The Definitive Guide to Exploring Shimane Prefecture
Welcome back to another installment of my area guides. In today’s post we’ll be venturing down to the San’in region for a visit to the marvelous Shimane prefecture. Located on the westernmost end of Japan’s main island, this area has long been hailed as “The Land of the Gods.” Nestled between the Sea of Japan and the neigh impassable Chugoku mountain range, this remote prefecture is home to both natural splendors as well as an extremely rich mythological legacy. Despite being one of Japan’s least populated locations, and very off the beaten path, Shimane has more than enough content to keep an intrepid traveler entertained for days on end.
Of course, Shimane’s true claim to fame is that it was the very birthplace of what we know as Japan. The area’s history is so vast and deep that it first appears at the very beginning of Japanese mytho-history in the Kojiki (lit. “Record of Ancient Matters”). Here, in the early mists of time, the primordial gods Izanami and Izanagi gave birth to much of the Shinto pantheon after first creating the world. Even to this day, one will continually stumble upon a variety of shrines erected across the prefecture honoring these two deities and their kin.
With such an impressive pedigree, you’d be right to assume that there is an endless number of hidden gems to uncover in Shimane. Unfortunately, for most visitors to Japan though, the prefecture’s remote location means that you’ll likely only get one shot at visiting. Because of this, I am going to foolishly attempt to chronicle EVERYTHING that I consider worth seeing in the prefecture in one go. This way, you the reader, can make an informed decision on your travels while exploring The Land of the Gods.
Truth be told, this is going to be a foolhardy attempt at overly ambitious piece! And, perhaps it would be a lighter read if it were split into several articles. Still, since you will likely have but one chance to visit Shimane, I would rather you have all the information upfront. This article is going to be exceedingly long, even by my area guide standards. I suggest you read the sections on both Izumo and Matsue and then skim through the rest to see if anything catches your attention. For brevity’s sake, I’ll provide links to additional background information where and when needed.
Making your way to Shimane prefecture is by no means easy. The area is one of a few that still does not have direct access via the Shinkansen (bullet train). Because of this, those coming by train will need to take the JR Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen to Okayama first and transfer to one of the JR Yakumo limited express trains. This entire process can take upwards of six hours from central Tokyo; instead, many opt to take the overnight Sunrise Izumo train that runs daily between Tokyo and Matsue.
Because of the poor access by train, I’d only recommend this method for those starting the journey somewhere closer to Okayama (such as Hiroshima). What’s someone coming to Tokyo to do? Well, unlike most locations in Japan, it is often easier to simply hop a flight to Shimane. While certainly more expensive than the alternatives, electing to travel by air is a surefire way to shave precious hours off the total travel time it will take to reach this secluded prefecture.
Those looking to fly into Shimane should know that the prefecture is served by both Izumo and Yonago airports. Japan Airlines flies to the former whereas the latter is served by ANA. Both are about equidistant to Shimane’s capital city of Matsue so just choose whichever route best fits your itinerary and schedule. Regardless of your transit choice, you’ll need to hop a bus from the airport for the final leg of the journey. To avoid any confusion, note that Yonago airport is actually located to the east of Shimane in neighboring Tottori prefecture.
Lastly, before moving on, know that if you’re considering Shimane, you’d do well to give yourself two full days to explore at the very least. If you can’t tell by the sheer girth of this article, there’s a lot to do in the area. Chances are you will be challenged to accomplish even half of your journey without spending a few nights nearby. While it is certainly possible to stay elsewhere, I suggest staying in Matsue as it is both the liveliest and best connected spot within the prefecture. Though by no means similar to Tokyo’s public transportation, it will suffice in a pinch!
When it comes to Shimane prefecture, no attraction is more famous than Izumo Taisha. Located only an hour away from the capital city of Matsue, this remote attraction is actually one of the most important shrines in Japan. The reason for this is simple. Every year, during the 10th lunar month (which usually means November), Shintoism’s eight million kami or deities assemble for an annual meeting. Locally, this month is known as “Kamiari-zuki” meaning the month with deities and is celebrated during the Kamiari festival. Talk about cause for a party!
Over the years, Izumo Taisha has continued to rank in the upper echelons of Shintoism, even as power began to consolidate in other parts of Japan. Much of this reverence is due to the long legacy of the shrine’s annual divine congregation. Though the current “honden” or main hall dates back to only1744, Izumo Taisha actually has roots dating back to the dawn of time itself. In fact, one of the more shocking bits of trivia about the complex is that it seems to predate any and all historical records. The first references to this antediluvian establishment in the Kojiki do so in such a manner that suggests it was simply always there, much like the way one might describe the rising of the sun.
These days, Izumo Taisha is laid out in a way that is similar to other shrines. Upon reaching the core of the complex, you’ll be greeted by the “haiden”or prayer hall with its iconically large Shimenawa rope (pictured above). Right behind this, you’ll find the main hall and a few additional smaller shrines. Unfortunately, these structures are enclosed by a fence that demarcates the inner sanctuary. While this area is not accessible to the public, it is possible to walk around the perimeter for a better vantage point. From here, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of Izumo Taisha’s towering main hall. Built in the “Taisha-zukuri” style, this 24-meter-tall structure is the largest shrine building in Japan.
Those interested in mythology should know that the main deity enshrined at Izumo Taisha is known as Okuninushi-no-Okami. According to legend, this divine being was responsible for raising the Japanese isles from the sea. Later, Izumo Taisha went on to become the ruler of Izumo where he became known as a kami, an overseer of relationships and marriage. When praying to Okuninushi-no-Okami it customary that visitors clap their hands four times instead of the usual two claps . The rational is quite simple here; one is clapping twice for themselves and then twice for their partner or future partner.
Before moving on to some other attractions near Izumo Taisha, I have a little bit of advice for you, the reader. When checking out the backside of Izumo Taisha’s main hall, be sure not to miss the long wooden structures on both the right and left hand sides of the innermost sanctuary. Known as “Jukusha,” these rather odd constructions are actually temporary lodging for the eight million deities who assemble every year at the shrine. If you’re visiting during the month of November when the kami are gathering at Izumo Taisha’s, be sure to stop by and pay your respects at either of the Jukusha.
OK, so if you’re planning to make the trek out to Izumo Taisha, there are two nearby sites I highly suggest you visit. The first of these is Izumo Taisha’s treasure hall which you’ll find located at the southeastern corner of the main shrine grounds. Inside, you’ll find an amazing collection of lavish ornaments and containers from Izumo Taisha’s past. While these are indeed quite the sight, the treasure hall is home to an archaeological discovery that is even more impressive. In the center of the building, you’ll find a enormous pillar from one of Izumo shrine’s previous incarnations. In the artist’s impression above, you can see that the shrine’s original main hall was much, much taller. Yes, those little white priestly figures are actually to-scale!
After exploring the treasure hall, you can discover more about the history of Izumo Taisha and the surrounding area at the nearby Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo. You’ll find this located just to the immediate east of the shrine grounds. In addition to a detailed permanent exhibit featuring Izumo Taisha’s past, you’ll uncover all sorts of other interesting tidbits about the early days of Japan’s long history. What’s more, being a foreign visitor, you are eligible for half off the entry fee if you show a passport or resident card. Talk about a great deal!
OK, with all this said, let’s chat about possible options for getting to Izumo Taisha. Regardless of where you start, you’ll ultimately need to make your way to Izumotaisha-mae station via the Ichibata Electric Railway. En route, you’ll need to make a quick transfer at Kawato station. As always, Hyperdia or a similar service is going to be your friend here. After all, the trains are pretty limited out here; you don’t want to miss one and be forced to wait an inordinate amount of time!
You can reach Izumo Taisha by hopping on the Ichibata Electric Railway from either either Izumo (via Izumo-shi station) or Matsue. Should you choose Matsue as your starting point, you will need to catch a bus from the JR Matsue station to Shinjiko Onsen station. As you can imagine, this can be daunting challenging for those less familiar with the city. Therefore, I highly recommend you fly into Izumo via Japan Airlines, bus to Izumo-shi station, and make your way to Izumo Taisha first thing. This route allows you to skip the hassle of navigating the local buses.
Once you’ve made your way to Izumotaisha-mae station, the shrine is just a few minutes away. You’ll find the shrine located at the end of long shopping street lined with stores and restaurants. At the end of this street, you’ll encounter a large wooden torii gate marking the entrance to the Matsu-no-sando approach to Izumo Taisha’s main area. The trail is divided into three lanes; visitors are to refrain from taking the center lane as this is reserved for the kami. Be sure to keep your eyes out for some cute rabbit effigies. These have ties to Okuninushi-no-Okami, the deity of Izumo Taisha.
The Water City
Had enough yet? Unfortunately, we are only beginning to get rolling! Next up on our list for Shimane prefecture is the capital city of Matsue. This charming metropolis is nestled between the Sea of Japan, Lake Shinji, and the Nakaumi(which while officially a lagoon, translates to the “middle sea”). For this reason, Matsue is often referred to as “the water city.” Unlike major urban centers like Tokyo, Matsue’s modest size makes it the “Goldilocks” of cities. It is neither overwhelmingly large nor small enough to be devoid of fun.
One of Matsue’s most notable claim to fame is that it won the affection of the famous Irish author Lafcadio Hearn in the late 1800’s. Although he stayed in the area for a mere single year, Hearn developed a deep love for the town and its surroundings. You’ll find accounts of the area woven throughout Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, one of Hearn’s masterpieces. Today, Matsue is rife with references to the late writer; one cannot walk five meters without encountering a direct reference to Hearn.
Matsue’s charm is rather difficult to capture in text. The city is bisected by the Ohashi River through which the brackish Nakaumi feeds into Lake Shinji. Along the riverbanks, you’ll find a number shops and restaurants featuring traditional and local products. Matsue’s layout often feels as if little has changed over the past few centuries despite its more recent and modern construction. This city is chock full of hints noting its history as a medieval town. For example, much like Kanazawa, many temples within Matsue’s Teramachi area sit on the southern outskirts of town because they could usually pinch-hit as defensive fortifications during an attack.