Shimane Prefecture: Shinto Gods, Surreal Gardens, and an Austere Black Castle

Updated on August 5, 2019
CYong74 profile image

Yong is a Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. His visits now focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.

Autumn sightseeing at the most famous Shimane Prefecture attractions.
Autumn sightseeing at the most famous Shimane Prefecture attractions.

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.

Murals at Izumo-Shi Station. One look and you’d know you have arrived in the heartland of Shinto mysticism.
Murals at Izumo-Shi Station. One look and you’d know you have arrived in the heartland of Shinto mysticism.

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.

The grand walkway leading from the town into Izumo Shrine.
The grand walkway leading from the town into Izumo Shrine.

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.

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Okuninushi, Shinto God of Marriage and Good Relationship, and ruler of Ancient Izumo, greets visitors before the main shrine grounds.The main shrine of Izumo Taisha. Of note, worshippers clap four times instead of the usual two during prayers, as a symbolic gesture of praying for one’s current or future partner.The Shōkokan, which houses various important cultural exhibits.The famous huge sacred straw rope of the Kagura-den, or divine performance hall. This “shimenawa” is the largest in Japan and weighs 5 tons.Messengers of the Gods.
Okuninushi, Shinto God of Marriage and Good Relationship, and ruler of Ancient Izumo, greets visitors before the main shrine grounds.
Okuninushi, Shinto God of Marriage and Good Relationship, and ruler of Ancient Izumo, greets visitors before the main shrine grounds.
The main shrine of Izumo Taisha. Of note, worshippers clap four times instead of the usual two during prayers, as a symbolic gesture of praying for one’s current or future partner.
The main shrine of Izumo Taisha. Of note, worshippers clap four times instead of the usual two during prayers, as a symbolic gesture of praying for one’s current or future partner.
The Shōkokan, which houses various important cultural exhibits.
The Shōkokan, which houses various important cultural exhibits.
The famous huge sacred straw rope of the Kagura-den, or divine performance hall. This “shimenawa” is the largest in Japan and weighs 5 tons.
The famous huge sacred straw rope of the Kagura-den, or divine performance hall. This “shimenawa” is the largest in Japan and weighs 5 tons.
Messengers of the Gods.
Messengers of the Gods.

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.

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Matsue Castle is the symbol of Shimane Prefecture. It is also sometimes referred to as the “black castle.”A close-up view of the famous black keep.The interior of the castle keep is well-restored, with modern facilities for travelers.A valiant samurai and his steed.View of Matsue City from the top of the keep.The Kounkaku. This is a Meiji Period structure near Matsue Castle keep that contains historical exhibits and a tea room.
Matsue Castle is the symbol of Shimane Prefecture. It is also sometimes referred to as the “black castle.”
Matsue Castle is the symbol of Shimane Prefecture. It is also sometimes referred to as the “black castle.”
A close-up view of the famous black keep.
A close-up view of the famous black keep.
The interior of the castle keep is well-restored, with modern facilities for travelers.
The interior of the castle keep is well-restored, with modern facilities for travelers.
A valiant samurai and his steed.
A valiant samurai and his steed.
View of Matsue City from the top of the keep.
View of Matsue City from the top of the keep.
The Kounkaku. This is a Meiji Period structure near Matsue Castle keep that contains historical exhibits and a tea room.
The Kounkaku. This is a Meiji Period structure near Matsue Castle keep that contains historical exhibits and a tea room.

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.

Hearn also goes by his Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo.
Hearn also goes by his Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo.

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.

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The lower level of the memorial museum details Hearn’s colorful life in many countries.Naturally, various personal artifacts of Hearn are exhibited too.The upper level of the museum contains a mini-library of Hearn works. This is Yuki-Onna, or Snow Woman. My favorite Hearn story.A quirky poster near the memorial museum featuring three of the most famous Yokai written about by Lafcadio Hearn.
The lower level of the memorial museum details Hearn’s colorful life in many countries.
The lower level of the memorial museum details Hearn’s colorful life in many countries.
Naturally, various personal artifacts of Hearn are exhibited too.
Naturally, various personal artifacts of Hearn are exhibited too.
The upper level of the museum contains a mini-library of Hearn works. This is Yuki-Onna, or Snow Woman. My favorite Hearn story.
The upper level of the museum contains a mini-library of Hearn works. This is Yuki-Onna, or Snow Woman. My favorite Hearn story.
A quirky poster near the memorial museum featuring three of the most famous Yokai written about by Lafcadio Hearn.
A quirky poster near the memorial museum featuring three of the most famous Yokai written about by Lafcadio Hearn.

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 attraction of Shimane Prefecture.

Simply put, the gardens here are not only visually gorgeous—they are positively ethereal. Appreciating them from the dedicated viewing windows of the museum, the experience is akin to staring into another world.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The breath taking Dry Landscape Garden of the Adachi Museum of Art.The Dry Landscape Garden is so intricate and large, it offers a different view with every step taken.A tree, intelligently placed, to project an emphatic sense of depth.The serene White Gravel and Pond Garden. The embodiment of tranquility.Blazing autumn leaves at the teahouse garden.
The breath taking Dry Landscape Garden of the Adachi Museum of Art.
The breath taking Dry Landscape Garden of the Adachi Museum of Art.
The Dry Landscape Garden is so intricate and large, it offers a different view with every step taken.
The Dry Landscape Garden is so intricate and large, it offers a different view with every step taken.
A tree, intelligently placed, to project an emphatic sense of depth.
A tree, intelligently placed, to project an emphatic sense of depth.
The serene White Gravel and Pond Garden. The embodiment of tranquility.
The serene White Gravel and Pond Garden. The embodiment of tranquility.
Blazing autumn leaves at the teahouse garden.
Blazing autumn leaves at the teahouse garden.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Kuan Leong Yong

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      • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR

        Kuan Leong Yong 

        2 weeks ago from Singapore

        Hey, Liz. Yeah, I went a little overboard with that day. But perhaps I started really early. And the attractions were mostly a case of "it's a there at one glance." The day wasn't that rushed, to be honest. I even had time to do some window shopping. LOL.

        Thanks for liking my pictures too.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        3 weeks ago from UK

        You certainly packed a lot into a day trip. This is a fascinating account, packed with excellent photos.

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