Shimane Prefecture: Shinto Gods, Surreal Gardens, and an Austere Black Castle
In Japan, remote Shimane Prefecture has long been renowned for two historical attractions. The first is Stately Matsue Castle—one of the few remaining original (i.e. unreconstructed) castles in the country. It is widely beloved for its austere, jet-black keep.
The second is Izumo Shrine, said to be the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan and forever associated with the most important Shinto creation myths (such as the ones endorsing the reign of the current Japanese Royal Family).
A big fan of all things Japanese, I’ve long wanted to visit Shimane Prefecture. However, the lack of swift transportation from Japan’s major cities kept me away for over 20 years.
In the autumn of 2018, though, I finally made the journey, traveling over three hours by train from Okayama City to Matsue, the regional capital. The next day, I embarked on a whirlwind tour of key Shimane Prefecture attractions, a tour that included the above-mentioned landmarks as well as the Adachi Museum of Art. The museum is internationally famous for its collection of stunning Japanese gardens.
Without further ado, here are the pictures from that hectic autumn day trip—a day steeped in Japanese culture, history, and aesthetic perfection.
Izumo Shrine (出雲大社, Izumo Taisha)
At the crack of dawn, literally with the first rays of sunlight hitting JR Matsue Station, I hopped onto a local train service for nearby Izumo City (known as Izumo-Shi in Japanese).
The ride took slightly more than half an hour and although I managed to grab a seat, I can’t say it was enjoyable as the whole carriage was full of noisy students heading to school. The ride did, however, remind me of the many high-school rom-com Anime series I’ve binged on in recent years.
To go into a bit of history, Izumo means "out of the clouds" in Japanese and was previously the name of an ancient province encompassing the eastern part of modern-day Shimane Prefecture. Believed by historians to have once been an independent political entity, Izumo was ultimately absorbed into the expanding Yamato Empire around the 4th century, Yamato being the dynastic name of the current Japanese Royal Family.
What’s interesting is that in spite of academic theories, within Shintoism, Izumo is still widely believed to be the setting for numerous key creations myths.
For example, Izumo is said to be the resting place of Izanami, mother of numerous Shinto Gods. The ancient province was supposedly also where Storm God Suzanoo battled the eight-headed serpent Yamata-no-Orochi, thereafter finding the grass-cutting sword (Kusanagi no Tsurugi). The mythical sword is as of today, still one of the Three Imperial Regalia of the Japanese Royal Family.
As for Izumo Shrine itself, it is revered as one of the most sacred shrines of Shintoism and dedicated to some of the most important deities in the faith. Of note, because of the shrine’s association with Okuninushi-no-Mikoto, Izumo Shrine is doubly famous as the place to pray for love. So I’ve been told, many Japanese women make the journey to the shrine each year to pray for a good husband.
What's more, up till 1744, the structures of Izumo Shrine were regularly rebuilt, as according to Shinto traditions. Also, the 10th to the 17th day of the 10th lunar month is said to be when all Shinto gods convene at Izumo Shrine for an annual meeting. The 10th lunar month is thus known as “Kamiarizuki” or "month with deities" in Izumo.
Matsue Castle (松江城, Matsue Jou)
Returning to Matsue via the same route I used earlier, I hopped into a cab and made my way to famous Matsue Castle. The ride took but 10 minutes.
Now, I’ve mentioned several times in my other Japan travel write-ups that Japanese castles are often best appreciated from outside rather than from within, no thanks to steep steps, the disallowing of shoes and so on. Figuring that I wouldn’t be returning to Matsue anytime soon, though, I made an exception and hiked up the austere keep to its highest level. Overall, while I can’t say the view I was rewarded with was unforgettable, there was little else to complain about as the keep was uncrowded that day and the weather clear.
Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum (小泉八雲記念館, Koizumi Yakumo Kinenkan)
From Matsue Castle, it was an easy 15-minute walk to the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum. This small but well-managed museum is probably low on most international visitors’ checklists. However, if you are fond of Japanese horror stories and folklore, as I am, I dare say this museum is an even bigger must-visit than the castle when in Matsue.
Born in Greece in 1850, journalist and writer Lafcadio Hearn resettled permanently in Japan in his middle age, following which he wrote various retellings of classic Japanese folktales and ghost stories (the most famous one being Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things).
Apart from introducing Japan to the western world back then, these collections became staples in Japanese horror storytelling, with Yokai such as the Snow Woman, the Long Neck Lady, and the Faceless Tribe still regularly depicted in movies, Anime, and video games.
A visit to Hearn’s memorial museum is thus more than just a literary experience for me. It was also an homage to the wicked tales that have delighted and terrified me since young.
Adachi Museum of Art (足立美術館 Adachi Bijutsukan)
Somewhat worn out by all the walking, I briefly considered skipping the Adachi Museum of Art after returning to JR Matsue Station. How unforgivable this would have been had I given in to that dreadful notion! While the journey from Matsue Station to the museum was rather dreary, I was immediately enlivened on entering this world-famous Shimane Prefecture attraction.
Simply put, the gardens here are not only visually gorgeous—they are positively ethereal and completely worthy of their reputation of being among the best Japanese gardens in the world. Appreciating them from the dedicated viewing windows of the museum, the experience is akin to staring into another world. No matter how exhausted you are, you will immediately feel uplifted.
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© 2019 Kuan Leong Yong