Hidden Gems: Izumo Cultural Heritage Museum

I’ve passed by the Izumo Cultural Heritage Museum (Izumo Bunkadenshokan) so many times on my way to other places, that you’d think I would have visited it earlier. Sadly, my assumptions that it was just another historical house convinced me to keep putting it off. Luckily, though, my curiosity motivated me to finally visit, and I’m so glad I did! Access to the grounds and gardens inside the museum is free, and it’s the perfect place to just take a quiet walk.

The Cultural Heritage Museum itself is made up of a historical house previously owned by one of the wealthiest families in Izumo, a modern tea house, a historical tea house, a soba restaurant, and a modern exhibition hall. Special exhibits come and go from the modern hall, showing things like art by classic Japanese painters, or works of textiles, which was the exhibit on display when I went.

The first building you encounter is the Izumo Yashiki, the historical house. This used to be the main building of a larger estate built in 1896, and it’s a designated cultural treasure of Izumo City.

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Inside the house, there are several tatami mat rooms (make sure to take off your shoes before you walk through them!) that look out onto one of the museum’s gardens. This is a karesansui garden, it’s made up of beds of rocks and carefully placed stepping stones and is bordered by pine trees. You can’t actually walk through this garden for the same reason you can’t touch a painting. Take some time to observe it, though. This garden is meticulously cared for, and it’s view changes with the four seasons.

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There is another garden on the grounds that you actually can walk through. This is just past the modern tea house through a small gate, and it surrounds the historical tea house.

This historical tea house, known as Dokurakuan, was built by Sen no Rikyu, one of the most famous Japanese tea ceremony practitioners of all time. It was preserved thanks to the seventh feudal lord of Matsue castle (sometimes referred to as Fumai), who was also an avid tea ceremony practitioner.

The idea behind tea house gardens is to create the illusion of being far away from your busy life and troubles. Walking along the stepping stones of this garden, you definitely feel like you’re someplace far away.

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If you’re interested in photography, even as an amateur, this is the place for you. There are so many little details to discover, and in the early summer, dragonflies and butterflies might pay you a visit.

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If a walk through Dokurakuan’s garden makes you crave some tea, look no further than the museum’s modern tea house. Here, you can enjoy some matcha and traditional sweets in a room decorated based on the seasons.

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This was one of my favorite places in the museum, and it wasn’t just because I love tea and sweets. Looking back, architecture is something I’ve never thought much about, but looking around this tearoom really started me thinking on what details can add to a space. The hostess working in the tearoom the day I visited pointed out some of the smaller design details to me before I had my tea. Just above some sliding glass doors, there was a band of wooden panels that I hadn’t really paid much attention to. My hostess, though, slid the panels open to reveal tiny gourd-shaped decorative windows! She told me that this was a shape that Fumai liked, and it was supposed to be lucky. Some other wood cutouts I noticed in the tearoom were in the shape of drifting clouds, which reminded me of Izumo’s namesake; eight clouds drifting by, forming an eight fold fence for one to retire behind.

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If you buy a ticket to the special exhibit, you can get a ticket for having tea and sweets at the modern tea house for half price.

Another one of my favorite features of the Cultural Heritage Museum was something next to the parking lot that I never expected to find; a water fountain shaped like an eight-headed serpent.

According to Japanese folklore, a giant eight-headed and eight-tailed serpent called Yamata no Orochi used to come to the Izumo area every year to devour one of the daughters of two minor deities. Eventually, only one of their daughters remained, Princess Inada. It was at this time that Susano’o, one of the major deities in Japanese mythology appeared. Susano’o offered to kill Yamata no Orochi if he could have Princess Inada’s hand in marriage. Princess Inada’s parents agreed to this. Then, Susano’o killed Yamata no Orochi by tricking the serpent into drinking eight pots of strong sake, and cutting off each of the eight heads when the serpent fell asleep.

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You can see images of Yamata no Orochi just about anywhere in Izumo; on manhole covers, in paintings in restaurants, and even on the sides of buildings. This fountain outside the Cultural Heritage Museum dispenses spring water from a nearby mountain. When I visited the museum, several people came by and filled empty jugs with the water. One of the people stopping by told me that this water is good for making coffee and tea because it’s so fresh and clean. If you don’t happen to have anything to take some water home in, you can also just drink from the fountain.

The last fun thing I found around the museum was a seasonal wonder, hydrangeas! June is the time of year when hydrangeas are at their peak bloom. People will visit parks and gardens all over Japan just to get good views of the flowers. Just across the street from the Cultural Heritage Museum, there’s a small park with rows and rows of hydrangeas. Before I left, I had to stop and take some pictures of them.

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The Cultural Heritage Museum makes for a nice, quiet afternoon, and it showcases some of what makes Izumo so special through its history, folklore, and food (I didn’t get a chance to stop by the museum’s soba restaurant this time around, but I’ve heard it’s really good!). It’s one of those things you can easily miss amid sights like Izumo Taisha or Hinomisaki Lighthouse, but it’s definitely worth a visit! It’s especially nice to know that even after living in Shimane for so long, I can still discover new places like this.

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Climbing Mt. Daisen: A Beginner’s Experience

Before I climbed Mt. Daisen, I had never climbed a literal mountain in my life. Still, the friend who invited me climbing told me that she regularly guides elementary-school-aged kids up and down the mountain, so I figured climbing Daisen was something I could probably pull off.

As it turned out, the actual experience of climbing a mountain was something I never could have accurately imagined on my own. By the time I made it back down the mountain, I felt like an exhausted wooden doll and my legs were sore for about three days afterwards. Oh, was it worth it, though!

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Looking back down about 100 meters from the sumit

If you climb a lot of stairs in your daily life, you’ll probably be well prepared to climb Daisen. The trail we took was made of steps that just kept going up. In some places, the steps were so steep that I barely had to bend over to use my hands to help me up.  Despite how hard the climb was, I was ecstatic to be climbing Daisen because the natural beauty on that mountain is otherworldly.

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A small section of man-made steps

The trail head my friends and I took leads you straight through Daisen’s old growth forests. Fun fact about these: since climbing was forbidden on Mt. Daisen until recent times, the trees covering the slopes have just been allowed to grow and grow and now they’re the oldest growth beech forest in Japan. As you climb, you’ll get some indications as to how much the trees in this forest are valued. There are multiple sections on the trail where a tree just sits right in the middle of it, and climbers have to go around. I also noticed that someone had built a cairn in the nook of one particular tree. I pointed it out to one of my friends and she said it’s probably because a tree that old most likely had a god inside of it.

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Daisen beech forest

Because I wasn’t accustomed to a climb this steep, I had to take a lot of breaks. I was really glad for the frequent breaks, though, because they gave me an excuse to stop and look around at everything. I’m not exaggerating when I say that each view on Daisen is better than the last. I would stop somewhere, look up and around at the trees, and think about how beautiful this particular view was. Then I would climb just a little bit higher, and I could see through the trees and look down on how far I’d climbed and that view was even more beautiful!

On this particular trail, there are ten different signposts to pass before you get to the summit. The forest continues until around the seventh or eighth signpost. The trees obstruct your view for a while, but they also keep you shaded for the most difficult parts of the climb. The higher you go, the more of your surroundings you’ll be able to see.

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The last couple hundred meters of the trail look completely different from where you started. Because the wind near the summit can be really strong, the vegetation is much shorter than everything near the foot of the mountain. The last hundred meters or so were my favorite part of the trail. At this point, you leave the steep steps you’ve been climbing and move onto a wooden boardwalk. Cool wind blows and refreshes you from the climb so far. If you look behind you, you can see Tottori Prefecture, and a little bit of Shimane Prefecture stretching out below you. Best of all, since multiple trails converge on the summit, there are several boardwalk paths you can take to explore the area around the summit.

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All of the trails end at the summit ranger’s station. Here, an open space has been cleared for climbers to take a rest and enjoy the view. That’s not the only thing you’ll find, though. Inside the ranger’s station is a small shop that sells drinks and snacks rangers have packed up the mountain. They even sell souvenirs that you can only find if you make it to the summit. On top of all of this, the ranger’s station sometimes offers climbers a place to sleep overnight. If someone wants to see the sunrise from Daisen, a common thing to do is climb the mountain in the evening, stay the night at the ranger’s station, and then wake up early to watch the sun come up.

One of the most interesting things I learned during this climb is the fact that’s it’s customary for climbers to carry a rock with them up the mountain. Just before the trail head my friends and I used to climb, there’s a pile of different-sized stones that climbers can choose to carry. When you finally reach the summit, you leave the stone there. Daisen’s rangers use these stones to help prevent erosion on Daisen’s summit. The wooden boardwalk around the summit is also meant to help with this. Back in the 1980s, much of the plant life on Daisen’s summit had been trampled by climbers, leaving the mountain prone to erosion. Projects like the boardwalk, carrying the stones, and other efforts have helped to preserve the mountain and restore its summit.

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When I looked down at the view from Daisen’s summit, I couldn’t believe we had actually climbed all this way. The trail head my friends and I had take was about 900 meters above sea level, and the summit stands at 1700 meters. We had just climbed eight hundred meters of stairs, and made it to the top of the highest mountain in Japan’s Chugoku region. It was so satisfying to know that I’d stuck it out this long to get to the top, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget this experience.

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The summit ranger’s station

In total, climbing up and climbing back down took about six hours. Two hours to climb the mountain, and a little less than two to climb back down, but my friends and I took lots of breaks, rested at the summit, and took our time exploring the trails around the ranger’s station. There are multiple trails going up and around Mt. Daisen, and we took the one that skirts around Daisen Temple. To access this trail head, you take a right from the souvenir street above the information center, cross a bridge, and then walk a little ways down the road until you see some steps leading up into the forest.

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Outline of our route up the mountain

On the way down, we turned onto a different trail that leads straight to Ogamiyama Shrine. There were fewer people climbing up this trail, so it was much easier to walk down. Completely unrelated to that, this trail was amazing because just before we reached the shrine, we were brought this dry riverbed that looked back up at the mountains. I could have sat for hours just taking this in!

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By the way, I didn’t realize this would be the case until I actually did it, but climbing down the mountain is almost harder than climbing up. Since the stairs are so steep, you have to pick your way down carefully. Also, since your legs are straining so much to keep you steady on the way down, you’ll feel you’re legs twitching if you stop to rest (my friend told me that in Japanese, you describe this by saying hiza ga waratteiru, or, “my knees are laughing”).

All in all, there are too many good things to say about climbing Daisen! The sights are spectacular, the people climbing up and down the mountain are so friendly, and it was actually possible for a beginner to finish the climb in one piece. I would love to come back and see more of these trails.

Daisen is one of those places that makes me so incredibly happy to have been placed in Shimane.  I had never heard anything about this corner of Japan before I was told to come here, but now, I don’t think I would have liked it any other way. The opportunity to explore places in and around Shimane is priceless, and I’m so happy to be here.

 

 

Mt. Daisen Torch Festival: On the Sacred Mountain

Feature Photo Credit: Nobuhiro Ito, Daisen-Oki National Park

In 2018, Daisen Temple celebrates its 1300th anniversary. This anniversary marks more than just the founding of a temple. It calls locals and visitors alike to remember the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of Mt. Daisen that continues to the present day.

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To the locals of the surrounding areas, Daisen is more than just a mountain. The fresh water that flows down from the summit provides nourishment for agriculture and livestock and is considered an essential ingredient in local delicacies today. In Japan’s folklore, Mt. Daisen is mentioned multiple times. One myth claims that the mountain is an anchor which keeps land from drifting away from the Shimane Peninsula. Another story tells of how a hunter in Daisen’s forest encountered the Buddhist figure, Jizo Bodhisattva, vowed never to harm another living thing again, and founded Daisen Temple. At one point in Mt. Daisen’s history, it was home to over 100 temples and 3,000 warrior monks. For most of its history, climbing the mountain was prohibited because the mountain was considered to be a god in its own right.

Today, most of the temples have vanished and the mountain is open to a variety of outdoor activities, including climbing. Even so, the mountain continues to be revered by the people who live near it. Daisen Temple, Ogamiyama Shrine, and the rangers of Daisen-Oki National Park all lead efforts to preserve Mt. Daisen, and host events to celebrate the mountain’s legacy. Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend one of these events!

The Daisen Torch Parade kicks off a larger festival held in the first weekend of June that marks the beginning of Mt. Daisen’s climbing season. Over a thousand participants take part every year, including local families, visitors from around Japan, and visitors from abroad. Participants will light torches at Ogamiyama Shrine’s rear building, and march through the ancient beech forest to Mt. Daisen’s Information Center.

The actual parade doesn’t start until later in the evening, but there’s plenty to experience beforehand! The Information Center alone is worth a visit. Catering to all who visit Daisen, the center offers lounges, showers, and an abundance of information about Daisen in multiple languages. Just for the occasion of the Torch Parade, you’ll find festival booths set up on the lawn just below the Information Center.

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Here, you can try some street food along with products from local farms and bakeries. A stage is also set up for performances throughout the day. The main event, though, is a taiko drum performance that happens after the parade.

Just above the Information Center is the street that leads up the mountain to Daisen Temple and Ogamiyama Shrine. On the way to the shrine and temple, there are restaurants and souvenir shops to explore. Also, the further you walk up this street, the more indications you’ll see that you’re heading towards religious sites.

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If you’ve registered beforehand, you can pick up your torch on this street. Make sure to hold it perfectly straight so the kerosene doesn’t spill!

As you continue up the road, enjoy the view! You’re about to enter one of the oldest beech forests in Japan.

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Eventually, the road under your feet changes into a flagstone path. Around here, you’ll come to a fork in the road where you can choose to continue straight ahead towards Daisen Temple, or off to the left towards Ogamiyama Shrine. The Torch Parade starts at the shrine.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that the approach to Ogamiyama Shrine is one of the most beautiful walks I’ve ever taken in Japan. Everywhere I looked, I found something new, and if it weren’t for one hand being taken up by a torch, I would have taken pictures of literally everything. The trees stretch above your head almost farther than you can see. Statues of Jizo and other Buddhist figures are seated at several different spots along the path. The path itself is beautiful! It’s made of stones that haven’t been cut or shaped at all, and it seems right at home inside the forest. Ogamiyama Shrine and its approach isn’t that far away from the busy souvenir street, but you still get the impression that you’ve gone much deeper into the forest than you thought, and you’ve stumbled upon something ancient, dignified, and whimsical.

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Once you reach Ogamiyama Shrine, all that’s left to do is wait. A ceremony takes place inside the shrine. Then, braziers full of sacred flames are placed out, and everyone lights their torches from them. The Torch Parade begins.

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Since the path from Ogamiyama Shrine is uneven, make sure to watch your step as you head down. Don’t forget to get a good look at the torches, though! At different spots along the path, you can look down and see everyone’s torches drifting down the mountain like a river of light.

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Photo Credit: Nobuhiro Ito, Daisen-Oki National Park

If the night happens to be clear when you visit Daisen, the sky above you will be illuminated, too. On the night of the Torch Parade, the only lights in the forest are the torches and the stars above you. Take your time, and take everything in. The parade ends before you know it.

Once the parade gets back to Daisen’s Information Center, the torches are cast into a bonfire near the festivals booths.

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But the night isn’t over yet! Stick around to hear the taiko drum performance.

This visit to the torch festival was my first time ever going to Daisen. I’d seen it from a distance before, but it’s a completely different experience up close. Love for the mountain shines through in just about everything you see on its slope, especially in festivals like this one. While the Torch Parade was a fun experience, I absolutely felt like nothing we were doing was for our benefit at all, but for Daisen’s. It wasn’t just about coming out and having fun on the mountain, it was about coming out to honor the mountain while also having fun. I’m so happy I get to keep this memory of the festival, and I’m excited to learn more about this mountain going forward! Pretty soon, I’m going back to Mt. Daisen to give climbing it a try.

But more on that later…