Fair warning: Are you ready for some nerdiness? We’ll be addressing both ancient political and geographical history, hopefully in a way that’s easy to follow.

In the comic retelling of ancient mythology, we’ve recently addressed the story of Kunibiki (国引き, literally “Land-Pulling”), which comes from the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki. What seems to be a story about theft of land may actually have more roots in cooperation with other lands, but it nonetheless was not politically desirable to add to the Kojiki. Along with the Nihonshoki, these three texts were among of the first of Japan’s publications in the early 8th century.

They’re a little late to game of keeping written records. Earlier records of Japan written in China and Korea help to tease out some of the origins of the myths recorded at such a comparatively late date, especially considering archeological evidence suggests the culture of the Izumo region being hundreds of years older than the 8th century. Many of the shrines which take a center stage in both local and national mythology had probably been around at least 600 years before anyone got the idea to write about them.

And why did they start writing about them? Put simply, for legitimacy as having their own culture to defend against the cultural takeover of the Tang dynasty (China). There had been years and years of cultural and technological influence from the Asian continent before this time, but at this time in history Japan imported so much literary culture and lifestyle tastes that they never quite got back to their previous homegrown culture. This period of influence and its merits and demerits are historically perceived very differently on either side of the sea, but for our purposes, the important point is that the Kojiki and Nihonshoki were written for political reasons and recorded in Chinese characters (which leads to some disputes later on in history about whether they should be read according to the meaning of the characters or purely read phonetically). They collected whatever information they could from around the different provinces of Japan, and chose to leave stories like Kunibiki out so as to focus on a tighter narrative that would enforce the legitimacy of the emperor (or empress, as occasionally was the case at this time). We’d be jumping ahead a little bit in the Kojiki timeline to say why (I’m hoping to get to that part in my comic renditions by early 2015), but that narrative purpose meant downplaying the role of Izumo and its heroes, like Susano-o, in favor of his sister Amaterasu who is said to be the ancestor of the emperor. You could read this as how the victors write history, and the ancient kingdom of Yamato needed to make sure they held more legitimacy than the ancient kingdom of Izumo, who they had finally made peace with at some point (again, this theme will come up in later legends).

The Fudoki were compiled around the same time with similar people running the little kingdom of Japan at the time, but their purpose was less to be a national narrative and more to be a set of encyclopedias about each of the slightly-less-than-fully-integrated provinces of Japan. They had detailed records of local customs and mythology, economies, even plant life. A big focus was on geographical features of the regions, and assigning appropriate names to each of those features (we’ll touch on this a little more in the following entry). Given the oddity of the Shimane Peninsula, with a little stretch of level ground sandwiched between stretches of mountains before the jagged coastline drops off into the sea, it’s not surprising that it would have given birth to such a legend as wriggling the coasts off of other places with a rake and mashing them together with the original coastlines here.

The reason the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki is so important is because it is the only one remaining mostly intact today, so we know about 8th century Izumo in much more detail than we know about other regions of Japan whose Fudoki were lost or mostly lost. That, together with wider historical context and archeological digs so plentiful in this region, gives us a pretty good look into the ways in which ancient–really ancient–Izumo developed and had an influence on the rest of Japan.

This region’s proximity to the Korean Peninsula is a good place to start, and archeological finds of Korean origin in the region have shown that the exchange goes pretty far back. The Izumo region is considered the birthplace of many practical things in Japan: chopsticks, iron production, even sake. It stands that they were also taught farming methods and culture that lead to the rapid civilization of this region, which then was spread throughout other parts of Japan’s largest island. Hence, taking the land from Silla may say less about thieving from the Korean peninsula, and more about accepting a lot of cultural influence and knowledge from them.

Furthermore, there is historical context, archeological evidence, and later Kojiki stories that suggest a lot of exchange between Izumo and Koshi, though the regions are better known today as Shimane Prefecture and Ishikawa Prefecture. In recognition of this, Mihonoseki, the eastern tip of the Shimane Peninsula supposedly taken from there, entered a Sister City relationship with Suzu City on the tip of the Noto Peninsula, and once Mihonoseki merged with Matsue that sister city relationship was retained. Speaking of mythology-based relationships, the city of Miyazaki is pushing for a city relationship with Matsue because the place where Izanagi started cleansing himself after escaping the underworld of Yomi was connected with one of the myth-rich spots of Miyazaki, where the three noble deities were born as he bathed. Thus, Matsue and Miyazaki share a supernatural connection. We’ll see how that potential official relationship progresses (while we’re at it, Matsue also has relationships with Takarazuka, Onomichi, and a handful of cities abroad).

So why these places in particular, and why grabbing land? That may be because engineers from these places came to the flood-plagued Izumo region and helped to reclaim the land. Roughly 2000 years ago, the Shimane Peninsula may have looked more like this:

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The Izumo plains were frequently troubled by floods running down from the Chuugoku mountains into the oddly flat area west of Lake Shinji, which back then was more of a river than the lake it’s contained as today. There are other interesting tidbits about how the frequent flooding affected local customs in this stretch of the Izumo region, but for now it will suffice to say that flooding was a huge issue, and successful measures to control the issue were some of the most significant events in this region’s early history. Therefore, such an event may not only be the source of the land-adding Kunibiki legend, but also the monstrous Yamata-no-Orochi legend. Instead of a giant eight-headed serpent, that legend might be about getting the rivers under control. Also, Kushinada-hime, the bride Susano-o wins in the legend, is known by another name: Inata-hime. “Rice-field Princess!”

So it’s great that the Izumo region benefitted from Korea and Koshi’s influence, but why take land from the Oki Islands, too? Gee, beats me. Maybe just because they were close by.

Also on the geographical front, the placement and shapes of mountains and beaches may also have led to the creative formation of this legend. Let’s observe:

Mt. Sahime, now known as Mt. Sanbe, the highest mountain in Shimane Prefecture.

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A view of Mt. Sanbe from around Izumo Taisha, looking down the Nagahama coastline. Inasa-no-Hama, where 8 million gods congregate to make their annual visit to Izumo Taisha, is located at the north part of this stretch of coast along Izumo City and towards Oda City.

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And a look from St. Sanbe back up at the western end of the peninsula towards Izumo Taisha.

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Mt. Hinokami,now known as Mt. Daisen, the highest mountain in Tottori Prefecture, and the entire San’in region. Though Hinokami sounds like a better name for a volcano than “big mountain” if you ask me! It sticks out from near sea level, making it as noticeable as Mt. Fuji (and much more impressive when viewed from Yonago or Matsue (on a clear day) than Mt. Fuji when viewed from Tokyo! Photoshopped postcards of a towering Mt. Fuji behind the Tokyoscape make me giggle.). Given its similar shape and prominence, it’s often nicknamed the Mt. Fuji of Izumo (though technically it’s in Hoki!).

And a view from Mt. Makuragi, on the eastern end of the Shimane Peninsula:

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Finally, Yumigahama Beach, along the coast of Yonago City and Sakaiminato City. It’s current name comes from how it is stretched liked a bow, ready to shoot an arrow. This is one of the most popular summer beaches in the San’in region, but even among the coast line of cliffs you find a lot of little semi-circular beaches secluded by cliffs and mountains on either side. One of my favorite views I’ve seen of the Sea of Japan was from a friend’s place facing a tiny harbor, where no one would go out of their way to visit for a day on the sand. As for the sandy spots, you tend to notice everyone has their own favorite, and each one seems completely secluded from all the others. Not so with Yumigahama, known for it beautiful stretching coastline, and view of Daisen!

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That’s another geographical thing to note—the rope that attached the land of Miho to Mt. Hinokami was said to turn into an island, not a coastline. While the city of Yonago has a merchant history stretching back hundreds of years, perhaps hundreds and hundreds of years before that it was underwater! The volcanic influence of Daisen may also have led to a lot of the peninsula’s shape.

The island of Daikonshima (with an odd history behind that name) floating out there on Lake Nakaumi wasn’t specifically mentioned in this legend, and it used to be an independent township until recently merging with Matsue as part of a nationwide push a few years ago to cut down on the number of tiny municipalities. Today, as a district in Matsue, it still retains the name “Yatsuka.” This is just one example of how to you can still feel this legend’s impact on San’in region today, and we’ll get to more of that in the following 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.

There are multiple stories of Yamanba: “Old Mountain Ladies.” Some of these hermit ladies, like the kindly old Yamanba of Nishinoshima in the Oki Islands, are welcome visitors. Nishinoshima’s Yamanba would supposedly come down from the mountain around the start of winter, and teach the villagers how to weave fabrics and fish, before disappearing again towards the end of winter.

Then there were the feared Yamanba, like the one from this story from the Izumo region.


A long time ago, there was an Ushigata–that is, a merchant would would take goods from village to village on an ox. On this particular day, he bought some fish at the coast to sell inland. As he reached a mountain pass on Sanbe (the highest mountain in Shimane Prefecture), he was approached by a hideous Yamanba–her hair like silver, her gleaming eyes bulging, her mouth wide as if torn ear to ear, and her ghastly teeth large and sharp. “Hey, you,” she addressed him. “Gimme one of those fish. But should ya’ refuse…”

The Ushigata screamed and turned to run. As he picked up speed, the ox tripped, so he left it behind as he ran faster and faster as if falling. Soon he found himself with no place left to run, and he panted heavily as he looked for some place to hide. He spotted a little hut, and rushed in. “I’m sorry, but please help me!” he shouted. “I’m being chased by the Yamanba!”

He found, however, that the house was empty. Though he felt a little awkward entering someone else’s home, he had no other choice, so he hid himself in the rafters. Soon, he heard a growling voice outside. “Drat, he got away. I ate the fish an’ the ox, but I really wanted t’ eat that man!”

Oh no, I’m in her house. I’m done for! Kami-sama, tasukete kudasai–Gods, save me! he thought and held his breath.

As the Yamanba entered, she sat down next to the stove and wondered aloud, “Now should I sleep ‘er should I grill some rice cakes and then sleep?” Deciding on the later, she stuck some rice cakes on sticks by the fire. “Hmm. Does these smell like rice cakes, ‘er do they smell like human?” With a terribly sucking sound, she sniffed the air, then dozed off.

When he smelled the roasting rice cakes, the Ushigata realized he was terribly hungry. Feeling sure that the Yamanba was asleep, he used a long pole he found in the rafters to stab the rice cakes and pull them up so he could devour them. Soon after, the Yamanba woke up and noticed they were missing. “Where’s my rice cakes? Somebody stole my rice cakes! Who done it? Who’s there?” She then started to rummage around the hut looking for the thief.

Then, the Ushigata held his nose and quietly spoke like a Kami. “It was I who ate your rice cakes. Hi-no-Kami–the Fire God!”

“Ohhh, Hi-no-kami. Well, if a Kami ate it, there’s no helpin’ it. I’ll just go t’ bed. Letse, should I sleep in the rafters, or should I sleep in my cauldron?”

The Ushigata was hiding in the rafters, so of course he could not let her sleep up there. Using the Kami voice again, he said, “The cauldron is best.”

Thinking that it was a Kami who told her to do so, she climbed in the cauldron to curl up and sleep. The Ushigata took this chance to quietly climb down from the rafters. As he heard her terrible snoring, it occured to him that he should take that chance to rid the world of such a foe. He found a large rock outside, rolled it inside, and then put it on top of the lid of the cauldron.

The noise woke up the Yamanba momentarily. “I hear rumble-rumble birds singin’ out there, but it’s still night time!” So saying, she went back to sleep.

The Ushigata then proceeded to add firewood underneath the cauldron. Hearing the noise, the Yamanba woke up again, this time saying, “I hear rustle-rustle birds singin’ out there, but it’s still night time!”

Now, the Ushigata light the firewood, and as it started to grow, the Yamanba said, “I hear crackle-crackle birds singin’ out there, but it’s still night time!” Just as she said this, the fire roared, and the Yamanba tried to jump out of the cauldron. She was trapped by the rock on top, and screamed and thrashed around, but soon she grew quiet.

Once there was no sound coming from inside the cauldron, the Ushigata opened the cauldron and peered inside. There, he saw a giant old wolf with a mouth so wide that it looked like it was torn ear to ear, and it was burned to a crisp. Since then, no one ever spoke of running into the Yamanba.

Photo credit to my colleague for this photo taken near Sanbe this weekend! This is on the west side of the mountain (note the cows!). The “feminine” side, he explained, as opposed to the “masucline” east side where all the skiing spots are.