I’m sometimes asked if I’ve tried any crazy ice cream flavors found throughout Japan. Well… no, not that weird. Or at least, I don’t find them weird enough to write home about.

Let’s make it clear that Japan is not usually as weird as the Internet would have you think it is. Plus, the “weird” food that Japanese people are actually crazy and excited about don’t seem to be quite as much of a focal point on the English speaking side of things. Allow me to fix that by having you see Youka Medama Oyaji from spooky Sakaiminato. Go. Look. They’re awesome.

Anyway, I cannot deny that there is a trend throughout the country of taking the local speciality–be it a fish or fruit or ramen–and presenting it in ice cream form, often for the sort of cringe-worthy results you’d expect to find at a US state fair, with each fried food stand trying to out do the others with a deep-frying some new combination of mega-calories. I don’t think many people choose to eat these ice creams for the sake of eating them, but rather for the sake of being able to say they’ve eaten them.

I’m not innocent of trying some strange things just to have the experience–I’ve probably had chocolate with everything but bugs, only because I haven’t had the opportunity yet. But when it comes to the specialities each region of Japan is so proud of, I figure I’d rather try them with my lunch, and just enjoy my ice cream as ice cream.

Then every so often you wind up finding an interesting spin on ice cream that really can just stand to be its own flavor without the fear-factor appeal. I’ve mentioned the soba-flavored ice cream before, but that was nice enough that I’d totally order it again just for the sake of having a refreshing little ice cream. It turns out I had two more ice creams that day, too. We were feeling adventurous and there is always room for more ice cream.

To quote myself from the soba entry:

I tried this at a new Michi-no-Eki (a fancy style of road stations or rest stops throughout Japan, many of which are sights in and of themselves) in Unnan, located south of Izumo and Matsue (together with Okuizumo and Yasugi, these five cities/towns make up what is commonly know as the “Izumo region”). This Michi-no-Eki is called Tatara-ichibanchi and has a special focus on introducing local mythology (especially the Yamata-no-Orochi 8-headed giant serpent, which resided in Unnan), with the help of Shimane’s volunteer tourism ambassador, the scowling Yoshida-kun (whose day job happens to be attempting to take over the world). (Recall that Yoshida-kun and company have also volunteered their villianous services in telling Lafcadio Hearn‘s “Kwaidan” ghost stories.)

We left the soba restaurant for the Tatalover counter. In addition to spicy ramen and soy milk soup with mochi, they also had two kinds of soft serve: Orochi-no-Tsume and Otamahan.

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, “Orochi” should sound familiar, but in case it doesn’t, you can start reading the legend of the Yamata-no-Orochi 8-headed serpent, or cut straight to how Unnan was the beast’s hometown. Orochi-no-Tsume–that is, “Claws of Orochi”–are a kind of chili pepper grown in Unnan. They are about three times longer than the more commonly known Taka-no-Tsume (“Claws of the Hawk”), so they are not quite as spicy and it’s easier to enjoy the sweetness of chili peppers–provided you’re okay with the afterbite. You can read more and see more pictures here and here.

Click for source

As for Otamahan, does the term Tamago-kake Gohan mean anything to you?

This is known as Japanese soul food, and although I don’t claim to know food culture from around the world in as much depth, it’s hard to think of another culture that so thoroughly enjoys raw eggs. Completely raw, not just runny. Besides being a folk cure for hangover and other ailments or serving as dipping sauce for sukiyaki hot pot, there is something wonderfully comforting about a simple, tasty bowl of Tamago-kake Gohan (sometimes abbreiviated TKG, like US PBJ). Literally, it’s cooked rice with egg added to it. I had heard of it and had raw egg here and there–I don’t really mind it–and had heard how big of a thing it is in Unnan, but one of my deepest impressions of the dish was when I was traveling with my naginata group to the Western Japan youth competition (I was tagging along to root them on!), and along the way we stopped for lunch at a Michi-no-Eki. One of the mom’s of the group was preparing this dish for her 3-year-old, and asked me if I ever had it, and then started gushing about the comforts of this particular kind of soul food, abruptly stopping herself wondering I would find the idea too gross. When I indicated I was fine, she offered me a taste. It was pretty much what I expected.

This is Otamahan style, click for source.

The following morning we all had teishoku breakfast together (teishoku is a set meal with multiple little dishes already planned by the host), and it included a raw egg for this dish. The thing about TKG is that you can’t use just any eggs, you have to be sure they’re really fresh, reliably tasty eggs (the local source of the eggs is a big part of Otamahan, which we’ll return to). After cracking that egg open in the dish provided and pouring it on to your rice, you add some soy sauce–this is essential–and stir it all together, and enjoy. Then again, you could mix the egg with soy sauce first, or you could add the directly on top of the rice, you could dig a well in the rice for the egg, or you could even use some cold rice… it’s really up to taste and habit. Some spins on the dish will include seaweed or green onions or whatever strikes their fancy.

Confident in my egg-cracking skills, I added my egg directly to the rice and only added a little bit of soy sauce so as not to drown out the flavor of the yolk. Sitting across a few different tables, the mom I had been talking with before asked her 7-year-old if I was trying the TKG, and she loudly announced that I was. This drew other’s attention to my breakfast and my first attempt at making this seemingly simply dish.

“There’s a lot of egg white left in your shells, Buri-san… you sure you got enough in your rice?”
“Did you add soy sauce? It looks like you need more soy sauce.”
“Is it good? Of course it’s good. Doesn’t it make you just feel so comforted and happy and satisfied?”

Well… it’s no PBJ. It’s just another aspect of normal life in Japan that tastes very Japanese. So sure, it’s good. While I’m happy with it if that’s what’s on the menu, I wouldn’t go out of my way to make it myself. I’d be happier with some Orochi-no-Tsume, thanks.

And now, back to Unnan.

Obviously, Unnan is not the only place that appreciates some nice, fresh TKG with just the right proportion of all of the ingredients. But perhaps not every small town takes as much pride in their local TKG place, Unnan Otamahan Cafe.

Click for source and more photos

It’s a place everyone knows, but like most well-known restaurants displaying local character everywhere from Unnan to bustling business districts of Tokyo, they tend to take holidays on the more inopportune of days. Thus, also my friends in Unnan have thought taking me there many times, the timing never quite lines up right. I’ve nonetheless heard plenty about this neighborhood hangout. Although they offer a fuller menu now, the heart of the shop its TKG, and the beauty is in its simplicity–koshihikari rice from Izumo, Tanabe-no-Tamago brand eggs from free-range chickens in Okuiizumo, and star of the establishment, preservative and additive-free soy sauce specifically created for TKG, sold elsewhere under the Otamahan brandname (with scowling Shimane ambassador Yoshida-kun making appearances and comments on some labels).

Now, back to the ice cream.

The Orochi-no-Tsume ice cream was sweet and had the flavor of chili peppers, and just as you start to think “this isn’t so spicy” you get hit with the aftertaste. I mean that in a good way, so long as you enjoy spice.

As for the Otamahan, it’s not made with raw eggs or rice, but rather the ice cream is flavored with the Otamahan soy sauce. It’s drizzled with caramel on top.

It wasn’t bad, but my friends and I agreed that we preferred the Orochi-no-Tsume. There was one other soft-serve ice cream flavor available at another counter that day that I think was more of an eggy flavor, but I didn’t get around to trying it–yet, I suppose.

Well, that fun. Now I want to go find some ramune or black sesame flavored soft serve. There is a wonderful world of perfectly normal Japanese ice cream flavors beyond green tea!

Rice does not only have an important place at the dinner table (and at breakfast, and in the lunch box), but it is deeply engrained in Japanese culture at large. For centuries the communal management of rice paddies and prioritization of rice for agricultural land use are good starting points–back when a larger percentage of the population was made up of farmers, most people forged cooperation in their communities to make the most of natural resources, which likely contributed to the group-oriented spirit of cooperation still found today in other sectors. Since different paddies often shared the same water system, neighbors coordinated their planting efforts, often planting on the same day, so it’s easy to see how this labor-intensive activity would grow into a big happy get-together.

Sure, agricultural cooperation is important in several cultures, but rice has political and religious weight in Japan as well (before TPP and the like even became an issue). The emperor is often thought of as harvest deity, and back in the four-tiered class system of the Edo era, farmers were honored with the second highest rung on the social ladder (though that wasn’t reflected in riches) because of their valuable service in producing sustenance for the population. The samurai class was on top (but again, riches didn’t always reflect this), and according to their rank, they were paid in rice as opposed to cash.

Speaking of samurai and farmers, remember the scene at the end of the Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai when Shino and the other village ladies are all dressed up and singing in the mud? Sure, it’s great to celebrate that they were no longer terrorized by bandits so they could plant their rice in peace, but the song is not in celebration. That song is to entertain, and thereby invigorate the rice!

Every so often you hear people say not to waste rice, because seven lucky gods (or more) rest on each grain. Maybe the custom isn’t that specific, but there is some idea that there are deities lurking inside the young rice seedlings, and that entertaining them with song brings out their full potential. There are countless Shinto customs associated with rice (“rice” is almost interchangeable in anything having to do with “harvest”), so it’s not unsurprising that the planting of the rice is a pretty big deal. Since traditionally the whole neighborhood gathered and helped out, it’s a pretty festive deal, too.

Today, there are not as many farmers by profession, and therefore not as many villages centering their social lives on a common crop, but people still eat rice–lots and lots of rice–and the rituals go on, such as the festive Otaue (paddy-planting) ritual–in some places, such as Iruma, this is known by the more flowery title Hanataue.

However, to make them festive, sometimes you have to bring in a little outside amateur help. That’s where I got to come in!

Last year I joined a fellow CIR and an ALT, as well as some visiting students from Tokyo and a large group of Chinese women, in the Iruma neighborhood on the mountainous outskirts of Unnan. We, as well as a handful of local young women, were playing the role of the Saotome (the young maidens) who perform back-bending labor while the young men stand around in frilly pink hats singing songs with the little kids. However, the people who do the most work are probably the old men having to fix all of our poorly planted seedlings behind us! It takes even more people than that to actualize this annual event, and on that note, I’d like to extend a huge thank-you to Matthew McDonough for all these great photos!! Thank you, Matthew!

The event started with the musical procession up to the rice paddy, and the Shinto priest’s ceremony to pray for a successful harvest.

There had been one practice for the event beforehand, with the men and children practicing their rhythmic song and the ladies practicing working in unison. We had this sort of game plan to work with:

This is the one photo on this entry that I took, seeing as I was sort of preoccupied. Everything else is credit to Matthew McDonough.

However, while the men and children all looked and sounded great, chanting to the beat of bamboo continually struck by the lead chanter…

…I can’t say we ladies started out quite as coordinated.

We didn’t have as many words to learn ourselves, but there were a couple parts of the song when the lead chanter would sing (in thick, thick Izumo dialect): “How about giving your backs a break?” and we would respond (likewise in Izumo dialect), “Sounds good to me!” After a brief stretch, he’d continue and we’d put our backs back into it. As we went on, I think we all got a lot better at coordinating our movements.

For everyone one of the Saotome, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were at least two retirees with fancy cameras.

After finishing one half of the paddy, we went back for another dip to plant the other half, and the old men kept the rice seedlings coming.

When the planting and singing was finished, we Saotome washed the mud off in the mountain stream nearby, which I’m sure would have been much more quaint and picturesque if it weren’t so crowded with photographers asking us to look their way. It seems there is a big photo contest every year for the event, and I can imagine the competition is pretty stiff! After they all go home, however, the core group who organized the event, as well as all the singers and planters and re-planters who took part, all cleaned up, changed, and gathered for a little feast. Before going home, we were given rice from that paddy which had been planted in the previous year’s Hanataue ritual. I hope the rice I planted last year will prove to be just as tasty! Grow up big and strong this year, too, little seedlings!

Soba is a typical noodle dish that may come to mind when you think of Japanese cuisine. Served hot or cold to suit the weather, you dip the thin buckwheat noodles in dashi sauce as you slurp.

Or at least, that’s how I used to think about soba. Having gotten so used to Izumo Soba, I now find regular soba rather bland in comparison. Where’s the deep color? Where’s the aroma? Where’s the nutty taste and firm texture? Why bother making a mess with dipping when I can just stir the sauce in and eat it as is?

Regular soba is made with flour from the tiny unhulled buckwheat seeds, which makes for a rather uniform (and typically factory-prepared) consistency, but Izumo Soba is made using the entire seed, hull and all. This not only makes for more texture and taste, but also more nutrition.

A big close up on ting buckwheat hull (thanks, Wiki.)

Furthermore, Izumo Soba is still typically handmade (you can see photos of the process here on the Haneya restaurant homepage), and these makes for variations in each restuarant’s brand. Some people are very fierce in defending their favorites, and seeing as I’ve only tried a handful of the different Izumo Soba restaurants swarming around Izumo Taisha and Matsue Castle. Provided you don’t have a buckwheat allergy, eating Izumo Soba is pretty much essential when visiting the region, and the place I take people usually depends on where we happen to be standing around lunchtime or what kind of scenery we want, or wherever we can squeeze into the establishment on especially busy days!

Another difference you may have noticed in the above photo is how Izumo Soba is served. While you might usually picture soba served on a bamboo mat, this is charming, but it doesn’t make it very easy to take noodles with you on the go. The bentou-box approach has become pretty standard for Izumo Soba, especially when served in Warigo Soba style (I have yet to even hear of an Izumo Soba restuarant that doesn’t offer Warigo Soba). In this form, it is stacked in three little boxes and an extra box on top with the toppings.

The toppings are mostly similar to what you’d expect in other soba servings–strips of dried seaweed, chopped green onions, maybe some katsuo flakes. However, instead of wasabi, Izumo Soba is usually served with momiji-oroshi. Literally translated, this grainy red topping is “grated maple leaves” but it is really a mixture of grated daikon radish and spicy red pepper. However, the toppings are not limited to this–I’ve also have Izumo Soba served with raw quail egg or sticky grated yam. Part of the fun of Warigo Soba is that you can try out different ratios and combinations of flavors in each dish. You add dashi (the sauce) on top and stir it all together before you start slurping, but you can add the leftover dashi to the the next dish for a strong flavor since it’s already soaked up some of the flavors in the first dish.

On that note, here is a handy video explaining how to eat Warigo style Izumo Soba like a pro!

Notice that drinking the water the soba was boiled in is an option. It’s known for how healthy it is, and has a smooth, light texture and flavor. One of the other popular ways to eat Izumo Soba is in the original water it was boiled in, with some flavor added to make it a nice broth. You can add additional toppings to this from there, and some establishments are known for their own touch on this, such as how Yakumo-an adds duck meat.

Way back in the Edo period when there were very clear distinctions between what different classes of people ate in the caste society, soba was considered commoner food (bare in mind that sushi started this way, too!). Despite how many members of the samurai class turned their nose up at such simple fare, one of the Izumo domain feudal lords was known for his love of good soba. While Matsudaira Harusato (better known by his tea name “Fumai”) is commonly associated with promoting tea culture (still very noticable today), he is also known for sneaking out of his quarters at night go dine at the cheap soba joints!

Nakamura Chaho credits him with the following words:

I drink tea, look for good tools, eat soba,
Garden, watch the nature’s beauty, and
Without other desire, laugh loudly.

I don’t know about Lord Fumai, but I usually desire dessert even after a satisfying soba meal.

It seems that weird ice cream flavors around Japan making use of the local speciality products (or at least making use of the creativity of the locals) has been a big topic around the internet lately, which I did not notice until I had people asking me if I’ve tried any weird ice cream flavors. Well, yes, but it’s not as I go looking for them. It’s more so that you can find them anywhere and my friends and I think, “gee, that’s interesting” and give it a shot. I wouldn’t say they were especially weird (but perhaps after living in Japan for a while my definition of weird has shifted), but I do have a favorite among them.

You can probably guess that I’m leading up to soba-flavored ice cream.

I tried this at a new Michi-no-Eki (a fancy style of road stations or rest stops throughout Japan, many of which are sights in and of themselves) in Unnan, located south of Izumo and Matsue (together with Okuizumo and Yasugi, these five cities/towns make up what is commonly know as the “Izumo region”). This Michi-no-Eki is called Tatara-ichibanchi and has a special focus on introducing local mythology (especially the Yamata-no-Orochi 8-headed giant serpent, which resided in Unnan), with the help of Shimane’s volunteer tourism ambassador, the scowling Yoshida-kun (whose day job happens to be attempting to take over the world). (Recall that Yoshida-kun and company have also volunteered their villianous services in telling Lafcadio Hearn‘s “Kwaidan” ghost stories.)

One of the gastronomical options at this rest stop is the Izumo Soba restaurant, Murage, and they offer this ice cream on their menu. In addition to the buckwheat seeds on top that provide a little crunch, their add components of the soba to the ice cream itself, and it’s a light, refreshing flavor. Unlike other flavor adventures which were more for the experience than for partaking of the treat again, this I would be happy to eat again just to enjoy it!

Izumo Soba is much the same way. It’s not only something I eat with people visiting, but it’s something I pick up at grocery store and use in my daily life, too. It’s not only for the experience as described–it’s simply really good soba.

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…

We got the overview of the home of the Yamata-no-Orochi last time. It didn’t only love the coolness of the Shimane mountains, it loved alcohol–especially Shimane’s rice wine.

If you drive around Unnan with a Yamata-no-Orochi tourism map, you can find your way to places like Kamaishi, a stone that marks the spot where the sake was brewed eight times over, or Kusamakura, a set of hills the monster used as a “grassy pillow” when it was tipsy.

Perhaps the most important site is Inze-no-Tsubogami, where the basins that held the potent liquor were buried (couldn’t have those falling into the wrong lightweight hands, after all!).

It’s a bit of a drive (or bike ride)…

…and then you need to abandon your car for a short hike.

Getting closer…

…and then you find this.

There’s not much on this mountain, but it does have atmosphere. The fenced area is around the rocks that closed off the sake basins from the outside world. A curse upon anyone who tries to dig them out!

Maybe a long time ago someone thought reaching in and leaving a 5-yen coin would bring them good luck.

Like the previously mentioned chopsticks, this legend is one of the first records of sake production in Japan. It is not the only legend that suggests the Izumo region was the first to enjoy the stuff. Rather, it’s association with Izumo City is stronger than with Unnan City, given the fame and prominence of Izumo Taisha even in modern Shintoism.

Izumo Taisha is where all the gods in Japan congregate for their annual meeting to decide the fates and interminglings of people and nature–otherwise known as en. It’s not all work, though–those gods are known for drinking lots and lots of sake. This perhaps has less to do with drunken kami-sama so much as sake‘s purifying qualities, hence, it is used extensively in Shinto rituals. Because there are so many gods to offer sake to at Izumo Taisha, it means that there is lots and lots of high quality sake contributed there.

The shrine is all fresh and new thanks to the Heisei Sengu!

Izumo Taisha is not, however, the leading sake shrine. Instead, that would be Saka Shrine (yes, there is sake-related history behind that name). You can read a more thorough description of the brewing-related rituals that take place there on the Connect Shimane website, but suffice to say for our purposes here that the main deity is the patron of brewers, and this is the lead shrine among all others that also worship that kami. This shrine is also sometimes called Matsuo Shrine, which should indeed sound familiar if you’ve been to this famous old shrine in western Kyoto.

So Shimane has history with sake, perhaps the first to make it. Sure, that’s great. But is it any good?

I tend to stick with Matsue’s tea and wagashi culture rather than drink alcohol so I can’t say for sure, but the general concensus is that it’s phenomenal.

Here’s what Sake-World.com has to say about it:

And most importantly, what’s it taste like? Indeed, Shimane sake has one of the most easily identifiable, describable, and likeable flavor and aromatic profiles in the country. In short, Shimane sake is comparatively dense in flavor, yet fine-grained and clean. There is usually a higher amino acid content, giving Shimane sake plenty of “umami.” More concretely, much sake from this region has a nutty touch with a subdued sweetness in the background, full flavor, and a brilliant acidity that both spreads the flavors and provides some backbone. Aromatically, flowers, melon-like fruit, and touches of autumnal things like pumpkins are common in Shimane sake.

Shimane is already known for award-winning rice due to the clean water and ideal temperature conditions in the mountains, but those qualities don’t just make for good staple food. To borrow more of Sake-World’s explanation:

Even more commendable is that 60% of all rice used in sake brewing in Shimane is proper sake rice. As 80% of all sake brewed in Japan is “table sake,” most of this does not use premium sake rice, but rather run-of-the-mill stuff. The fact that Shimane is way above that average is encouraging.

I’d ask the Yamata-no-Orochi if it agrees with all this sparkling praise of the sake fit for kami-sama, but it’s a little beat up and buried now. With that monster out of the way, Susano-o and Kushinada-hime had wedded bliss to keep busy with, which we’ll take a look at next time.

I feel a little late on this, especially since I finished posting the story of Susano-o and the Yamata-no-Orochi a few weeks ago and did my own tour of Unnan back in January and it’s now June.

Unnan (雲南) is a fairly new city, established in 2004 with the merger of five towns and one village. It’s in the southern (南) part of the Izumo region (出雲, which is also sometimes called Unshuu 雲州 with an alternate pronunciation for 雲), hence the name. Not all of the sites having to do with the Yamata-no-Orochi legend take place within the city borders, but most of them do, so many public areas and businesses decorate with giant serpant motifs. For a harrowing monster that’s inspired countless artistic renditions throughout Japanese history and more recently served as the inspiration for foes facing everyone from Godzilla to Doraemon, it hasn’t been able to escape modern Japan’s kawaiiifying culture.

That said, if you ask people from Unnan what they’re most proud of, they might mention the largest collection of dotaku (bronze bells) excavated from a single site which was found at Kamo Iwakura, or the cherry trees along the Kuno River (and by extension, the Hii River). It’s designated as one of the top 100 cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan, and it just so happens that I did my flower viewing there a couple months ago. They also have reason to proud of their high quality Kisuki Milk.

One of the other claims to fame you’ll see posters for was a movie set in Unnan and called “Un, nan?” (うん、何? which means “yeah, what?”). This little high school romance not only features cherry blossoms, milk, archeological dig sites, and everyone’s favorite eight-headed monster, but it also helped make a bridge near the cherry blossoms and spanning the Hii River famous as the Negai-bashi (願橋, Wishing Bridge).

The story goes that if you can cross the bridge with your eyes closed, your wish will be granted. With the help of my guide (a fellow CIR stationed in Unnan who always makes a fun guide), I succeeded! I was so focused on crossing, though, that I forgot to make a wish. I suppose if my wish was to cross without falling in, then it came true.

That said, the Hii River, which flows through the old land of Izumo from the mountains north to Lake Shinji is also the spot where Susano-o first reached Japan. It was there that he noticed a pair of chopsticks floating down the river, leading him to conclude that there was civilization nearby, and thereby leading the people of Izumo to conclude that chopsticks come from Izumo because this was the first recorded use of them.

There are gift shops lining the way to Izumo Taisha which specialize in chopsticks, including really, really fancy, expensive bridal chopsticks. That said, a wedding at Izumo Taisha isn’t terribly expensive, you just have to book really far in advance!

At first I didn’t buy that, but there are many scholars that suggest Susano-o is a kami of possible Korean origins, unlike his more nationally revered and purely Japanese sister Amaterasu. It’s quite possible that a number of pieces of daily life in Japan were imported from China via Korea by way of the San’in region.

Moving further south along the Hii River, it doesn’t surprise me that the Yamata-no-Orochi would also choose this part of the region as its home. I rather like weekend getaways to the mountains of Unnan myself. Since I happened to visit a handful of hot springs the last time I was out there, I’ve marked on the map where the hot springs are in the area just for fun.

I’ve visited only three of the ones that show up here! I have much more onsen-ing to do.

The Yamata-no-Orochi was particularly known to reside at a place called Ama-ga-fuchi. Though these are photos from a cold winter evening, it is a breezy place to stop in summer–which is when I’m betting this story took place given Susano-o’s poem about how refreshing the area is.

One of the theories I’ve heard about the origins of this legend is that the anatomy of the Yamata-no-Orochi was based on the mountains and the offshoots of the Hii River. It’s threat to kamikind was likely based on the flooded river’s threat to humankind. The “grass-cutting” sword Susano-o found within one of the tails may represent human triumph over nature in preventing floods and engaging in agriculture, as well as building tools and swords out of iron (both techniques might also have been inherited from Korea). Furthermore, Kushinada-hima is also known as Inata-hime–“Rice Field Princess.” This sources for the Yamata-no-Orochi certainly seems plausible to me, though I don’t know where they would have gotten the parts about the red eyes. On that note, iron is a big thing in ancient Izumo, but that’s something to touch on another time.

On a typical day-tour of the Orochi sites I doubt most people are thinking that deeply into it. It’s fun to drive with a map and check out the well-marked places were even minute pieces of the story took place. While this was the place that the Yamata-no-Orochi lived, it’s also the place where it was buried–the tails in a place called Iwatsubo Shrine, and the heads in a tiny neighborhood spot called Happonsugi (八本杉, literally “eight cedars”). There are eight cedar trees growing there to mark the eight heads.

Besides the tall cedars, there’s not much here besides this rock (and buried heads, I suppose).

And there’s a pretty pattern in the gravel.

And this… altar? Casket? Whatever it is, it’s not something I’m used to seeing in a Shinto shrine–not that this even counts as a shrine so much as a holy site.

I didn’t find any information indicating what this is, but I did find that whoever carved this had nice penmanship.

We’ll be moving on to many people’s favorite part of the legend next: the sake.
Or you could skip ahead to matchmaking.

Not only is it sakura season, it’s hanami season!

Literally, it’s flower-seeing (花見), but hanami is not only a matter of seeing flowers–it’s a matter of going somewhere special to have a picnic and appreciate nature with your friends. Pack your plastic tarp, get some beer, and get some food from the local vendors, it’s time to relax! Assuming you don’t have allergies, anyway.

My friends I went to the town of Unnan, specially the area known as Kisuki. It’s one rated as one of the top 100 cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan. Accordingly, it’s well prepared for flower-viewers with manju (sweet dumplings) of all kinds and street food vendors everywhere from the parking spot to the picnic spot. That being said, though, they don’t detract from the sight and atmosphere.

The main spot for the cherry blossom festival is along the Kuno River, a stream that runs along the Hii River. The rest of the town remains fairly quiet, at least from my observation as we were driving around later.

Tree tunnels!

This is where we sat, too.

There are cherry blossom good all year round in Unnan, including fancy scarves and other items dyed with different parts of the flowers and the tree. The last time I was there, my friend bought me a little jar of perserved buds. They’re used for making a brew to drink on very special occasions (such as weddings), but can also be eaten as is. They’re surprising salty! I thought they might be nice with crackers and cream cheese, so I brought all these things for our picnic.

I figured out later than they go well with Nutella, too.

And riceballs! I’ve also heard they make good additions to sugar cookies. Maybe next year.

The hot water makes them open. These are yae style blossoms, apparently!

Carbonation, however, does not make them open. It was worth a shot.

The biggest mistake we made with our hanami was bringing too many things for the picnic. By the time we got to the Okuizumo winery for lunch, none of us were hungry anymore!

Despite being so salty, they don’t have much fragrance. Always worth trying to find a scent anyway–the flowers are really soft, more so than many other kinds of blossoms!

More varieties of sakura here and here.