I recently had the opportunity to visit the Shimane Prefecture in Japan. It is the second smallest prefecture in Japan population wise, but the mythical heartland of the country. Having only spent a few hours in Japan before arriving into the local airport, I had no idea what to expect. But what I did experience was fascinating!
Visiting Rural Japan Countryside: What is it like?
We arrived into Izumo Airport, a rather small and local airport and were quickly brought to a microbus for our 4 day trip. With 8 others, I was a guest of Heartland Japan, a local operator who is bringing foreigners into emerging markets like Shimane Prefecture.
We visited Tachikuekyo Gorge and a rather easy walk along the Kando River. For me the highlights were over 1400 Buddha statues nestled in the rocks. Locals consider this one of the hidden treasures of the region, as very few visitors, whether domestic Japanese tourists or International visitors (which there are a staggering few). There was also a hot springs that looked over the river, I wish we had had time to use one! I was looking forward to “bath time” on each day’s Itinerary!
Before lunch we had some time to walk around Izumo and my first thought was “where is everyone?” The streets were empty of not only people, but cars, and noticeably garbage or even leaves on the road. There was not a single cigarette butt to be seen. Not a single leaf on the road (and this was November, the colourful leaves were falling off the trees constantly!). It was if someone had walked right infant of us with a leaf blower. I was blown away by the cleanliness. ( This continued throughout the entire trip. )
Izumo is known for its Soba noodles, which are more brownish color than the Soba noodles that you would get most other places, so a traditional Soba noodle lunch was on our itinerary! I will admit that I will probably pass on the raw egg next time, just because the texture of it was odd when you are used to the cooked alternative! This was the first of many interesting Japanese foods I would try while in Japan!
Izumo Grand Shrine and the Gathering of the Gods
Izumo is home to an annual gathering of the Gods. Each fall, the Gods are said to gather and discuss important relationships for the coming year. Whether it is in business, personal, financial or almost any dealing, this occurs in Izumo for a week.
They are said to come ashore at Inasanohama Beach, a local beach with a small shrine perched atop a large rock (called Bentenjima) and then proceed to Izumo Taisha Shrine. This is the oldest shrine in Japan and one of the largest, at 24m tall.
Some people give me a lot of flack for enjoying tours. They prefer to travel independently and research every corner of every place they visit. But personally I love knowing that I have a guide who will take me to all of these places, explain their significance and often add wayyyyyy more than you would ever get exploring somewhere on their own. But let the haters hate. I am going to enjoy my tours and continue to take them : )
While walking from Insananohama beach to Izumo Taisha, we passed a shrine behind a small fence. Devoid of people and looking rather insignificant, this is where the Gods actually meet. They are only housed at the Izumo Taisha shrine. Small tidbits of knowledge that can only be retold by local knowledge are one of the reasons why I enjoy taking tours.
Ryokan Inn’s In Rural Japan
At the end of our day, we were dropped off at a local “ryokan” inn. very typically Japanese, we removed our shoes upon arrival and a few women working at the ryokan vigorously got to work wiping any dirt or dust off our luggage wheels, before taking he luggage upstairs.
Our room was large with a sitting area inside. A step before entering was where you should leave your slippers (that were provided on arrival). Pretty much every time there is a step up, it means to leave whatever is on your feet behind. Even bathrooms have their own slippers, where you remove the ones you are wearing and put on ones that are just for the bathroom. The cleanliness in Japan amazed me again and again. Our hostess shuffled on her knees over to our table and poured us some tea to enjoy before we went to the onsen. The hospitality blew me away. I would have been completely lost had my roommate for the trip not spoken Japanese!
While we were at dinner, our sitting area was transformed into a sleeping area by the staff, who placed futons and blankets down for us. I love the feeling of a “magic elf” coming into your room. Perhaps I haven’t taken advantage of turn down service enough in the past!
When it comes to accommodation in rural Japan, we stayed in places that did, and did not have in-room wifi. Whenever we DID have it though, it was terrific! Beyond fast! But check into this before you visit if you need wifi in your room.
These traditional accommodations also have paper style doors, and despite that, are very quiet. Ensure you are respectful of others. These types of accommodations have varying levels of security (when it comes to locking doors), one we stayed at had a rice paper door with a lock on it. I wondered what was the point. But took the key anyways. The Japanese people are very honorable, and you will not see locked bikes anywhere. There is very little theft as it is against the law. They do not question rules (for the most part) and are keen to follow them. Never once did I feel as if my belongings were unsafe. But if this is a big concern for you, check out what you can from your accommodations. We spent one night in a larger hotel, while still having the traditional futon beds, it had a locking door.
Iwami Ginzan a UNESCO Silver Mining Town
One of the biggest tourist draws in Shimane is Iwami Ginzan, the longest running silver mining town in Japan. At its height as a tourist draw ( in 2007 after it was listed with UNESCO ), it received over 800 000 visitors in one year. Currently it receives around 300 000, but most are domestic tourists, as few international visitors visit Shimane Prefecture due to is limited access (flying into Izumo or taking a train to Hiroshima and then arranging transportation to Shimane is the main access options – another vote for a tour operator who picks you up). It is estimated that only 5000 foreigners visit Iwami Ginzan. Again while wandering this old town (but do not mistake old for run down, its state of cleanliness and upkeep were extraordinary) I wondered where all the people were, although we did see a few as we walked up to the mine to explore one of the 600 mining tunnels.
In the 17th century, this town was responsible for extracting about 1/3 of the world’s silver. It continued until the 1920s.
Do not miss:
- Kigami Shrine with a water dragon on the ceiling. After a devastating fire in the town, the water dragon was painted on the rebuilt shrine in 1812 to offer protection for residents. If you want to capture it in a photo, check out below how it is pulled off!
- Walking through Ryugenji Mabu mining shaft
- Shopping for local goods. Read more about things to buy in Japan.
- Gohyaku Rakan where over 1400 Buddha statues reside. Carved by two men, these were to honour those who lost their lives in the mines.
Iwami Kagura Performances In Rural Japan Countryside
Kagura is a big part of the cultural heritage of the Japanese. It is the oldest performing art but has been lost in most urban areas. However, Iwami Kagura is still popular in this rural region and there are quite a few local kagura clubs who practice for years to perfect the art. Kagura tells simple stories (usually about Gods eliminating demons) with beautiful and intense dancing and acting. Part of the essence of Heartland Japan’s tour is getting to see the culture of the region and meet the people. We were able to visit a local Kagura “troop” and see their practice hall and try on their costumes. Made of gold thread, some of the costumes cost over USD16 000. Their masks are made by talented artists who spend hours creating their paper maché features and then painting their faces.
Hands on Experiences: Off the beaten Track Japan
We were able to visit both a local pottery shop and a local artist, where in both places we got our hands dirty creating a piece of pottery and painting a mask. After taking in so many sights and information, I love having the chance to take a class or learn from an artist as I travel.
A Sake Brewery tour was also on our itinerary. We got to meet the 4 men who are responsible for crafting the sake and learned all about how much perfection is required to achieve a great batch. So much about what I love about travel is meeting locals. The problem with rural Japan, is that you will not find many English speakers, even in the Ryokans. The larger hotels had English speaking front desk staff, but with limited International visitors, it is not a region with a lot of Enlish speakers in their tourism department. Another vote for why taking a tour with a guide who can do the translating for you is a good idea!
Onsens in Small Villages in Japan
One of the things that I was most looking forward to was enjoying the Japanese Onsens. Heated with the mineral-rich geothermal water from deep underground, these natural hot springs are a big part of daily life for small towns. Some still use the bath’s daily. I was interested in comparing it to my experiences in New Zealand’s Rotorua, where their geothermal waters have a strong rotten eggs smell. In Japan, it was not like this at all. None of the places we visited had that sulphur smell.
The Ryokan’s that we stayed in had onsen’s for bathing, rather than bathing / showering facilities in the rooms. If you are not into the communal bathing, you can rent a private onsen.
My favourite onsen experience was in Motoyu Onsen, where two local ladies tried candidly to explain to me that I was to dip my entire body up to my neck into the 42C water all at once! Me, I am a hot tub wuss and get in bit by bit. But at their prompting and cheers, into the water I went, where after just two minutes I could feel my extremities tingling and they then told me I should get out since I was sooooo red. In and out is the typical experience at this onsen, known for its health benefits where a few dips into the hot water does the trick. While I didn’t understand a word they said, connecting to the locals and feeling their genuine appreciation for your visit (rather than distaste for visitors like other cities are facing) is one of my favourite things about traveling to emerging markets.
Soft Adventure Meets Sustainability
Adventure comes in all forms, whether it is an exotic destination, an extreme activity or a unique experience, it all connects to adventure travel. What I really liked about traveling in the Shimane prefecture with Heartland Japan was that we were able to explore on foot. While we had a microbus for pickups and drop offs, sometimes we did not see the bus for most of the day. It was not a get off the bus, take a photo and get back on the bus type tour. We would be dropped off, sometimes in the middle of nowhere and met with local guides, keen to show off the history of their small Japanese towns. Some days we walked over 10 kilometers. But most of that was leisurely wandering small towns, not hiking. This is an area best seen on foot, and the lack of traffic (and people) makes it an easy thing to do.
One thing that did bug me in Japan was the amount of packaging on everything and denying a plastic bag every time I bought anything. If sustainable travel is important to you, purchase a pair of chopsticks to carry with you to avoid the disposable ones. I did like that the onsen’s had large shampoo and conditioner bottles rather than the small one use bottles that are so often seen in hotels.
Conclusions on Rural Japan Countryside.
I recently asked my Facebook followers what they think of when they first think of Japan. The answers were: cherry blossoms, the best food, claustrophobia, sushi, automated toilets, technology, sumo, automation, trains, great parties, ancient and ultra modern mixing. I had my own thoughts about Japan, cherry blossoms were on the list, crowded trains and sidewalks, pikachu everything, and a mix of traditional and modern Japanese girls. Rural Japan, besides the cherry blossom aspect (which I am certain is beautiful in spring), was not at all what I was expecting. There is so much more to Japan than Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto. While all amazing, and I do not think they should be missed, I urge you to fit a few days in the Japan countryside to see what the rest of the country is really like! Check out tips for your first visit to Japan.
Japan countryside towns are best visited on a tour like the one I was lucky enough to experience. While I do not think you should skip the top sights in Japan, schedule yourself enough time to spend some time in the countryside. So much of Japan is rural, and you should not miss it!
Lindsay is the founder and editor of Carpe Diem OUR Way. She is passionate about sharing her experiences of traveling with children on adventurous family holidays around the world! She resides in the suburbs of Vancouver when not jet setting abroad.