In association with Shimane Prefectural Government
Located on the western edge of Honshu, Shimane prefecture is perhaps best known for hosting Izumo Taisha, the grand shrine where Japan's millions of kami (gods or spirits) are said to gather every year in mid-autumn. Although not really known as a hot tourist destination – yet, that is – the region is home to far more than just this divine conference centre.
In addition to many historic sights, including the medieval Matsue Castle, the prefecture boasts excellent eats in the form of Shimane wagyu and Izumo soba, superb sake, and a rich cultural heritage. Read on for our guide to the prefecture's best sights, restaurants, shops, bars and hot springs, including Tamatsukuri Onsen, famed for its skin-beautifying powers, and the World Heritage-listed Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine.
The best things to do in Shimane
Shimane is home to many pottery kilns, but Yumachi-Kama, founded in 1922, is especially noteworthy. Adhering to the Fujina-yaki style that goes back to the Edo era, their distinctive designs reflect the teachings of English pottery artist Bernard Leach, who visited the kiln during his travels in Japan. Yumachi-Kama. 965-1 Tamayucho-Yumachi, Matsue-shi. 0852 62 0726.
Unlike your average Japanese beef, which is usually heavily marbled, Shimane wagyu is distinguished by its moderate fat content and rich flavours. Savour it to your heart's content at this steakhouse, where a new batch of Oki beef, a rare variety of kuroge wagyu (black-haired beef), is delivered once every month. Steak House Sawa
An extensive Japanese garden built around a pond, Yuushien sees different peonies bloom throughout the year, making for a seasonally changing colour palette. Don't miss the garden shop, which sells locally grown ginseng root – a regional speciality. Yuushien
Extending through the cities of Izumo and Matsue, this lake is on Japan's list of '100 great landscapes'. The special beauty of its sunset is said to have been adored by literary greats such as 19th-century author Lafcadio Hearn. See the spectacle from the stretch of lake shore between Shirakata Park and National Route 9. Lake Shinji
In addition to stocking import stationery and outdoor equipment, this variety store operates a bicycle rental service that lets you explore Matsue from the back of a Tokyobike – they've got a local monopoly on bikes from the popular Tokyo brand. Lifestyle Store Racherche
Run by the Minamikan, a famous hotel visited by royals and celebrities, this restaurant boasts a beautiful lakeside garden and attracts steady custom with its taimeshi – a bowl of rice combined with toppings like minced sea bream and eaten with dashi broth. It's an undisputed local classic. Teien Saryo Minami
Wild eel from Lake Shinji is a local speciality, and this long-standing restaurant, established in 1947, does it better than anywhere else. Order the kasane nidan, in which thick, fluffy slices of grilled eel are hidden underneath a layer of rice. The restaurant is very popular, so prepare for queues. Ohakaya. 304 Nishihama-Sadacho, Matsue-shi. 0852 36 8652.
An entrancingly beautiful area seemingly frozen in time, Mihonoseki sits on the east end of the Shimane peninsula, a 50-minute drive from central Matsue. See Miho Shrine, the atmospheric Aoishidatami-dori, Mihonoseki Lighthouse and the Five Pine Trees of Seki, where more than 5,000 azaleas bloom in spring. Mihonoseki
Choose from ceramics and folk crafts created by 26 artists based in western and southern Japan – from Shimane to Okinawa – at the fittingly named Objects, where just comparing the various designs and textures on offer is fascinating. A superb source of elegant souvenirs. Objects
Izumo soba may be Shimane's most famous noodle dish, but the bowl to go for here is the Kamo Nanban, served in duck broth and topped with ample amounts of roast duck. Once a samurai estate, the traditional restaurant building has its own Japanese garden, which can be admired through the windows. Note that they close as soon as the day's stock runs out. Yakumoan
The medieval Matsue Castle, designated a national treasure of Japan, is also famed for its cherry trees that bloom brilliantly in spring. To see them at their best, take a ride around the moat in the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat, which offers tremendous views of both the 400-year-old structure itself and the natural beauty around it. Matsue Castle
A local favourite in the San'in region, Hattori Coffee is the closest thing you get to a real Showa-era kissaten (traditional Japanese coffeeshop). Each one of their cafés looks different, thanks to imported interior furnishings that veer toward the kitschy. Hattori Coffee Kobo
Those fond of fortune telling will want to pay a visit to Yaegaki Shrine and its 'Mirror Pond', known for its matchmaking powers. Float a piece of paper on the pond and see if it sinks near you (you'll marry someone from your neighbourhood) or far away (you'll marry someone from far away, natch). Yaegaki Shrine
End your day at Tamatsukuri Onsen with a serving of fresh marine treats from the Sea of Japan. Found down a back street near the hot spring quarter, this spot does a massive kaisendon (seafood over rice) and superb sea bass and snow crab sashimi. Bonus points for the local sake and low prices. Wakatakezushi. 83-6 Tamayucho-Tamatsukuri, Matsue-shi. 0852 62 0831.
If you absolutely must immerse yourself in music until dawn in Matsue, don't miss this place. They mainly hold DJ events on Saturday night, with a focus on genres like techno and house. The wall by the stairs is covered with art by Haqq, an original member of the pioneering Detroit techno group UR. Naked Space
Making cosmetics with water from the Tamatsukuri hot spring nearby, this shop sells a range of products said to moisturise and firm up your skin. Try the standard face soap or go for a moisturising gel, some lotion or a facial pack. Tamatsukuri Beauty Laboratory Hime Labo
Designed by the famous architect Kiyonori Kikutake, this museum offers superb sunset views of the adjoining Lake Shinji from its ground floor. After taking a few photos, check out the collection of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings by the likes of Ito Jakuchu and Ryusei Kishida. Shimane Art Museum
This venue has closed permanently.
Passionate jazz fans will want to make the trip to this slightly out-of-the-way bar, which boasts excellent acoustics, a droolinducing record collection and a truly dedicated owner. We knew there was a reason for Matsue and New Orleans being sister cities. Tsunenoya
Mention Shimane sake and most connoisseurs would immediately bring up Rihaku. Now a nationwide favourite, it’s been brewed here since 1882 and is distinguished for its simple but unforgettable aftertaste. Consider also trying the Nomeru Hon-Mirin, a drinkable version of the sweet condiment used in Japanese cuisine. Rihaku Sake Brewery
A sweet soup said to have originated in Izumo, zenzai is best savoured at this local specialist. Their classic Izumo Zenzai consists of a clear broth with shiratama rice dumplings and large red beans and has just the right amount of subtle sweetness. Japanese Red Bean Soup Institute Main Branch
For eats and curiosa unique to Izumo, there's no better place than this narrow alley. Shop for Izumo Taisha originals like zenzai mochi rice cakes, sea bass sushi, soba and accessories, or grab a snack at the Enmusubi shop, which sells musubi rice balls topped with Shimane wagyu beef. Goen Yokocho
At Izumo Taisha, even the Starbucks is a little different: this café near the grand shrine is distinguished by its tile roof, wooden lattice windows and views of the shrine's torii gate. We also love the attention to detail: tables here are shaped like ancient magatama beads. Starbucks Coffee Izumo Taisha
When Japan's gods assemble at Izumo Taisha for their annual meeting, this beach is where they first arrive. A ceremony to mark the occasion is held here every year during the cold season, when the Sea of Japan often rages; luckily, summer sees the sands assume a far more gentle appearance. Inasa-no-hama Beach. Inasa, Taishacho-Kizukikita, Izumo-shi.
Built in 1903 on the western tip of the Shimane peninsula, the 43.65m Izumo Hinomisaki is Japan's tallest lighthouse. Pay ¥200 for the right to take the spiral staircase up to the observation deck, and stop to shop for local eats along the path to the parking lot. Izumo Hinomisaki Lighthouse. 1478 Taishacho-Hinomisaki, Izumo-shi. 0853 54 5341.
For a lunchtime serving of Izumo soba, stretch your legs and head to Heiwa Sobahonten, a local favourite. Don't miss out on the sanshoku warigo soba, served in three 'tiers': the first with grated daikon radish, the second with grated yam, and the final one with bits of tempura. Heiwa Sobahonten
The best things to do in Shimane
Japan is said to be home to myriad of kami (gods or spirits), and Izumo Taisha is where they all get together once every year. The magnificent Kamiari Sai ('Festival of the gods'), held in the tenth month of the lunar calendar, is always thronging with visitors, who come from all over Japan to seek divine favour. Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine
A five-minute drive east from Izumo Taisha will take you to this vast winery that has its own shop and restaurant. Pick up a bottle to take home or just go wild at the tasting table – eight varieties are available in unlimited amounts. You can also combine sipping and dining at the restaurant, which offers Shimane wagyu barbecue and more. Shimane Winery
Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine is the first mine in Asia to be named a World Heritage site, thanks to the beauty of its mine tunnels, harbour environs and hot springs that were once frequented by the workers. Take a walk through the mine town of Omoricho and admire the red-tiled, earthen dwellings lining the streets. Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine
Designed by architect Hiroshi Naito, Grand Toit is a cultural hub for art exhibitions, concerts and theatre performances. The walls and roof are comprised of 280,000 Sekishu roof tiles, colouring the Iwami landscape with their traditional red. In recent years, these tiles have been recognised for their robustness and resilience to snow and rain. Grand Toit
Run by the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine Lifestyle and Culture Research Institute, which also operates a traditional inn nearby, shop, café and gallery Gungendo deals in clothing and other textiles made from Japanese materials. All items exude quality, attention to detail and the joy of refined living. Gungendo
Kagura, Japan’s oldest form of performing art, is a song and dance routine that can be seen at shrine festivals and other events. This dance has continued to be performed in Iwami on the eve of autumn festivals to pray for a good harvest and a bountiful catch of fish. Iwami Kagura
Kagurameshi, an Iwami speciality, collectively refers to rice-based dishes like the Ebisudon topped with seafood, the Orochidon with beef, and the Daikokumeshi, a dish combining various local delicacies. Head to Tagosaku to try the Kaisendon, consisting of superb seafood over rice. Tagosaku
The soft and silky water of Asahi Onsen, known as the 'bath of beauties', has garnered a cult following. Kakure no Sato Yukari is one inn that lets you experience the springs with its outdoor baths, low-temperature steam saunas, jet tubs, foaming tubs and more, including guest rooms boasting their own outdoor tubs. Kakure no Sato Yukari
Pulled by a steam locomotive, this sightseeing train runs between Shin-Yamaguchi and Tsuwano stations from March to November. There are five different styles of old-fashioned, beautifully decorated passenger cars to choose from for your two-hour trip. Note that the train runs only on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. SL Yamaguchi
For all things rice, you can't go wrong at this venerable specialist shop that also carries cute gift packages. Check out the colourful carp swimming around in the pond behind the store, and ask the young couple behind the counter for local sightseeing tips. Yoshinaga Rice Shop
Constructed in 1295, Tsuwano Castle may have been reduced to a few stone walls and ditches but still offers superb views of the eponymous town beneath it. You can ride a ropeway up to the ruins from the path in front of Taikodani Inari Shrine – the trip takes five minutes, after which it’s a 20-minute walk to your destination. Ruins of Tsuwano Castle. Ushiroda, Tsuwano-machi. Kanoashi-gun.
Look up at the mountain from Tsuwano and you'll spot a long line of red gates: these 1,000 torii lead all the way to one of Japan's most important shrines dedicated to the god Inari. While there, don't forget to pick up a pack of deep-fried tofu, usually offered to the foxes worshipped at the shrine. Taikodani Inari Shrine
For quality booze, an international selection of beer, and music from the ’70s and ’80s, there's no beating this café that stays open until midnight and also serves tasty hot sandwiches and curry. Café Konomi 2
On clear nights, this mountaintop observatory offers breathtaking views of the starry sky. Stargazing hours are 7pm-10pm, but make sure to check that they're open before heading over. There's a bed and breakfast right next to the observatory, which is best accessed by car from Nichihara Station. Nichihara Observatory
Known for its fiercely cold winters, delicious rice and clear water, the Tsuwano area is ideal for sake brewing. Head to the Furuhashi brewery for free samples of their signature Uijin brand, and look out for the gigs and parties that occasionally take place here. Furuhashi Sake Brewery
An old-fashioned restaurant housed in a building resembling a traditional Japanese teahouse, Minoya serves both savoury dishes like udon noodles and tasty sweets that go nicely with their homemade prune and plum juices. Servings are moderate, so it's better for a quick dessert break than a full-fledged meal. Minoya
This mountain chapel was built on the site of a prison where, in the late 19th century, 153 Christians brought over from Nagasaki were subjected to torture, with 37 of them dying as martyrs. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to one of the believers to speak words of comfort. Otometoge St Mary's Church
Standing stoically on Mount Daimanji, the highest peak on the Dogo islands, the Iwakura Chichisugi cedar tree is a natural monument said to be around 800 years old. 30m tall and 11m thick, it diverges into 15 main branches from which others grow outwards in a curious shape. Getting to it can be a challenge, but don't let that deter you: the cool, clean air and majestic views are worth the trouble. Iwakura Chichisugi Cedar Tree
Enshrining 12th-century emperor Gotoba, this shrine in the town of Ama is part of the Night Oki Shrine Course, an after-dark walking tour that lets you visit local shrines together with a Shinto priest and receive your own special amulet at the end. Bookings are required, but worth it: the shrines feel far more spiritual at night. Oki Shrine
For superb views of the Kuniga coastline, take a light trek from the Matengai cliffs, which rise 257m above sea level, to Tsutenkyo Bridge. Surrounded by idyllic vistas of grazing cows and horses – all of which are being raised for their meat, mind you – you might think you've stumbled upon an Alpine landscape. Kuniga Coast
A strangely shaped, 20m tall rock near Dogo Island, this one gets its name from the spectacle that can be seen at sunset, when rays hit the top of the rock and light it up like an enormous candle. Take the Candle Island Pleasure Cruise (available April to October) to see it up close. Candle Island
Almost better known for its spellbinding garden – ranked as the best in Japan – than for its still-impressive collection of modern Japanese paintings, the Adachi Museum of Art has a particularly notable array of works by 'Nihonga' master Taikan Yokoyama, plus ceramics by the likes of Rosanjin Kitaoji and Kanjiro Kawai. Adachi Museum of Art
The picturesque 'Geopark' on Nishinoshima is where to try your hand at open-water kayaking. Feel like an adventurer on the Club Noah course, which lets you explore the caves of Oki, the Takimi Grotto and Tsutenkyo Bridge, and admire the glass-like azure waters. If you have trouble with balance, try riding together with a friend or family member. Sea kayaking experience
The Oki Islands Unesco Global Geopark consists of four islands in the Japan Sea: the three isles of the Dozen district plus Dogo in the Dogo district. All four have been inhabited since prehistoric times and are home to striking landscapes, unusual ecosystems and unique customs. Oki Islands UNESCO Global Geopark
Home to the only three-storied pagoda in the San'in region, Kiyomizu-dera is said to date back to the year 587 and is famed for its power to exorcise 'evil spirits'. The ryokan inn on the temple grounds serves vegetarian shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine). Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Top travel tips
Connecting Izumo and Matsue, the retro Ichibata Electric Railway runs along the coast of Lake Shinji and offers supremely photogenic vistas. Other snap-worthy spots are Eshima Ohashi Bridge between Matsue and Sakaiminato, and the town of Tsuwano, sometimes referred to as ‘little Kyoto’, where colourful carp swim in the moat along central Tonomachi-dori.
Said to rejuvenate bathers after one soak and cure their illnesses after another dip, the Tamatsukuri hot spring is also famed for its beautifying effects. If you’re staying at one of the participating hot spring inns, buy a Himegamisamano-Yumeguri Ticket (¥1,000, valid between 3pm and 10pm) and tour all eight onsen in the area. And if you’d like to bring some of the magic liquid back home, pick up a ¥200 bottle at Yuyakushi Square and fill it with hot spring water straight from the source.
The Ichibata bus company offers ¥500 tickets to non-Japanese travellers (flash your passport) on the Hiroshima-Matsue route, while JR’s Japan Rail Pass is valid on the Hiroshima-Izumo and Hiroshima-Hamada routes. Finally, the Enmusubi Perfect Ticket, which allows for three days of unlimited rides on trains (except for JR lines) and buses in the region, is available to foreign travellers for ¥1,000 (regular price ¥3,000, sold from May 2017).