Puppet Ponyo poses in front of Matsue Castle ;b
One of many tributes to Lafcadio Hearn
-- and I hope this photo gives an idea why! :)
For many tourists and travellers, "Japan" is pretty much just Tokyo and Kyoto -- and the first time I visited the Land of the Rising Sun, back when I was 14 years old, with a tour group led by an uncle who worked as a tour guide), those two cities were indeed on the intinerary.
But even on that first visit, I realized that there's so much to this amazing country than just those two famous destinations; not least due to the tour including stops at Mount Aso (though it wasn't until years later that I managed to get up to the top of the active volcano) and Nagasaki (which is inextricably associated with the atomic bomb that was dropped on it). And in the years since, I've visited a number of other parts of Japan that many people outside of the country have never heard of (e.g., Shirakawa-go) and whose mention causes more than one Japanese person I've said it to to laugh out loud, seemingly in disbelief (notably Kokura and Dazaifu).
Although Matsue is reputedly a favorite travel destination for many Japanese, it is apparently another unlikely place for non-Japanese to venture to. One reason for this is that this city on Honshu's San-in Coast is not the easiest to get to for international visitors. To give an idea of what I mean: after flying into Kansai International Airport (the nearest major airport to Matsue) on a three and a half hour flight from Hong Kong, I spent five and hour hours on three different trains -- a Limited Express train from the airport to Shin Osaka, the shinkansen (bullet train) from Shin Osaka to Okayama, and another Limited Express train from Okayama to Matsue -- to get to my main base for this vacation!
When asked why I had chosen the capital city of Shimane Prefecture to visit this time around, I mentioned Matsue-jo (which, like those at Himeji and Bitchu-Takahashi, is one of just 12 original castles left in Japan) along with Matsue's relative proximity to places such as the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Iwami Ginzan silver mine and its cultural landscape, and the sand dunes of Totorri. And Matsue's castle was indeed one of the places I visted on the first day of this recent Japan trip.
Constructed in the early 17th century by a local lord after the last great war of feudal Japan, Matsue-jo never saw battle despite being designed for warfare (rather than primarily as a residence, as was the case with many other castles). Although its keep looks deceptively "squat", Matsue's is the third tallest as well as second largest of the 12 original castles, with splendid 360 degree views of the city and is surroundings are to be had from its top floor -- accessible via increasingly steep wooden stairs.
Two other places I visited on my first day in the castle town (really just a half day, since I got in after 1pm) had associations with a man who wasn't born in the city, didn't die there and, in fact, only lived there was around a year. Greece-born Lafcadio Hearn is nonetheless considered a favourite son of Matsue -- with tributes to him to be found in many parts of the city that he loved and wrote about, including the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum (curated by his great-grandson Bon Koizumi) and the local craft brewery (whose brews are labelled Beer Hearn!), both of which are within walking distance of Matsue-jo.
At Matsue Castle, I noticed that there was a board on which the time of the day's sunset had been posted -- and got to gathering over the course of my stay in the city that sunset viewing's a big deal in Matsue. In particular, viewing sunsets on the banks of Lake Shinji, the larger of two lakes that the city is situated between, is something which many people -- locals and visitors -- make a point to do. And suffice to say that I loved the sunset views on Lake Shinji so much that I ended up checking them out on not just one but two days during my stay in this city that I now associate with its impressive castle, an interesting man who was born European but died Japanese, and truly glorious sunsets. :)