If you haven’t, don't feel bad. Even Japanese people have difficulty telling the difference between Shimane prefecture and its neighbor Tottori. They're both long, seaside, rural prefectures north of Hiroshima in the Chugoku Region, and if you pay attention to Japanese game shows, you might have a chance of seeing the struggle first hand as they pull up a map.
Photo by Lincun [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia
Shimane, Japan (or is it?!)
While Shimane holds dear to its few famous names (at the top of the list, the talented tennis player Kei Nishikori, and in a close second, the famous baseball player Ichiro Suzuki's wife) the prefecture's strength is in the richness of it's citizens and their close ties with the deep culture of their region. Every corner of the prefecture is steeped in history, from the regal Matsue Castle in the north and the historical Iwami Silver Mine to the breathtaking Taikodani Inari Shrine in the town of Tsuwano in the south-west, with the crown jewel of Izumo Taisha, the grand shrine, nestled in the San-in Plains and the beautiful geopark of the Oki Islands floating just above in the Sea of Japan.
Matsue Castle, Shimane
The Kojiki, often translated as “The Record of Ancient Matters,” is Japan’s oldest text and is primarily a collection of Japanese myths. A full third of the content comes directly from Shimane, so it’s no suprise to discover that Shimane is the birthplace of many Japanese myths. These include a large part of Japan’s creation myth with Izanami and Izanagi, the legendary battle of the great hero Susano-o and Yamata (Eight-Headed) no Orochi, the parable of kindness “Okuninushi and the Rabbit” and the Legend of Kunibiki, the pulling-together of the country of Japan.
However, Shimane has given much more than myths and history. Two of Japan’s most well-known points of culture were founded in this rural prefecture. The world-wide known performance art of Kabuki began in the city of Izumo, Shimane, due to the popular dancing of a miko, a shrine maiden at Izumo Taisha. It was even a local shrine procedure that drove her to travel the country, spreading her kagura, her dance for the gods. Shimane now hosts three major schools of kagura, the unique island-style Oki Kagura, the historical Izumo Kagura, and the popular Iwami Kagura of western Shimane.
Izumo Taisha in Izumo, Shimane
And, thanks to the story of Yamata no Orochi, Shimane is the birthplace of the infamous sake, or rice wine. The hero Susano-o creates sake and feeds it to the monster in order to defeat it. While there may be no more eight-headed creatures threatening the safety of Japan, sake has found plenty of other uses in modern-day story telling. Since all you need for good sake is good water and rice, both of which are easily found in the nature-heavy prefecture, there are over 30 sake breweries in Shimane, many of which are open to tours.
The lack of large metro areas (the largest city being the capital, Matsue, at a little under 200,000, with Izumo trailing behind under 150,000 (2012, UN Data) leads to a destination that can be a little tricky to reach since there is no bullet train access, but it maintains a cohesive, traditional culture and history that just begs to be experienced. If you're looking for Old Japan, look no further than Shimane, the root (根) of the islands (島) of Japan.