Unlocking Historic Shimane with the New San’in Pass
December 3, 2018
Last spring I moved to remote Shimane prefecture, tucked along the Japan Sea coast in far Western Japan, and am loving getting to learn more about this part of the country. The San’in region, made up of both Shimane and Tottori prefectures, is rich in history and culture, though it’s often overlooked by foreign tourists. Recently, I took advantage of the new San'in Tourist Pass to explore the cities of Yasugi and Matsue in two jam-packed days.
Purchasing the San'in Pass
Beginning my day at Yasugi Station, I went to the nearby Yasugi City Tourism Office to purchase the San’in Pass. After choosing the date and time for the 24-hour pass and paying ¥2000, the friendly staff asked me to scan a QR code that activated the app. Inside the app, you can browse listings of different tourist sites, restaurants and shops, many of which have special offers available only through the app. There’s also a handy map, marking the location of each place, making navigation really easy.
I headed back over to Yasugi Station where I boarded the Yellow Sightseeing Bus (an all-day pass is only ¥500) and headed to my first stop: the ancient Buddhist temple Kiyomizu-dera. The bus dropped me right at the foot of the temple grounds and I began the climb through the beautiful and serene forest as giant trees loomed overhead. Originally built over 1400 years ago, Kiyomizu-dera is located on a mountain where holy lightning was said to have appeared. The temple is now known for ridding visitors of ill-fortune. The great hall is a spectacularly large wooden structure. Just up the hill, a breath-taking three-storied pagoda towers over the hillside. I followed a path behind the pagoda further up the mountain until I reached the top where I got a fantastic view of nearby Tottori prefecture and the Japan Sea.
Coming down the hill, I stopped for lunch at the lovely restaurant Yushin, located directly adjacent to the bus stop. There I had the tempura and tofu special. The locally produced tofu was absolutely delicious, topped with nori, bonito, ginger and green onions. Then I hopped back on the bus and headed to the Adachi Museum.
The Adachi Museum
About a 20 minute ride from Kiyomizu-dera, the Adachi Museum is a sprawling complex surrounded by a spectacular Japanese garden. Using the San'in pass, you don't need to pay extra for admission (normally ¥2300). Throughout the museum, windows offer perfectly framed glimpses of the grounds, while the outdoor viewing areas showcase the mastery with which the gardens imitate larger natural scenes like mountains and gushing waterfalls. The galleries of the museum feature rotating exhibitions of Japanese art and there are several places on the grounds to grab tea and a snack while enjoying the view.
©Adachi Museum of Art / The Dry Landscape Garden
The Yasugibushi Theatre
A short walk from the museum exit is the Yasugibushi Theatre, where four times a day you can see performances of local folk songs and dances. Using the San'in pass once again, I was able to enter for free and catch the afternoon performance. The highlight of the show was the famed Dojousukui, in which the performer, with a 5-yen coin tied to his nose, humorously attempts to catch a wily fish in his woven basket. I then caught the bus back to Yasugi station where I headed off to Matsue for the evening.
That evening, I enjoyed dinner at Nekkoya where I went for the ¥3000 course menu. It was a great way to try some local cuisine as it included a delicious salad with roast Shimane beef, sashimi from the Japan Sea and soup with shijimi clams from nearby Lake Shinji.
Horikawa Sightseeing Boat
Though there’s a convenient bus that runs from Matsue Station to the main tourist sights in town, the weather the next morning was beautiful so I decided to walk to Matsue castle from my hotel. I found my way to the foot of Matsue castle where I decided to take a morning sightseeing cruise along the castle moat. The 45 minute cruise (again free with the San'in Pass app), offered a unique glimpse of the castle and the city. Though the guide spoke some English, he’d often supplement his tour with an English language recording that explained things in more detail. Most importantly, he gave warnings in English when he needed to lower the boat’s overhead canopy to get below some of the very short bridges (some are less than a meter above the water!). For details, see the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat website.
Visitors who wish to have an even more memorable experience can rent a kimono to wear during the cruise at Horikawa Komachi. For more on kimono rentals and other bookings throughout Shimane Prefecture see the Sanin Tourism website.
After the cruise I walked up to Matsue castle (again, free with the pass!) which is designated as a National Treasure and is one of only 12 original castles still standing in Japan.Inside, I climbed through the five stories amazed by the beautiful old wooden floors and pillars. At the top of the castle, you get a spectacular panoramic view of Matsue and Lake Shinji.
From the castle, I strolled down the beautifully preserved Shiomi Nawate Street to the traditional tea house Meimei-an. The construction of Meimei-an was commissioned by Lord Fumai who ruled over Matsue in the 18th Century and was a master of the tea ceremony. The San'in Pass gave me free admission to the grounds, but I paid a little extra to have the tea experience which included tastes of some traditional sweets.
By now I was getting hungry so I took a 5 minute walk to Izumo Soba Kigaru. There I ordered the local specialty, Warigo soba which is served in three (or more!) separate tiers. My server graciously showed me how to eat the dish, adding however much of the toppings and sauce you want to the first level and then pouring it onto the next tier once you finished the first. The set also included warm soba water which was surprisingly delicious to drink.
I had a busy 24 hours but the San'in Pass allowed me to see an incredible amount while more than paying for itself in savings. I headed home knowing I’d just scratched the surface of what the San'in area has to offer.
Other top sights in Shimane
Visitors interested in adding a day or two to their stay in Shimane Prefecture should consider Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s oldest and most important shrines where, according to Japanese folklore, all the kami spirits from around the country gather annually; and the Momen Kaido, a historically important district for the trade in renowned Hirata cotton and where a number of traditional merchant houses and other old buildings have been preserved. Both Izumo Taisha and the Momen Kaido can be reached via the Ichibata Railway line from Matsue Shinjiko Onsen Station in Matsue. For details on the Momen Kaido, see the official website.
Andy Smith is a native of South Carolina where he founded the Indie Grits Film Festival in 2007. He now works as an independent consultant for arts organizations through his firm Akari Creations. He lives in Shimane Prefecture in Japan with his wife, the artist Kimi Maeda.