Exploring Okuizumo, a Tranquil Mountain Town with a Glorious past
(A one-day trip sharing time with people like friends)
Hi, I am Sachiyo!
In mid-October, I spent a day in the town of Okuizumo, Shimane Prefecture, with a family of three people from Indonesia. They currently live in Hiroshima Prefecture and came to Okuizumo for a day trip, and I joined them as a guide with a fellow guide, Aisa, for the Tomodachi guiding service. Tomodachi means friends, and it is characterized by guides who treat their guests like their friends.
They came to the town by highway bus connecting the cities of Matsue and Hiroshima. We met at the Kosoku (highway) bus stop of Kisuki around noon, so first we went to TATARA-NO-IE (the house of TATARA), a cafe and gallery, to have lunch. It stands where a TATARA village was found in earlier times.
TATARA means a Japanese traditional iron refining method. Japan is not blessed with iron ore which is a common raw material of iron, so ancient people came up with an idea of producing iron for making farming and building tools, cooking pots, etc. from iron sand. Okuizumo is a quiet town in mountains with beautiful natural sceneries; however, the area in and around the town had been the largest iron producer within the country and was very prosperous for centuries, until about one hundred years ago. This was when an iron refining method using iron ore was introduced from the west and imported iron ore became available. The Western way is much more cost effective than the TATARA method, so the traditional method rapidly lost popularity with the arrival of the new method.
In the old days, people engaged in the industry lived together in a village. Those villages are formed around a big iron plant. There were numerous TATARA iron villages in the area.
This cafe stands where one such TATARA village was located. An empty wood building, which was originally used as an office building adjacent to the village’s TATARA plant, was renovated into a stylish café. The location had been almost totally abandoned for years, with only some remains of past glory, before the café opened.
In front of the café, a big Katsura (Japanese Judas tree) is found. Each TATARA village had a tree of this kind as a guardian tree. A small shrine is also found next to the tree, which enshrines the goddess of TATARA iron producing.
Near the café, some beautiful terraced rice paddies made on sloping land are located. A painting of the rice paddies is displayed on the wall inside the café. The TATARA method requires iron sand, and the area led the industry because it is rich in soil that contains iron sand which is suitable for manufacturing high quality iron. People cut down hillsides to collect iron sand, and after that they turned the flattened land into rice paddies. Many of the terraced rice paddies in Okuizumo are the results of such activity.
The café offers set menus with rice which was produced from such rice paddies. It’s harvest time, so they serve newly harvested rice now. They also serve soba (buckwheat) noodles, another local specialty of the town. The newly flattened land was not fertile and productive for rice cultivation, so people planted buckwheat for soba noodles in earlier times because it grows well even in land that is not good for growing other crops.
The guests had the rice sets, and Aisa and I ordered soba sets with mushroom Tempura, which is also a local specialty of the town.
This illustration shows how they produced iron material through the TATARA method.
Other places we visited during the trip included a guest house, Ooe-no-sato residence, which was renovated from a farmer’s house that is 250 years old, overlooking a fine view of some terraced rice paddies and mountains in the distance
The host, Takeshi, and his wife, Naoko, are representatives of the extremely kind people of Okuizumo. They offer guests workshops on farming, such as rice planting and harvesting, and home-made cooking. We made rice balls with freshly cooked rice Takeshi grew and just harvested, using a traditional earthen rice cooking pot. When the rice was ready and Naoko took off the lid, the aroma from the freshly cooked rice spread throughout the room.
They seemed happy sharing some time with locals, and bought a pack of rice grains the host grew before leaving the place.
We also visited the residence of the Itohara family, a family who previously led the TATARA industry in the area. The magnificent Japanese-style mansion has a very spacious and elaborate garden. Visiting the residence will give you a glimpse of the ancient glory of the town.
Thank you for reading my article. I hope many of you visit Okuizumo when the COVID-19 issue is settled. I’m sure you will make lots of discoveries in this tranquil town with a unique history.