Although the majority of travelers to Japan will see just Tokyo, Kyoto, and perhaps the surrounding areas, every once in a while people ask me to recommend somewhere that's a bit off the beaten path. Izumo, my home in Japan for two years when I lived and worked there on the JET Programme, is about as far off the beaten track as you can get. Located on the Japan Sea side, 3 hours by train from the nearest Shinkansen stop in Okayama, Izumo is located in Shimane, Japan's second least-populated prefecture. Although much of the population has migrated to larger cities such as Hiroshima and Osaka, 1,300 years ago Izumo was one of the most important cities in Japan, and its history is deeply entwined with myths and religious figures who had love affairs and fought each other much like the ancient Greek Gods did. Although its population is dwindling, Izumo is still known as the Land of the Gods and the city still gathers more than two million tourists a year to its main attraction, Izumo Taisha.
Izumo Taisha In the Japanese calendar, the 10th lunar month (lunar October?) is called Kan-na-zuki, which means The month of no Gods. In Izumo, the same month is called Kami-ari-zuki, which means The month of the Gods. The eight million Gods (that's probably just an estimate) of the Shinto religion all come to Izumo in the lunar month of October to discuss the happenings of the year. A ceremony is held at Inasa-no-hama Beach to welcome the Gods to Izumo before they take rest in the Shrine.
Ceremony at Insa-no-hama Beach In addition to being the annual gathering spot for the eight million Gods of Japan, Izumo is also famous for some of its culinary delights. Izumo Soba (buckwheat noodles) is a type of wari-go soba, meaning that it is stacked in layers of three lacquered bowls, each with a different sauce and toppings.
Izumo Soba Also famous is Shimane wagyu (high-end beef), and the best way to eat it is yaki-niku (Korean BBQ) style. One place that attracts a lot of tour buses is the Shimane Winery. Here, you can tour the winery, view the wine-making process, try Shimane wagyu, and indulge in some free wine tasting (though connoisseurs will most likely not be impressed). 30 minutes north of Izumo Taisha by bus is Hinomisaki Lighthouse, the tallest stone lighthouse in Asia. Now that's not too exciting in itself, but the beautiful view (reminiscent of the central California coast) and the quaint fishing village make it worth the trip. Also, the adventurous can try grilled squid and sazae (a snail-like shellfish I can only describe as an acquired taste) while the rest can enjoy vanilla or sweet potato flavored soft ice cream.
View from Hinomisaki Lighthouse A less-explored, but equally beautiful spot is Tachikue Gorge, located about 30 minutes south of Izumo Station. There are several trails that traverse through the gorge to various little houses and shrines along the way. The most impressive part is toward the end of the hiking loop when you stumble into a clearing with hundreds upon hundreds of stone Arhat figures, ancient child-like statues, each with their own little red hats and varying facial expressions.
Stone Arhat Figures If you do make it up to Izumo there are plenty of other sights to see in the area. Nearby Matsue has a nice castle and a samurai district. To the west lie the Iwami Silver mines, a labyrinth of caves that once supplied 1/3 of the world's silver, and the small town of Nima, notable as the site of the world's largest sand clock (it's a year-glass, not an hour-glass). Farther south still is Tsuwano, a picturesque castle town surrounded by waterways filled with koi fish. Those who want to see the "real Japan" should definitely consider a trip to Izumo, the Land of the Gods.