As a conclusion to my Iwami Ginzan Silver Mines posts for now, I’ll conclude with Omori Town, a preserved historic neighborhood nearby Ryugenji Mabo Mine Shaft where much of the silver related trade was handled. This area is just one are in the larger UNESCO World Heritage site.

If you take the shuttle bus from the museum, the first place you’ll notice is Rakanji Temple, which is home to over 500 statues made in the 18th century to honor workers killed in mine shaft accidents. For a small fee, you can cross the bridges and take a look inside.

Like most any other place in Japan, populated or not, you’ll find a smattering of shrines and temples, such as Kanzeonji Temple.

Although there are preserved residences you can walk through and see how they were used in the Edo period, other historic buildings still function as serving the community or tourists, be it as a post office or grocer. I think we took a good hour to walk around the town, but it was one of the biggest preserved Edo period areas I’ve been to–I’m glad we planned on fitting it in!

After the drive, after the museum, after the bus ride and along the hike, my friend and I were wondering how much further until we’d reach one of the tunnels of Iwami Ginzan. We passed some smiling groups of elderly travelers as well as some scattered young couples, and actually going through Ryugenji Mabu Mine Shaft seemed an afterthought to the comfortable mountain stroll.

Pleasant though the weather was that day, it was a long enough hike that no one would have thought less of you for taking a breather here and there, and in weather any warmer than that you’d be foolish not to take your own drink. For those who are forgetful, however, there is a light up ahead–a tea house called Ginzan Chaya.

In all my travels through Japan and in all my stories I write in my head and sometimes go searching out settings for, this place more than any other I’ve chanced upon inspired stories in my head right away. It wasn’t run by just anyone–it seemed to be run by children.

The first thing I noticed when we approached was the kittens–a cage full of them, people holding them, and a decorative hand-written sign saying they were free. As if selling used cars, the girl in the red apron–who, for as far as I could tell, was the oldest sister and in middle school at the highest–was holding a couple kittens herself as she smooth-talked the young couple cuddling one of the kittens. Seeing as my current lifestyle does not allow me frequent fluffy animal encounters I couldn’t help but smile widely at the unexpected sight. Catching my smile, the girl saw her chance, and before I knew it I was holding one. The little orange tabby looked just as surprised as I was. “Sorry,” I said to my friend, “I think I need to stand here and hold a cat.”

The young couple politely gave the kitten back and politely declined taking her home, and I knew I’d have to do the same with the one I was holding. The sales-girl seemed unsurprised though she might have hoped they’d be takers, and she returned the kitten to the cage. But this time I had noticed who else was occupying the cage–for all I could tell, it was her youngest brother?

He was wearing a worn-out one-piece hoodie with ears of some kind of animal or otherwise, and he had a terribly running nose, but it didn’t bother him in the least–not when there were kittens to be held! The little tyke obviously loved them, though the kittens weren’t quite as appreciative of his hugs.

The other brother was on the outside of the cage, and looked to be only about the age of a 1st grader. The two clear indicators that he may have been a sibling was the nature banter between him and the older sister in how she’d nag him to do something and he’d give her some lip–and that he and the little brother in the cage both had the word for “autumn leaves”, 紅葉 (kouyou), shaved on the backs of their heads. It certainly grabbed attention and whoever shaved them that way was very talented, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the school might have thought of that.

Speaking of, school… school? I’m fairly sure we encountered them on a Saturday, but the naturalness with which they took to running the tea house made it seem as though that was their daily life. The younger sister was sitting away from the kittens and handling sales of bottled drinks from an old ice chest, and the table area set up outside was dotted with buckets and buckets of toys for free use at the establishment–a business move it seemed that only children could think of and employ. It was as if they ran the whole place freely, and it was their home-grown practice that brought for such independence and lack of shyness very uncharacteristic in most Japanese children.

What were these kids, homeschooled?!

In my experience in the US I have noticed that the lack of needing to “fit in” makes homeschoolers very unafraid of doing unconventional things and, contrary to stereotypes, rather unafraid of approaching people they don’t know. However, in Japan, homeschooling is usually unthinkable and I often need to explain that it is a legal and recognized form of education, it is not a matter of quitting or refusing school, and it is not a matter of being academically unfit for regular school, and that it’s not a bunch of shut-ins. I don’t usually bring this topic up unless I have ample time to explain it because it’s such a foreign idea. That all said, there are homeschoolers in Japan.

So they probably weren’t homeschooled–but even after moving on past the tea house, I found myself wondering more and more. Were their parents inside where the “real” business takes place? Maybe they were covering up top-secret stuff their parents were involved in by running the tea shop and distracting people with kittens? Maybe their parents have gone missing and they’ve quit school while very capably running a business? Maybe the tea house is really Neverland hidden away in the mountains of western Japan? I could just imagine all the ways the story could go.

Not that I stayed long enough to know, just long enough to wish I could keep a cat and have the kids bury themselves in my imagination. But we couldn’t linger–Ryugenji Mabu was up ahead and waiting.

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.

Just one of many, many pieces of sand art, the majority of which are in motion.

So long as it’s sunny, November’s not a bad time to go to the beach. That’s when you get to see it without anyone else around, and all that lingers are footsteps in the sand. I went to Kotogahama in Oda city futher west in Shimane, and though my friend are I were the only living beings in plain sight, there were little echoing sounds following our footsteps.

These are exactly the sounds we came for–the singing sands! Kotogahama is one of the top three beaches in Japan for this curious phenomenon. When you step on the dry, clean sand, it is said to sing or cry (the Japanese name, 鳴き砂 (nakisuna) is written with the character for singing like a bird, but it is synonymous with 泣き砂, “crying sand”).

There is a legend about that on this particular beach. Back in the epic partly historical, partly legendary Genpei War, one of the gravest naval battles, Dan-no-Ura, took place in 1185 on the western tip of the main island of Honshu. Amidst the confusion, a princess of the defeated Taira clan was lost at sea, but washed up on the shore here. The villagers nursed her back to health and took care of her, and she would express her gratefulness to them and her sorrow at the defeat of her clan by playing her koto at the beach. When she died, everyone was so sad that even the sand began to cry. She is remembered as Kotohime (Koto Princess) and the beach was named after her (Koto beach). This is the basic version of the story, but there are numerous variations.

The sand itself is a lot of fun to go stomp around on, and makes the clearest sounds when you step directly downward on it rather than sliding around. You can also put it in a bowl and make it sing with a pestle.

Not far from the beach is the Nima Sand Museum, and the glass pyramids are quite noticable from the highway. This museum played a prominent role in the hit shoujo manga and live action drama “Sunadokei”/”Sand Chronicles.” You wouldn’t think a museum about sand would be so interesting, but we spent a long time there because there was so much to see and do.

Samples of sand from the western shores of Shimane

Samples of sand from around the world, including garnet sand from the South Pole and “Sand of Disappointment”!

Microscopes set up to get a better look at samples of sand from around the world

There was a whole line of timers set up to show how long it takes other phenomenon around the world to occur.

The museum is most famous for its largest hourglass, which times a whole year. Not only is this the largest in the museum, but it is the largest in the world. Every year they recruit roughly 100 people who were born in the year of whatever zodiac animal is coming up next, and five minutes before the new year they start pulling the ropes to rotate the enormous glass. There are many factors may affect the rate at which sand falls, such as the temperature of the glass. If the top portion of the glass is warmer, the sand will fall more quickly, and if the bottom is warm, the sand falls more slowly. Therefore, in order to maintain accuracy, it must be kept in an environment with climate control, which is why you don’t see hourglasses of this size outdoors (or anywhere else, for that matter).

This is how much sand falls per day

This is the size of the tiny nozzle through which it falls

Although the singing sands of Kotogahama get a special focus in the museum of sands of the world, they do not use sand from Kotogahama in this hourglass (yearglass?). Instead, they use the much finer grain sand of Osodani in Yamagata Prefecture. If they used the large grain sand of Kotogahama, the hourglass would need to be three times as large, and current technology is unable to make an accurate hourglass of that size possible!

The museum is filled with different kinds of sand art, as well as a basement area of optical illusions and a handful of areas to experiment with some sand and non-sand art yourself. There are is a Bohemian arts center next door that offers glass-art classes as well. I came away with a much deeper appreciate than I had ever had before for a part of the world I never think about much, and now the twinkling sound of squeaking sand will never leave me.

This makes me wish I lived a little closer to Oda!

Yes, that is a pure white crow with blue eyes (not an albino). Read more about the sightings by clicking here.

The map, for reference: