Sponsored by Chugoku Region Tourism Promotion Association / Chugoku District Transport Bureau
I woke early in my 18th-floor room at Hiroshima’s RIHGA Royal Hotel and peered sleepily through the curtains. I was greeted with the loveliest “great morning” view of Hiroshima I could hope for. After the cold temperatures and the on-and-off rain of the past few days, this was a welcomed sight. Grabbing a small bag I had packed for a two-night trip, I headed over to the Hiroshima Bus Terminal. We were joined on this leg of the adventure by Seki-san, whose knowledge of and connections to the region would prove very handy indeed. My companions and I would take the inter-city bus to Matsue, about 3 hours northeast of Hiroshima, in Shimane Prefecture.
Quick, when I say “Shimane Prefecture,” what comes to mind? For 99% of you, the answer is probably nothing. Nothing, because of all of Japan’s 47 prefectures, Shimane ranks dead last in terms of foreign tourism. If I didn’t already mention Matsue, you probably couldn’t even name a city in Shimane. Is the lack of tourism a result of there being nothing to see or do in Shimane? As I would find out over the next day and a half, absolutely not. Nor is it a problem with transportation to Shimane. I used an unbelievable discount for foreign tourists and purchased an inter-city bus ticket from Hiroshima Bus Terminal to Matsue for just 500 yen, less than the cost of the average taxi ride in Tokyo.
The lack of tourism to Shimane, I concluded, is that most tourists have no idea how easy it is to get to Shimane. Not only are there direct, inexpensive flights from all over Japan, there is also the 500 yen bus ticket from Hiroshima, a deal that simply cannot be beaten.
The bus from Hiroshima stops first at JR Matsue Station before continuing on to Matsue Shinjiko Onsen Station, where we alighted. Feeling a bit hungry from our three-hour trip, we walked a few minutes down the street to Funatsu, with the mysterious noren over the door prominently reading “La Belle Campagne.”
Shimane’s Famous Cuisine Isn’t French
To think we came all the way to Shimane for French cuisine would be a mistake. Shimane is famous for its soba, made from the fast-growing buckwheat harvested in this area. Funatsu is synonymous in this part of the world for delicious soba dishes, and we soon found out why.
I ordered the Izumo-warigo soba set, the go-to meal for first-timers to Funatsu. For the sake of variety, Hiro-san, my translator companion, ordered the Chidori-warigo soba set. This set has more exotic ingredients, like a raw quail egg and tororo, grated mountain yam with a slimy texture. Seki-san ordered a bowl of hot soba in broth topped with various tempura vegetables.
Almost every part of the meal is soba related. The side dish that resembles a cube of tofu is also made with soba and even the dessert, a thick pudding with sweet red bean paste, also made with soba. It was now clear why Funatsu is regarded as the best soba shop in the area. There was only one mystery left to solve. Why the noren reading “La Belle Campagne”? Hiro-san translated my question for our waitress, who let out a little laugh. The owner of Funatsu, it turned out, lived briefly in France and just liked the name. Makes sense to me.
The Ichibata train from Shinjiko Onsen station to Izumo runs infrequently during off-peak times, so we had some time to kill back at the station. Walking around, I discovered the station was a stop on Yamanami Kaido Cycling Road and that bicycles were available for rent here. It must be a lovely ride in Spring or Fall, but today the weather was brisk. In front of the station, we thawed our frozen toes in the free hot springs foot bath (though you will have to bring or buy your own towel).
Money-Saving Tip: Enmusubi Perfect Ticket
If you plan to spend a few days around Matsue as we did, the Enmusubi Perfect Ticket 3-day pass is a great deal. The ticket enables you to travel on Ichibata trains and buses in Shimane, including the bus that goes to Sakaiminato in Tottori. You also get discounts on many tourist attractions in the area. Best of all, it is half price for foreign tourists, just 1,500 yen, so it pays for itself with just a round-trip train ride to the Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine. You can purchase it at an Ichibata Train Station such as Matsue-Shinjiko-Onsen station, or any Ichibata Travel Agency, the most convenient being just outside of JR Matsue Station.
Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine – Older Than History Itself
The Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine is so ancient, nobody knows precisely when the shrine was built because it pre-dates written records. What we do know is that when the birth of Japan was recorded in the 8th century, Izumo Taisha was already there. We also know that at least among the gods, Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine is the most important. Every October for a week, a ceremony is held welcoming all 8 million of the Shinto gods to Izumo, where they discuss the business of the coming year, and most importantly to single mortals, the relationships between human beings.
You see, Izumo Taisha has quite a reputation for good matchmaking, starting with Okuninushi, the legendary creator of Japan. Izumo Taisha contains the shrine which enshrines the spirit of Okuninushi. The legend says that his kindness to a wounded rabbit was repaid when the rabbit helped Okuninushi win the hand of Yagami-hime, a goddess of unrivaled beauty, as his wife. The rabbit has become symbolic of the matchmaking the shrine is renowned for, and rabbit images are prevalent everywhere.
Matchmaking is a serious business at Izumo Taisha. It is common to see young women (and sometimes men) visiting the shrine to pray for a good spouse. I have been told there is even a sleeper train leaving from Tokyo Station that will deliver you straight to Izumo, fresh and ready to ask the gods for your perfect match. All the men in our party were already married, so what to do instead?
Free from worrying about making a match, I dived into the history of Izumo Taisha instead. Though, as I mentioned, there is no recorded information on when the shrine was built, there was the legend floating around that the Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine was even grander centuries ago. The legend claimed that the Honden (main hall) was once perched high above the ground on enormous pillars. Until one day, it was no longer just a legend. In 2000, excavations uncovered the foundations of several massive pillars in the vicinity of the current Honden, which was most recently rebuilt in 1744. Today, you can stand in the outline of one of the pillars to help you imagine the sheer size of the architecture, which is said to have stood 50 meters high, taller than any other shrine in Japan.
Reaching Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine is done by following a road marked by 4 great torii gates made of wood, stone, iron, and bronze, growing smaller and more precious as you get closer to the shrine. At one point, the path descends downwards toward the shrine, mysteriously the only instance of a descending path toward any Japanese shrine. Beyond the descent, a path lined with pine trees has been created and reserved strictly for the Shinto gods and the Imperial family to travel on. Finally, we enter the main area of the shrine.
At the Kaguraden (sacred dance performance hall), an enormous shimenawa woven from straw hangs from the rafters, the size of which is one of the unique qualities of Izumo area shrines. Like the great cathedrals of Europe, the architecture of Izumo Taisha is designed to remind human beings to stay humble in stature.
Before leaving the shrine grounds, I received the Izumo Taisha goshuin (shrine or temple seal), which was surprisingly plain for a shrine of such significance. Apparently, this is a shrine that doesn’t require any proof of its importance; it merely is.
Outside the main part of the temple, there is a shopping area full of intimate cafes, local restaurants, and souvenir shops. Just outside the second torii gate, Goen Yokocho is a collection of nine shops and restaurants where you can sample local Shimane favorites like Shimane wagyu beef, miso soup with clams from nearby Lake Shinjiko, and zenzai, a dessert made with sweet red beans and mochi. There’s even a workshop where you can make your own enmusubi charm, woven from straw. We browsed the shops for a few minutes until our train arrived at nearby Izumotaisha-mae Station to take us back to Matsue, where an extraordinary dinner awaited us.
Tomoe-an – Shimane Wagyu Beef Prepared to Perfection
Earlier, I briefly introduced you to Seki-san, a man familiar with the area who joined us for this part of my tour. One of Seki-san’s many talents was scouting out the best restaurants in the cities we were visiting. Traveling with Seki-san meant eating some of the best regional cuisine I’ve had in my life, and fortunately for you, I’m going to share a few of his favorite places.
Tonight, Seki-san brought us to Tomoe-an, a restaurant housed in a century-old ryokan walking distance from Matsue Station. The specialty of tonight was Shimane wagyu beef, and we would have it served in sukiyaki as well as sizzling on an iron platter. There are 3 grades of Shimane beef, and this was the highest.
I can think of no better way to describe this meat than in these two words: beef butter. All the flavor of the most delicious beef you’ve ever tasted melting in your mouth before you have a chance to chew it. The texture comes from the perfect marbling, equal to the more famous and expensive Kobe wagyu. The vegetables used in the sukiyaki were sliced into beautiful shapes, making it both a delicious and beautiful meal.
Bellies full, we rambled back to our hotel, the Matsue Excel Tokyu, directly across the street from Matsue station. Japanese tourists often stay across the river near the Shinjiko Onsen area, where there are plenty of Japanese style accommodations with onsen baths and dine-in meals. But for tourists who want a Western-style room in a convenient area near restaurants and transportation, the Excel Tokyu works perfectly well.
Tomorrow, we spend the morning continuing our exploration of Matsue, where Edo Period history is alive and well, before taking the bus to nearby Sakaiminato city in Tottori Prefecture.
Tips on a Perfect Trip to Shimane
Shimane is Japan’s most neglected tourist destination and my conclusion from spending just a couple days here is that is something that needs to change. The regional tourism board is going all out to help foreign tourists discover the charm of this part of Japan, from the steeply discounted bus fare to this hot tip: the Visit San’in Tourist Pass. If you purchase this discount pass, you will get free admission to nearly every tourist destination in San’in (the regional name for Shimane and Tottori). It also allows you to use rental bicycles free of charge. Between the bikes and the transportation available using the Enmusubi Perfect Ticket mentioned earlier, you should be able to get everywhere you want to go.
If you need more ideas for itineraries in Shimane, check the Visit Hiroshima & Beyond webpage.