Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mysterious time flows in this town

The title of this post is the quote on the front of the tourist brochure for Tsuwano, a little backwater in Shimane prefecture dubbed the "Little Kyoto of San'in". Engrish for sure, but there's a certain poetic quality to it that is just perfect for this picturesque place tucked in a long, narrow valley between rolling green mountains.

Tsuwano was our next destination after bidding farewell to Hagi, and we traveled through the deep inaka by bus to get there. As our bus ran along the high ridge of a mountain I spied houses far below through breaks in the trees. Across the valley, rising up the mountainside above the town was a long tunnel of vermillion torii gates leading to a large temple complex. It looked like something out of a storybook, such an idyllic setting. I tugged Joe's sleeve and motioned out the window.

"I wonder what that place is!" I said. "Wish we could go there!"

No sooner had the wish left my mouth, then the bus began snaking its way back down the mountain and drove right into town. Before we pulled into the bus station I actually saw a church steeple sticking up above the old traditional Japanese houses.

Tsuwano Catholic Church

Welcome to Tsuwano. This was a place with stories to tell. Besides being famous for its beautiful washi, traditional Japanese paper, Tsuwano also is known as the end-point for the old steam locomotive that runs from Yamaguchi City. It was the steam engine that lured us here, but what I hadn't anticipated was just how charmed I'd be by this little town.

The first thing we did was walk across town on the main drag trying to figure out where our minshuku (Japanese inn) was. We couldn't find it. It started to drizzle, so we ducked into a tiny flower shop to avoid the rain and ask directions. Rather than simply telling us where to go, though, the shop owner insisted we pile in his delivery van and he took us there himself. Stunning hospitality. Think about that for a moment. Could you even imagine such a thing happening in America? Picture it: A, say, Mexican couple that speaks almost no English walks into a Springfield business asking directions to some hotel. Does the business owner give them a friendly smile and drive them there himself? Yeah, right.

The owners of the minshuku were very welcoming and showed us to our room, which boasted an air conditioner and a flat-screen TV alongside the futon bedding and delicate paper sliding screens on the windows.

This minshuku (Tsuwano Lodge) was awesome. First of all, we had the option to pay for dinner at the inn, which we did. At dinner time we gathered with several other guests and ate a huge Japanese meal home-cooked by the owners. In true Japanese style, there were lots of little servings of each dish, and I ate all of it. After dinner, I spent a good long time sitting in the massage recliner in the guest rooms' common area.

The other noteworthy thing about this place was the shower. You probably think it's strange to mention a shower, but this place did not have just any shower. Before dinner, Joe and I were eager to clean up since we were both a sweaty mess. We gathered up our shower things and went in search of the owner to ask him which shower to use, since we actually saw two shower rooms on the first floor. That's when he grabbed some slippers and umbrellas for us and ushered us outside in the drizzling rain.

I thought, "What on earth? This guy's shower is outside??" He led us up a short path on a hill and showed us into a small building the size of a shed. There we saw shelves where we could put our clothes, and an entry-way into a large stone enclosure where we would shower outside! This may sound primitive, but it was actually really cool — clean and very nice! I'd never showered outside before — especially not in a light rain! It was really refreshing, and I didn't have to worry about being seen because it was built up on a hill surrounded by trees. There was even a hot spring, a large stone bath kind of like a hot tub built into the ground, filled with steaming opaque milky water. It looked so inviting. I was really looking forward to having a nice soak, but it turned out to be too hot for either of us to get in. Still — how cool is that!

Enough about the minshuku for now. On to Tsuwano itself. The first thing Joe and I did after dropping our stuff off there was borrow the owner's bicycles (for free) and ride back into town to the shrine I'd seen built into the hillside from the bus. Like the Fushimi-Inari Taisha in Kyoto, the entrance to this shrine came at the top of a long stairway covered by a red torii tunnel zigzagging up the mountain. There are more than 1,000 torii gates. The shrine at the top, Taikodani Inari Shrine, is one of Japan's greatest Inari Shrines. (Recall from my Kyoto blog entry that Inari is the god of rice...or cereal grain, if you'd rather go by the Lonely Planet.)

I wish I could have taken more photographs, but this was all I could manage in the rain.

Visitors to this shrine pray for a good harvest of rice, prosperity of business, improvement of fortune or protection from evil.

Back down at the base of the mountain, we explored the town and took some pictures during pauses in the rain. Like Hagi, Tsuwano has preserved many of its old samurai residences and historic buildings.

Lending even more old-world charm to the streets of Tsuwano are the channels filled with carp that line the town's streets. According to my Lonely Planet guide, townspeople bred the carp to provide a potential source of food in case the town were ever beseiged. The feared attack never came, and the fish have thrived, reaching a population of around 65,000 (more than 10 times the number of people living in Tsuwano!).

I was happy just to wander around the streets and duck in and out of souvenir shops, which sold quite an impressive variety of handmade paper products. There were so many beautiful things it was hard not to empty my wallet, but I ended up settling on a glasses holder to put by my bedside and some traditional Japanese paper masks. Joe got a paper/bamboo decoration and a little paper box full of washi.

In one shop, I even got to watch a guy stirring pulp in a big vat of water as part of the process of making the paper. I would have liked to go to Tsuwano's paper museum to learn how the washi is made, but with the torrential rain we just couldn't make it there. At one point when it seemed to let up we did hike up a hill to see Otome Toge St. Mary Chapel, only to get caught in the rain again once we were there, so we ended up hanging out at the chapel for a while. I was interested because you see temples everywhere in Japan, but it's so much less common to see churches, especially in a town as small as Tsuwano. It was a very tiny little building, just big enough for four pews.

The story behind it, according to, is this: After Japan opened itself up to the West, Christians who had been hiding their faith emerged. However, Christianity was still illegal in Japan in the late 1800s, so the government rounded them up and sent them into exile around Japan. A group of 86 Christians from Nagasaki were imprisoned and tortured in Tsuwano. In 1951, a German priest built this tiny chapel as a memorial to the Japanese Catholics who were martyred.

There are a number of other interesting sights around town that we missed, but hopefully we can make it back another time, perhaps next cherry blossom season when they have a festival featuring horseback archery. Actually, one of the town's summer festivals, the Gion Matsuri, was beginning the same day we were leaving, but unfortunately not till after we were due to leave on the train. This would have been a sight to see, as the highlight of this festival is a 400-year-old dance ritual performed by people dressed as white herons, like this:

I'll talk about the train ride in my next post, but I couldn't end this entry without a mention of one of my fondest memories of Tsuwano — the minshuku owner's dog. He had this fat, old Shih Tzu with the most mellow demeanor and the softest fur. (Those who understand my love for fat, ugly animals understand how this dog instantly endeared me to this inn.) I'm not sure he moved from the front step the entire time we were there, and he put up with me petting him for quite a while. When it was time to go, the owner picked him up and carried him to the van, where he snuggled up against the windshield for the ride to the station. I was utterly charmed. Chou Kawaiiiiiii! (Super cute!)

Chapi, the adorable dog who stole my heart.


Poseidon said...

i were in Japan for sight seeing for few times. Tokyo was not what i love, the small village is what i love a lot, i stayed in the o'fero for few times and enjoy a lot of the small village hot-spring for few days too!

Anonymous said...

You make me wish I could come back to Japan to follow in your footsteps. Keep writing: I am really enjoying your blog.