Chuugoku 5: Matsue and Tottori

From Hamada, it was a two hour journey by train north to the city of Matsue. Hanako had the day off so thought she would join me for the day. And it was another gorgeous day – the weather, in fact, was great for the whole trip except the final day; over 20 degrees every day and fantastic sunshine.

Matsue is home to one of the few remaining original castles of Japan, having survived fires and earthquakes since it was built in 1611. Situated close to Lake Shinji, it would have dominated the area before the high-rise buildings came along to hide it in their shadows.

Probably the best way to access the castle was by boat; primarily for tourists, there’s a circular tour of the rivers and castle moats that allows you to get on and off at a few spots around the city, one being right next to the castle. Although everyone sits on the bottom of the boat anyway, owing to some very low bridges we had to practice bending right down so the roof could be lowered to allow the boat to pass safely through. In the rivers we saw a collection of fish, ducks, and even some turtles sunning themselves on logs jutting out of the water.

We got off by the castle, and walked up to the main keep. Once again, the area was decked out in cherry blossom, although by now it had been dispersing for a few days so wasn’t as impressive as it could have been. In the keep were displays of old armour, swords, models of the shape of the town through the ages and on one floor a random of collection of photos of all the other castles in Japan. From the top, there were commanding views of the houses across the city.

We took advantage of finishing the boat loop, although there weren’t any other interesting places to get off, before heading back to the station and bidding adieu.

I headed on to my final stop, the city of Tottori another 2 hour train journey to the east.


Tottori is famous for one thing, and one thing alone: SAND. Tottori is home to the nationwide-famous sand dunes, situated about a 20 minute bus ride from the centre of town. I think calling them ‘dunes’, however, is rather optimistic, as there was perhaps one very large dune and several other smaller ones, although that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s not every day you’re faced with a 40m high wall of sand in front of you. Trudging a few hundred metres across the sand does make you feel grateful that you’re not lost in the Sahara and having to trudge for days to find civilisation, as at times it was tough going. Too tough, indeed, for the local camels, as due to high winds it was deemed too dangerous to ride them, so by foot everyone had to go.

Perhaps most impressive, though, was the Tottori sand museum located adjacent to the dunes. Featuring a different exhibition each year, this year’s collection displayed a selection of American themed sand sculptures, which were truly fantastic. Standing five or six metres high, they accurately portrayed depictions from history and popular culture, and although I’m not usually particularly bothered by things from across the pond they were absolutely amazing and incredibly well done. I’d definitely recommend a visit just to see the museum!

But alas, all things must come to an end, and after visiting the dunes and the museum in the morning, I headed back to the city and then on to the airport to return to Tokyo in the afternoon. Tottori airport might be of particular interest to any fans of the Conan manga or anime; the writer is from the prefecture, and the airport has been converted into a Conan-fest full of statues, displays on the walls and general Conan chicanery.

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Kumamoto

We awoke bright and early again to make a short hop on the train to Oita city from where we would get another coach across the whole width of Kyushu to Kumamoto. We didn’t have a ticket for the coach sorted before we arrived, so it required a little running around from the station car park which supposedly doubled up as the bus stop to a department store 5 minutes away which for some reason contained a bus ticket office.

The route from Oita to Kumamoto passes by the largest active volcano in Japan, Mt Aso, bang in the middle of Kyushu. It is supposedly a nice place for hiking, as you can get right up close to the crater if it’s not too dangerous and spewing toxic gases, but on our whistle-stop tour we couldn’t really afford the time to do that so we had to make do with a glance from afar from the bus window. The journey took about 4 hours in total.

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Kumamoto is famous for two things: Kumamoto castle, and basashi. The castle is considered one of the three best castles of Japan, along with Matsumoto and Himeji, but sadly it was severely damaged in an earthquake in April 2016. When we went in early January 2017, access was still heavily restricted, so we couldn’t enter the grounds, but again only look on from afar. Although we knew in advance that it was unlikely we would get in, it was still a little disappointing as you never know just how bad the damage was going to be. As you can see from the pictures though, the damage was considerable and we can only imagine how bad it must be inside., and as ever o rht and ass ever for Japan beautifully coiffeured gardens

The Japanese absolutely love their food, and whenever I mentioned I was going to Kumamoto I was always told that I must try their local delicacy, basashi. Helen wasn’t really too keen on even trying it, as basashi is raw horse meat. We went to an izakaya for dinner as we thought that they must have it on the menu, but by some quirk of fate we must have picked the only restaurant in Kumamoto that didn’t have it! Or at the very least we couldn’t find it on the menu. [As an addendum, however, it’s quite easily found all over the country so I tried it when we got back to Tokyo, and it was delicious. A little chewy though.]

Also worth a mention in Kumamoto was the beautiful Suizenji park, an idyllic little haven in the centre of town.With typically Japanese stunningly coiffured gardens, it was a perfect place to rest and have a cup of matcha next to the picturesque lake.