage.
Matsue’s Peculiar Wagashi
Fumai’s influence extends to the wagashi sweet selection, adhering to his specific preferences: wakakusa (“young grass”), yamakawa (“mountains and rivers”), and natane no sato (“rapeseed village”), all of which are still produced today. Consuming these three sweets prior to drinking tea achieves a harmonious balance, complementing the matcha’s bitterness.
In fact, Matsue’s confectionery, crafted to complement matcha, has traditionally leaned towards a sweeter flavor. However, reflecting evolving consumer preferences, there has been a recent shift towards a more restrained sweetness. Notably, Matsue boasts numerous longstanding confectionery stores, each steadfastly maintaining its unique identity, untouched by Western confectionery trends. Remarkably, these establishments not only preserve their heritage but also continually innovate, introducing a succession of new confectionery products.
While Matsue’s traditional Japanese confections are sought-after souvenirs for tourists, the city’s distinctive charm lies in the seamless integration of matcha and traditional confectionery into the daily lives of its residents. This intimate connection adds an authentic and integral aspect to Matsue’s cultural tapestry.
Meimei-an Tea House graces a gentle hill, offering a magnificent perspective of Matsue Castle. This historic tea house, commissioned in 1779 by Lord Fumai, holds a rich legacy. Over the years, it was meticulously cared for by one of the lord’s closest retainers and relocated to its current site in 1966, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the lord’s passing.
Renowned for its distinctive thickly thatched roof, Meimei-an stands as a living testament to the artistry of Japanese architecture. Today, visitors can experience the serene ambiance of this cultural gem and enjoy traditional tea and wagashi in the adjacent tea room, Hyakuso-tei.
Where to Enjoy Tea and Wagashi
As you journey from the railway station towards Matsue Castle, the significance of tea culture in Matsue becomes evident. Tea shops and wagashi sweet stores outnumber convenience stores, emphasizing the city’s deep-rooted connection to this ancient tradition. Along the renowned “Street of Rich Merchants”, stands a wagashi seller in business since 1809, during Fumai’s reign.
Inside the Matsue History Museum, Cafè Kiharu, a Japanese-style cafe, invites patrons to savor the picturesque scenery of an Izumo-styled Japanese garden and the iconic Matsue Castle. You can find delight in the immersive experience of witnessing a wagashi master craftsman skillfully create exquisite confectioneries. The flavors of matcha are paired with intricately crafted original wagashi confections that vary with the changing seasons. It’s an immersive experience where artistry, taste, and ambiance converge, offering a unique and memorable journey through the heart of Japanese tradition.
Each year, Matsue City pays tribute to Fumai’s legacy with an exquisite Grand Tea Ceremony held on the castle grounds. Enthusiasts skilled in the intricacies of matcha, black tea, and green tea ceremonies extend a warm invitation to visitors, offering a delightful taste of their craft’s delicious and elegant artistry. This annual event stands out as a premier destination for both connoisseurs and newcomers, providing a unique opportunity to immerse oneself in the rich tapestry of Japan’s diverse tea culture. Don’t miss this chance to savor the flavors and traditions that make Matsue City a hub for tea enthusiasts from around the world.