Matsue Suitoro: The City of Water’s Lantern Festival

Normally, Matsue Castle is closed at night. However, for a time in autumn, the nighttime castle is open. This particular time of year makes for an experience unlike any other in Japan, because the grounds of the 400-year-old castle are illuminated with hundreds of handmade lanterns.

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Shimane Prefecture’s mascot, Shimanekko. 

This is Matsue Suitoro; a festival that takes place every weekend from late September to late October. Professional artists and locals alike create lanterns to display around the castle grounds, and special festival events allow visitors to experience the castle and the nearby Shiome-Nawate Street in once-a-year splendor.

The main events begin just inside the castle grounds. Despite the number of festival-goers, the effect of the soft lantern light in this historical site is nothing short of magical. Exploring the grounds and examining each lantern is like opening a treasure box; you don’t know what you’ll find, but it will be beautiful.

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One of the most unique things about Matsue Suitoro is the sheer variety of lantern designs. Simple-but-elegant lanterns made of hollowed bamboo sit alongside four-sided paper portraits illuminated from within.

On the lawn that stretches out just below the castle, lanterns designed by local school kids are on display. There’s also an area around here where visitors can try their hands at designing their own lanterns!

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When you finally reach the top of the hill, you have the option to climb higher still up the levels of Matsue Castle. This is the best place to get a view of the festival and the nightscape of the city.

Back at the bottom of the castle grounds, the festival continues. All along Shiome-Nawate Street, a place known for its historical buildings, more lanterns and light displays are set up along the old castle moat. You can enjoy these either by walking or by boat. The Horikawa Sightseeing Boats have a dock just in front of Matsue Castle. These small boats take guests on tours of Matsue’s old moats and canals all year round, but on the nights of Suitoro, they offer shorter night tours. The night tour will take you along Shiome-nawate Street so you can enjoy its lights from the water. Then it drops you off at the end of the street so that you can explore the sights there more fully.

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A former Samurai residence and the Matsue History Museum are two of the best-known buildings on Shiome-Nawate Street. For this reason, these buildings also decorate for Suitoro. Entrance to the samurai residence is free for the nights of Suitoro as is entrance to the front courtyard of the history museum. Unless you go inside Matsue Castle, entrance to the castle grounds is free as well!

This year was my second year attending Suitoro. It’s become a must-see event for me! I love exploring Matsue on a normal day, but the dreamy nights of the water lantern festival take me to a completely different city.

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The Chapel of Saint Maria: Stories of the Martyrs of Tsuwano マリア聖堂、乙女峠

At the beginning of the 17th century, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu issued edicts that closed Japan off from the world. Foreigners were forbidden to enter, and Japanese people were forbidden to leave. Despite the country’s new isolation, however, a fear of foreign influence and possible foreign conquest remained. To combat some of this fear, the Shogunate outlawed Christianity, which had found great success in converting people, particularly around Nagasaki. In the following decades, thousands of Christian converts were killed or tortured in an attempt to force them to renounce their beliefs. Some Christians managed to evade discovery, and for the next 250 years, they practiced their faith in secret.

Then, in 1868, the Shogunate government fell. The Meiji Restoration, Japan’s period of modernization, began. A number of hidden Christians came out of hiding, believing themselves to be safe. However, they were wrong. During the first five years of the Meiji Restoration, 3,394 men, women, and children who had revealed themselves as Christians were captured and sent to prison camps around Japan. Here, they were tortured continuously in a final attempt to force them to renounce their faith.

One such camp where these atrocities occurred was in Tsuwano, a small mountain town in Shimane Prefecture. 154 Catholics were sent to this town, and 37 died during the first five years of the Meiji Restoration.

Today, the town of Tsuwano has not forgotten those who died. If you walk from the center of town to the outskirts that meet the mountains, following the signs for Otome Touge Chapel, you’ll come across a wooded grove with a small waterfall and a paved trail. Follow this short trail up the hill, and you’ll come across the Chapel of Saint Maria, built on the site where the 154 hidden Christians were held in Tsuwano.

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The Chapel of Saint Maria (or Otome Touge in Japanese) was built in 1948. It was built for the specific purpose of remembering and memorializing all of those who were brought to Tsuwano, and particularly those who died. A sign posted on the chapel door reads in Japanese that anyone is free to enter the chapel at any time. However, there are many insects and animals in the woods, so make sure the door is shut tightly when you enter and when you leave.

The inside of the chapel is small with only a few pews. On the altar is a mural of Jesus and the Virgin Mary watching over the captives during their torture.

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Six stained-glass windows adorn the walls of the chapel, each depicting the story of a martyr, or a significant historical scene. One window in particular tells the story of six-year-old Katarina Mori. When she was dying of starvation, one of her captors brought her sweets, saying he would let her have the sweets if she gave up her faith. Katarina replied to her captor, “Heaven tastes better”.

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The area around the chapel memorializes the martyrs of Tsuwano as well, and keeps painful memories of the martyrs’ experiences alive. Next to the chapel is an old well where captives prepared their food. Amounts of food given to the Christians held in Tsuwano were small to begin with, but with time they were gradually reduced more and more. To the left of the well is a small pond. In the winter, this pond would freeze over, and the Christians were stripped naked and thrown into the icy water.

To the right of the old well is a statue depicting one of the martyrs, Yasutaro, locked in a small square prison known as a sanjakuro. Standing above him is the Virgin Mary.

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Yasutaro was often locked in the sanjakuro. Before his death in this small prison, many of the captives worried about him because he was weak from sharing what food he had with others. One night, two of Yasutaro’s friends, Senemon Takagi and Jinzaburo Moriyama, went to visit him, hoping to give him comfort. Yasutaro told them, “I am not lonely at all in this sanjakuro. For just after midnight, a lady appears, clothed in a blue gown and wearing a blue veil just like the image of Santa Maria. She tells me stories so I am not lonely at all. But please do not tell anyone about this while I am still alive.” Yasutaro said that the Virgin Mary came to visit him every night from the 7th to the 19th of January, 1869, just before his death inside the sanjakuro.

Senemon Takagi and Jinzaburo Moriyama survived the five years in Tsuwano. They kept notes about their experiences and the experiences of others. Today, these notes are preserved as accounts of the Martyrs of Tsuwano and what they endured during the first five years of the Meiji Restoration.

In the sixth year of the Meiji Restoration (1873) the prohibition of Christianity was officially lifted. The Christians in Tsuwano and the other prison camps around Japan were set free, and many returned to Nagasaki. Every year on May 3rd, a procession ending with a solemn mass at the Chapel of Saint Maria is held in Tsuwano to remember and honor the Martyrs of Tsuwano. Catholics and Christians from other denominations of the church from all over Japan make a pilgrimage to this procession each year.

The Martyrs of Tsuwano are also remembered and honored at the Tsuwano Catholic Church, which sits on Tonomachi Street, Tsuwano’s main street. Inside this church, visitors can find information in English about the Martyrs of Tsuwano and other hidden Christians. Visitors can also find cards with prayers in English written on the back, asking for the Martyrs of Tsuwano to be canonized into the Catholic church.

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Experience Iwami Kagura: Community Love of Traditional Arts

Care has been taken to remind you where you are. Though this building next to the shrine is modern, all audience members find places to sit scattered around on tatami mat floors. To the left of the stage is a fabric tapestry depicting Inari, the Shinto deity of foxes and agriculture, flying above the town of Tsuwano. Up on the stage itself, hangs a second tapestry and a square canopy full of zig-zag-shaped paper streamers. The performance will happen beneath this canopy.

The first few notes of music skip through the air and a chorus of flute, cymbals, and drums follow closely; slowly at first, and then growing faster and faster. The youngest musician is a fifth grade elementary school student. The oldest has gray hair and plays his taiko drum as fluidly as water. The drum quiets for a moment, and a few warbling lines are sung. The adults in the room seem to hold their breaths. The kids in the room stand in their parents’ laps, looking around in anticipation. The music resumes, and suddenly, there is a figure behind the tapestry on stage. The figure steps forward carefully, holding the tapestry so that the face behind it is not revealed until the proper moment. The Iwami Kagura has just about begun.

Kagura is a traditional Japanese dancing art inspired by the gods of Japan’s Shinto religion. In essence, these elegant dances depict stories of gods defeating monsters and demons. Traditionally, these dances have been used to pray for good harvest, ward off natural disasters, and tell stories. No one knows for sure when kagura actually started, but some people believe that the earliest performance might go all the way back to the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest text, written about 1,300 years ago. Today, there are various styles of kagura that can differ greatly even within a single prefecture.

My first experience with kagura came thanks to one of my coworkers. She invited me to see a performance that her husband was taking part in! On the day of the performance, we headed into the countryside about 20 minutes outside of Izumo City. We hadn’t even been outside of the city for two minutes before the landscape changed drastically. Houses and apartments were replaced with lush, green mountains, and though many rice fields  and gardens existed within Izumo, suddenly every stretch of level ground boasted some kind of crop.

Soon, we can to a wooded shrine on a hill. My coworker told me that this shrine was dedicated to protecting against fires. Just next to the main shrine building, a space had been cleared, and the dancing had already started.

At the time of watching this particular dance, I didn’t understand nearly as much about kagura as I do now. If I had, I probably would have appreciated the art much earlier.

Since kagura performances usually happen at shrines, I assumed that only people connected to specific shrines could perform kagura, but the opposite is true. Like my coworker’s husband, many kagura performers are just regular members of a community who practice the dances on evenings and weekends. Historically, only men have been allowed to perform, but recently, women have begun performing as well. Many kagura performers actually begin practicing the art as children. Some schools in Japan incorporate kagura into their curriculum, and community kagura groups also exist. Those who choose to participate in kagura either as a dancer or a musician will perform at local festivals and community gatherings, hoping to bring good fortune (and some fun) to the areas they live in.

Like many classical arts, however, kagura has had to face challenges in the modern day. Kagura is rarely seen in urban areas, and because so many people in Japan now live in urban areas, it can be difficult for people to experience this art form. As a result of this, the image of kagura has changed from a common form of entertainment, to something akin to Shakespeare; historically and traditionally priceless, but hard for modern audiences to understand. Especially younger audiences.

Despite such challenges, kagura is by no means a dying art form. Some styles of kagura, in fact, have continued to evolve over the years in order to continue capturing the hearts of audiences. Iwami Kagura of Western Shimane Prefecture is one such style.

Iwami Kagura is best known for its elaborate costumes, fast-paced music and dancing, and simple stories. It is one of the prides of Western Shimane, and a network of over 130 active kagura organizations ensure that this art is an established part of daily life in the area.

There are several venues where visitors can experience Iwami Kagura. The venue I happened to visit was Taikodani Inari Shrine in the small town of Tsuwano (also known as “Little Kyoto”). I wasn’t sure what to expect from this performance since my only experience with kagura up to this point had been the one dance outside of Izumo. The moment the performance began, though, I was completely enchanted by the experience. It was unlike the dance I had seen before in all of the best possible ways. I could attempt to go into detail about how everything was different, but I think this video sums it up better.

 

This was actually the third time one of the dancers had come into the audience. The first couple of times, no one was eaten, but the performers were so convincing in their roles as monsters that some of the younger kids in the audience started crying! Even when the performers stayed on stage, though, they had our complete attention. In ever step they took, you could see their years of experience. The precision, emotion, and beauty of their dances made it literally impossible to look away from them. Unless, of course, a second dancer happened to be sneaking up from behind the audience.

The time after the performance was just as fun as the performance itself. Audience members were allowed to stay afterwards and try on some of the costumes, including the gods’ robes and the serpents’ heads! Trying on one of the robes gave me a whole new appreciation for kagura dancers. Those costumes are heavy! In the case of Iwami Kagura, four people can spend up to one month making a single costume. All costumes are handmade, and real silver and gold thread is used for embroidery on the robes. One robe can weigh up to 20 kilograms or about 44 pounds! Even lighter costumes made of paper like the serpents in the video can be bulky and difficult to maneuver, but you would never guess that watching the dances. Each performer makes their movements look so easy, and yet as soon as you try on one of the costumes, you understand how much dedication it takes to master this art form. It is truly incredible.

If you ever want to experience a piece of real Japan, I can’t recommend kagura, especially Iwami Kagura, enough. These dances are the products of regular people’s sheer love and dedication to traditional arts. The stories these dances tell are based on the founding mythology of Japan, something that has influenced art and culture in Japan for centuries. Not to mention it’s fun and can be really cheap to watch. The performance I watched at Taikodani Inari only set me back 500 yen (about 5 dollars).

The two characters used in writing the word, “kagura”, literally mean, “entertaining the gods”. Trust me when I say that a night spent watching Iwami Kagura is a night you will never forget.

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Credit: AKIKAKU, Katy Manning, “Iwami, Exploring Unfamiliar Japan”, “Iwami Kagura”

 

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.

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…

Vogel Park: Of Birds and Beautiful Flowers

Vogel Park sits just outside of Matsue on the shore of Lake Shinji. The park draws people in with promises of lush greenhouses and close encounters with birds. As it turns out, the park makes good on those promises, and more!

Before you even buy a ticket, the front entrance offers you the chance to observe several different species of owls.When I went, I spent so long just looking at all the birds in this area and getting to see some of their personalities. Some of the owls were sleeping, some stood still, watching every passerby, and some were much more active.

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Some of my favorite owls to observe were two Great Horned Owls. One of them sat on the perch furthest from the front of the enclosure and critically watched the owl on the perch closest to the front of the enclosure. The owl at the front of the enclosure shifted from talon to talon, bobbing her head, constantly moving. Then suddenly, she launched herself from the perch and ran straight into the enclosure wall. She changed her course and flew to land on the back perch. The owl that had been watching her screeched as if to say, “What did you think was going to happen?”

If you can manage to tear yourself away from these owls, you can finally enter the park. The ticket counters sits inside one of the main attractions of Vogel Park; a greenhouse that specializes in begonias and fuchsia.

These flowers, along with many more types, hang from the ceiling, float in a pond, and sit on risers.

If you want to pause and take all of this in, you can stop by Cafe Flora, which is just to the left of the ticket counters. They offer light snacks, and specialty desserts like begonia ice cream!

Don’t worry about taking too much time here, though. The walking route for the park runs in a circle. You start at the front of this greenhouse, wander around through other spots in the park, and then eventually return to the greenhouse from the back entrance. There are signs all around the park that keep you walking on the right track. Make sure you follow them so that you don’t crowd the area.

When you exit the greenhouse, the first thing you encounter is a moving walkway heading up a hill. Hop on for a ride, and enjoy the forest around you. Along the covered walkway, you’ll see several different signs picturing wild birds you might see if you look closely.

At the top of the hill is an observation tower. There are no birds in this tower, but I cannot recommend stopping inside enough. Standing at the top of this tower gives you what is honestly the best view of Lake Shinji I’ve ever seen!

Windows on all sides of the tower give you a three hundred and sixty degree view of the lake, surrounding cities, and mountains. Lake Shinji is huge, but this tower lets you see it from one end to the other. You can also view the entirety of Vogel Park from up here.

After a walk under a covered pathway, you’ll come to the Waterfall Aviary. Here, you’ll find water birds such as ducks, swans, and ibises. This was one of my favorite places to stop by far because it was so much fun to feed the ibises!

Just drop 100 yen into the box and take a cup of food. The ibises will come to you even before the food is in your hand.

The Tropical Aviary comes up next. This aviary features a koi pond and leafy garden along with colorful, tropical birds.

If you want to, you can buy food to feed the koi fish. The main attraction, though, is the smaller aviary attached to this one where you can actually hold some of the birds. When I stopped in here, I got to hand feed a toucan sitting on my arm. The birds in this aviary are very used to people, and they’re so friendly!

African penguins are also a big feature of the Tropical Aviary. At different times during the day (once in the morning and once in the afternoon), the penguins will be let out of their enclosure and allowed to walk around the park. During these parades, the penguins will be dressed up in different outfits to match the current season. I didn’t get a chance to see the penguin parade on my visit, but right now, the penguins get dressed up in outfits inspired by the anime, Evangellion, since there’s a temporary exhibit on the anime being displayed at the Shimane Art Museum.

From here, after you pass by the park’s duck pond and soba restaurant, you arrive back at the flower greenhouse. Coming in from the back entrance, you’ll walk right into the owl show venue. Every day from 3:00, park visitors gather here to watch some of the park’s owls and other birds fly. If you can make it in time, this show is absolutely worth seeing! The venue is small and the bird handlers move all around the area throughout the show. This means just about everyone has a chance to have huge birds flying over their heads!

A similar show happens every day at the grassy clearing between the Waterfall Aviary and Tropical Aviary. All of the shows plus the penguin parade are spaced out throughout the day so that no matter what time you arrive at the park, it’s possible for you to catch at least one of them.

Before you leave the park, there are still a few things inside the greenhouse to see, like the owl house, the Seat of Happiness, and the Heart of Happiness. The Seat and the Heart are flower displays created to be En-Musubi spots. The Heart (a giant heart made from flowers) is an especially popular spot for couple to take pictures.

All in all, I can’t name a bad thing about this park! Especially since I love birds and I’m quickly growing fond of flower parks. Vogel Park is small, but there’s a lot to see. You can easily spend hours exploring the buildings and watching the birds. Also, since most of the park is indoors, you can visit it any time of year! I’ll definitely be back later, and I’m so happy I finally got around to visiting!

Mingeikan: Izumo’s Folk Craft Museum

A while ago, I made a post about Shussai Gama, a pottery studio that produces Mingei artwork. If you didn’t catch that post, you can brush up on what Mingei art is here.

Today, I thought I’d talk a little more about Izumo’s culture of Mingei art through the Izumo Folk Craft Museum.

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The museum sits inside of buildings that once belonged to the Yamamoto family, previously some of the wealthiest landowners in the Izumo area. Some of the buildings on this property have stood since the eighteenth century, but today, it’s a museum showcasing some of Izumo’s contemporary artworks.

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The main building, a converted rice storehouse, sits just next to the museum entrance. Inside, you can find wood works from the late Edo (1603-1868) and early Showa (1926-1989) Periods as well as pottery and hand-dyed textiles.

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Many of the arts you see in this hall are still hand made in Izumo today. The first time I came into this building, I walked around it twice to make sure I took everything in. I especially loved the textiles. The color of dye used in the threads is unique to the area. Also, they’re just incredibly detailed and beautiful!

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Some of the museum staff explained to me that the textiles’ designs are made using a batik technique; designs are drawn on white fabric with wax, and then dyed. The wax is washed out later, leaving clear lines behind.

Along with all of the crafts, the main hall itself is a work of art for more than one reason. Aside from being a historical building, this hall was built using a style of architecture not commonly seen today. If you look at the rafters in the ceiling, you’ll notice that they’re curved like a tree might be. That’s because each rafter is made out of an entire tree, and natural curves are allowed to remain in the wood even after the trees are cut down and processed. You’ll sometimes see this style of architecture in old houses, the shop at Shussai Gama is one other example besides this museum, but newer buildings don’t use this technique. The reason for this is obvious, it’s takes centuries for a tree to grow big enough to make one rafter.

I’ve only found a couple of examples of this kind of building in Izumo so far, but I’m really happy if I can find one. Because the rafters aren’t completely straight or smooth, they give buildings a more organic atmosphere. It’s like the architecture reminds you that you’re not cut off from nature once you step inside the walls of a building, you’re simply out of nature’s view for a time.

The west hall of the museum, a converted lumber storehouse, is just across the courtyard from the main hall and displays current Mingei artworks. I almost missed the entrance to this hall the first time I came; the path leading up to the door is a trail of large stepping stones leading you through the grass.

Many of the works in this hall are similar to those in the main hall, but you can find many more diverse artworks as well. One of my favorite pieces was a wooden sculpture of a folded kagura (traditional Japanese drama) outfit. I thought it was real before I realized it was a sculpture! Even after I realized this, though, my eyes still tricked me into believing that I could pick up this outfit and put it on.

Before you leave the museum, I recommend taking a look at all of the buildings before you leave. The main house is off limits to tourists, but you can still enjoy the details of the main hall, west hall, and the wall surrounding the museum. Also, have fun imagining what the Yamamoto family residence looked like before it was a museum! According to the museum shop staff, the property used to be much bigger than it is now.

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Speaking of the museum shop, you shouldn’t miss taking a look through it. It sits in a room inside of the long wall that runs around the museum. This shop sells Mingei works from Izumo as well as from studios in Matsue City and Kyushu, one of the large islands just south of Japan’s main island. The shop staff are very friendly and willing to tell you more about the museum and Mingei works in general. You might want to brush up on your Japanese, though. The staff member I talked to could speak a little English, but we mostly talked in Japanese.

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One of the main purposes of this museum is to introduce visitors to the philosophy of Mingei art, and to offer examples of how to incorporate both the art and the philosophy into one’s life. For example, you might notice that though the buildings making up the museum used to be the home of a wealthy family, they are very simply constructed. This is because the Yamamoto family is supposed to have valued simplicity in living. They also supposedly valued the skills of local carpenters and plasterers very highly. The fact that the estate was constructed with these principles in mind makes the museum buildings themselves works of Mingei art that you can live inside of.

While not everyone interested in Mingei art can build a house following its principles, the fact that it is possible to do so raises a lot of interesting ideas about what defines art. If you visit this museum, you’ll get to see several examples of Mingei work that each claim the same thing: art is a thing that is present in your everyday life, that reflects you and the place you are from.

 

Daikonshima Peony Festival

Literally translated, Daikonshima means, “Raddish Island.” From what I’ve read, this name was given to the area to discourage potential thieves. Daikonshima is most famous for its gardens and nurseries. Specifically, Yushien Garden.

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Seasonal flowers and plants are grown in this traditional Japanese garden all year round, but each year, between late April and early May, the Peony Festival is held. If you arrive in Japan too late to see the cherry blossoms, this festival is a must see! Peonies are the official flower of Shimane Prefecture, and this garden takes growing peonies very seriously.

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When you enter the garden during this festival, you’re greeted with thousands of peonies floating in the main pond. If you’re lucky, you might catch sight of some gardeners wading through the water to check on the flowers.

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If you can tear yourself away from the garden’s main entrance, there’s much more to see. Paths wind through the garden and take you through forests, over bridges, and if you make sure to look in every corner, you’ll see more than a few waterfalls.

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Among the places you can explore is a peony greenhouse, which is always kept at the perfect temperature and humidity to make the flowers thrive.

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This greenhouse is a work of art straight out of a fantasy novel! I had to stop myself from taking a picture of everything I saw. Around the peonies are carefully selected stones and logs covered in fuzzy moss. In one corner of the area, you can find a water feature made up of a wooden wheel and several wooden waterways. On your way out, you pass through a gate complete with lanterns, and can peer through a window to get one last look at everything before you leave.

Outside the greenhouse, even more peonies are on display for the festival. One spot even offers you the chance to vote for your favorite plant.

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If you come to this garden, make sure you’ve explored everything. Its look changes slightly each time you come, and you might discover something you would have normally missed. Koi swim in the ponds, butterflies rest on the flowers, a few restaurants an tea houses sit in the garden, and during this particular festival, potted peonies and other gifts are available for sale.

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When you eventually reach the end of the garden path, it seems to be over too soon. If you want to take one last look at everything, though, you can have a cup of tea in the main building’s cafe with its view of the front pond.

From what I’ve heard, the peony festival isn’t the only time worth visiting the garden. In June, hydrangeas bloom throughout the grounds. In the winter, the garden is lit up with strings of lights. Aside from the events, though, I can tell Yushien is a nice garden to just visit on any normal day. When you decide to take a bridge or a small path that leads you to a remote corner of the garden, you forget that you’re just a short drive from Matsue City. At times, you can even forget that you’re inside of a garden.

At one point during my visit, I ended up next to a small stream slightly below the main path. Water flowed over mossy rocks above me and sunlight fell through tiny green maple leaves. If I looked upstream, away from the view of the garden’s main building, I could believe I was off in the woods somewhere and had discovered the best hidden corner of the forest. I could have stayed in that one spot for hours.

This definitely won’t be my last time visiting!

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Experience the Mingei Movement: Izumo’s Shussai Pottery

Just off of a tiny road with farming fields and trees all around is Shussai Gama, a pottery shop and studio known for a particular shade of blue glaze.

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Shussai Gama Pottery

Like many shops, museums, or restaurants in Izumo, Shussai Gama sits inside of a traditional-style Japanese house. Inside, shelf after shelf displays handmade plates, bowls, cups, flower vases, planting pots, chopsticks’ rests, sake sets, teapots, teacups, mugs, and other wares. Each of these items was made in the studio next door, and all are considered local cultural treasures.

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Shussai Gama, and other places like it around Shimane, create and display arts of the Mingei Movement, the Folk Crafts Movement. Begun around the Meiji Period and influenced by Europe’s Arts and Crafts Movement, the Mingei Movement encouraged people to rethink the ways in which objects are made. It claimed that art is not just something created to suit specific tastes, but something used in everyday life that people have been creating for centuries. In other words, the movement taught that there is beauty in the practical objects of everyday life. Moreover, potters, textile workers, metalworkers, and anyone who creates things while inspired by the movement’s core principals are artists and living national treasures in their own right.

Summed up, Mingei art is:

  1. Produced in large quantities by hand. The handmade aspect ensures that the people creating the items have a relationship with what they create from the beginning of the process to the end. Adding to that, making large quantities of Mingei art ensures that the art is accessible to a large number of people, and can be used by a large number of people.
  2. Mingei art is supposed to be inexpensive, practical, and simple in design. Simplicity is thought to be part of what gives Mingei art its charm. This and a design that rises to best suit the needs of those who use it, allows for further accessibility.
  3. Mingei art is supposed to be both functional and used by a number of people. The founder of the Mingei Movement, Soetsu Yanagi, believed that the everyday use of Mingei items added to their beauty. He believed this also helped the items maintain authenticity to a region and culture.
  4. On the note of regions, Mingei art is also supposed to represent the place it was made in. This gives each piece a cultural legacy, which adds an intangible value to each object.

Traditionally, Mingei artists were also anonymous, but modern attitudes have caused that to change. Now, many people and communities celebrate Mingei artists and their works.

Shussai Gama fires over 6,000 pieces of pottery every four months. Each piece is made from locally-acquired clay and finished with homemade glazes. In particular, the deep “shussai blue” is unique to the region. According to the studio’s potters, if an expert were to take a look at this shade of blue glaze, they would immediately know it came from Shimane.

While each piece has the makings of priceless pottery, though, they are in fact just the opposite. There is something for everyone in this shop, and what you like can be surprisingly affordable. The first time I visited this shop, I bought two Japanese-style teacups at about $10 each. To give some perspective, I’ve seen plenty of mugs in tourist gift shops and Starbucks that sell for about that much if not more, and those mugs weren’t made by hand in the studio next door.

My absolute favorite thing about this shop is the fact that they take everything one step further in letting visitors experience everything that’s made. Except for Sundays and New Year’s holidays, visitors to the shop can walk through the studio where the pottery is made.

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This unassuming glaze becomes shussai blue.

Here, you get to see pottery at every stage in the creation process from the shaping to the glazing.

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Also, inside the main shop, turn left from the front entrance, and you’ll enter a room where you can enjoy a free cup of coffee or tea using one of the shop’s cups.

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Shussai mug and flower vase along with ginger candies and a place mat made in other Izumo shops.

The far wall of the tearoom is a floor-to-ceiling window so that you can relax and enjoy the scenery outside. Inside this room, you can also enjoy seeing other Mingei art in action. Aside from the cups, the vases on the tables and the soap stands by the sink were all made by Shussai Gama. Other decorations in the room come from other local shops that also produce some kind of Mingei art. I always have to stop at this room before I leave Shussai Gama, because it lets you feel what it’s like to be surrounded by beautiful, handmade arts that you’re allowed to touch and use.

Going along with that, Shussai Gama makes a point to promote other local places that produce some kind of Mingei art. On the second floor of the shop, you can find textiles, metalwork, and glassware. All are handmade and all were made in Shimane.

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I could go on and on about how much I love this shop and the ideas that it creates for. I love that it creates art without being pretentious. I love that when you use one of these items, you feel as though you’re holding a piece of Shimane (and in the case of the clay of the pottery, you are). I love that Shussai makes soap stands of all things along with it’s other items. I love that the Mingei Movement can classify that soap stand by the sink as art!

Though I would never call myself an expert in any of it, art is something I’ve always liked and appreciated. Now, the Mingei Movement is something I’m especially drawn to. I think intentionally or unintentionally, it’s so easy in this day and age to disconnect yourself from the things you use in your life. Maybe you have no idea where the vegetables you eat come from. Maybe the things in your kitchen or living room were made in places you have no connection to. Maybe for reasons of money or location, that’s not your fault.

The Mingei Movement and the Arts and Crafts Movement actively decide to work against the idea that this disconnect is the norm, though, and that’s what draws me in. In a few days, I will have lived in Izumo for nine months, and I’ve come to adore and appreciate everything about this area. For that reason and many others, I can’t get enough of the places big and small that are entirely the work of the people and the land of this prefecture. I hope that despite being a little-known place, that Shussai Gama and all the other Mingei artists of the prefecture are able to keep creating for years to come.