Into the lands of the gods

The not-so-gentle rocking of the train curved along the single track, following the S-shaped route of the river parallel to it. As I rocked back in forth in my seat, the train ride towards Matsue was a gentle reminder that I was leaving city life behind me. I could barely make out the low, rolling mountains on either side of us as the day quickly turned into night.

After arriving in Matsue I checked into my hotel, checked the weather forecast for the following day, and decided that the best thing to do would be to head to the Adachi Museum of Art, about halfway between Matsue and Yonago. I first heard about the museum on another travel forum and have since wanted to visit. It’s quite famous for its gardens, which have been ranked the best in Japan for 12 years running. The gardens are indeed stunning, although I have to admit disappointment to not actually be able to walk through them. The artwork inside, mostly Japanese, is also quite interesting, showcasing a variety of styles of Japanese painting. After heading back to Matsue for a quick lunch, I was then off to see the Izumo Grand Shrine, one of the oldest and most important shrines in the country.

Adachi Gardens 1

Museum with a view: Adachi Gardens, Shimane

 

In Shimane, the tenth lunar month is known as kamiarizuki, or the Month of the Gods, since it is believed that all the gods in Japan (only about 8 million deities) head to Izumo at this time for their yearly grand meeting. Correspondingly, in the rest of Japan it is known as kannazuki, or the Month of No Gods. Generally this falls sometime in November, but I was a little too early for the ceremonies that were to take place later that month to welcome the gods to the shrine. The shrine area, one of the largest in Japan, was beautiful. After the first large stone torii gate, I came across the Matsu no Sando, or the way of the gods. This tree-lined path is reserved for the gods, mere mortals (i.e. tourists) had to take the side paths to enter the shrine. Izumo Shrine is probably most famous for its shimenawa, the large straw rope that hangs at the front of the sacred dance hall. This straw rope is the largest in Japan – 13 metres long, and over 4.5 tonnes in weight. While I was there, a wedding party was taking photographs, as best they could amongst all the tourists, in front of this massive rope.

The Way of the Gods_Izumo Shrine

The Way of the Gods, Izumo Shrine

Fortune Tree Izumo Shrine 2

Tying fortunes to the trees, Izumo Shrine

Here Comes the Bride_Izumo Shrine

Here comes the bride, Izumo Shrine

                                                                          

The next morning I paid a quick visit to Matsue Castle, one of the 12 remaining original castles in Japan. I always enjoy visiting these original castles, with their wooden floors worn smooth and shiny from hundreds of years of bare or stockinged feet passing over them, the steep stairs more like ladders than anything else, and the sense of time embedded in the dark stained wood of the structure.

Matsue Castle Moat

Matsue Castle moat

 

Time, though, was not on my side, and I had to cut my visit short to make my way to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine, deep in the heart of Shimane. On my way there, as I passed Izumo once again, it became clear I had been lax in my planning. I should have done Izumo and Iwami Ginzan together, although even that probably would have been tight for time as well. In any event, after two trains and a bus, I finally made it to Odori town, the heart and center of the mine operations. At one point in its history, Ginzan was producing about a third of all the world’s silver. Unfortunately, when I got there, I realized two things – one, that in the absence of any ATMs I had just enough money to get back on the bus and train and not much else, and two, that I had less than two hours to visit the entire site in order to get back to Matsue to catch the train I needed to take to Tottori that evening. Unable to pay for the bicycle rentals that would get to the mines and back in time, I decided instead to explore the old town. That turned out to be quite rewarding, despite the disappointment of not being able to see the remaining silver mines. The town itself represents the old Japan that many people (tourists and Japanese alike) long to see, but very rarely get to. Despite what new technological advances may lay inside, all the homes and buildings are kept in the traditional style – including the vending machine that had a wooden latticework placed over it! I would definitely like to go back to pay this area justice, but this time leaving a full day to explore.

Odori Town 1

Odori Town, Shimane

                                                                                                  

That evening I took the express train to Tottori. It had been ten years since I had been here, and I was eager to explore my former home. As someone who has travelled and moved around a lot, I am no stranger to the feelings of nostalgia (and more often, disappointment) of revisiting familiar places one has lived in, but upon arrival at Tottori station I felt nothing but eager delight at being back in this small, but welcoming city. Tottori is the smallest of Japan’s 47 prefectures, both in size and population. A man I once met, who lived in Tokyo but was born in Tottori, said (a bit tongue in cheek) that no one was from there and no one ever came there. In a sense, he probably was right – Tottori is far from being on anyone’s wish list when travelling to Japan, but it is undoubtedly one of Japan’s true hidden gems, if one knows where to look.

The first morning I decided to let my feet do the walking, and after strolling through the heart of the downtown area (which admittedly is nothing special), I ended up at Ochidani Park. This forest park is famous for its thousands of fireflies that make their appearance in June, due to the clean, clear, slow moving streams that run through the park. However it’s worth visiting at any time of year, as it offers hiking paths up the mountain and various temples and shrines to visit. I thought I would spend at best an hour there and ended up spending the entire afternoon there, the beauty of the park demanding that I photograph it.

 

The next day I got up early to visit what Tottori is most famous for, its sand dunes. Wanting to get there before the tourists did, I hailed a taxi to take me there. Tottori has a great travel scheme at the moment, allowing foreign visitors to hire a taxi for three hours for 1000 yen. Unfortunately, because of the early start, I couldn’t make use of this offer, but overall the cost to the dunes wasn’t so bad. Once I made my way up to the entrance of the dunes, I noticed that I was not the only person there, but the other five tourists and I had plenty of dunes to ourselves.

Tottori Sand Dunes 5_entrance to main dunes

The main dune, Tottori Sand Dunes

Traditionally, most people head straight for the main dune. First, you head down into the valley, and then you give your legs the workout of your life as you attempt to climb the main dune. Most people can do it, but it’s not easy. As I have visited the dunes many times before, this time I decided to go south (to my left) and walk along the length of the dunes. I was soon by myself, alone in the expanse of all the sand. The further south I went, the more the footprints disappeared, and soon it was just ripples in the sand and the occasional animal print left there. Eventually I started to approach the end of the main dunes, so decided to cross over and walk back along the beach. By this time the sunny morning had turned ominous, with dark clouds rolling quickly from the west. Certain that I didn’t want to be caught in the rain, stuck in the middle of the dunes with no shelter, I began to walk more quickly back to the main dunes. But so many things kept catching my (photographic) eye that I figured the rain be damned. By the time I made it back to the main dune, it was starting to lighten up, and the families playing in the water did not seem concerned as I walked by them. Then, looking up at the main dune, I knew it was finally my turn to confront the beast. The dune itself doesn’t look that bad, but once you get caught in the quagmire of hundreds of footprints (and corresponding loose sand) it worked out to something like one step forward, one step back. Eventually, I was able to work my way up to the top. Then, again, begins the descent into the valley and back up to the main entrance. The entrance area is equipped with waterspouts and baths to wash off the sand, and not far from it I discovered a Star Wars sand sculpture, one of many in the area. With aching legs I decided to call it a day, and headed back into town for lunch and rest.

 

On the last day of my trip, I headed over to the Uradome Coast, which is just to the north of the sand dunes. This is one of the most gorgeous stretches of coastline in all of Japan than almost no one knows about. I had seen it many times on road trips along the coast, but I had never hiked it, so I was eager to see what this ragged coast had waiting for me on this bright, sunny morning.

A long bus ride from Tottori got me near the start of the main trail of the Sanin Kaigan Geopark. After passing by a few old fisher folk hanging their morning catch of squid to dry on long poles, a long flight of stairs beckoned me up into the woods beyond. Up and down over a well-worn (but empty) trail I came across interesting rock formations in the sea below. On occasion I would find an old man painting a picture, or a couple of buddies fishing in amongst the rocks. Sometimes, I would run into the same teenage boy at various points along the trail, but I mostly had it to myself as I admired the granite rocks rising out of crystal clear blue sea.

San'in View 4

The crystal clear waters of the Uradome coast

 

 

Finally, I had to tear myself away so that I could catch the train back to Tottori. At this point I had a choice of going back to where I started and catching the bus, or to move forward and try for the train. Deciding not to backtrack, I walked along the road to get me to Izumo (the nearest town), hoping to make up some time. I ended up missing the train by five minutes, and not wanting to wait for another 90 minutes to catch the next one, I asked the taxi driver outside the station if he would drive back to Tottori. We were loading my bags into the cab when the bus for Tottori pulled up and the driver, without even asking, began reloading my things on the bus. Thankful for his good graces, I grabbed a seat on the bus, and as it made its way back to Tottori city I knew that I would be back here once again to continue my journeys in this, my secret Japan.

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