In 1951, the government of Japan bestowed the unwieldy title of International Cultural and Sightseeing City on three places: Kyoto, Nara and Matsue. More than half a century later, Kyoto is on every foreign visitor's must-see list and Nara gets more than its share of tourists, too. But how often do you hear about Matsue? Even many Japanese aren't sure where it is. Matsue is the capital of Shimane, one of Japan's most sparsely populated prefectures and one of those that's not connected to the Shinkansen high-speed rail network. Getting there involves crossing the country's spine on ordinary trains to reach the more isolated Sea of Japan side of Honshu island. Matsue sits on the eastern shore of Shinji-ko, a brackish lake so rich in bird life that it holds a spot on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. That nugget of trivia is worth keeping in mind even if you're not a bird enthusiast, for the hawks that prowl Matsue's skies have been known to swoop on unsuspecting pedestrians and make a bold daylight grab for whatever they're eating. In my case, it is a Danish pastry. When the avian mugging occurs, I am walking to Matsue Castle. Perched on a hill in the centre of town, this castle is unusual for Japan in that it's an original, not a modern-day concrete reconstruction, like its higher-profile cousins in Osaka and Nagoya. It's remarkable for another reason, too: unlike many other tourist sites in Asia, where foreigners are expected to pay more than locals for admission, at Matsue Castle (and at a number of other spots around town) showing your overseas passport actually gets you a 50 per cent discount. Half-price ticket in hand, I look around the castle's keep. The interior can only hold one's interest for so long - six floors of display cases containing objects from the castle's 400-year history. The exterior is what's fascinating; with its mostly wooden construction and layer upon layer of tiled roofs and upturned eaves, it looks nothing like a Western style castle. Like many of its European cousins, however, it is surrounded by a moat, and that provides the launch point for a tour of what's sometimes referred to as The Water City. The tour boats head out from the moat into the city's network of canals. The pilots, all aged between 60 and 70, keep up a well-rehearsed patter for the entire journey - I am reminded of Disneyland's Jungle Cruise - and they break into song when boats pass beneath a bridge with the requisite acoustics. To squeeze under the lowest bridges, they flick a switch that lowers the boat's roof until it's just a few centimetres above the passengers' heads. In the course of a 45-minute tour, a boat will pass several places worth revisiting once you're back on land, such as the house where Lafcadio Hearn lived for several years in the late-19th century. A Greek-Irish writer, Hearn is a household name in Japan, where he lived for more than a decade and wrote such tomes as Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan and Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life. Nearby there's Buke Yashiki, a well-preserved samurai residence. Other attractions lie a little farther from the boat-tour route. Up the hill, due north from the castle, stands Meimei-an, a thatched teahouse. A second famous teahouse, Kanden-an, can be found tucked away among the canals farther east. These small structures are where the elite of a bygone era practised the tea ceremony. In a country famous for its love of tea, Matsue has a particularly strong link to the beverage. This connection stretches back to the 17th century, when the local ruler, Fumai Matsudaira, developed what came to be called the Fumai-style tea ceremony. The price of admission at these teahouses includes a bowl of thick maccha, or green tea, as well as a delicate sweet to go with it. A little out of town, to the south, is the Adachi Museum of Art, which is well worth a visit, as much for its spectacular Japanese-style garden as for any of the exhibits inside. Farther afield, but an easy day trip from Matsue, is Izumo Taisha, the second most important Shinto shrine in the country. Farther to the west, but still in Shimane prefecture, are the silver mines of Iwami Ginzan, which have been granted Unesco World Heritage status. If any of these attractions were in Kyoto or Nara, you'd probably have to fight your way through a throng of visitors, Japanese and foreign, to see them. But Matsue is the quiet, shy member of this trio. Even at the height of the summer tourist season, you won't be jostled. Maybe it's time to bestow an updated, even more unwieldy title on Matsue: International Cultural and Sightseeing City and All-around Nice Place - Except for Those Pesky Hawks. Getting there: Japan Airlines ( www.jal.com ) and Hong Kong Express Airways ( www.hkairlines . com) fly from Hong Kong to Osaka, from where it is possible to get to Matsue by bus (4 1/2 hours), train (3 1/2 hours) or plane (through either Izumo or Yonago airports).