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.


Chuugoku 4: Iwami Ginzan and Kagura

A couple of years ago when UNESCO released their latest updates to the list of World Heritage Sites, the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mines in Japan were included. As I’ve been wanting to visit as many of these sites as possible, a wave of excitement came over me at the possibility of visiting a new site in my own back yard. I had of course never heard of the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mines, nor even of Shimane prefecture where they are located. A further check of where Shimane actually is dispelled any thoughts of ever visiting them, as not only is Shimane miles away from Tokyo, the mines are miles away from anything in Shimane itself.

However, with the introduction of Hanako and her family to the narrative, visiting the mines became a tantalising possibility. The family agreed to drive me there, seeing as it was one of the most interesting place within a 50 mile radius, and they themselves had not visited for about 4 years so thought it worth a trip again. From Hamada, the mines were just over an hour’s drive.

Getting to the mines takes a nice leisurely 45 minute stroll from the car park; following a nice stream, walking under the leafy branches of trees high above; occasionally there were steps up to a shrine, or a small hole in a rockface which used to be one of the access tunnels. It was a very pleasant, if warm, walk up the hill and it let you appreciate just how isolated the mines indeed were.

I don’t know what I was really expecting from the mines to be honest. Or rather, I did, and that was the problem. The image of rolling, brake-less mine carts cascading around caverns full of underground tunnels like something out of Tomb Raider of the Temple of Doom were rather unforthcoming; the scale of the accessible mine shaft we visited was rather subdued in comparison. Mainly, there was just the one shaft; maybe 3 feet wide by 5 feet tall (I had to stoop a lot) and about 160m long. Although impressive considering the tunnel was excavated purely by hand, it was still a little underwhelming when I realised that that was literally it. To have UNESCO recognition I was expecting at least a second tunnel. But then, maybe that’s why a philistine like myself doesn’t make the judging panel.

That evening, the family took me to another cultural highlight of the city, that of Iwami Kagura. In Hamada, a kagura is held at a local shrine every Saturday night; although banners around the shrine suggested it was for tourists, I could easily imagine I was the only tourist who had been to see it in ages. Primarily and respectably, I assume, it is more to keep alive and to teach the youngsters of the area the local customs. Kagura iis a traditional Japanese folk dance; there are supposedly many stories to be told through the medium of kagura, the one we saw being the timeless fight between the good guy and the evilĀ oni (a monster), set to a backdrop of drum, flute and wailing (or singing, to be more culturally sensitive). Primarily moving in a circle around the small stage, the combatants ‘fought’ with bow and arrow and sword in well choreographed routines. Occasionally, the dancers stopped to say what they were about to do in ye olde Japanese – Hanako said even she didn’t understand some of what they were saying – before continuing to circle each other. Things eventually all built up to the big finale, where (spoiler alert) the good guy won.

The following day, I moved on from Hamada. However, I was touched by, and will remain forever grateful for the kindness and hospitality afforded to a complete stranger by Hanako and her family, and I would like to thank them heartfully again.