In June, the couple that teach me Japanese invited me to join them on a trip Izumo Grand Taisha, the oldest shrine in all of Japan. Few foreigners venture out to this part of Japan, largely because there’s not much to see. However, in Izumo, amidst endless rice patties, sits a landmark site in Japanese civilization, dating back until at least the 7th century.
Around ten in the morning my teacher rolled up in his new Lexus, and insisted I sit in the passenger seat; forcing his wife to sit in the back. Since I’m always writhing in pain in my school’s twenty-year old office chair, with my knees scrapping the bottom of my desk, and shins hitting the bar that stretches horizontally ten inches off the ground, the Lexus felt like paradise. (I actually really like my schools. I’m just not always comfortable.) After a four hour drive through lush forests and towering mountains in the Japanese countryside, we were welcomed by throngs of visitors who made the same pilgrimage to this historic site. We walked around the shrines’ ground for almost two hours, just taking in the history, beauty, and craftsmanship of the ancient wooden buildings.
Perched on a small hill, a large tori gate marks the entrance of the shrine. Upon entering, three pine tree lined walkways run parallel to each other en route to the main shrine. My Japanese teacher told me not to walk in the center lane, as it is reserved for the shrines’ deities.
While in front of the shrine, I was instructed to bow twice, clap my hands four times, instead of the normal three, and bow once more; a style only found at Izumo. When I asked why this was different than other shrines, my Japanese teacher informed me that since the deity inshrined at Izumo is responsible for good relationships and marriage, visitors must clap twice for themselves, and twice for their partners.
Perhaps what draws the most attention at Izumo is the massive hanging sacred straw rope in front of the shrine called, a shimenawa. The shimenawa in Izumo is forty-three feet long, and weighs over five tons! Needless to say, its the largest in the world.
After the shrine, we drove about an hour to Matsue, a quiet castle town, and the capital of Shimane prefecture. We checked into the hotel, and then booked it to the harbor to catch our sunset boat ride on Lake Shinji.
That night, I visited the rooftop bath and researched touristy things in Matsue, as I would have a couple hours to myself the following morning. So, on Sunday morning I was out of the hotel by seven. I had two hours to explore, and I was going to make the most of it. After a quick bite to eat at Mister Donut, I was en route for Matsue Castle and an old Samurai neighborhood.
The castle checks in at number two on my list, just ahead of Himeji Castle, but behind Matsuyama Castle. It as quite impressive. In fact, it is the 2nd largest, 3rd tallest, and 6th oldest of the remaining twelve original castles in Japan. And by original, I mean the inside remains completely made of wood and stone. Unlike Osaka Castle, this place was not burned down and converted into a museum. Although, there are some museum quality artifacts on display inside, like full samurai body armor.
Upon entering, the running audio tour changed from Japanese to English; they mist have seen this gaijin a mile away. Walking up five floors past arrow shooting holes and look out towers really made you feel like you were back in the 1600′s when the castle was first constructed. The top floor offers a 360 degree lookout point over beautiful Matsue.
I briefly checked out the Samurai neighborhood set on the banks of the castle moat. Before I knew it, I only had less than twenty minutes to hightail it 1.5 miles back to the hotel, check out, and meet my Japanese teacher. With a sweat soaked shirt from running in jeans in intense summer humidity, I managed to check out just in time. It’s times like that when it’s scary how much I’m like my dad, in terms of trying to pack everything into such a short period of time.
We made a quick stop in Sakaiminato, so my teachers could see the the hometown of their favorite childhood cartoon artist. I opted to skip out on the museum, and instead wandered into a small fish market where the owner cut a huge fresh oyster out of a shell for me to eat raw. It was the best oyster I’ve ever had.
Next, we drove to a delicious soba restaurant. Shimane prefecture prides itself on their Izumo style soba, and after eating it, I know why. What sets Izumo soba apart from its peers is that it’s soba nuts are not husked. This adds nutrients and gives it a darker color. Also, when eating soba in Shimane, you’re supposed to pour the sauce on the noodles, instead of dipping the noodles in the sauce.
After lunch, we made our final stop at the Adachi Museum of Art. For ten consecutive years, it has been awarded Japan’s best garden. Now if you’re expecting a garden to walk around in, then you might be disappointed. This place is definitely a museum, as some of the garden is only viewable from behind massive glass walls. The plus side to this super protective style, is that that the gardens’ grounds are maintained to precision. I feel every little pebble is positioned just right to give the garden a perfect sense of beauty and balance. Carp were gliding through the ponds, almost as if they were celebrating the coming of summer. The sound of a splashing waterfall in the distance only added more tranquility to the immaculate grounds. Additionally, over 1,500 painting reside inside the museum, but we only spent about fifteen minutes perusing since we had a long car ride ahead of us.
After taking in all the beauty, the three of us packed back into the Lexus, where once again I was able to sink into comfort, with no worry of my shins striking metal bars, or knees scraping the bottom of desks. Yes, this weekend trip was a nice escape from the routines of school. I am very grateful for my Japanese language teachers for including me in there trip to Shimane Prefecture. It was easily one of the best highlights during my time in Japan.
A: Awaji Island
B: Izumo Taisha Grand Shine
C: Matsue Castle
D: Sakaiminato (weird cartoon town)
E. Adachi Art Museum and Garden