While population density is one of the first things that comes to mind when people are thinking about life in Japan, it’s important to note that there is a big difference between the toshi (city) and inaka (rural) ways of life. Most people will tell you these are the two faces of Japan, but people in Tokyo might tell you that there is only Tokyo and inaka.

We’re talking stumbling upon an old bus in the middle of mountain rice fields while you’re lost and hunting for a somewhat mythological shrine kind of inaka.

While comparing the mindsets of Tokyoites and Osakans, or comparing the mindsets of Kyotoites and everyone else is always fun, there is also perspective to be gained within other regions as well. For example, the term “U-turn” refers to young people who move away to the big city for a while, but soon find themselves returned to their inaka hometowns. On a smaller scale, an aquaintance here once boasted that even if this region seems far away, living close to an airport means that it’s easy to fly out to Tokyo for a weekend to play and shop, and that is just enough time to receive a shock and be happy to come back home just as easily.

While many, many prefectures in Japan would proudly describe themselves as inaka, only the San’in region, facing the Sea of Japan and nestled behind the Chugoku mountain range as if hiding from the rest of the country, gets to boast of the lowest population of all the prefectures. Tottori Prefecture, to the east, wins in a lot of these contests: lowest population, as well as the last prefecture to get a Starbucks. Shimane Prefecture, to the west, only has the second lowest population and was only the second to last prefecture to get a Starbucks (as of about a year ago–we more recently got a Godiva right across from it, though!).

Furthermore, just as people enjoy trying to find any kind of unique(ish) claims to fame for US states, you find the same of push for fame for each prefecture in Japan. I heard of a list labeling each prefecture for something it is famous for, and while Shimane was quite appropriately named Shinwa-ken (Mythology Prefecture), Tottori was named Nashi-ken (Pear Prefecture). Tottori pears are indeed very, very, very tasty, but the problem with this nickname is that the word for pear (梨) is synonymous with the word for “nothing” (無). It doesn’t seem people were insulted. Rather, they laughed and took it with a sense of ironic pride–“Haha, that’s right, there is nothing in Tottori! We’re as inaka as it gets!”

That’s not true, though. Tottori is famous for–within Japan–very unique sand dunes, as well as for being the home prefecture of many famous mangaka, such as Mizuki Shigeru (who wrote Gegege no Kitaro), and Aoyama Gosho (who wrote Detective Conan). Thus, one of Tottori’s other nicknames is “Manga Kingdom.” If anything, because of Tottori’s reputation for being the most inaka of the inaka (and indeed, in many manga I’ve read where they want very a inaka setting, Tottori tends to be a popular choice), it’s kind of famous in its alleged “nothingness.”

And alas, Shimane, being second to Tottori in inaka-ness, is often overshadowed by Tottori’s supposed void. We joke that we’re the 47th most popular prefecture. Irony tends to be a strength of the region, though, as evidenced by Yoshida-kun, our scowling volunteer ambassador who tells it like it is and therefore doesn’t sugar-coat what really does make Shimane a cool place.

To break down regional attitudes a little further, I’ve written before about how the western portion of Shimane (Iwami) and the eastern region of Shimane (Izumo) tend to have different mindsets (and notice that this is completely ignoring the rather large, unique Oki Islands), illustrated in little things like offering and accepting tea:

A person from the Iwami region (western Shimane) goes to visit a friend in the Izumo region (eastern Shimane). The Izumo friend asks, “Do you want another cup of tea?” and the Iwami friend replies, “no thank you, I’ve had enough.” The Izumo friend then prepares another cup of tea, and the Iwami friend is surprised and then forces himself to drink it so as to be polite.

A person from the Izumo region goes to visit a friend in the Iwami region. The Iwami friend asks, “Do you want another cup of tea?” and the Izumo friend replies, “no thank you, I’ve had enough.” The Iwami friend pours no more tea, and the Izumo friend sadly wonders why he isn’t getting another cup of tea but says nothing so as to be polite.

Even breaking down the Izumo region even further into small cities and towns, you find even more different mindsets despite the higher level of integration. For example, the two largest cities in the Izumo region are Matsue City and Izumo City, respectively on the east and west sides of Lake Shinji, comprising the Shimane Peninsula. They are connected by various roads and train lines on both the north and south sides of the lake, and visitors to one city usually do not pass up the other. When it comes to tourism, however, you notice some of the following ways of viewing each other (I’ve emphasized and compiled general passing comments I’ve heard over my time here).

Matsue, when viewed from Izumo’s perspective:

Matsue is so lucky. They have Matsue Castle and all the samurai era history and festivals that go with it, the iconic Horikawa Sightseeing Boat weaving through the canals around town, and generally being a very walkable, welcoming place for visitors, always eager to show off its history with pride. What’s more, if they want to start a new city wide festival or even put on a weekend event in a shopping area, they have enough people that they can generally count on people attending! It’s just too quiet and spread out here for us to be able to put on big themed parades over five times a year… sure seems lively over there across the lake.

Izumo, when viewed from Matsue’s perspective:

Izumo is so lucky. They have Izumo Taisha! Everyone knows Izumo Taisha! Everyone comes here for Izumo Taisha. Everyone goes to Izumo Taisha for En-musubi. We have En-musubi too, you know! Sniffle… I wish we could have Izumo Taisha. Sure, we have Miho Shrine and Kamosu Shrine and Kumano Taisha and Sada Shrine… but nobody knows them like they know Izumo Taisha!!

So maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea.

It’s okay, Matsue, you are loved and known.
Click photo for Facebook source and share the love for Matsue.

However, even within Matsue, you find that there is still some leftover cultural differences from before the 2005 and 2011 mergers with surrounding small towns and villages (there was a big push for mergers all over inaka Japan around this time). At the far northeast, Mihonoseki retains its Mihonoseki culture and pride, as does Shinji at the far southwest, though they are all collectively Matsue now.

However, I frequently hear comments about those oddballs out in the Yatsuka district–otherwise known as Daikonshima, the large island on Lake Nakaumi. The island didn’t use to be accessable by car, so the little peony and ginseng kingdom combined its occasional influences from Sakaiminato (a fishing port) and Yonago (a business area, the San’in region’s “Little Osaka”), Mihonoseki, and central Matsue to create a strange cultural mix and even stranger dialect. While you hear varying amounts of Izumo-ben (Izumo dialect) in the city center and in the outskirts of Matsue, or in Izumo, or the famous folk songs of Yasugi, or in the little mountain villages of Unnan and Okuizumo… you don’t hear Yatsuka-ben anywhere but the Yatsuka district. I haven’t actually spent enough time on Daikonshima talking with locals or anyone outside of Yuushien Japanese Garden to have noticed, but I certainly hear the people in the rest of Matsue talk about how weird it is.

And who knows… maybe the locals on Daikonshima talk about their weird neighbors on the even smaller island, Eshima.