It’s been 19 years since I came to Japan. After graduating from university, I started working at a travel agency in Tokyo, but the culture shock I felt from moving to Tokyo was greater than the shock I felt after moving to Japan. Jam-packed trains, high-rise buildings that block the outdoor scenery, apartment life where you have no idea who your neighbors are…it was all so different from the four years I had spent in Kyushu at a university in Beppu. New things surprised me every day.
Thanks to an introduction from a friend from university, I moved to Ama Town in Shimane Prefecture, and now I live with my family in Okuizumo Town. This all adds up to almost 15 years spent living in Shimane.
Okuizumo doesn’t have any large shopping centers, or all that many restaurants. There are no arcades or amusement parks for children to enjoy. The area gets a lot of snow in the winter, and it might not be what people would generally consider to be an easy place to live, but it has its unique charms that you recognize as you start living here.
To me, it’s exactly those charms that modern-day people are starting to forget. They are important, and because I feel that my role is to share them with the world, I currently work with tourism promotion in Okuizumo.
So now, please let me introduce Okuizumo Town to you. I hope that I can help you feel even just a small part of Okuizumo’s appeal.
～My Favorite Part of Okuizumo～
Whenever someone asks me what my favorite thing about Okuizumo is, I always answer, “The terraced rice field (tanada) scenery.” Now, without a little extra explanation, Okuizumo’s tanada would be just like those in any other part of Japan, but they aren’t simply beautiful rice fields. The explanation is a little long, but you can’t truly share Okuizumo’s appeal without it.
Foreigners who like Japan are sure to know about samurai and Japanese swords. Samurai swords, a well-known symbol of Japan, are made from tamahagane, a special kind of steel. Tamahagane can only be made through an ancient Japanese method of steelmaking known as tatara. In other countries, blast furnaces are generally used in steelmaking, but a completely different technique is used when making tamahagane steel.
To put it simply, people would carve away hillsides and collect the soil in waterways. This soil was rich in iron sand deposits, and the waterways were used to separate the iron sand from the rest of the soil. They would also cut down trees and use that wood to make charcoal. Then the iron sand and charcoal were put into an earthen furnace, whose fires were kept burning for three days and nights. Through this process, the high-quality tamahagane steel was created. Even with all the progress made in science and chemistry in the modern age, it’s strange that this kind of steel can only be made through an ancient Japanese process.
Even from just this explanation, I’m sure you can sense how special Okuizumo is, as this process was only in this area. However, that’s not the only appeal Okuizumo has.
So what happened to the hills after they were carved away to gather the iron sand? Those areas were then used as the tanada rice fields I introduced earlier. If people had just left the remainders of the hills as they were, all of those areas would be merely wasteland now, and Okuizumo would have become a place where no one could live. Instead of that, thanks to previous generations thinking of their descendants and turning that land into rice fields, we now enjoy Nitamai rice grown in those fields, and more than anything else, that has become the Okuizumo scenery we enjoy today. They taught us that people can live in harmony with nature, and the strength of that message continues today.
～The People of Okuizumo～
Mr. Takeshi Wakuri, who owns and operates a farmhouse accommodation spot, is one of the people who is working to communicate that message to future generations.
Mr. Wakuri is active in instructing the next generation about the difficulties and enjoyment of rice farming. For several decades, he has volunteered to teach rice planting and harvesting to kindergartners and elementary school students, and last year he started conducting tours that would help participants understand the process of rice production, including planting, weeding, and harvesting. The farmhouse accommodations are in a house that is almost 200 years old, and guests can experience cooking Nitamai rice in the traditional way. More than anything, I feel that being able to listen to the enthusiastic feelings Mr. Wakuri holds about Okuizumo is very special, and it’s something you can only do here.
Nitamai rice is not the only local resource that has derived from tatara steelmaking. Both Okuizumo soba (buckwheat noodles) and Okuizumo wagyu beef are deeply connected to tatara. Also, the ground in Okuizumo contains good-quality magnetite, so the water that is filtered through the layers of earth before it wells up at the surface is rich in iron and minerals. The vegetables grown in the environment here are fresh and juicy, and truly delicious.
There is a cook here who tries to express the regional story of Okuizumo through his cooking, all while preserving as much of the unique qualities of the ingredients he uses. He is Mr. Tachibana, the owner and head chef of Wasai Kukan Tachibana. He received a bronze award in 2018 as part of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ Ryori Masters award system. This system was set up to award chefs who are committed to making people aware of the beauty of Japanese food, and making various efforts to popularize Japanese food culture. Mr. Tachibana is the first chef in either Shimane or Tottori to receive such an award. I feel that not only is his food delicious, but each dish he cooks gives us a glimpse of the effort both chef and producers put into the ingredients and final product. It feels like the entire town of Okuizumo is making you feel welcome. Mr. Tachibana works with a group of almost 70 local producers, including rice and vegetable farmers, wild game hunters, and river fishing experts, to procure fresh ingredients. His dishes, which provide you with an experience of Okuizumo’s four seasons, are made from over 600 kinds of local ingredients. Reservations are a must, but I really hope you will try a meal here during your trip through Okuizumo. You are sure to have an experience that will make you realize the meaning of “gochisosama”, a saying that we use at the end of meals that expresses our thanks to the cook.
I think you can double your sense of fulfillment of you trip if, when you are enjoying some of Okuizumo’s delicious cuisine, you can also experience the lifestyle here. When talking about the Okuizumo lifestyle, you cannot leave out the tetsushi, families that managed and conducted the tatara steelmaking process. If you visit the homes of the Itohara or Sakurai families, both still alive and well, you will see displays that will help you to imagine what Okuizumo was like in the period when tatara steelmaking was at its height. For example, when the representatives of the Matsue feudal domain came to Okuizumo to supervise the tatara steelmaking process, these families invited the representatives to their homes for tea and meals. You can picture that a culture of hospitality has had its roots here for a very long time.
It is possible for tourists who visit Okuizumo to get a guided tour of the Itohara and Sakurai family homes. You can even enjoy the special experience of being served some tea while you listen to the family histories there.
Also, I would recommend that you start your Okuizumo journey at the Okuizumo Tatara and Sword Museum. It will help you understand about both the history and current status of tatara steelmaking, so learning the basic information there before you experience the cuisine and lifestyle of the area will give you a greater enjoyment of your trip through Okuizumo.
Each traveler will have their own unique experience of Okuizumo, but I hope that if you do make the trip, you will notice the things I’ve introduced here.
All over the world, people seek out more convenience and a more comfortable standard of living, leading to destruction of the environment as they seek out more and more physical prosperity. Climate change, exhaust fumes, unseasonal typhoons and torrential rains… If we remain on this path, the Earth will become inhospitable for us.
This journey through Okuizumo began using rice as a perspective to touch on Okuizumo’s history of people living in harmony with nature, and continued on to how current residents have taken the wisdom of previous generations and are continuing to communicate it to others. It is my hope that you have felt some of that while reading this article.
Know rice, know life in Okuizumo.
"Adventures of Three Guys in Okuizumo"