Japan’s Chugoku region, hugged up on the Sea of Japan on the western half of Honshu, is home to some of the country’s best opportunities for rural exploration and off-the-beaten-path experiences. Nestled between Kansai and Kyushu, the region comprises the Hiroshima, Okayama, Tottori, Yamaguchi and Shimane Prefectures—the latter of which is a world completely of its own.
In addition to being one of Japan’s best cherry blossom destinations, it’s also home to a plethora of cultural sites with museums, shrines and castles galore. And that’s not even counting the picturesque Izumo Hinomisaki lighthouse, nostalgic manga factory, and sleepy seaside villages.
Sitting on the shores of the Sea of Japan in the shadows of the Chugoku mountain range, Shimane evolved in isolation from the rest of the Land of the Rising Sun for millennia. Thanks to this seclusion, Shimane boasts a vast and deep history unlike anywhere else in the country.
Its roots can be traced to the origins of Japanese mythology when the Shinto god Okuninushi was thought to live in Isumo, an ancient province of Shimane. Ultimately, his legacy has created an elaborate patchwork of myth, lore and legend in the misty mountains of the region. Even today, Shimane is still believed to be the place where the myriads of Japanese gods hold annual meetings and has earned the unsurprising nicknames, “the land of the gods” and “the land of myths.”
The exact meeting place of the gods, you ask? None other than the Isumo Taisha Grand Shrine, one of the Shinto faith’s most ancient and revered sites. Less ancient, but equally impressive, is the Matsue Castle, one of Japan’s few intact 17th century castles, complete with pristine Japanese gardens of Yuushien with blooms year round.
And these things barely scratch the surface of what Shimane has to offer. From wild, rugged shores framed by foggy mountains to mysterious temples and long forgotten mines, there’s even more to Shimane than meets the eye.
Experience the Tranquility of Shimane’s Countryside
Thanks to its sparse population, Shimane has remained largely the same over the years. The peaceful countryside complete with pristine beaches, thick woods and rural life, is the perfect spot for gods to exist.
The main draw for nature lovers in Shimane are the Oki Islands. Scattered off the coast, this archipelago of around 180 islands—only four of which are permanently inhabited—are a dream for outdoor enthusiasts. The lining of each island mostly consists of jagged, sky-high cliffs, volcanic sands and intimate sea coves.
Back on the mainland, there are just as many options to explore the region’s unspoiled beauty such as the Seven Falls hiking trail, and Kuniga Bay’s interesting rock formations set among turquoise blue waters. Depending on the time of year, you may even find cherry blossom trees creating blankets of pink across the entire prefecture.
Whatever you do, don’t forget Inasa beach. Not far from the iconic Izumo Shrine, this registered heritage site is equal parts mysterious and scenic. In fact, it’s responsible for the origin of the region’s most ancient legends: The White Rabbit of Inaba, in which a rabbit cons a group of wanizame – a ferocious, mythical dragon-slash-shark creature – into being used as a bridge to reach Cape Keta.
Feel the Rhythms of Traditional Japanese Folk Dancing
Shimane’s deep admiration for its folk culture has made sure that ancient arts, from ritual dance to traditional handicrafts, continue to be preserved and celebrated.
One in particular is Kagura, a very specific type of Shinto ceremonial dance that’s characterized by its fast rhythms, colorful costumes and elaborate masks. The ancient performance is a ceremony to ward off natural disasters and receive a bountiful harvest. According to lore, dance used to be practiced as a means to coax out Amaterasu Okami (God of the Sun) to shine more light on the world after the winter season.
The term kagura literally means “entertaining the gods,” and in Iwami, an area in western Shimane they are still doing exactly that.
For Iwami’s version of the sacred dance, the costumes are crafted from Sekishu washi, a delicate yet strong paper made from plants indigenous to the region. The craft itself dates back over 1,000 years, and in Iwami is still the preferred method for making traditional kagura costumes—serpent torsos, masks and all.
With more than 200 kagura groups scattered across the rural Iwami region, you can observe the tribute to local deities relatively easily. The most bucket-list-worthy opportunity would be the local shrine festival taking place in late October/early November, when the dance is performed following the rice harvest and continues from evening well into dawn.
Wander Forgotten Castle Grounds and Other Cultural Sights
As if untouched nature and passionately preserved folk-arts weren’t wow-worthy enough, Shimane is also host to tons of remarkable cultural sites.
Wander the grounds of Matsue Castle, a traditional wooden castle dating to the early 1600s that holds the title for one of Japan’s most well-preserved castles. Or how about the ancient shrine of Izumo-taisha that is as old as Japanese history itself.
There are plenty of carefully curated museums to stroll too, such as the Adachi Museum of Art and Shimane Ancient History Museum. And for the more curious traveller, there’s the abandoned Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and Matsue Vogel Park, one of the world’s largest greenhouses.
Whether you want to know more about the Land of the Rising Sun’s great outdoors or life in its big cities, our Japan Travel Guide will tell you all you need to know.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.