The remote fishing village of Yunotsu is anything but flashy. These days Yunotsu is most well-known for its onsen and Iwami Kagura performances.
Not many foreigners make it to this lovely part of Western Japan. Its quiet, authentic, remote beauty is exactly what makes it awesome.
The area began 1300 years ago as a thermal springs. Because of its proximity to the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine (1526-1923) the harbor town flourished as silver was shipped to destinations in Asia and Europe.
After the mine closed, Yunotsu remained renowned for its therapeutic waters and for being a place to experience authentic Iwami Kagura, traditional “entertainment for the gods”. The tradition continues Saturday nights at 8 p.m. at Tatsu No Gozen shrine.
Yunotsu’s main street is one narrow road that consists of ryokans, small shops, shrines, temples, and two public onsens. I had arrived the day before. If things had gone according to plan, I’d be staying at a ryokan on main street.
Fortunately, things had not worked according to plan because I had made my reservation too late. After visiting the silver mine, I had slept at lodging a mile from Yunotsu’s main street, in a shop that sold Kawasaki and Harley Davidson motorcycles.
It was pure awesomeness.
My Saturday morning began with a walk to Yunotsu’s waterfront, which had several fishing vessels moored. From there, I walked to Okidomari.
During the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine’s peak production years, Okidomari had been the harbor where silver was shipped off to neighboring Asian countries and Europe. From different vantage points the views reminded me of Greece and Sicily.
Unfortunately, the illusion fades the closer you walk to Okidomari’s harbor. The closure of the silver mine in 1923 clearly had an impact on this small village; many of the buildings were in a state of disrepair. Signs in English requested visitors to be respectful of the area and not talk too loudly or leave trash.
Despite signs of collapse, the vegetable gardens around the homes were well-tended. This was a gorgeous region, and the residents who remained seemed to retain a deep sense of pride and ownership.
I left Okidomari, and walked back to Yunotsu.
There are two public onsen for those not staying at a ryokan: Yakushiyu and Motoyu. For centuries, these onsens had soothed the muscles of thousands of weary silver mine workers, and I was determined to assess the therapeutic effects.
It was very easy to find the onsen – this was a small town, and almost every place a tourist would visit was on the same street. I paid the ¥500 entrance fee, ¥350 for a towel, and another ¥250 for a travel-sized shower set. Before being allowed inside the lady’s bathing area, the woman recorded my temperature and asked me to sanitize my hands.
The onsen was separated by gender, and I was surprised and a little relieved to have the entire lady’s portion to myself. I stored my clothing in the changing room locker and then walked toward the bath.
Although Westerners are typically caught off guard by the color of the water and surrounding area, rest assured that everything is very clean. The Japanese take their bathing super seriously – the coppery red tones are from sulphur, and the murky water from all the minerals.
According to the English instructions that had been posted outside the tour, the proper way to experience this bath was to only get into the water for 2-3 minutes at a time. Anything further and visitors risked dehydration. Hence, bathers were advised to drink small cups of water before and after each soak.
Following Japanese protocol, I first went to the mini showers alongside the wall and soaped up and rinsed before getting in the water. The water was so hot I might have lasted a minute before needing to climb out. After cooling off and drinking a cup of water, I tried another one minute soak.
The instruction advised NOT showering off the thermal water to allow the minerals to remain on the skin. Accordingly, I changed into my clothes and then climbed up the stairs to the third floor. To my delight, it opened up on on either side to stunning views and fresh, surprisingly strong breezes. Both balconies had been set up to resemble garden terraces. I poured myself a hot cup of coffee and sat on the empty balcony feeling super happy.
After about 20 minutes I realized I was ravenously hungry.
Conveniently, Karanjo Cafe is located adjacent to the onsen. It looks more like an antique shop than a cafe. Inside the beautiful, wood paneled space are candlesticks, a gramophone, hand-carved chairs covered with needlepoint and embroidery.
A woman welcomed me in warmly and after requesting that I complete a COVID contact form, gestured me to a table near a window. A few minutes later she delivered a scrumptious tray with fresh vegetables steaming in its own heater, a cold egg dish, and hot rice bowl with chicken and vegetables. The entire lip-smacking set was stunningly priced at ¥1300 ($10).
Post-lunch, I walked the length of the street exploring temples and shrines. There was never any other person there.
Spying one shrine, I ascended the steps and then heard the sound of water splashing. I sprinted up the rest of the steps…I had inadvertently found the men’s side of the Motoyu Onsen.
The Legend of the Tanuki
According to legend, some 1300 years ago a monk observed an injured tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) miraculously heal itself after splashing in the spring water.
There’s a ¥450 entrance fee to use the onsen. I could tell it was popular; locals left personal shower supplies on a shelf knowing that they were safe.
The lady’s side of the onsen had three baths of different sizes and temperatures. As before, what looks like dingy bath water and a dirty floor are nothing of the kind. The area is in fact scrupulously clean.
When I walked in, two ladies were in the ”rest” phase of bathing, sitting on stools just outside the water. After a few minutes, I watched out of the corner of my eye as a woman demonstrated the process I needed to copy. She dipped a bucket into the bath, poured a bucket over each leg, and then proceeded to work her way on her arms and closer to the heart. Finally, after her body was acclimated to the temperature, she took a brave deep step into the bath. After her soak, she and the other woman departed. Once again, I had the onsen all to myself.
The water at this onsen seemed hotter than the previous onsen, and smelled less sulfur-y. The design was more spacious, and the two story height allowed for bathers to really feel circulation of air. Because the highest portion of the wall partition is open, I could hear men talking in the adjacent baths.
The other difference is that a clock on the wall allows bathers to time their soaks. I grimly resolved to do three, two-minute soaks. I don’t recall ever bathing in water that temperature before (44 and 46 Celsius, 111-115 Fahrenheit). In any case, it took a surprising amount of will power to stay the full two minutes.
Nonetheless, after completing my third soak I felt super proud. I washed my sitting stool, changed, and feeling both ultra mellow and tired, decided it was time to walk back to the motorcycle shop for an afternoon nap.
On the way back, I beheld a sight so strange it stopped me mid-stride: a monkey casually sauntering across a garden. It saw me watching and quickly scaled up a roof, where it nonchalantly posed to snack on a stolen vegetable or fruit. I saw a second monkey, then a third.
Perhaps they had caught me observing and documenting their acts of thievery. In any case, each monkey thief quickly departed the vegetable patches and with easy simian grace leapt from roof top to roof top.
I made it back to the shop and had an absolutely awesome nap.
Kagura literally translates to ”entertainment for the gods”. Traditionally, this performance for the gods is held at a shrine. Tickets cost ¥2000. Due to COVID precautions and contact tracing requirements, reservations are an absolute must.
It was twilight as I returned to Yunotsu’s main street, and the shrine was busily setting up for the big event.
The night before, I had eaten dinner at one of the few restaurants in town, which was a convenient 1-minute walk from the shrine. As before, I asked for the same delicious bowl of salmon, rice, bell peppers, onion, lemon, and spring onions, served with seaweed soup and a cup of local sake.
I finished dinner ahead of schedule and showed up at the shrine early. It was maybe 7:35 p.m. when I gave my name to those at a check-in table. The two folks laughed gently as they checked their list: I was the only foreign name on there. They passed me a personal hand fan and told me my assigned seat number was 21. After removing my shoes, I was allowed up the shrine steps and into the shrine.
The tatami floors had been covered at intervals with low chairs and cushions. Altogether, it looked to be a full house, with seats for perhaps forty to forty-five guests.
I asked one of the men whether it would be okay for me to take pictures.
”Shasshin wa daijobo desu ka?”
”Shasshin ok, movies—“ He held his crossed forearms up high.
I nodded my understanding.
Through gestures he conveyed that it would be a very dramatic performance, and that that while making videos was forbidden, I was entirely at liberty – indeed encouraged – to clap anytime I liked.
The room filled up, some wearing casual street clothes, other family units wearing their onsen robes. All of us were either barefoot or in our socks.
Exactly at 8 p.m., youth who looked to be in their teens took their places by flutes, cymbals, and drums behind the stage and the performance began.
Experiencing Iwami Kagura
I don’t quite know how to describe the experience other than to say it is wondrous. You are so close to the stage that every sense is heightened. You can see the intricate gorgeousness of the costumes, and how textured the multi-layered fabrics are. You can hear the sweetness of the flute, the pounding of the Taiko drums. You can appreciate how skilled and strong the dancers have to be to not only dance with such precision and control, but to inject personality to match the character whose mask they wear.
I was utterly mesmorized.
The grand story-telling finale tells the story of four dragons wreaking havoc on a village, and the god who found a novel way to stop the chaos. Spoiler alert: he got the dragons drunk off sake before cutting off each head.
The arrival of the dragons made me clap so hard that my those in my row turned to look at me. I was FLOORED by the athleticism and beauty with which the dancers moved about the stage, swirling and contorting from ground level coils to spectacularly high leaps. My heart felt like it was pounding in time with the accelerating Taiko drums.
At the close of the performance, the group gathered together and removed their masks before placing their hands on the tatami mats and bowing to the audience.
Somehow, a young boy on the cushions in front of me had fallen asleep during the performance. His family therefore did what anyone whose child dares sleep through a performance does…they asked the performer to pass them a severed dragon head and staged an awesome picture by the sleeping boy. 🤣
I loved, loved, loved every second of this performance. Behind the absolute mastery of skill was the realization that an extraordinary amount of love, discipline, and time had gone into keeping this art alive.
If You Go to Yunotsu (And by Golly, you SHOULD!!!)
The Iwami Kagura performance alone is worth the journey. Schedule can be found at: https://www.all-iwami.com/en/kagura/rs/
Unless you are planning to drive in your vehicle or taxi, CONGRATULATIONS! You’re staying in this charming town.
While some places in Yunotsu accept credit cards, it is always a good idea to carry yen. Payment for the Iwami Kagura performance is cash only.
Because of COVID precautions, you *must* make a reservation early. Staffers will check to verify your name is on a list before they take you to your assigned seat.
Do not go to Yunotsu or the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine area expecting a high octane list of things to do. Nothing about this lovely town is kitchy. There are no convenience stores, no chain restaurants, no thrill rides. However, if you’re looking for an authentic experience steeped in culture and tradition, I have only the highest praise.
Yunotsu is a simple, unpretentious place radiating natural hospitality and genuine warmth, and I can’t wait to go back.
Here’s wishing you a safe and very joyful adventure!