The previous two entries focused on the autobiographical content of a letter supposedly written by Benkei himself. However, when asking most people about Benkei lore in the San’in region, most people will answer like this: “Yeah, he trained at Gakuenji Temple in modern day Izumo City. And he carried a giant bronze bell from Mt. Daisen all the way back to Gakuenji in one night.

An illustration of one of the illustrious monks of Gakuenji’s history, along the route to the temple

That’s a fair distance to walk in one night even if you’re not carrying an enormous bell.



Although I had always meant to go see the annual Benkei Festival at Gakuenji, something always kept me from seeing the costumed procession. Although I had always meant to go see the autumn leaf scenery it is famous for, I never did. At last, I had plans to at least visit the temple with Y-chan, but at 3am the night before, I found myself wondering if I shouldn’t bother. With everything going on in daily life getting ready to wrap up my JET contract and set out on a new adventure, I was too busy with all the exciting things going on during the day to be able to settle down and get any sleep at night. The loud thunderstorm certainly wasn’t helping.

Maybe we wouldn’t be able to see much at the temple anyway if the rain made things too slick? If it was anything like our Shugendo experience at Mt. Mitoku then it would probably be off limits anyway. And if it is wasn’t, I would be working on such little sleep. Would I have any energy left at all for sparring practice at naginata that night? My heel was no longer quite as tender and purple, but I would be setting myself up for another lame practice if I was too tired. Maybe I was just never meant to visit Gakuenji…


I felt more cheerful in the morning, and Y-chan and I enjoyed the sight of the low-hanging mists as we drove along the bright green rice paddies and into the mountains of the Shimane Peninsula. For whatever reason, there was a massive gathering of white herons on one of the tree-covered hills. Usually you seem them walking alone through the paddies instead.

When we reached the parking lot of Mt. Furou we were the only ones there, and we encountered no one as we walked on the road up to the temple and admired the deep green of the forest, the vitality in the flow of the stream, and the curtains of droplets leaking off the cliff sides from yesterday’s thunderstorm.

Eventually we found the temple, a strikingly new building among the moss-covered statues of Bodhisattva we had seen along the way. We had to ring a bell to summon someone to the office to pay our entrance fee, as well as ask if there were any places that were off limits due to the damp ground and higher water levels. An older man with a gentle temperament welcomed us and gave us the basic description of the temple and where to find the main sights up the stairs and through the forest. When I asked him about the places associated with Benkei, he first brought up almost the exact thing my guide in Honjo had brought up—many people think Benkei was born in Kii Province, but there is more evidence to suggest he was born in Izumo Province. He suggested I visit the Honjo neighborhood, but I assured him I had already done that the previous Saturday.

The man admitted that despite Benkei’s ties with the temple, there is nothing especially obvious for regular visitors to see. The hanging bell which Benkei carried there from Mt. Daisen was no longer at the temple but instead moved to the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo and was recognized as National Important Cultural Property. His self-portrait (he was a painter??) is left at the temple, but in the storehouses. The well his used for wetting his ink stone is still there, but it’s only remnants and hardly recognizable (I never found it), and the hut were he stayed as he underwent his training no longer exists, they only know where it would have been.

A photo of the wall of Benkei lore at Kanbe-no-Sato, your one-shop-stop for folklore in Matsue.

Another photo of the wall at Kanbe-no-Sato.

We thanked him for his help and I told just seeing as the temple looks like nowadays would be fine. As Y-chan and I headed up the stairs to the main building, we could immediately tell why this was such a famous temple for autumn leaf viewing.

The ground was damp, but the animals seemed happy. We found little frogs everywhere–usually taking Y-chan by surprise but jumping right in front of her feet–a hefty raven perched on the roof of the temple, surrounded in mist. Even the snail at the hand-washing font seemed pretty pleased with the weather than June morning.

Most of the frogs were very tiny. This guy was not as tiny, but much more still. Y-chan didn’t even see what I was taking a picture of.

We hunted around for the well up supposed left by Benkei, and although we didn’t find it, we enjoyed many other surprises. Besides the slight discomfort of my sneakers soaking up the moisture left in the ground, and the growing thirst which I had mistakenly thought I could quench by finding a vending machine somewhere along the walk to the temple, the weather and atmosphere was very close to perfect, and exactly the moment in nature I need to calm my thoughts. Despite all the good things that had been going on for me lately, it was feeling like being in a constant state of adrenaline, and stopping and being quiet and enjoying the peace of the temple was exactly what I had been needing.

On our descent back down the stairs, the man in the little admissions booth noticed us and prepared two hots cups of the temple’s own blend of bancha–perfect timing! He probably had a good idea what had been going through our minds as we wandering through the wondrously green temple, and he said, “You know, as much as people love the nature here, this isn’t actually natural scenery.”

“Oh?” we asked, a little embarrassed to have had our thoughts read.

“Yes. This used to be a normal mountain. The temple and the stairs were placed there on purpose to make this a getaway for court nobles in the Heian era.”

“Oh, right. That makes sense.”

“Also, all those momiji. Did you notice that there were no momiji in the forest on your way to the temple? Those didn’t grow here naturally, the people who planned this temple many centuries put them there on purpose.”

Although I did not check, he was right, I had not noticed any maple trees before we reached the temple grounds. As tempting as it is to picture the actions of people of ages past as something different, something more charming than the modern buildings and getaways we build today, their actions are must closer to current society than to nature. The nature were were enjoying had been custom tailored with societal purpose and a human’s sense of aesthetics, it was merely good fortune that nature played along and made the maple trees so bountiful and the moss so plentiful and the river and waterfalls so atmospheric.

Speaking of waterfalls, that was where we heading next–the main focal point of the temple as it exists in this modern age. A cave was carved out behind Furou-no-taki (a slight waterfall), and Zaoudou, a little temple to house images of Buddha was built against that cave. The route there was relatively short, but mostly covered in slick moss and even more frogs, and a couple of spots where we’d have to use stepping stones to cross the river. The old man was most enthusiastic about this part of the temple, but reminded us to be careful and watch our steps, and that due to the thunderstorm the night before, the water levels might be too high for us to cross some parts. He sheepishly apologized for that, though he had no control over the weather.

The path there, though still man-made, was ever more green than anything else we had already encountered that morning. It was somewhere along this 15 minute walk to the waterfall that Benkei had his hut.

With no Shugendo necessary, we were quite pleased to reach Zaoudou and the tiny waterfall paradise. After having agreed all morning not to push ourselves if things looked too tiring, and to go back if the rain had made things look unsafe, not of that had kept us from reaching this little place, and we smiled and repeated said how good it was that we had came.

Kite yokatta ne~

But maybe a little Shugendo was in order anyway.

It was so satisfying to have finally visited Gakuenji–the major Benkei spot I had heard of all this time, and always wanted to go because I was such a fan of Benkei–and found the conversation with the man there and the atmosphere such a dose of calm that I had been needing in my not-very-chill life, that I picked out an omamori to take home with me. Y-chan and I went on to wind through mountain roads and somehow find ourselves driving through Izumo Taisha twice before visiting another shrine that had been on my list to visit for a while, and stopping for coffee before training back to Matsue in the afternoon.


I managed to take a short and necessary nap, and was much more ready for naginata practice that day than I had been before. My heel was fine, but in my eagerness to make the most of my sparring time and I injured a toe on my other foot with a hard step, but was so enthused about being there that I didn’t notice the blood until practice was over (oops).

At the time I’m writing this, another week has passed. For the last time, I cheered my classmates and teachers on at a naginata competition last Sunday, and said my good-byes to the teachers and students based in Izumo. I have only four more practices here in Matsue, and by the time this is posted, only two. I’m going to make them count, and my feet and I are ready for practice starting in two hours from now.


We pick up our own local “Tale of Benkei” at the island on Lake Nakaumi just off shore from Nagami Village. The 12th century villagers were tired of the unusually strong 9-year-old causing them trouble. In his letter left behind in Nagami Shrine, he admits it was cold out there, but boasts that he was fine. On the island, however, young Benta–or perhaps he was Oniwaka by now, but either way, eventually Benkei–met his father. His warrior monk father had wandered back into the area, and trained with young Benkei there.

Today, this island is known as Benkei Island. Although there used to be a road attaching it to shore, that has long since crumbled away, and now it is only accessible by boat.

In recent-ish history, a family used to live there for a long time.

Lucky for me I am friends with a boat safety instructor in the area who served as my guide to all the Benkei related spots in Honjo that day. Lucky for us, this day finally worked out. We had been trying for two years to find a time to go do this, but every time we tried to choose a date, it was would too late in the season, or the weather would turn on us and be too windy. Much like all the effort I put into visiting Kaka-no-Kukedo! Prior to the day we went, we weren’t sure if we’d actually go. The weather forecast said there would be rain, and we wouldn’t know the condition of the waves until the day itself. Seeing as this would be my last good chance to go, we agreed to scope things out as early as we could that morning.

It turns out it was a beautiful morning for sea kayaking out on a brackish lake. It was overcast, so we only had the distance outlines of the “scary” Eshima Bridge and of Mt. Daisen, which is also an important spot in Benkei lore which I will touch in the following entry. Although there was rain later than afternoon, in the morning, there were no waves on the lake. It was very peaceful out there.

That said, it’s a little startling to be enjoying the ride and then all of a sudden you realize you are surrounded by hundreds of jellyfish. I’ve seen moon jellies as far as the Ohashi River in Matsue’s city center, which connects Lake Shinji with Lake Nakaumi, but it seems they are common enough in Nakaumi that the people there know not to swim without body suits. They were so close to the surface that I was worried I would scoop one out of the water on my oar and have it land on my head.

Around the island I loved seeing how undisturbed the natural life was, such as the crabs, and the bright seaweed, and then sting ray—-wait, the sting ray!?

Okay, maybe not as exciting as the ocean life I saw while sea kayaking around the Oki Islands, but still cool.

We could not freely explore the island, but it seemed like the perfect little getaway to focus on martial arts training. A few months after he had been brought to the island, and after Benkei’s father disappeared from his life again, the now 10-year-old child threw rocks in the water to make himself a path back to shore. Being the dork I am, I had to celebrate visiting the training grounds of a famous naginata-ka by wielding my oar like a very poorly constructed naginata.

Speaking of naginata construction, one of the people who came with young lady Benkichi from her hometown in Kii Province was a swordsmith. As strong as Benkichi was, you couldn’t expect a young lady to move to an unfamiliar place all alone! You could think of this man as an uncle of Benkei. He made an exquisite naginata for the 15-year-old warrior, and it was an amazing weapon that took a thousand days to make. It was so amazing that Benkei already became jealous of there being any other weapons just as good as it, so he asked, “Are you planning on making any more of these for anyone else?” And the swordsmith answered, “If they pay me enough, yes.” To prevent this, Benkei made a hasty decision and sliced the swordsmith down with the naginata of his own making.

Over the course of the following couple years, Benkei regretted killing him, and prayed for him at his grave. The original location used to be at the top of the hill, but it was rediscovered when construction on a road required cutting into the hill. It is now located at the side of the road leading to the Honjo district, directly beneath the spot it had occupied before.

Young Benkei still had quite a bit of training ahead of him in the surrounding area: at Mt. Makuragi, at Nagamizu Temple, and most famously, at Gakuenji Temple. We’ll touch on Gakuenji in the following entry, but to continue to the story of the letter he supposedly recorded and left there, Benkichi fell ill right around the time teenage Benkei regretted killing his swordsmith uncle and was about to leave to undergo training as a monk. She called him close to her sick bed and told him about her past, and told him how proud she was of what a strong young man he had grown into. Since his father’s origins were a mystery, she told him to visit his relatives in Kii Province, and call himself a member of the Tanabe clan when he set off into the world as a monk.

After she passed away he recorded all of her wishes in the letter he wrote there in the shrine, and he touched on his own experience training with his Tengu-like father and how he regretted slaying the man who put so much effort into making such a fine naginata for him. He left the letter there in her memory, but because he followed her wishes to visit his relatives and call himself a member of the Tanabe clan in Kii, that is likely why there is confusion as where Benkei was actually born, much less raised. Regardless, he would be famous for his exploits in Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s service all over the Warring States of 12th century Japan.

“You want to hike up that mountain in Misasa?” Y-chan asked me. I had, in fact, had Misasa–a little town in the middle of Tottori–on my list for a long time, after having seen photos like this around for a while:

Really, I just wanted to take that picture of Nageiredo, a National Treausure and one of the buildings of Sanbutsuji Temple. I wanted to take that picture, put it here on my blog, and say, “look, isn’t this cool? Its name is ‘the temple that was thrown into place,’ as you can see why.”

“throw” “enter” “temple”

Having already climbed Mt. Daisen a couple times I figured it would be a lot of stairs, but not as many stairs since Mt. Mitoku is only 900 meters high. What I found was, well, not stairs.

There’s a certain lack of stairs on this trail.

Actually, it simply did not occur to me until just now–weeks after the hike–that I was undergoing Shugendo. Certainly, I am aware of the ascetic practices of certain Buddhist monks that they put themselves through in order to gain spiritual prowess, and I have a certain image of them meditating under waterfalls on holy mountains where women were not even allowed to enter until recent history. And I was aware that upon entering the path and being granted a protective talisman and a white sash that I was being marked a pilgrim on holy ground, and yes, I thought that was interesting since I had never received such things while hiking elsewhere or visiting other temples. However, I never put all the pieces together to realize that I physically underwent Shugendo. Does it still count if you weren’t aware you were doing it?

Up I go. The path down is the one at the side by the fence.

I probably should have been tipped off that this was not a normal stroll through the woods when we had our shoes checked for traction twice upon entering, and when they were selling thick gloves for climbing. There were no walking sticks for sale, as apparently those are not allowed. I anticipated a 90 minute hike before we’d head in to town to find an onsen, but almost immediately I was taken back by how steep and somewhat slick it was. We regularly passed by people who were making a successful trek back down, but there were a few screams by started people as they lost their footing in a couple spots, and embarrassed laughter as they recovered seconds later. I took a mental note of those spots and continued up. For the most part, as long as you kept a rather even pace, you’d often find yourself stepping into grooves in the rocks warn away by thousands and thousands and thousands of footsteps of pilgrims over the course of the past 1000 years or so (no exaggeration—the temple itself was established in 709, and Nageiredo was somehow thrown into place in the 11th or 12th century).

Standing firm in the steps of those before me

My favorite surprise was all the katsura (Japanese Judas tree) roots we had to climb! I was reminded of our fun ninja adventures on the obstacle course in Adventure Forest in Gotsu, but these were completely unplanned by mankind. They were really fun and easy to climb, and they did not shutter a bit–you’d almost suspect that you were climbing concrete.

Far easier and more fun than it looks

I was less thrilled about the boulders to scale with our bare hands, and when I first encountered them, I wondered if I should have bought those gloves after all. They weren’t slick, but it took some caution and thought to decide the best course of action each way up and each way down. There were footholds worn into them like those footsteps left behind by thousands before you, but they were not as obviously. While the ascetic yamabushi (mountain monks) of years ago might have taken similar strides, their differences in height and reach made for a wider variety of lesser worn vertical paths.

This angle might be misleading, but long as you stayed on course there wouldn’t be any especially dangerous falls. You know, as long as you stayed on course, no sudden departures to the left or the right. Just stay on the beaten path, however little of a path it looks like sometimes.

Does it count as Shugendo if instead of strict mental training, I was instead incredulously exclaiming, “Wait, what? Seriously? We’re supposed to climb this? What???” It wasn’t until we got to the one boulder which required a chain to climb and an older couple passing by us on their way back down informed us that we were halfway to the top that I figured out that this was probably what I should have expected all along.

It was around that spot that I had been embracing the hope that as we neared the sounds of the enormous bell that we would near the top circle of temple buildings soon. However, unlike some other mountains of Buddhist significance that I was climbed, there were no particularly busy gathering of buildings, instead only a series of buildings along the way and a steady stream of hikers/pilgrims/Shugenja/unsuspecting tourists on their way up or down proving that people of a wide range of ages and physiques were capable of accomplishing these feats. The 2-ton bell itself is from the Kamakura period and no one is quite sure how it got there (Benkei, was that you? After all, he supposedly carried a bell from Mt. Daisen to Gakuenji Temple because was as yamabushi as yamabushi come). Ringing it is said to cleanse you of your sins, and the whole time, I had been pressed on by the sounds of people polishing up their souls–or at least announcing with audible graffiti, “Taro Tanaka was here.”

It wasn’t all grueling hard work, just a lot of caution and bursts of brain power. We were also able to enjoy the refreshing sights and sounds and fresh air of nature.

wild fuji (wisteria)

sugi (Japanese cedar)

After about an hour of hiking, we reached as close as you can get to Nageiredo.

It was only on the way back that I finally heard that it was called the most dangerous national treasure in Japan. It’s probably more dangerous for the people who keep that Heian era architecture in such pristine condition, and I can see why the trails would not be open in rainy or snowy weather, but with a pace you feel comfortable with, it’s certainly not impossible. Just make sure to hike with a buddy (as is required) and bring good shoes (as is always required). And maybe go into it with the expectation that you were undergoing Shugendo!

Even if you don’t feel like undergoing the hike, however, there were a number of other interesting things to observe in the temple buildings at the base of the mountain. I’ll post those photos next time.

Way out along the mountains overlooking the beaches of the little town of Gotsu, there are ninja lurking in the forest…

…or at least, you’ll feel like a ninja as you make your way through “Adventure Forest,” an obstacle course that is free for both children and adults to use, and provides a good workout no matter what your age. There are occasional challenges in addition to the course of 20 local mythology themed (or at least, name-inspiring) obstacles, and although there are detours for all of them, where’s the fun in that? I did them all and had a great time, but I wish I made use of some of those small muscle groups more often–they get so overlooked when you’re not climbing ropes or scaling trails of logs!

One hot summer day in July, my Forest Therapy in Iinan-cho began with waking up in a hotel called Mori no Su, a stylish “nest in the forest.” The food had been imaginative and delicious, and the night had been comfortingly dark, save for the active fireflies around the windows. The warm tones of the interior, the woven design of the furniture, and the understated calmness without distractions like televisions and computers made it feel like a comforting place to nestle into the forest, breathe deeply, and let go of my stressors.

This put me in the right mind set for the guided Forest Therapy that Iinan-cho specializes in. Our guide brought my attention to little things I often overlook in the woods. We learned about different kinds of trees and shrubs, and I found myself looking for new little mysteries among the dirt and greenery. What sort of bug had made those bubbly nests? What sort of flowers was that fragrance coming from? I could hear many kinds of birds, to my chagrin I could not spot a single one among the lush ceiling of leaves. No matter, I thought as I swayed in a hammock prepared in advance for us. Nature is not about seeing everything; sometimes it is about closing your eyes.

What a wonder, though, that nature provides so much for us! Oxygen, raw materials, and food. I was struck later by how much I take that for granted when we went fishing for yamame (landlocked salmon). A little pool was filled with them, and fishing lines and bait, charcoal pits, and experienced fishermen were all immediately available to ensure that even the most inexperienced of fishers could catch something. I count myself among those fishers.

My friends pulled out fish after fish, it seemed, all healthy and wriggling at the ends of the lines. The fish at the end of my line, however, were healthiest. By this, I mean they all got a free lunch and swam away.

Soon, all of my friends were waiting for me in the shade as I continued to let after fish after fish get away. I was ready to forego a fresh-caught lunch, but my more experienced supporters stayed with me—going so far as to prep the bait on my hook for me, and coach me through the whole process. Unluckily for one single fish, I was at last successful.

My sojourn in the depths of nature was certainly pleasurable, but perhaps I need more practice before I can be a little more self-sufficient. For now, I will happily accept all the pampering and coaching the locals provide.

[Originally published on Shimane: Explore Unfamiliar Japan, but I have embellished a bit on the photos here. All photos were used with permission.]

On my summer vacation to the Oki Islands last year (which was fantastic in so many ways), I took two half-days to try out an art project: mud dyeing.

It was something I decided rather randomly. I showed up on Nishinoshima having only decided that I wanted to see horses (and I saw lots of horses), but I had no plan for the next day. The tourism information office directly across from the ferry port was extremely helpful, and has lots of information lined up to answer my “what shall I do?” question. Not only did they give me suggestions, but they made all the reservations for me. That’s also how I suddenly wound up SCUBA diving the following morning.

Following my dive and my seafood lunch, I went out to start my art project. Mud dyeing starts with bright red rocks like this, one of the many, many geological features in this UNESCO Geo-Park.

It’s broken up into even brighter pieces like this, which we use for the dye. You can also make it into clay for pottery.

It can be used to dye many differents of fabrics, I was sticking with a very simple weave that would make the color show up really well for a tie-dye effect. I enjoyed trying out a bunch of different ways of folding and tying the cloths so that I could see what sort of effects I’d get, but if I were ever to do this again, I’d probably start with a pattern in mind and attempt to stick to it. As you can see in these charcoal tie-dyes, you can do a lot of cool stuff with it if you have some clue what you’re doing.

After binding the parts of the cloth you want to leave undyed, you work the mud water into it…

…and then hang it out to dry.

The following day, I returned to finish up. Usually, in order to get a very deep color, you’d want to leave them out longer before giving them a salt water rinse, but in the interest of time we sped up the process a bit. Off to the beach we went!

The water was super clear and you could see lots of tiny fish until you rinsed the cloths and the muddy color clouded about. While out there in the sun, the lady who taught to do this and I had a fun conversation about her sudden decision to move from Gifu to the Oki Islands after seeing a segment about them on TV, and about how pleasant it is to live among both mountains and the sea. (Later, she also made me lunch, drove me to the port, and just when I thought we had said good-bye, she came back and asked if I wanted ice cream. So we had ice cream together, too.)

While giving them a little more time to dry in the sunshine before packing them up and taking them with me, I took a stroll around the area to see the greenery, the flowers, and the water.

My “designs” turned out kind of cool, but very uncoordinated.

That’s okay. I went to the islands to enjoy going with the flow and doing things in the moment instead of trying to stick to a plan.

Allow to borrow a few panels of my comic retelling of the legend of Kunibiki (starts here), in which the god Yatsukamizuomitsunu-no-mikoto dragged land from Korea and other parts of Japan to expand on the land of Izumo and build what we now know as the Shimane Peninsula.

(And now allow me to borrow from part of my later explanation of the legend in relation to history and geography.)

Way back when this legend was being recorded in the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki, and for a few centuries surrounded that, the governmental affairs of the region were handled from a district in what is now southern Matsue. This district was known as… Ou!

Yes, that “Ou” which Yatsuka shouted when he declared his work a job well done. Not only does the interpretation of the utterance vary slightly, but the spelling varies as well, and is further complicated by how it was written then and how it was written later on and how it’s even written differently now. Are you ready for some language nerdiness now? His shout, whatever it expressed, was recorded with the characters 意恵 for the sounds as opposed to their meanings. Phonetically, they were later expressed as おゑ, which may look strange to the hiragana-inclined readers among you. This is because we no longer use the character ゑ (ye) in Japanese syllabary. It’s usually replaced by え (e, like eh) now, which is why the lucky god (and San’in native) Ebisu is usually called えびす, but depending on what beer you’re drinking you might still see ゑびす from time to time. However, in this case, “Oye” (oh-yeh, not oi!) was not usually transcribed as “Oe” but as “Ou” (like oh, not oo) or… “Iu”?

Now we need to get back to the use of characters used for pronunciation, though when it comes to place names, you’ll find the general rules of standard pronunciation for Chinese characters mashed around to fit the Japanese language are not always followed. For our purposes here, it’s not worth trying to make sense of. Let’s just accept that although Yatsuka may have shouted 意恵, the area named after his shout was recorded as 意宇. Although in some place names it would still be read “Ou” in keeping with the desired pronunciation cast upon these unsuspecting characters stripped of their meaning in favor of phonetics, the more common sense reading for them is “iu” (ee-oo).

Still following? Good! Because you find both “Ou” and “Iu” throughout the region. While the district of Ou has been parsed out and reorganized into other little neighborhoods that retain many names passed down from the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki, when the area is called “Ou” you’re usually referring to the ancient government center and its ruins and the historic shrines found throughout that area. The aforementioned Fudoki-no-Oka is the best place to go to learn about this, though so far I haven’t visited the indoor exhibits because I was running out of time the day I have visited (having spent too much time that day at the neighboring shrines and folklore village, Izumo Kanbe-no-Sato). On the eastern stretches of good old Ou, there is the Iu River flowing down from Lake Nakaumi.

But what of that forest, made from Yatsuka’s rake?

Now for the update—–I have finally found the forest.

While my friend and I were already in the area searching out the Manai springs and surrounding shrines, we searched it out, transversing the narrow roads between rice paddies, following a handful of maps, keeping our eyes peeled, when at last we found it, the forest of legend.


That’s it?

That’s it.

As much as I like searching out spots associated with the loads of mythology that took place in this region, this one is humorously underwhelming. We got a few laughs out of it as we took our pictures, an a curious farmer parked his truck behind us to strike up a conversation in his thick Izumo dialect. Seems a festival had taken place there recently, but since he lives in the neighboring neighborhood instead, he wasn’t sure of all the details.

One of the things he was sure of was that way back when he was young, this area was all forest.

Underwhelming through Ou-no-Mori may be now, these quiet hills are heavy with history of passed centuries, as the Izumo region was ruled from here, affectively hundreds and thousands of lives and remaining mindful of the gods’ mythological influence on them. Though what happens here now merely seems to affect the sparse locals, the awareness of mythological presence lingers on.

One day, a friend asked me to go to Manai Shrine and Rokusho Shrine with her.

What? I thought. Usually I’m the one asking people to drive me out into the countryside hunting for mythological shrines.

Naturally, I agreed, as these two have been on my visit list since I wrote that first Kojiki manga about Izanagi and Izanagi. Manai Shrine is up a long flight of stone steps and quietly hidden away against a mountain, which made it strike me as a counterpart shrine to Kamosu Shrine, which is dedicated to Izanami and located in the same general area. Rokusho Shrine was located directly next to the local Izumo government offices back in the Heian period, so it was used as an organizational base for all the shrines in the area.

All three of them have the same crest, the character 有 (ari, “to have”) inside of a tortoise shell. The tortoise represents longetivity and is therefore lucky, while 有 is made up of the characters 十 (“ten”) and 月 (“month/moon”), which, when paired together as 十月 mean “October” (or at least, they referred to the 10th month of the agricultural calendar beforehand, but that’s been a mess since the Gregorian switch). Of course, the 10th month is special here in the Izumo region. While it is traditionally referred to as Kannazuki (“the month without gods,” written 神無月 (gods-nothing-month)), only here is it referred to as Kamiarizuki (“the month with gods,” written 神在月 (gods-exist-month), but can also be written as 神有月–there’s that 有 again!). This is because the 8 million gods from around Japan congregate at Izumo Taisha during that time.

Back in the old days…

We visited Manai first, and found it quiet and sparse, in a refined sort of way.

Rokusho turned out a bit more interesting, as we found the remains of some recent festival. “Nan darou…” we both trailed off many times as we noticed things around the shrine, the straw weavings and the gohei (paper streamerson small sticks) left around the trees. “Nan darou… I wonder what this is…?” We found other little things, such as a handwashing font partially hidden under the trees at a back entrance, a boat possibly for use on the nearby Iu River, and a basketball hoop. “Nan darou…”

What really brought my friend out to those southern hills and valley at the outskirts of Matsue was not the shrines so much as the Manai Waterfall, which the nearby shrine was named after, and is said to be holy water with healing properties. It is about three meters high, and nestled away up into the hill, and we made a few rounds around the neighborhood following a handful of different maps trying to find it. “Doko darou… where could it be…” we said over and over.

We asked directions from an old lady taking a break from her gardening who answered us in very thick Izumo dialect, and later on we asked directions from an old man with a dialect almost as thick. He was cheerful and helpful, but trying to be those things sometimes comes off as discouraging. “You’ll see that sign for the soumen shop, and it’ll be right up behind it, you can’t miss it! But nobody’s used it for years, they don’t make nagashi-soumen there anymore. Nobody bothers with the waterfall anymore. It’s nothing much. But yeah, there’s a parking lot, and you’ll find the waterfall right there! It’s too bad about the soumen…”

Little did we inner-city dwellers know about this supposedly famous nagashi-soumen (soumen is a type of thin, white noodle, and when served nagashi-soumen style it slides with water down a bamboo shoot and you try to catch it as it goes by–a popular thing to do in summer). I saw one big sign for it by the road as we passed around the tiny neighborhood and the hill a few times, but mistakenly thought it was referring to the building it was fixed to instead of to the little abandoned stall we found by the other sign the old man told us to look for.

The view from the parking lot

As soon as we stepped out of the car, we heard the sound of water, and found its source much sooner than we expected. Filled though the neglected pond was with fallen leaves, the water was perfectly clear.

“Maybe we should wash our hands with it?”
“A rinse couldn’t hurt.”
“You think it’s safe to drink? Dou darou… I wonder…”
Dou darou… maybe fill your water bottle and then take it home and boil it?”
“Ah, good idea.”
“What will you do with it?”
Nan darou…
“I wonder if it works. Dou darou…
Dou darou…

I took a look around the forested area and noticed this little sight next to the pond.

“Hey, it’s an Inari statue… hhm, the head’s fallen off. That’s unsettling.”
Nan darou…”
Nan darou…”

And then we found another by a tree behind us.

Nan darou…”
Nan darou ne…”

Beyond the tree, there was a little blocked off clearing of mysteriously placed rocks, and the carved ones were not legible.

“I wonder why we can’t go here?”
“I wonder if there’s something buried.”
“I wonder what it says.”
Nan darou…”
Nan darou…”

Neither of were particularly wary, merely curious. We stood and looked up at the branches and fresh spring leaves high above us, rustling in the wind on that cloudy April afternoon. The light and sounds were different in that space from the sleepy neighborhood and rice fields below, the forgotten gathering spot for catching noodles sliding down the supposedly holy water.

“That’s pleasant.”
“I’m glad we found it.”
“Yeah, me too.”

We went on trading our darou‘s throughout the rest of that shrine hopping afternoon in the southern stretches of Matsue, and the heart of where the Izumo region used to be ruled from.

The title is a bit of a mouthful, and it’s also in reference to a mouth–the shita in Oni-no-Shitaburui means “tongue.”

Why? Because the ogre (oni) is flapping his tongue around like water.

See the face?

Welcome to one of my favorite hiking spots in the San’in region, found in the heart of Okuizumo!

This is a roughly 3km long V-shaped valley, with a boulder-filled river at the bottom of the V.

Knowing the legend of the goddess Tamahime and the wani (crocodile… shark… thing) that loved her as recorded in the 8th century Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki records, I went looking for what was left of this lovestruck and stuck beast.

This rock was supposed to be mean something… but I totally forgot what!

Rather than the archaic word wani, the area is now named after a Japanese beast of a different variety, an oni. They are horned creatures sometimes translated as “demon,” but I would prefer to call them ogres. Just because they don’t typically get along with humans throughout folklore doesn’t mean they’re evil, after all. But even if they’re misunderstood, you probably wouldn’t want to run into one all alone in the woods.

This particular oni is stuck in the river, and people say that this rocks looks like its face. Some people also loosely explain the name change as that the wani turned into an oni, but I don’t have any sources for this–it seems more likely that people just say that to tie up loose ends.

Though many locals know the love/hate story about the spot, the oni term is its common name, so after a nice hike you can enjoy lunch at nearby places with names like “Oni Soba” (because Izumo Soba is big here under any name).

Wait… what is that?


Just another day in the myth-filled inaka.

This is a post a hike to Iwami Ginzan, the UNESCO World Heritage Silver Mines. Truth be told, we were already there–the silver mines stretch throughout the area and were in active use and points of contention between the warring Mori and Amago clans and otherwise, and they were so influential on the economy of the region that 16th century missionaries made sure to note it in their reports and it was included in early Western maps of Japan. At their peak, they accounted for 1/3 of the world’s silver production.

Recall Kotogahama and the Nima Sand Museum.

Sounds very cool, expect that most of the tunnels are out of sight what you can see is better seen in person, and seeing as photography is prohibited in the highly informative museum, I’m left primarily with photos from the hike. It was November, the leaves were changing, and the weather was perfect. Although most of the forest looked green, the red/orange/yellow trees stood out against the backdrop–trees or rocks–and looked especially bright in the sunlight.

There were a few restaurants offering locals the usual cafe items and local specialties, as well a few gift shops I haven’t run into elsewhere. For instance, a silver shop full of jewelry and other items, as well as a little shop specializing in fragrance pouches–priding itself on being the one place in all of Japan that sells metal-scented potpourri pouches.

Of course, this being the inaka, there was lots of inaka character to be found, from persimmons floating in the streams to… well… tanuki.

I’ll introduce my favorite of the little places in the next entry.