Since ancient times, people in Japan have believed that the gods protect every possible place, from the mountains and the forests, to the lakes, rivers, and the sea. According to the old Japanese calendar, once a year, all of those gods gather in one place, and that place is Izumo Grand Shrine. It was always during the tenth month of the old Japanese calendar (which is often in November according to the modern-day calendar), and that time of year was known as “The Month of No Gods” around the nation, but in the Izumo area of Shimane, it was known as “The Month of the Gods”. From this, you can see that to the Japanese, Izumo is the Land of the Gods.
The local residents have an enormous amount of respect for this land which is a destination for the gods. This may be why there is an aesthetic sense here which has been the basis for development of the area, one which transcends the mere purpose of doing it so people can live here. It has led to the preservation of beautiful scenery that harmonizes nature and human activity. Izumo is the only place in all of Japan where you can experience cultural beauty not only in some sightseeing areas, but in the majority of local features including roads, bridges, and homes.
I work in Tokyo in advertising and graphics design, and I create new products daily. Tokyo, which abounds with worldwide products and information in the pursuit of economic rationality, is one example of what Japan can be. However, the Izumo area is the complete opposite of the world I live in. A traditional culture that has continued from the age of the gods remains in every part of the local lifestyle environment, one that isn’t influenced by the latest fads or new technologies. For many Japanese people like me, Izumo is an area that will make you feel like you are uncovering old forgotten memories.
In this article, I would like to introduce a one-day driving route that will help you fully experience the wonders of the Izumo area, even if you don’t know a lot about Japanese culture or mythology.
Driving Through an Area Loved by the Gods
You start from Matsue Station. It’s a nice station, but nothing particularly unique about it. From there to Matsue Castle, it’s only about a 10-minute drive. There are no places here like back alleys that have been abandoned. This might be because the people who live here strongly feel that they are borrowing the land from the gods. In the Middle Ages, the area was rich with silver and iron, and during the Edo Period when Japan had closed itself off from the rest of the world, this area continued to trade with other countries like China, creating some leeway in the local finances. Due to that, the lords of the Matsue Domain were lenient towards the local residents, and were popular among them. So, even after the end of samurai rule, the castle wasn’t demolished, and the townscape around the castle still mostly remains as it was when the samurai lived there.
In one part of that area, you will find a museum dedicated to Lafcadio Hearn (also known by his Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo), an author of Greek and Irish heritage who translated Japanese folk tales into English and shared them with the world. Next to it is the old samurai house he lived in while he was in Matsue. One of the things that first surprised him about Matsue was that even though he was a foreigner and was also blind in one eye, he didn’t experience much discrimination here. I think that this is an expression of the distinctiveness of Izumo, because I feel that the people here even now think of themselves as being within the view of the gods. Hearn, by translating into English the legends that people had passed down from mythological times, tried to communicate that Eastern concept of diversity. Or maybe I’m just giving it too much thought.
Drive around the castle moat that surrounds the beautiful castle walls. The castle keep which stands above slips in and out of view. Built at the beginning of the Edo Period, it is one of only 12 castle keeps in Japan that has remained standing since it was originally built. I hope that you will take the time to visit it. Once inside, you will notice the simplicity of the construction specific to a wartime rationality. The castle never saw the fires of battle, but there is a faultless beauty to its design, which eliminated anything unnecessary in pursuit of being a defensive structure.
The waters which surround the castle are an assembly of the techniques of their time, drawing from the natural rivers in the area to create waterways that rarely vary in their levels. The vegetation around the castle reflects off the waters and changes colors along with the seasons. I also recommend taking a slow cruise around the castle in the sightseeing boat tour. In order to pass under some of the bridges on the tour, the roof must be lowered, and the passengers must hunch low themselves. It’s a very unique experience.
As you follow the moat waters and leave the beautiful castle town area, you soon arrive at Lake Shinji. This lake is a natural dam and contains a large amount of water, so Matsue doesn’t face the danger of flood damage. As a result, you don’t see many concrete embankments or other kinds of cold, lifeless structures. The Izumo area is rarely struck by typhoons or earthquakes, and there was hardly any wartime damage to the area. It seems to me that this area is protected by the gods. The small communities you pass on your drive have kept the comforting scenery of an older Japan intact. The beautiful rice fields, along with the local two-car trains that run alongside the road make it feel as if time passes more slowly here. The gods who come here from the east may use this very road on their journey.
Next stop is the Izumo Quilt Museum, built in a 200-year-old house deigned in the traditional Izumo style of house architecture. The displays here center on the works produced by quilter Mutsuko Yawatagaki, and include a variety of craftworks. The beauty of crafts related to people’s lifestyles, along with the beauty of art as a created expression, exists in the same space as the traditional lifestyles of this area. This museum makes you feel that the imaginary world and people’s lifestyles are in alignment, and there should not be any distinctions made between them.
After enjoying another 30-minute drive, you will arrive at the area in front of the main gate to Izumo Grand Shrine. As I mentioned before, Izumo Grand Shrine is a place where the gods gather from around the nation and one of the top shrines in Japan. Every corner of the vast shrine grounds is orderly and well-cared for, and the commanding atmosphere of the grounds that have belonged to the gods for thousands of years envelops you. As you walk along the path to the shrine’s main hall, you may even feel the same sort of reverence that Japanese people feel toward the gods. Even people who feel that there isn’t much difference between a shrine and a temple will be impressed by the uniqueness of the massive shimenawa rope that hangs from the nearby Kagura Hall. By the way, in Japan these kinds of ropes designate the boundary between the world of people and the world of the gods. They are often found hanging from shrine gates or wound around ancient trees on shrine grounds, and they indicate that within that area is where the gods live. A shimenawa as huge as the one on Izumo Grand Shrine’s Kagura Hall may just indicate that it’s the entrance for the conference area for the gods when they gather here.
Alright, from here, let’s take a road that isn’t along the general sightseeing route. It’s a narrow road that cuts between the grounds of Izumo Grand Shrine. You might be under the impression that it’s part of the parking lot, and it almost seems as if it’s trying to hide its existence from you. The road takes you into the forest area behind the shrine. It’s a forest on the mountain behind one of the greatest shrines in Japan, and so it has been untouched by human hands for two thousand years. Stopping your car to get out and observe the vegetation that changes with the elevation can be another enjoyable part of this drive.
After driving along this road for about 20 minutes, you will suddenly come upon a small community called Sagiura. Most of the residents here are fishermen, and it seems like time here has stopped about a hundred years ago, with a slow-paced daily lifestyle from before Japan got swept up in worldwide economic competitiveness. The stones along the river are all round, telling the story of how they have been worn down in an everlasting journey to the sea. Just standing on the shore and gazing out at the bay for a few minutes makes you feel like you’ve reset your internal clock.
Driving another 20 minutes from that small fishing village, you will reach Inasa-no-Hama Beach, a beautiful sandy beach that slopes gently out into the sea. It is said to be the places where the gods of Izumo arrived when they came here from across the sea, and it is a very holy place. There is a large boulder on the beach called Benten Island, and when the tide is low, you can walk out to it. Long ago, it may have even been possible to see the Korean Peninsula across the sea from here. Up until recent times, the culture and techniques that came to Japan crossed this very sea to get here. The Japanese style of accepting those new things and arranging them in ways that better suit the people here may be the same style that has existed since the gods came to Izumo. This area being closest to the Asian continent may be a great geographic factor in the diversity that has developed in this area that accepts a wide variety of gods. When new myths, ideas, or other things came to the area, the people here devised ways of assimilating them while, without destroying their own culture, showing respect to what already existed here. This may be the very thing that evolved into the Japanese ideology respecting all places and all things, because the gods exist everywhere and within everything.
Well, we’re almost at the end of this day-long drive. Get on the highway and head back toward Matsue. If you are a fan of hot springs, stopping by Tamatsukuri Hot Springs to soak in the waters there can be a great way to wrap up your day. There are several places where you can have a bath without having to stay overnight, and there’s no need to worry about towels because they are sold at most locations.
With the sun having set as you arrive back in Matsue, you will be struck by the beauty of the night scenery of this city surrounded by waterways. The night here feels comforting. Is it because of the reflection of the lights off the surface of the water, or because all the gods who have gathered here from throughout Japan roam the city? What answer will you choose?
"A Guided Tour Experience in Izumo and Matsue"
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