The city of Matsue in Shimane Prefecture is famous for its tea culture. One of three major tea culture centers in Japan, rumour has it that consumption of matcha green tea in Matsue is five times that of the national average. The traditional tea ceremony in Japan is enjoyed with wagashi, a traditional Japanese sweet, so it comes as no surprise that Matsue is also renowned for this delicate confectionery.
Made with shiratama flour (refined rice flour) with a sweet tsubu-an (red bean) filling, the wagashi is intentionally sweet to balance out the bitterness of the matcha. Wagashi come in many intricate shapes, but craftsmen are usually inspired by natural forms like flowers and fruits, seeking to emulate and reproduce their beauty through the confectionery. Blessed with four seasons with unique flora and fauna to represent each of them, seasonality in Japan has become an important theme in wagashi, and the sweet is often designed in anticipation of the arriving season.
Meimei-An Tea House - Discover the history of tea ceremonies in Matsue
It all began with Lord Matsudaira Fumai, 7th Lord of the Matsudaira family that governed Matsue for a long time during the Edo Period. A highly cultured ruler, Lord Matsudaira's benign governance and deep appreciation for tea ceremonies quickly spread amongst his citizens and caused Matsue to forever more be associated with this culture.
Meimei-An was designed by Lord Matsudaira himself, and the original teahouse was restored in 1966 in commemoration of the ruler. You can visit the original tea house, learn about how tea ceremonies were conducted in the past and then partake in a tea ceremony yourself in a beautifully constructed adjoining tea pavillion.
Kiharu Kissa, Matsue History Museum - Wagashi freshly-made by a national treasure
Matsue History Museum is a great place to go to learn about the history of the city. At the same time, it also features a quaint tea house Kiharu Kissa, where you can have tea and wagashi while enjoying views of a beautiful stone garden right outside.
Uniquely, you can watch the master craftsman at work here, creating masterpieces right in front of your eyes. I did not know it then, but the craftsman here is Mr Itami Tsugio, who has been awarded the official title of 'Contemporary Master Craftsman' by the royal family and has represented Japan in overseas symposiums. I should've known, however, judging by the groups of appreciative fans quietly watching the master at work.
Karakoro Art Studio - Learn to make your own wagashi right here in Matsue
If you would like to try your hands at creating wagashi, look no further than Karakoro Art Studio. This handicraft studio offers lessons in wagashi-making that is popular with locals and tourists alike. The lessons are easy to follow, whether you know Japanese or not, because the master will carefully explain while making the wagashi along with the class. Of course, you will be able to bring your handmade wagashi home with you, which makes for an awesome and delicious souvenir.
The wagashi-making lessons are available daily with the exception of Wednesday. There are two sessions a day, at 11:00am and 2:00pm. Reservations are required so that they may prepare the necessary ingredients, but need not be made exceptionally early. Personally, I called just 2 hours ahead and the studio was able to accommodate me with no problems.
Besides the above must-visit spots, Matsue is home to many other master craftsmen whose amazing techniques are responsible for some of the most exquisite wagashi found in the entire country. Many wagashi shops are available all around the city so you are never far from a piece of this edible art. If you are visiting Shimane be sure to head to Matsue for a relaxing day of delicious tea and beautiful wagashi.
The contact information within this article is for the Matsue History Museum, where Kiharu Kissa is located. For Karakoro Art Studio, please visit the linked article.