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.

Matsue is considered a rather large city in the sparsely populated San’in region, and life in the center of town is easy. I have a ten minute walk to work or to Matsue Castle, and a plethora of grocery shopping options that are easy to get to. A car ride twenty minutes in any direction, however, will take you the outskirts of town where life is simplier. Nature is abundant, as are farmers. Agriculture is still a major industry for this reason, and it’s hard to see remnants of Japan’s burst bubble because the bubble economy didn’t reach this region much. In many ways, Shimane and Tottori seem to follow their own train of history which goes at a more leisurely pace than the better-connected areas of Japan. On that note, the Chuugoku mountain range makes it unlikely a bullet train route will ever be built out here.

In addition to being a place where rustic nostalgia paints the landscape, this is also the land of myth. Many of the Kojiki myths are tied directly to the geography of this region, and I’ve spent a handful of weekends getting my JET friends in the inaka–the rural areas–drive me around to go hunt down places associated with the Kojiki myths. On one particular September afternoon, I met up with a friend in Shinji, a southern district of Matsue on the banks of Lake Shinji which borders the town of Unnan. While driving along to where we think we’re going to find the shrine in my guidebook, we make small talk.

“So, how’s life in the inaka?”

“It’s good.”

“Ever see any tanuki around here or anything?”

“No, this is my third year, but I’ve never seen a tanuki. I’ve seen monkeys chilling by the side of the road, though!”

“I see nutria where I live sometimes, but never monkeys!”

Around this time of year, the rice is harvested when it turns the right shade of gold. Throughout the inaka of Japan, you’ll also notice the air is hazy with the smell of burning waste from the harvest.

When the maps on our phones are no longer helping, we look around on foot. We can’t find the shrine, but we can see the figs are ready for picking soon! These are a local product of the Izumo region (some Japanese friends in bigger cities didn’t even know that figs were grown in Japan).

We finally asked for directions from a group of ladies who were taking a break from their harvest, who very cheerfully informed us we were on the wrong side of the hill. Shimane is known for having record numbers of centenarians, and these ladies are perhaps the oldest looking people I have ever met in Japan. Furthermore, they spoke with the thickest Izumo dialect I have heard yet. Through toothless smiles and leathery skin they point up the road and give us detailed directions, and off we go, much better off having asked.

It took a bit longer than we expected, but we found the shrine, and I gathered material for a future post to go with a future manga myth rendition, with only a few autumn mosquito bites to show for it. As we were heading off to go meet up with friends for a dip in the onsen, I got one more glimpse of Shinji’s charming sights.

“STOP!!!! IT’S A TANUKI!! BACK UP! LOOK! LOOK, WE FOUND ONE!” – Buri-chan, the shotgun driver

Not everything in the inaka is so charming, though. Unlike my encounter with a mujina/nopperabo, however, I have photographic proof of this disturbing encounter! It’s as if she follows you all the way from Unnan back through Shinji, waiting on the side of the road just to jump out and startle you.

This is what I’m used to seeing. This happy child is something I’ve encountered all around Japan, a friendly warning to drivers to watch out for children who might dash out into the street. Brightly colored and noticable, he seems to do alright at his job.

But one day, she appeared.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t driving, or I might have crashed in surprise to suddenly see a disturbingly unhumanlike human suddenly accost me from the side of the road. She wasn’t just in one place, either–she was everywhere, lurking along the sides of innocent looking streets. As I was started to adjust to her presence, suddenly we really did see a real child standing at the side of a neighborhood road with a similarly wide stare. Though this was a good little girl who did not dash out into the street to give us the heart attack of our lives, both the driver and I were startled that time to see something live in the place of this soulless girl we had expected to be standing there.

She’s watching you…