Izumo's quiet rural nature belies a history that stretches back to Japan's very beginnings. Long before there was a Kyoto or Nara, this region was the center of what was known as Shinkoku, the Country of the Gods. Japan's oldest records mention this area, and the shrines and historical treasures unearthed here are clear evidence that the roots of the Japan story are in Izumo.
You can reach Izumo by plane, rail, and bus. Okayama is the transport hub for most rail journeys.
The Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen Line connects Tokyo, Osaka and other major cities with Okayama. From Okayama, JR express trains depart for Izumo and take around three hours.
For flights to Izumo, JAL operates a route between Haneda and Izumo Airport. ANA flights from Haneda serve nearby Yonago Airport. Flights to Izumo Airport are also available from Fukuoka and certain other major airports.
Highway buses, including overnight buses, connect the area with Tokyo and Osaka. For a more comfortable overnight option consider the Sunrise Izumo, the last sleeper train still operating in Japan. It leaves Tokyo at 10 p.m. and arrives in Izumo 12 hours later.
Izumo Taisha is dedicated to Okuninushi no Mikoto, a deity closely associated with love and marriage
Bronze objects excavated from ruins at Kojindani and Kamo Iwakura, point to Izumo's role in ancient Japanese history
In the ancient chronicles of Japan, the 8th-century Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the beginning sections relate stories of the first deities and the creation of the universe. The first cycle of myths is set here in Izumo, not in the area around Nara and Kyoto.
Many of the shrines in the Izumo area figure prominently in these ancient myths and the beginnings of Japanese culture. None is more famous than Izumo Taisha. All of Japan's Shinto deities come here during the tenth month of the old lunar calendar. The shrine is dedicated to Okuninushi, now known as the god of love and marriage, and people travel here from all over Japan to pray for success in finding a marriage partner.
Another shrine that features in the ancient chronicles is nearby Hinomisaki-jinja, a few kilometers up the coastline from Izumo Taisha near the tallest lighthouse in East Asia.
This highly picturesque shrine very close to the sea is the twin to Ise-jingu Shrine and dedicated to the same sun goddess, Amaterasunomikami. Where Ise protects Japan during the daytime, Hinomisaki protects Japan during the hours of darkness.
Many dramatic archeological discoveries suggest that the essence of the Izumo myths is based on reality. At Kojindani, a small valley near Shinjiko, a staggering 358 bronze swords were unearthed, and the largest ever cache of ritual bronze bells was found at Kamo-Iwakura, testifying to the importance and power of the ancient people of Izumo. These may be seen in the museum next to the Izumo Taisha.
The Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo, a huge, modern museum next door to Izumo Taisha, has many exhibits on the history of Izumo Taisha, including models of how the shrine may have looked when it was a towering 48 meters high. In the hills just behind Izumo City are a cluster of burial mounds of the 3rd-century rulers of the region. At the Yayoinomori Museum next door, you can learn all about this period.
It's not all shrines in Izumo. Gakuenji Temple, deep in the mountains behind Izumo Taisha, was once the largest monastery and temple in all of Izumo, and though few of its buildings remain, one particular structure you should visit is built into a cliff behind a waterfall. Getting few visitors for most of the year, in November when the maple trees turn red the place is packed with photographers.
Not far away, Ichibataji is a temple that draws pilgrims from all over Japan and is renowned as a place for healing people with eye problems. From its mountaintop location, you can look down on the Sea of Japan in one direction and Shinjiko, Japan's seventh-largest lake, in the other.
If you like walking, hike the Chugoku Nature Trail, which connects both temples and leads to Izumo Taisha before heading into the mountains through the dramatic Tachikuekyo Gorge, a nationally recognized scenic spot home to 150-meter-high cliffs and spires of rock, and filled with thousands of Buddhist statues.
Izumo is convenient as a base to explore the surrounding area. Inland, the area known as Okuizumo is the origin of the Japanese sword, and home to the fantastic Orochi myth about a giant eight-headed, eight-bodied serpent slain by a hero to win the hand of a princess.
Less than an hour away is Matsue, with one of the few surviving castles in Japan, some world-class gardens, and the former home of famed writer Lafcadio Hearn. Just over an hour away in the opposite direction is the World Heritage Site, the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine.