Samurai. Horses. Feats of martial prowess. Sounds like a good time to me.

Especially if it involves period dress, you can bet I want to be there. I don’t often see processions in Kamakura style outfits, so that made me very excited!

This is Yabusame, a horseback archery started first for keeping warriors sharp in times of non-war, and continued in many spots throughout Japan today for the entertainment of the gods. However, Tsuwano is home to one of the oldest Yabusame ranges still in use, making it one of the more impressive places to see this event as well. (I’ve also seen Yabusame at a neighborhood shrine festival and it was… not as riveting, to say the least). You can read more about its history and practice in these articles:

“Tsuwano Yabusame Festival” by Jake Davies
“Witnessing the ancient yabusame ceremony in Tsuwano, Japan” by Clyde Holt

I’ll write more about my experience!

It was the second week of April, so many of the cherry blossoms had already fallen, but many were still scattering–enough that I found a few in my bag and in my hair. The weather was between warm and cool throughout the day, and it was a good day to stand outside for an outdoor event. Unlike other Shinto rituals I’ve stood outside and waited for, this one started right around the time it was promised (once at 11am, and again later at 2pm).

It started with a procession of the horses, warriors, and various footmen and attendants. They walked one way down the track, and then back up the other way.

These outfits are called “Suikan” and I love them.

There was a bit of a crowd, but it was easier to see the whole thing than I expected it would be. It’s a very long track, which provided the crowd lots of space to disperse, and there is a slight slope along which people in the back stand to get a few over people’s heads. There are three targets down the track to stand near and watch, so as far as crowded Shinto rituals are concerned, this one provided a number of good vantage points.

With no time wasted, they began having archers-both men and women–ride their horses down the track every few minutes. That means, with my cheap old point-and-shoot camera, I had plenty of chances to snap pictures. Which is good, because many times I didn’t get a photo until the horse was already long gone.

By each target, there was a group of people dressed like this. If they hit the target, the guy with the stick would raise it in the air.

The arrows had big, blunt tips that made big thumping sounds when they hit the targets, and quite often when they were hit, the boards–at about the height of a warrior’s face–would break. The boards, including the ones that were not hit, were collected after each run and later sold, I believe, with the ones that were hit being an especially nice good luck charm. By that time, the boards were already covered in calligraphy.

Thankfully, people like my friend Melissa had much better technological skills. This is a slow-motion video she took of an archer breaking a target (thanks for letting me post it, Melissa!):

Overall, the event took about 45 minutes, which left us both satisfied and with plenty of energy and time left to see the town. I’ve been wanting to see this event ever since I came to the San’in region, and it was a well-spent 45 minutes.


You might see these photos and think, “oh, I know this place!”

Let me remind you that this is a San’in region blog. This is not Kyoto. This is Tsuwano, the Little Kyoto of San’in!

Like the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Taikodani Inari Shrine is also dedicated to this popular fox deity. Also like Fushimi Inari and other Inari shrines throughout Japan, it has a tunnel of torii gates leading up the shrine, and pockets of little areas filled with fox statues left as offerings. It is said that there are a thousand gates at this shrine, and you can see the bright red shrine with a brilliant trail leading up to it from a ways away on the road, though what appears above the trees makes it look like it suddenly appeared on the mountain. Although it looks like a daunting hike, it doesn’t take very long at all.

Of course, going by car and parking under the shrine is also an option.

Inari, a harvest god who may or may not be a fox (there are different interpretations of this, but the fox association remains strong). A simple internet search would probably reveal countless legends surrounding this deity, perhaps presenting Inari in ways that might even seem contradictory (such as whether Inari is a beautiful woman, an old man, or just a plain and simple fox). One of my favorite little quirks I’ve heard is that there is always a fox hole under the honden (main hall) of the shrine so that the fox can come and go as it pleases, and if they do not build this hole in an Inari shrine, the deity gets angry and curses people. If you’re looking for it, this hole is very easy to spot in Jozan Inari Shrine near Matsue Castle (Lord Matsudaira Naomasa was a faithful Inari follower).

Inari can be a rather difficult god to please and a shrine should not be set up to him/her lightly, so when samurai lords set up shrines line Taikodani Inari in Tsuwano and Jozan Inari in Matsue, they did so whole-heartedly in the hopes that Inari would grant food and riches to their domains. It’s hard to think of an Inari shrine that is not covered with seemingly excessive amounts of large or small offerings hiding around any little corner.

This is also a deity people look to when they want monetary luck. While most shrines around Japan will offer some simple form of omikuji (fortunes on paper slips drawn at random), and larger shrines will offer a couple different kinds, this shrine offered quite a number of options. For example, a lion dance robot or a take-home statue of a fox.

There were all throughout the shrine and I hadn’t done an omikuji for a while, so I picked out one of the cheap ones not worth taking a picture of. Daikichi–great luck!

What really left an impression on me about this shrine is that it was, by far, the shiniest shrine I’ve ever seen. That’s saying something, because I’ve seen a lot of shrines. I do love a good moss-covered shrine with quite atmosphere, but I was very impressed by how smooth and squeaky clean this one was. At least according to the people I pointed this out to, I did not happen to visit after a shrine renewal or anything, it’s meticulously maintained like that all the time.

Look at this. Look at how shiny this shrine is!

Although all shrines are thought to be like a world somewhat separate from this one, the placement and color of Taikodani, especially after the tunnel on the way up to it, did feel otherworldly in a sense I don’t usually get from other shrines. Everyone was smiling and pleasant, and for all I could tell, fussy Inari must have felt pretty pleased with it, too.

They must have remembered to build that fox hole, if what we found on the steps back down was any indication.

For as much as I liked this spot, it was not what I was anticipating most on my trip to Tsuwano. I was there for horses, not foxes. We’ll touch on that in the next entry.

Going east to west, Shimane is a rather long prefecture, and Tsuwano is a few hours away from Matsue by train. It’s so far to the west that it is commonly mistaken as being part of Yamaguchi. Make no mistake, though. This little gem of a town is part of the San’in region, and is completely nicknamed “Little Kyoto of the San’in Region.” It’s compact, but packed full of charm.

One of the first things visitors notice is that many of the buildings are classic in style or otherwise fit Tsuwano’s theme.

One of several wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) shops where you could find signature genshimaki. But, you know, living in Matsue I’m a little spoiled when it comes to wagashi.

This is a back alley, not one of the main tourist streets.

A bank building that ventured not to be boring.

Why the egret? Because one of the things Tsuwano is famous for is Sagi Odori (“Heron Dance”, though I’m told the costume is more like an egret). This is originally a famous Kyoto custom, but the Tsuwano version is deemed national Important Intangible Cultural Property. I have not seen this dance, but I’ve seen traveling Yosakoi dance group with the egret similar in style to the Sagi-odori costumes as their theme.

One of the other things you might notice is the Catholic church on the main tourist street. This is dedicated to St. Francis Xavier, and there is another chapel elsewhere that is a memorial to persecuted Christians.

I had been curious about this chapel for a long time, because I wanted to see the tatami mats inside!

I image sitting through mass in seiza would be quite the penance.

But there is something else along the main tourist road that keeps every looking down.

Carp! Lots and lots of carp.

In Japanese, these fish are called koi. This is synonymous with “romantic love” but it’s also synonymous with “come here.” Hence, the taxis in Tsuwano are called “Koi Koi.” Come here, fishy…

There is cheap fish food available for sale all over that part of town, but if you take great joy in making fish go on feeding frenzies, you should do so as early in the day as you can. For as many fish as there are along this street, they are very well fed, and by later afternoon there are the most disinterested carp I’ve ever seen. It was very strange watching them give the fish equivalent of a shrug to the food floating above their heads before very slowly proceeding to eat it.

However, that may have had something to do with the day I went, as there was a big event going on in April and a lot of people were in town. Also, because it was April, the just-as-iconic irises in the canals with the carp were not quite blooming yet.

The cherry blossoms were barely hanging to the trees, but still filled the air when the wind blew. That day of alternationg clouds and sunshine, I still had more to see besides the quaint townscape. We’ll touch on more in the next entries.

We’re off to a very Kyoto-like place next time…

For all the J-Pop or singer-songwriter fans out there (or anyone who enjoys some easy, uplifting tunes), I’d like to introduce a musical duo called Kotonoha, made up of a couple native Shimaneians* named Moe and Yuka.

This first video was features western Shimane in the towns of Tsuwano, Masuda, Hamada, and Gotsu.

This one takes place on the Oki Islands.

And here’s one in Izumo.

More information here on the website, though it’s all in Japanese:

Shimane map: Oki, Matsue, Izumo, Gotsu, Hamada, Masuda, Tsuwano

These a few of the places where you might be able to take part in a homestay during the 23rd Japan-America Grassroots Summit in Summer 2013. This is a very good opportunity for any Americans of any age, occupation, or language level to visit Japan and have a very authentic experience, so please look into it and pass the information along to anyone you know who may be interested.

*Or as some of the CIRs and I have taken to referring to ourselves, “Shimaniacs”