It was my Sensei who recommended I travel to Shimane, known in Japan as the “land of the gods”. This less-traveled to destination is bursting with culture and historical treasures. Among them: the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine.
The silver mine and surrounding villages are designated as a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site. It’s been almost a century since the mine was in use – what makes it special and worth visiting today is the loving care that has gone into keeping the village intact. The area is beautiful, rural, and unspoiled, the color of farmland so vibrant that you almost have to shield your eyes.
It’s a hidden gem of a place. After a 90 minute flight from Tokyo Haneda to Izumo, I took local trains from Izumoshi to Okashi station (roughly 90 minutes), followed by a local bus to Iwami (20 minutes).
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Silver gets a bad rap. In addition to being the currency associated with the betrayal of Jesus, it takes second place to gold. What makes this silver mine worth visiting?
Between 1526-1923, the Iwami Ginzan Silver mines accounted for a sizable output of the world’s silver. At its peak, an estimated third of the world’s silver came from this region.
Unlike some gold mining towns, the village outside the mine is not a decrepit ghost village. Rather, it’s a wonderfully preserved area with extraordinary architecture from the Edo period. The period houses are either still occupied or converted into quaint shops and museums. The village is quiet, muted, but very much alive. One of the most striking features is how clean everything is.
Since vehicular traffic is forbidden on much of the route, the most popular way to navigate the 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the village to the silver mine is by bike. There were several shops offering bike rentals, but since I had come directly from the airport and was carrying two backpacks, the more practical option for me was to walk.
I couldn’t get over just how amazing the architecture was, and how beautifully the structures were cared for. The roofs in particular were astounding, with tiny smiling faces encased in tile. Even the vending machines look different; they are encased in intricate carved woodwork as though to preserve the wonderful illusion of having stepped back in time.
Rakanji Temples and the 500 Jizos
I veered off the main road to see the Rakanji Temples, constructed in 1776. Across the street from the temple were caves containing over 500 jizo statues. The jizo statues were a place to honor one’s ancestors and were dedicated to those who had died in the silver mine. I paid the ¥500 ticket at the temple and walked across the street.
As is the case at many Japanese cultural areas and inner places of worship, photography and sketching are forbidden. I was the only person in the caves, and the experience of being there felt serene and intimate. I was surprised by the range of expressions and poses of the statues. Far from being cookie-cutter poses, these statues radiated individuality. Their expressions ranged from amusement, boredom, serenity, and even annoyance. Some statues looked to be on the verge of snoozing, while others appeared to be deep in conversation or played with a pet.
There was an official offering box, but it seemed popular to toss a coin at the jizo. In any case, there was an abundance of coins in that cave: on bald heads, in folded arms, atop the pets, in between their feet.
Returning to Rakanji Temple, I stopped at a small money washing spot dedicated to the Hindu goddess Benzaiten. I have only encountered one other money-washing shrine in Japan, in Kamakura. According to legend, those who wash their money in the waters and then spend it will find their good fortune multiplied.
After taking out some yen and placing it in a strainer, I washed the money. I did a double-take: were those tadpoles in the water?
(Note: I’d find out later from a Japanese co-worker that they were indeed tadpoles who would grow up to become special Japanese frogs. Apparently, the frogs really love the temple and had a tendency to lay their eggs in the special money-washing waters.)
Journey to the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine
I resumed the trip up to the silver mine, which passed several small farms. I saw a farmer drop off supplies inside a hen house, and brief glimpse of chickens as they scattered to eat. A few yards away from the chicken house I saw a small wooden shack showcasing fresh vegetables from his farm, and bought a bag of perfect, vine-ripened tomatoes out of his farm stall for ¥200. They were extraordinary.
It was well into mid-90s that afternoon, and I peeled off the road again at the sound of wind chimes. In Japan, wind chimes are strung during summer months because the sound they make in the breeze is associated with cooler air. In this case, the wind chimes adorned the building of a small cafe, and I stopped inside for a cold matcha tea. I was the only person there, and the host and I exchanged a few words. I got the impression that it had been a long time since this area had seen many foreigners.
While bikes might be the fashionable way to get to the mine, and indeed I looked super conspicuous with my two backpacks, I did receive expressions of approval for tenacity. Note: for those with mobility issues, I saw what looked like a souped-up golf cart ferry adventurers to and from the Ryugenji Mabu Mine Shaft.
The forests had slowly reclaimed the area around the silver mine. Because there are long stretches without anyone in sight, I surreptitiously lowered my face mask. Let me say, those woods smell FABULOUS.
Outside the entrance to Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine, I was asked to complete COVID contact tracing form. However, as soon as I said I was from Yokosuka, their eyes widened in understanding and instead of completing the full form I was only required to give my name and phone number. I thanked them, paid the ¥200 fee, and went to the mine shaft.
The entrance to the silver mine was shockingly, deliciously cool. It was at least twenty degrees cooler than the temperature outside. The cave ceiling was very low, and I tried to imagine what conditions had been like when the mine had been in operation. How difficult it must have been to remove water from the mine, how terrifying to have had to have fresh air blown in. One would have had immense physical strength to live this kind of life.
I was also surprised by the length of the passage, and more than a little disconcerted by how much time passed and how far I traveled inside the passage before seeing another person.
Back to the Village
Once outside the mine shaft, I saw a small wood shop where a man was filling small pretty satchels from a basket holding tiny dried twigs. He offered me a small twig to sniff, and I detected a faint, pleasant aroma. Taking the twig back, he took a hammer, thwacked it fiercely, and gave it to me to sniff again.
This time, I had a heady pleasure as I inhaled the strong fragrance. It was woodsy, exotic, mysterious, and absolutely intoxicating.
“Smell. You no smell, you hit. Smell again. No smell? Hit, hit. Again, again.”
It was an incredibly effective instruction.
I bought two satchels for ¥2000, and am kicking myself I didn’t buy more. The fragrance is THAT GOOD.
On way back to the village, I visited the former residence of the Kumagai Family, one of the area’s most prominent families. In addition to being silver merchants and inspectors, they had diversified the business by brewing sake. I removed my shoes at the entrance, paid the ¥320 ticket, and leisurely explored what must have been a very imposing residence.
The woman who welcomed me generously offered to store my backpacks to let me wander freely. I was embarrassed to hand them over, both my clothes and the backpacks were wet with sweat.
I want to say how lovely the people here were – I was in an upstairs room when I heard the woman calling around looking for me. When she saw me she bowed and offered me three printed sheets; knowing my Japanese was very limited, she had taken the time to run translations to help me understand what I was looking at. If that’s not hospitality, I don’t know what is.
By luck, I stumbled upon a taxi near the bus stop and sprinted to it. It was half-past 3 p.m., and I was determined to make the check-in on time. Every taxi cab I have ever been in has a white cloth backseat. I was therefore fascinated by the vibrant black and green checkerboard pattern of this taxi, and by the number of charms I saw hanging from his rear view mirror. It was a subtle reminder that I was in a remote part of Japan.
I asked the taxi driver to take me to Yunotsu, and gave him the address of the lodging I had booked.
Overnight in Lovely Yunotsu…and a Motorcycle Shop?
Yunotsu is a seaside port near the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine, and had a critical role in transporting silver from the mine to trading destinations in East Asia and Europe. Nowadays, it is most frequented for its onsen and for those wanting to see a traditional Iwami Kagura performance. If Shimane is known for being the land of the gods, then Iwami Kagura translates to the “entertainment for the gods”.
It’s a traditional form of storytelling that involves music, dancing, and gorgeous costumes. I had been eager to see Iwami Kagura performed as it was initially intended: at a shrine. Yunotsu has performances every Saturday, from 8-9 p.m.
However, the trains to the larger city of Izumo stop running at 8:38 p.m.
Ergo, if I wanted to see a performance, I needed to stay at least one night. It’s a genius move. Because I arrived on a Friday, I booked two nights in Yunotsu, but because I had booked at the last minute, all Yunotsu’s ryokans (my first choice) were all reserved. Yunotsu is so remote a town that there are no hotels. Wanting desperately to see the Iwami Kagura, I selected the first lodging option I saw online. I was uncertain what it was exactly, but was secure in the knowledge it was clean and near a train station.
Japanese taxi drivers are phenomenal people to practice Japanese with. My Japanese is woefully inadequate and my heart was pounding from the strain of trying to keep up the conversation. I managed to get across that I lived in Yokosuka, that I had enjoyed the silver mine, and that I was excited to see Iwami Kagura.
At this, his eyes lit up and he pulled off to the side of the road to show an IPAD clip of a shrine performance.
When the taxi pulled up to the building, he looked at me dubiously and indicated he would wait and make sure I had found the right place.
I could see why he was skeptical. I too was a bit surprised: it looked like the shop sold motorcycles. Walking inside, I was greeted by at least 20 gleaming Kawasaki and Harley Davidson models. American music was playing: Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Beyonce, Backstreet Boys…
A man who I assume was the proprietor came out. After confirming my name, he gave a series of instructions in Japanese. I was still too stunned by the novelty that I’d be sleeping in a motorcycle shop to process much of what was said. Fortunately, I didn’t have to understand much to follow the hand gestures as he passed me a key card and demonstrated how to lock/unlock doors, and showed me how to adjust lights and temperature controls.
On the same floor as the motorcycles were what looked to be converted office spaces. A door marked my room as being “Single NR 3”, and featured a futon, clothes rack, small shelf, and miniature desk. In short, it had everything I needed. Everything was clean, neat, in good condition – I couldn’t get over my good luck.
I left the room around 5:20 p.m. to eat. Yunotsu has no convenience shops or chain food restaurants, and the closest restaurant the proprietor had directed me to was 1.6 kilometers (a mile) from the shop. It was a pleasant walk along the seaside, where young folk were swimming in the late afternoon sun. I stopped at a shop and bought a bottle of local sake.
There was a sharp turn onto Yunotsu’s narrow main street, which features a series of onsens, shrines, and ryokans. I located the restaurant and was the only person there. Since I could not read the menu, which was hand-written in Kanji, a server generously translated it. I requested a dish that featured salmon, rice, raw egg, bell peppers, onion, green onion, lemon, and wasabi, which came accompanied by a bowl of seaweed soup. The food was phenomenal, and I marveled how packed with flavor every ingredient was.
Whereas the food menu was written in Japanese, the drink menu was in English.
Japanese writing is generally very fact-based and devoid of adjectives. Somehow, all of this reserve goes away when it comes to describing food or drink.
For example, the translated description for Ginger Ale: “A pleasant stimulus tangy of carbonated drink.”
My favorite was the description for tomato juice: “Nourishing in lycopene plenty!”
I grandly requested their best cup of local sake for ¥760.
Following the wonderful meal, I walked very happily back to the motorcycle shop and used the key card. I was only person there. There were signs, of course, informing visitors of surveillance monitors. I had no thought of attempting to run off with a motorcycle.
That I got to sleep a shop that sold them was joy enough.
It had been an utterly satisfying day. In a historical area known for silver, I had struck gold.
If You Go – And You Definitely Should!
This visit is best geared for those who want a real sense of authentic and historic Japan.
Be mindful that getting to Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and/or Yunotsu will take some time and effort. There’s a reason these towns are so well-preserved and pristine – they are remote. Expect friendly, genuine, authentic people who are curious to know where you are from.
This is not an area where many people speak fluent English. My Japanese is still very much rudimentary, but between hand gestures, a few basic phrases, and (most importantly) the tremendous effort the Japanese put into finding creative ways to communicate, I was able to get by just fine.
Those who have cars may find it more convenient to drive. I flew from Tokyo Haneda to Izumo Airport, and took the bus to Izumoshi train station. From there, I caught a local train to Okashi, and a bus to the mine. The choice whether to bike or walk the 2.5 kilometers to the mine entrance is up to you. Since I like slow travel, I’m glad I walked – it gave me more time to appreciate the scenery.
These are rural areas…don’t expect convenience stores, traditional hotels, or fast food chains. Carry lots of cash currency on you – not every shop will accept credit cards.
Wishing you and yours a most excellent adventure!