SEA OF JAPAN COAST

SEA OF JAPAN COAST

SEA OF JAPAN COAST on the western side of Honshu is a region of historic cities, sand dunes, traditional fishing villages and restaurants that serve giant crabs in the winter time. The waves are bigger than those on the Inland Sea but not as big as those on the Pacific. In the winter the sea brings stormy weather and lots of snow to some places. Some coast villages erect bamboo sea walls for protection In the summer the seas are relatively calm and weather can be quite humid. Websites: Sea of Japan description Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Sea of Japan photos japan-photo

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Northern Sea of Japan Coast

Niigata

Niigata (on the Japan Sea) is an important port and industrial city with 440,000 people. It receives the world's only regular North Korean ferry as well as regular passenger-carrying ships from Vladivostok, Russia, which is almost due west of Niigita. To accommodate the Russian visitors road signs are written in Cryllic and one luxury hotel is adorned with Russian-style onion domes. The North Koreans have connections with Japanese Korean residents that are loyal to Pyongyang. A row of historic machiya houses is being restored in the Murakami district of Niigata.

Niigata was struck by devastating earthquakes in 2004 and 2007. The two hour ride from Tokyo on the bullet train pass through 14-mile-long Daishimizu tunnel, one of the longest railroad tunnels in the world. Niigata Prefecture is known for producing Japan’s best rice and sake. Most of the people are old.

Niigata is a jumping off point for Sado Island. The Yamakoshi area of Niigata is famous for its rice paddies., Many of the paddies damaged in the 2004 earthquake have been restored.

Websites:Niigata Prefecture site Enjoy Niigata Niigata City site city.niigata.jp ;Niigata Visitors and Convention Bureau nvcb.or.jp Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Web Sites: Niigata Prefecture site Enjoy Niigata ; Niigata Visitors and Convention Bureau nvcb.or.jp ; JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Niigata is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Tokyo (two hours) and Osaka (six hours) and other Japanese cities. There is a shinkansen line between Tokyo and Niigata. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Sado Island

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Sado Island (a one hour jet foil or 2½ hour ferry ride from Niigata port) lies in the Sea of Japan about 25 miles offshore of central Honshu in Niigata prefecture. The fifth largest Japanese island, it is famous for its gold mines, traditional dances, Kodo drumming colony, sweet persimmon sherbets and puddings, spectacular performance of Noh theater and the Sado Crested Ibis Conservation Center.

Sado Island lies just of the coast of Niigata. It is known for its harsh winter, self-contained local culture and as a disposal point for vagrants, criminals and Korean slave laborers. Gold and silver were discovered in the 16th century. Excavated holes in mountains and man-made crevasses remain as indicators of the mining that was done here. Over the years the island has served as a convenient place to exile disgraced military leaders, troublesome nobles and disruptive religious leaders such as Nichiren, the founder of an important Buddhist sect.

The two most well-known taiko drum ensembles are Kodo, a group that lives on a rural commune on the island of Sado in rural Japan; and Ondekoza, another Sado-Island-based ensemble that requires its drummers to exercise hard everyday.

Ondekoza was founded on Sado Island in 1970. Its name means "demon drum." Members were required by their leader, Den Tagayasu, to run marathons to build up strength and stamina and abstain from tobacco, alcohol and sex so their energy could be channeled into their music. The group once participated in the Boston Marathon.

Kodo was formed in 1981 to study, preserve and spread taiko music. It evolved from Ondekoza after Tagayasu left the group. In 1988, Kodo built their own village in Ogi, on the southern part of Sado, where their members still live to day in an environment regarded as close to nature and spirits. Outsiders can join the community but have apply for a “two-year apprenticeship," which requires total physical, mental and spiritual commitment.

Kodo consists of 12 to 14 members (including a couple of women). They spend about a third of their touring Japan, a third touring the world and third practicing and composing on Sado Island. Each year during the Earth Celebration they host musicians from all over the world. Kodo means "children of the world."

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Websites:Sado Tourism Association Visit Sado Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Wikitravel Wikitravel Map: Wikitravel Wikitravel Hotel Web Sites: JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Sado Tourism Association Visit Sado Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Sado Island is accessible by air and by regular ferry and hydrofoil from Niigata. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Ryotsu (Sado Island) is the main town and accommodation center of Sado Island. Sitting on the shores of Lake Kamo, it is reached from the sea by a narrow inlet and shadowed by the towering peaks of the Kimpoku Range.

Sights on Sado Island include the Sado Kinzan Gold Mine (closed in 1989 and now the home of a underground museum); Senkaku-wan Bay (with impressive rock formations); and a number of charming fishing towns. Perhaps the nicest thing to do is wander around the countryside.

The island is dominated by two parallel, but offset, mountain ranges. On the flat fertile land between the ranges small rice farms produce some of Japan's finest and most expensive rice. Yajima and Kyojima are a pair of small, rocky islets visited by tourists. Yajima (Arrow Island) is known fir its high-quality bamboo, used in the past for making arrows. Kyojima (Sutra Island) is associated with a legend about Nichiren, the founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. A lovely red, arch bridge connects the two islands.

Kanazawa

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old samurai district
Kanazawa (three hours from Osaka) is a feudal castle town where Noh theater, flower arranging and the tea ceremony---all important Japanese traditions---are still practiced. Located between the Asanogawa and Ishikawa Rivers, slightly inland from the Japan Sea, it was not bombed in World War II and has many well-preserved cultural and historical sights. The city used to be famous for its winter snows but these days there is less snow than there used to be.

Kanazawa is home to about 450,000 people and its history is associated with the Kaga clan and its ruling Maeda family. Friendly, with relaxed atmosphere, the city isn’t as cramped and frantic like Tokyo and Osaka. The roads and the sidewalks are wide. The traffic manageable.

Kanazawa is a good place to see Noh Theater. Performances are held fairly often at the Ishikawa Prefectural Noh Theater. Check the magazine Cosmos for performance times and other entertainment ideas. Crafts from Kanazawa and Ishikawa prefecture include kaga yuzen (silk dying), kutani-yaki (colorful ceramics), kaga makie (lacquerware with gold, silver and pearl overlay), wajima-nuri (lacquerware), yamanaka-shikki (lacquerware), kanazawa-butsudan (Buddhist altars), kagi-nui (embroidery), ushikubi-tsumugi (weaving) and kanazawa-haku (gold-leaf crafting).

Kanazawa is also a good jumping point for trips to the Noto Peninsula, Eihei-ji Temple in Fukui and places along the Japan Sea. In the countryside outside of Kanazawa dwellings are not organized into villages but rather family units with five or six buildings surrounded by a couple of acres of land.

Websites: Kanazawa Tourism site kanazawa-tourism.com City of Kanazawa site city.kanazawa.ishikawa.jp Kanazawa Tourism site kanazawa-tourism.com Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Web Sites: Kanazawa Tourism site kanazawa-tourism.com JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Kanazawa is accessible by air and by bus and by train to other Japanese cities. There is no shinkansen service to Kanazawa. Trains so south to Kyoto and Osaka and north to Toyama and Niigata. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

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Kenrokuen trees prepared for snow
Sights in Kanazawa: Kanazawa has about a day's worth of sights to check out. Traditional wooden houses can be seen in the Nagamachi District, with is wooden bukeyashiki samurai houses; the Higashi Geisha District, with its tea houses (the geishas are gone); and the Teramachi District and the Edo-mura Village open-air museum. The Momura house is a museum open to visitors. Also worth a look are the Kaga Yuzen kimono workshop, where visitors can see craftsmen hand paint kimonos, and the Kutani Kosen Gama Kiln.

Hyakumangoku-dori Avenue, or One Million Koku Avenue, is Kanazawa’s main street and center of the night life area. It is lined with department stores, banks and shops. In the back streets around it are numerous restaurants, bars and clubs. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art was designed by the Japanese architectural firm SANAA, a partnership of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa.

Omichi Ichiba Market is a highlight of a visit to Kanazawa. Among the specialties sold at the 160 food and fish shops are salted squid intestines, Kaga lotus root, and sweet potatoes that taste like chestnuts. In the winter many Japanese make a special trip to Kanazawa just to eat the snow crabs that are sold here. There are a number of good sushi and seafood restaurants in and around the market. But unfortunately most of the activity at the market in the morning which means the restaurant are closed for dinners. Time your visit for lunchtime or enjoy sushi for breakfast.

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Kenrokuen trees after a snow
Kenrokuen Garden (central Kanazawa) is regarded as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan, along with Kairakuen in Mito and Korakuen in Okayama. Created between 1676 and 1822 and opened to the public in 1871, it covers 11.4 hectares (28.2 acres) and boasts 11,700 tress and shrubs, including the Karasaki Pine, a famous 160-year-old tree that spreads out over an areas the size of a basketball court.

Kenrokuen means "combines six," a reference to famous Sung-Dynasty Chinese garden with six attributes: antiquity, spaciousness, seclusion, abundant water, artificially and broad views. Established by the Maeda family, powerful feudal lords in Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures, the garden was originally the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle and was expanded over the centuries to its present size.

The main points of interest are the Gourd Pond, with a 6.6-meter-high artificial waterfall and tea ceremony house and the famous Kotoju Toro arched stone lantern; 18 stone lanterns of various shapes and sizes; the Flying Geese Bridge, with 11 tortoise-shapes stones that represent geese; the Ishikawa Gate, one of the last remaining sections of Kanazawa Castle; and the Hase Plum Grove, located on a former riding ground. There is also a sacred well, a former samurai house and viewpoint of the city. The unique hilltop water system gets it water from a river located six miles away.

In the spring, summer and autumn the garden is often packed with visitors. During the winter many of the trees and shrubs are protected from heavy snowfall by straw jackets and huts. The Karasaki Pine receives five "umbrellas" formed by 800 ropes. One of the nice things about the garden is that opens very early, at 7:00am, allowing visitors a chance to take in the garden and catch morning transportation to another destination.

Near the garden is the Ishikawa Prefectural Fine Art Museum, the Seison-kaku Villa, the Nakamura Memorial Museum, the Nakamura Memorial Museum and the Honda Museum. If you want to visit a garden that beautiful but lacks the large crowed try the Gyokusen Garden.

Websites: Kanazawa Tourism site kanazawa-tourism.com ; Photos of Kenrokuen dsphotographic.com

Noto Peninsula

Noto Peninsula (northeast of Kanazawa) is famous for its bays, rock formations, terraced rice fields, fishing villages and rugged cliffs. The geographical isolation of the region means that people here still practice many strange folk customs. Home to only 350,000 people, it is a good place to explore by bicycle and on foot. In the summer flowers bloom all over.

The Noto Peninsula embraces 552 kilometers of coastline, The "Outer Coast" is characterized by its rugged landscapes and wild rock formations. The "Inner Coast" is made up primarily bays and inlets filled with tranquil water. The "Outer Coast" is the more beautiful of the two. The "Inner Coast" is over developed in some places with concrete hotels and concrete walls built near the water to control erosion.

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There are not so many tourist sites on the Noto Peninsula. The primary attraction is the countryside. Tsukumo Bay and Wakura Spa are the two main tourist attractions. Both are full of concrete hotels built during the Bubble Economy and neither is very picturesque. Some of the hot spring resorts on the Inner Coast are quite large, The interior is only lightly inhabited, with most people living in farm houses reached by narrow roads. At Rokkazoaki, the northernmost point on the peninsula, there is a lighthouse. The seas can be quite rough here. The road south along the coast offers some stunning views. At Semaida small rice fields cover hills overlooking the sea. The villages of Osawa and Kamiozawa, feature 4½-meter-high walls that shield the towns form the sea winds.

The most scenic parts of the Noto Peninsula include the Notokongo Coast, a 10-mile section of coastline between Fukura and Sekinohana know for its rock formations; Hegura-jima Island, with lots of birds and no traffic; Cape Rokozaki, with a lighthouse, rock formations and a coast hiking trail. Some people like to hike around Yasenodangai, a bluff on the west coast and nearby Gammon caves, with one cave that goes from a beach to the sea. Nearby is a 27-meter-high obelisk-shaped rock topped by pine trees. .The hiking trails are generally well marked and well maintained, There are lots of minshuku for ¥5,000 to ¥7,000 per person a night that includes a great seafood inner.

Noto suffered an earthquake in March 2007. Visitors to the area plunged afterwards. In an effort to get them back, cheap bus tickets---as low as $10 one-way from Osaka---were offered Websites: JNTO PDF file JNTO ; Wiki Travel Wikitravel ; Getting There: Lonely PlanetLonely Planet

Wajima (on the northern part of the Noto Peninsula) is noted for Wajima-nuri lacquerware, its morning and evening markets, and female divers who gather shellfish and agar-agar from nearby islands. There is only one train from Kanazawa to Wajima each day. You can take a direct bus to Wajima or a Hokutetsu sightseeing bus.

North of Wajima is an area where an awesome series of rice terraces climbs from the sea to the top of forested hills. At Senamaida there is a rest stop with a stunning view of bay with rice terraces. The rice terraces in Shiroyone in Wajima were lit up with 30,000 candles in 2008 and 2009 to commemorate the city’s recovery from Noto earthquake in 2007.

Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Eiheiji Temple and Fukui Prefecture

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Eiheiji Temple (13 miles from Fukui and two hours from Kanazawa) is one of the most visited and the most delightful and interesting temples in Japan. There are three reasons for this: 1) it has wonderful wooden architecture; 2) it is set in a beautiful location; and 3) perhaps best all, it is not a museum but a living and working Zen monastery with monks doing Zen rituals and running around doing various chores.

Eiheiji means “temple of eternal peace.” Spread over a hillside and shaded by cedar trees, it is one of two headquarters of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism and was established by Dogen (1200-1253), a priest who brought Zen to Japan from China. The temple is a massive complex of 70 or so buildings, most connected by covered corridors, and home to a large community of monks. On the lovely temple grounds are mossy gardens, cemeteries and walking paths set around a ravine with a river and waterfall.

The monks in training endure rigorous Zen training (zanzen ) in which they spend log periods of time in silent, seated meditation. They follow strict rules, developed in the 12th century by Dogen, that governs every aspect of their life: eating, sleeping, bathing, even the way they use the toilets. A typical day begins at 3:30am with morning zanzen and chores such as shoveling snow, washing and sweeping. Sutra chanting and reading are conducted in the morning, afternoon and evening. The Spartan meals consist of rice, thin soup and some vegetables. Lights are out at 9:00pm.

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The temple opens at 5:00am. The entrance area is a busy place with monks selling amulets and talking on phones. Before visitors are allowed to explore the rest of the temple, they have to first sit through a lecture in which they are told they are expected to act like people receiving religious training and informed of the temple rules, namely to keep quiet, always walk to the left, stay on the wooden corridors and not to photograph any of the monks. Websites: Japan Guide Japan-guide ; Wikitravel Wikitravel ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Photos Reggie.net

Buildings and Rooms of Eiheji Temple: The placement of the seven main buildings follows a pattern used in Chinese Zen temples in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The sodo (monk hall) is the most important building and one of three places where vows of silence are honored (the other two are the bath and the toilet). Here the monks in training do zen exercises, eat and sleep on a single 2-x-1-meter tatami mat. At the center of the hall is a statue of Monju Bosatsu, the bodhisattva of wisdom.

Butsuden (Buddha Hall), with a stone floor, Chinese-style double roof and statues of Buddhas of the past, present and future; the Hatto (Dharma Hall), where morning, midday and evening services are held; the Joyoden (Founder’s Hall), with the ashes of Dogen zenji and some of his disciples; the Daikuin (the Kitchen), where the simple, basic meals are prepared. Among the many treasures in the temple is a picture painted by Dogen.

There are rooms in the modern entrance building in which guests are allowed to stay. Visitors eat vegetarian meals and receive religious training and attend services as if they were monks in training. Visitors wishing to participate in the whole program can pay ¥3,000 a night for a minimum of three nights, There is also a special overnight program that costs ¥8000 a night.

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Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum (Fukui Prefecture) is housed in an egg-shaped building and houses many fossils and skeletons. It is one of the world’s largest dinosaur museums. Website: Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum site dinosaur.pref.fukui.jp

Tojinbo (18 miles northeast of Fukui) features impressive rock columns and sea side cliffs. Created from cooled lava and carved by wave action, rainwater and wind, the gray andesite columns stretch for about one kilometer and have been compared with the Devils’s Staircase in Northern Ireland. Some of the columns have a hexagonal shape. What is particularly interesting about them is that they slant at different angle in relationship to the sea.

The area is popular with tourists and suicide jumpers. About 30 people leap off the 80-foot-cliffs in hopes of killing themselves. Around two thirds are successful. The rocks are named after a monk who fell in love with a woman and was thrown off the cliffs by her jealous lover. The monk’s spirit is believed by some to be responsible for the rough weather and crashing waves that strike the region. Websites: JNTO article JNTO ; Wikipedia

Tottori, Amanohashidate and Mt. Daisen

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Tottori (4½ hours from Osaka) is an ugly town with 142,000 people. Located somewhat inland from the Sea of Japan coast, it has a number of hot springs. The main points of interest are the sand dunes, the Ibuki Botanical gardens, Ochidai Shrine and the ruins of Tottori Castle.

Websites: Tottori City Tourist Guide city.tottori.lg.jp Wikipedia Wikipedia Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Tottori is accessible by air, bus and train several Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Tottori Sand Dunes (near Tottori) extend along the Sea of Japan for 16 kilometers north of Tottori and extend inland for about two kilometers. The dunes are whipped up by winds into conical piles, crescent-shaped hollows and various other patterns. The highest dune is a bout 300 feet high. The dunes turn a spectacular crimson red at sunset.

The sand comes from the erosion of the Chunkoku Mountains and has been carried to the sea by the Sendai River, deposited on the beach by waves and the blown inland by winds. The dunes are currently shrinking and being transformed into grasslands. The main culprit of this have been the cementing of the banks of the Sendai Rover, which have reduced the amount of sand, an the plating of trees around the dunes for erosion control. Tobacco, yams, tulips and strawberries are cultivated on the dunes. At the center Hamasaka dune is Tanegaike Pond.

The sands are part of San?inkaigan National Park Websites: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; JNTO article JNTO ; Photos Reggie Net

Amanohashidate (near Tottori) contains a sandspit that is regarded as one of Japan's "Three Best Views" along with Miyajima Island near Hiroshima on the coast of Western Honshu and Matsushima Bay near Sendai in northern Honshu. Amonohashidate Means "Bridge to Heaven. It a 3½-kilometer-long, tree-covered sandspit with just enough of a channel to prevent Miyazu-wan Bay from becoming a lake. The view from a hillside in Kasamutsi-koe Park is said to be the best view. Websites: JNTO PDF file JNTO ; Amanohashidate Guide joho-kyoto.or.jp ; Wikitravel Wikitravel ; Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

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Daisen-Oki National Park is a 75,000-acre park which encompasses Mt. Daisen, Shimane Peninsula, the Oki Islands, Mt. Same and the Hiruzen Plateau. The park is known for its scenic beauty and its abundant plant life and birds. There are good camping and hiking areas and many old buildings associated with the sacred mountain religion.

Rising sharply from the sea, 1729-meter-high Mt. Daisen has two faces. When viewed from the west it has the conical shape of Mt. Fuji. When seen from the north or south is presents rugged, rocky crags. The densely wooded mountain becomes a skiing Mecca in the winter, when snow depths reach up to seven feet. Shimane-hanto Peninsula boasts some spectacular coastline with cliffs and a cave you can enter by boat.

The Oki Islands are a cluster of volcanic islands about 45 miles north of the Shimane Peninsula. Oki is where Emperor Gotoba and Emperor Godaigo were exiled during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). The islands consist of the large Dogo Island and three smaller Dozen islands. The Oki Kuniga, with 800-foot-high cliffs on the sea, on Nishino-shima Island are particularly awesome. Websites: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Biodic biodic.go.jp

Matsue, Omori and Izumo Taisha

Lake Shinji (eastern Shimane Prefecture) is the 7th largest lake in Japan. It is a popular place with birdwatchers. More than 200 species of bird have been spotted at the lake, including flocks with 40,000 wild geese and 30,000 tufted ducks. The water is slightly salty and is home to shijimi clams, which can only be collected for a three hour period on four mornings a week. The average dept of the lake is only 4.5 meters and the clams are collected with a device consisting of a pole, rake and baskets that are dragged along the lake bottom to scoop up clams. The island in Lake Shinji is called Bride Island after a young bride who fled across the lake when it was frozen in the winter to escape from her wicked mother in law. The ice melted as she was fleeing and the bride drowned---and was turned into an island by a goddess that took pity on her. Website: JNTO article JNTO

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Matsue castle
Matsue is known as the "City of Water," because it located on a piece of land where Nakaumi Lagoon, Lake Shinji and the Tenjin River. Famous for its spectacular sunsets, Matsue has an extensive system of moats and canals that radiate out from the 17th century Castle. Home to about 145,000 people, Matsue has come to attention of Westerners through the works of Lafcadio Hearn who wrote about the town in his essay In a Japanese Garden, inspired by the garden of his house in Matsue. Boat trips are offered around Matsue castle. Gesshoji temple to the west of the castle features a gigantic stone turtle. Above the five-meter-long, 23-ton statue is a 3.5-meter-high, 11.5-ton stone monument.

Matsue Castle is made from wood and features a five-level donjon (reconstructed in 1642). It sits on a hill and is surrounded by walls that support a series of terraced gardens. On one side is a wooded park. In the castle’s museum are samurai helmets, old kimonos, historical murals and architectural models. From the open platform on the top floor there are nice views of Lake Shinji and Mt. Daisen and other distant mountains. Construction of the castle was delayed by various problems linked to the discovery of spear-pierced skull that continued until the skull was given a proper burial.

According to legend, when the castle was being constructed nearly 400 years ago, a Bon Odori Festival was held at Ninomaru square at the castle on a summer evening when the main tower was near completion. A young woman named Otsuru went missing that evening, and rumors spread that she had been made a human sacrifice for the sake of building the castle. During the following year's Bon Festival, the main castle is said to have started shaking on its own to the rhythm of a taiko drum. People began saying that the shaking of the castle was due to Otsuru twisting and turning out of her desire to dance. Since then, the clan leader banned Bon Festivals within its domain.Bon Odori are still not held around the castle--no one dares, because it is frightening.

The house where Hearns lived for 15 months can be visited by tourists. It has a lovely garden and tea house. Next door is a museum with a collection of his manuscripts and other memorabilia. Hearns’ house is located in an old samurai neighborhood. The house is very Japanese, with tatami mat floors and sliding shoji screens and a famous garden that was the subject of one of his most famous essays. In the museum are his collection of pipes, a conch shell he reportedly used to call his servant to relight his pipe and cages he used to keep birds and insects. Hearns’ image is found throughout the city. Souvenir shops sell a brand of tea with his mustached face on the boxes.

Other attractions in Matsue include the Shimane Art Museum, regarded as one of the best places in Japan to watch the sun set; the Kanden-an Teahouse, one of the finest of its kind in Japan; Gesshoji, famous for its turtle statue, which people touch for good luck, and 30,000 hydrangea, which bloom in early July. There are also some temples, shrines and samurai houses. In Jozan Inari Shrine in a wooded area not far from Matsue castle are thousands of images of foxes, messengers of the gods, some of the them worn down by weather and partly covered in moss.

The Sudaji tree at Shitabi Shrine in Yakumocho, Matsue is one of the nation's largest chinquapin trees. The 18-meter-tall tree features nine thick spreading branches. The branches spread for about 20 meters from east to west and about 33 meters from north to south. The trunk is 11. 4 meters in circumference at the base. It is believed that Kojin, a guardian deity of the locals, lives inside the tree.

The Mystery Ghost Tour, is organized by the nonprofit organization Matsue Tourism Kenkyukai, visits various locations by bus in the eastern part of Shimane Prefecture where people can experience the feeling of awe before nature or at sites where mysterious legends are passed down and animate the surroundings.

Websites:Matsue City site city.matsue.shimane.jp Wikitravel Wikitravel Map: Matsue City site city.matsue.shimane.jp Hotel Web Sites: Matsue City site city.matsue.shimane.jp JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) ">Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Matseu is accessible by air and by bus and by train from other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Izumo Taisha (20 miles west of Matsue) is the second most important Shinto shrine after the one in Ise and is regarded as the oldest shrine in Japan even though none of its original buildings remain. Situated along the Sea of Japan at the foot of Yakumo Hill outside the town of Izumo, it is associated with Okuninushi-no-Mikoto, the God of Marriage, who is also credited with bringing art, medicine, and agriculture to the world. Many visitors pray for progress in their love life. The shrine is said to be the gathering place for 8 million kami who are believed to show up in October.

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Established in A.D. 659 during the reign of Emperor Saimei and built mostly after 1874, Izumo-taishi shrine is approached through on an avenue of magnificent pine trees and is located on place important in the mythology of the birth of the Japanese islands. Despite sometimes being swamped with tourist, the shrine is amazing quiet and features "borrowed view" gardens, wooded grounds, graveled spaces,11 gates, walls, entry roads, moats, and courtyards between the outer torii gate, and Izumos Taisha's innermost shrine.

The main buildings have been periodically torn down and rebuilt like the shrines in Ise. The main shrine was rebuilt 25 times. The current structure was completed in 1744 and is the largest shrine building in Japan. Dignified and imposing, it is 24 meters high and built in accordance with some of the earliest known forms of Japanese architecture. The building can not be entered..

The Hall of Worship is identified by it large twisted-straw ropes. The treasury contains many interesting antiquities and valuable articles of ancient Japanese art. The pair of long rectangular buildings on the east and west side of the precincts provide housing for 8 million kami (Shinto gods) when they come to visit the shrine in October to arrange marriages. People who come to pray do so in different way than the traditional method: they bow twice and then clap four times---rather than two---and bow again as they are supposed to clap for themselves and their partner before the god of marriage.In April 2008, the main hall was opened tp the public for the first time in 59 years. Websites: Wikipedia Wikipedia ; JNTO article JNTO ; Japan Guide japan-guide ; Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

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Omori (west of Matsue on the Sea of Japan) is a small town with 500 people built around a group of silver mines that produced silver for more than 500 year after the metal was discovered in the area in 1309. The mines were at the peak of the production in the 16th and 17th century when 200,000 people lived in the town and 38 tons of silver, most of Japan’s supply, was produced. At that time Japan produced one third of the world’s silver and was known in Spain as “Silver Island.” In 1552 Francis Xavier visited the mine.

The silver was of high quality and much of it was exported. The men who worked in mines died young and the tombs on the cemeteries bear witness to that. The quality of the silver began to decline around 1630 and the last mine was officially closed in 1943.

People can visit the Iwami-Ginzan Silver mines, which were in operation from 1526 to 1923 and used to embrace about 600 mining tunnels. A museum and an underground mining tunnel in the Ryungenji drifts is open to the public. The main tunnel here was about 600 meters long in the Edo period. Its height varies between 0.9 and 2.1 meters. Chisel marks are still visible on the walls. The abandoned mine shafts and the surrounding 442- hectare area in Oda were picked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site n 2007

Omari features charming narrow streets, lots of old wooden houses, cave-like Buddhist temples set into hillsides and traditional samurai houses decorated with flowers. The only way to get to the town is by car. An effort is being made to preserve the town, maintain the character of its traditional neighborhoods and prevent it from being over run with vehicles. UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website

Hagi

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Hagi (2½ hours from Hiroshima) is a Japanese feudal town with about 46,000 people on the southwest corner of Honshu. Sometimes described as the Japanese equivalent of colonial Williamsburg, it has many historical building and a reconstructed samurai quarter. Hagi played a major role on the modernization of Japan and the demise of the samurai but itself was skipped over by modernization and has changed so little over the past two centuries that maps from the Edo period can still be used.

Hagi Castle was built in the early 1600s by the Mori clan, who were a powerful family in the Edo Period and had a large number of samurai under them. Hagi is associated with many figures in the Meiji Restoration. It is the birthplace of Yoshida Shoin, the man who set in motion the rebellion that led to the Meiji Restoration and the opening of Japan after 300 years of isolation. Shion was executed before his vision could be realized but his followers---including Ito Hirobumi--- took over Hagi and used it as base for military operations that brought down Japan's last shogun. Later local samurai rebelled against the Meiji government and were defeated and took up growing grapefruit-like oranges to survive.

The main train station is located outside the center of the town, which has helped the old town retain its charm. Many visitors explore the town and its environs by bicycle. The city has changed so little in part because it is surrounded by high mountains and is difficult to get to.

Websites: JNTO article JNTO Japan Guide Japan-Guide Wikitravel Wikitravel Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Web Sites: Wikitravel Wikitravel JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Hagi is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Hiroshima, Matsue, Shimonoseki, Tokyo and Osaka and other Japanese cities. It is not on the main shinkansen routes. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

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Sights in Hagi: The samurai quarter of Jokaamchi is the most scenic part of the town. More old building can be found in Horiuchi. In Termachi there are some interesting temples. Among the narrow ziz-zaging streets these quarters are a folk museum, art museum, kilns that produce distinctive white-and-amber Hagi-yaki ceramics and a number of merchant houses and samurai houses that are open to the public. Particularly attractive are the old wooden, thatched-roof houses set behind whitewashed walls with majestic gates..

The Toko-ji Temple contains the tombs of odd-numbered lords. The Daisho-in Temple contains the tombs of even numbered ones. These temples feature hundreds of stone monuments and pathways lined by 6-foot-high granite lanterns, and a terrace with 15-foot-high stone daimyo memorial where the bodies were cremated.

Hagi's castle, which was backed by a mountain and sided on three sided by two rivers and the sea, was dismantled in 1874. High level samurai used to live in the area inside the moat and low-ranked samurai and commoners lived in the area outside the moat. The castle area is now a park with a shrine, teahouse and hill with pleasant view of the town. The hut-like school where the followers of Yoshida Shoin studied is a major attraction.

Hagi Area

Chomonkyo Gorge consists of steeps cliffs, fantastically-shaped rocks, cascades and deep pools. The scenery is exceptionally spectacular in the fall.

Akiyoshidai-Quasi National Park (between Hagi and Yamaguchi) is centered around the Akiyoshi Plateau, Japan's largest tableland. The Karst scenery in the park includes unusual limestone pillar-like rock formations, hollows shaped like pots and many limestone grottos, of which Akiyoshi Cave is the most interesting.

The plateau covers 130 square kilometers and contains more than 450 caves. The limestone comes form coral reefs created around 350 million years ago and uplifted beginning around 12 millions years ago. Akiyoshi Cave is one of the largest cavern in Asia. Created over a 30,000 year period, it is 100 meters deep and about 10 kilometers miles long and follows a river. Visitor enter through a 24-meter-high, eight-meter-wide opening, explore a 30-meter-high, 50-meter-wide space, walk for about a kilometer in the cave, explore a 50-meter-wide room, and take an elevator to surface.

The temperature inside opening of the cave is 17̊C in both the winter and the summer with temperatures getting warner as one does deeper onto the cave. Among the 26 designated points of interest are Donai Fuji, a huge column created from stalactite and stalagmites that are joined together and resemble Mt. Fuji, and the Golden Column, which is 15 meters high and four meters around. Wildlife including 15,000 bats from six different species and several cave-dwelling creatures with weak eyes. Websites: JNTO article JNTO ; Ayikoshidai Karst Pleateay yaccyann.cool.ne.jp ; Getting There: Lonely PlanetLonely Planet

Tsuwano (25 miles east if Hagi) is a pleasant mountain town with a ruined castle and carp-filled ponds. The town can be reached by a steam locomotive and is regarded as a wonderful place to explore by bicycle. Websites: JNTO PDF file JNTO ; JNTO article JNTO ; Wikitravel Wikitravel ; Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Image Sources: 1) Japanese Guest Houses 2) 3) Sado Island site 4) 5) 6) Kanzawa City 7) NASA 8), 9) reggie.net 10) Fukui Dinosaur Museum 11) 14) 16) Wikipedia 12) Japan National Parks, 13) 15) Matsue City 17) Wikitravel

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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