This week, I took a short trip to Shimane Prefecture. I stayed for two nights and planned to document it all in a single blog. But then I went to an original, sengoku-era Japanese castle, and there’s no way I’m summing that up in a couple of paragraphs1. Therefore, I’ve taken the unspeakably decadent step of splitting my travelogue into two parts. So here it is- my first double album. (Apologies for the filler: Keith insisted we put his track with the stupid clarinet solo on there.)
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I arrived in Matsue on Sunday night, to find a town so deserted it made I Am Legend look like 24 Hour Party People. I was looking for a reggae bar I’d seen lionized online, but a quick consultation with a dude at a restaurant revealed the place was kaput. This is always the danger of online reviews. The half-life of nightlife is so short that any place you read about is liable to be gone by the time you stumble across the article. I settled for a drink at Heartland, a live music bar whose owner loved Billy Joel. I was the only patron.
In the morning, I rose early and headed for Izumo. At times, the railway ran hard against the banks of Lake Shinji, looking for all the world as though we were hurtling across the water. Once I arrived, I made for Izumo Taisha, the oldest Shrine in Shinto and the object of most every trip to this odd little city.
Hidden Gods and Town Planning
Izumo is one of the strangest cities I’ve seen. The old centre lies several kilometres from the new one, and in between is a weird, scrubby mixture of apartment complexes, shopping malls and farmland, thrown down with no clear plan. The result is that the town seems to be turned inside out, with its centres at either extremity and its edges in the centre. The place is a human geographer’s wet dream. Anyway, after trundling through kilometres of the ugly and indifferent, you arrive at a gate.
Then all is transformed, of course. Izumo is the place where the gods Izanagi and Izanami, mother and father of all, appeared from the clouds, and where they first made landfall. The central shrine of Izumo Taisha is rivalled only by Ise as a holy site for Shinto.
The mosses glittered with winter sunshine, and an imposing gauntlet of pine trees straddled the path to the shrine. The air hung heavy with prayers. And the trees too, which in places were encircled by bamboo frames stuffed full of thousands of small strips of paper.
In front of the sacred centre is a secondary shrine, with a colossal shimenawa hung before its arches2. Izumo Taisha brings good fortune to weddings and to lovers, and at the gate of the main shrine, I surreptitiously snapped a young couple in a moment of silent prayer. But Shinto likes taboos and mysticism as much as any aspiring faith, and entry to the central shrine is still strictly forbidden for most. On darker days, the cynic in me thinks that religions do this not to protect their sacred treasures, but to hide the emptiness at their core. Unsurprised, but just a little disappointed, I headed for the Shimane Ancient History Museum.
The Soul of Japan
I can’t emphasise enough how breathtaking the museum was. If you ever visit Shimane, you have to go. It spanned a huge swathe of history, including Izumo’s past as a Shinto and Buddhist religious centre. It included some of the funkiest religious art I’ve ever seen, including modern flyers showing the Seven Gods of Fortune as swashbucklers and petrolheads, and some of the most sublime, like this ukiyo-e print of the gods assembling for their annual meet at Izumo.
Beyond the stories of the shrine, though, was a social history which is even more spectacular. Unearthed iron swords and jade beads showed that people were trading with each other across the whole of Japan two thousand years ago. Inscribed on the handle of another sword3 is the earliest evidence of a centralised monarchy in the country. I particularly liked the framed shoes farmers wore to keep their feet dry in the rice paddies4, and the rows of cute little ceremonial horses5.
Most spectacular, though, were the Dotaku. Unlike most of the Old World, Japan didn’t have a separate Bronze Age and Iron Age; both metals arrived at the same time. So bronze was never used for actual weaponry, and it became a sacred metal, used for religious ceremonies only. At the same time the Roman Empire reached its zenith in the west, hundreds of bronze bells were cast and then immediately buried in the earth, not to see the light of day. They were eerie and enchanting. I can imagine hearing them tolling all at once, in a spectral, underground chamber. It sends shivers up my spine.
The Sea and the Soak
Later in the day, I meandered west, through suburban streets prettier than most in Japan. The world is quiet here, and there are shrines everywhere all sombre in design with pale, unpainted umber wood. I found the supposed meeting house of the Gods, which looked a little small to me- maybe it’s bigger inside, like the Tardis. Scattered on small ridges above the houses are perhaps the most magical graveyards I’ve seen in Japan, faintly overgrown with grasses and looking out to sea.
Finally, the land ends at Inasanohama Beach. I caught my first glimpse of the Sea of Japan here. True to expectation, it looked wilder, rockier and bleaker than the southern coast. The worst storms often hit this coastline. The beach was a bit unloved, like many in Japan, but there were people here even on a cold February afternoon.
A towering, rocky outcrop juts out of the flat beach, as if it’s been stranded there by some gargantuan tornado. Halfway up its face is one of the oddest shrines I’ve seen, honouring Benten, goddess of the sea and the only goddess among the Seven Gods of Fortune. I stood for a while before it, listening to the waves crashing. How many people must have prayed to her for safety and sanctuary on this rugged coastline, over the centuries?
After a day on my feet, I headed off to Kitayama Onsen, to have a soak in the restorative waters. To be honest, I did feel a bit weird, stripping off solo in front of strangers. My, err, little guy thought so too, and decided to try and hide at the start. Not the most flattering of looks, but never mind6. In the event, most of the people there were just chilling by themselves, probably after work, and the waters were so relaxing that I quickly stopped caring. If you’ve never risen from a half-slumber in a hot pool to stand naked in the cold night air, I highly recommend it.
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At the end of my trip back in time, I decided to kick back with a few drinks, but Izumo wasn’t exactly bustling with nightlife itself. Eventually I chanced upon a Brazilian karaoke bar called Sai, whose inhabitants for the night were three drunk Brazilian-Japanese dudes who pressured me into doing karaoke with them. I tried my hand at This Charming Man, with some success, I thought. Then I slinked off to my futon and was done with Izumo.
1 I described myself as a ‘rekishi otaku’ (roughly, history geek) to a bartender recently. He laughed.
2 the Shimenawa is a straw rope tied in a particular pattern of bundles, that always hangs in front of Shinto shrines. There’s an even heftier one hanging from the eaves of the Kaguraden, nearby.
3 property of one Nukatabe-no-Omi.
4 dating from the 8th or 9th Century.
5 from the 7th Century.
6 if you suspect that I spent an unhealthy amount of time agonizing over exactly how to describe my penis in a blog that is read by my parents and former co-workers, yep, you were right. If you thought ‘not’ was an option, you don’t know me at all.