[From November Issue 2013]
Shimane Prefecture is located in the Chugoku region of Honshu (Japan’s main island) on the coast of the Sea of Japan. Until recently many Japanese people didn’t know where Shimane Prefecture was, or confused it with neighboring Tottori Prefecture, but now the prefecture is drawing more attention because of the historic Izumo Taisha (Izumo Grand Shrine) and the Iwami Ginzan silver mine, which has been designated as a World Culture Heritage Site. A land with a deep connection to Shinto legends, the surnames of many of its citizens have a connection to Shinto gods.
Izumo Taisha is dedicated to Okuninushi no Okami, a deity associated with matchmaking. The shrine has such a long history that it’s even mentioned in Japan’s oldest historical chronicle, the “Kojiki.” The tenth month of the old lunar calendar is known as kanna-zuki (month without gods) throughout Japan, but in Shimane Prefecture it is known as kamiari-zuki (month the gods are present). This is because all the gods from across Japan gather at Izumo Taisha during this period. To this day the Shinto ritual of kamimukaesai (god welcoming festival) is performed around November.
For the first time in 60 years, a process known as senguu (transfer ritual), involving the temporary removal of the goshintai (objects of worship believed to contain the spirit of the gods) to repair the shrines, was performed recently. In May this year the main deity, Okuninushi no Okami, was successfully transferred back to the honden (main hall). It is believed that this process not only helps to preserve the wooden building, but also helps to purify the resting place of the deity, thereby restoring his energy.
Besides this shrine, there are many other shrines associated with the Shinto gods in the Izumo area, as well as “power spots” (locations thought to be flowing with mystical energy). At Yaegaki Shrine in Matsue City people use coins placed on washi (Japanese paper) to have their fortunes told. Legend has it that Suga Shrine in Unnan City was the first palace that Susanoo no Mikoto built. One of the deities appearing in the Kojiki, Susanoo defeated the Eight-Forked Serpent, Yamata no Orochi – a monster that had been devouring one young woman each year.
Next to Izumo Taisha is Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo. Bronze swords and other artifacts related to ancient Izumo, as well as documents concerning the history of Shimane Prefecture itself can be found on display there. In addition, there are an array of gift shops and food stalls lining Shinmon Dori, the road that leads up to the shrine.
The prefecture capital, Matsue City is also known as the Water City. Built in the 17th century, Matsue Castle is an important cultural property of Japan. English speaking volunteer tour guides are always available here. A popular attraction even in winter is the “Horikawa Meguri Yuransen” (Hori River Sightseeing Cruise). The Hori River surrounds the castle and it takes about 50 minutes to sail along it. Lake Shinji, located within the city itself, is known for shijimi clam fishing. However, the lake is also a popular destination for lovers wanting to catch a beautiful sunset.
Arriving in Japan in the 19th century as a correspondent for an American publishing company, Lafcadio HEARN is a Greek man who introduced Japan to the rest of the world. A collection of Japanese ghost stories that Hearn compiled and simplified is well known to Japanese. In 1896 he acquired Japanese citizenship and changed his name to KOIZUMI Yakumo. His house and a memorial hall dedicated to his memory are located in Matsue.
The Adachi Museum of Art is located in Yasugi City, about 15 kilometers east of Matsue. Known for its beautiful, spacious Japanese garden, the museum contains numerous works of art, including sculptures and Japanese-style paintings by artists such as YOKOYAMA Taikan. An American magazine about Japanese gardens has listed this garden as the best in Japan for ten years in a row.
In terms of world renowned sites, Iwami Ginzan, in Ohda City, is a must see. The remains of an old silver mine that was worked for 400 years, there – except for the year-end and New Year holidays – you can see tool-scored walls, deep pits, and tunnels which are so high as to make you crane your head right back. The mines were registered in 2007 as a World Cultural Heritage Site. To get a better understanding of the site it’s necessary to have a tour guide explain its significance. Portable audio guides, in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese, are available for 500 yen. Close to the mines are: the Iwami Ginzan World Cultural Heritage Center and the “Streets of Omori,” which still retains the atmosphere of the Edo period (17th-19th centuries).
For those wishing to view nature at its most dynamic, a visit to Oki Islands is highly recommended. This chain of over 180 small and large islands contains geoparks in which are located the Matengai Sea Cliffs – which look as if the earth has been sliced open with a knife – and the Sekiheki Cliffs (Red Cliffs). Also popular is Akao Observatory where you can see cows and horses roaming around eating grass, and Amanbou Seaview Cruise where you can enjoy the feeling of taking a stroll out in the middle of the sea.
In 2012, a cosmetic company conducted a dermatological survey and announced that the people of Shimane Prefecture have the fairest skin in Japan. It is thought that this is because the ratio of smokers there is relatively low and that the favorable climate conditions in the prefecture naturally moisturizes the skin. In Shimane Prefecture there are over 60 hot springs, including one named “Bijin no Yu” or Spring of Beauties. Renowned as “nature’s skin lotion,” the waters of Tamatsukuri Hot Spring are especially thought to promote beautiful skin. Tonbara Hot Spring (Ramune Ginsen) is one of only a few naturally carbonated springs in Japan.
Since Shimane faces the ocean, a large amount of fish and shellfish can be caught there. When boiled in a salty-sweet soup, shijimi clams harvested in Lake Shinji are used in a popular dish called kanroni. In Shimane the tobiuo flying fish is known as “ago” and is consumed as kamaboko (a paste of minced and cooked fish). Izumo soba (buckwheat noodles) and Shimane beef are also local specialties.
Items traditionally crafted in the prefecture include stone garden lanterns and Japanese abacuses. Shussai tableware, Hii River washi, and intricate metal candle holders and vases are recommended as souvenirs.
Kagura (traditional song and dance numbers performed in honor of the gods) are popular in the Iwami area – in the western part of the prefecture – and performances depicting the defeat of the Eight-Forked Serpent are particularly colorful. Typically traditional performing arts have suffered from a lack of fresh blood, but here in Shimane Prefecture children become extremely familiar with kagura from an early age, even to the extent that some kindergartners play at putting on performances. Prajna masks are used in kagura plays and are also sold as decorative charms used to ward off evil spirits at the entrance of homes.
The flight from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Izumo Enmusubi Airport is about 80 minutes. The flight time to Hagi Iwami Airport is 90 minutes and to Yonago Airport about 80 minutes. The overnight limited express sleeper train “Sunrise Izumo” departs from JR Tokyo Station every day and takes roughly 12 hours to arrive at Izumoshi Station. Known as the “traveling business hotel,” passengers can relax in privacy. It is popular with women on their way home from work wishing to enjoy a comfortable trip to Shimane in the company of good friends.