Japan City Guides: Tsuwano
Tsuwano Shimane Prefecture 津和野
Things to see and do in Tsuwano
Tsuwano is a castle town nestled in a steep valley in the mountains of Shimane, near the border with Yamaguchi. One of many towns throughout Japan that is known as "Little Kyoto", but with a population of less than 6,000 actually has little in common with that city.
Tsuwano is a very popular tourist destination, so weekdays are more comfortable to visit, though I have always found very early in the morning to be the best time to explore.
It is really a large village rather than a town, and can easily be explored on foot or by rental bicycle. Bicycling also gives you the option to head down the river along a quiet road, or head up into the upper parts of the village with scenic views down the valley and rustic farmhouses. There is also a hot spring (onsen) resort in the area, Nagomi no sato. 500 yen 10am - 10pm . This part of Tsuwano is rarely visited by tourists.
Shrine maidens (miko) at Taikodani Inari Shrine, Tsuwano
Tonomachi is the main tourist area in the center of the town and along the main street can be found many old samurai houses, sake breweries, museums, and shops.
The small canals running along the streets were used for irrigation, as a source of water for fighting fires, and stocked with carp as an emergency food supply in case of siege. The brightly-colored, much photographed carp now outnumber the town's residents. The side and back streets of Tonomachi are also well worth exploring.
Katsushika Hokusai Museum (Tel: 0856 72 1850) is small, but has a diverse collection of the artist's work that showcases the many different styles and media he worked in beyond the most well-known woodblock prints. Unfortunately there are no shunga. The only connection that exists between Tsuwano and Hokusai is that the first print of the "Hokusai Manga" was discovered in Tsuwano. 500 yen entrance. Open 9.30am - 5pm
Tsuwano Minzoku Museum (Tel: 0856 72 1000) is housed in what was once a school built in 1786. Basically a folklore museum, it's open daily, except Wednesdays, from 9am to 5pm. Admission 250 yen.
Tsuwano Kyodokan (Tel: 0856 72 0300) A large history museum with exhibits on regional history and famous personages such as novelist Ogai Mori, and philosopher Amane Nishi. Closed on Tuesdays, the museum is open daily from 8.30a.m. to 5pm. 400 yen admission.
Shisei Kuwabara Photographic Museum (Tel: 0856 72 3171) displays the work of contemporary documentary photographer Shisei Kuwabara. 200 yen admission. 9am - 4.45 pm
The Anno Art Museum (Tel: 0856 72 4155) is a new, large museum dedicated to Tsuwano-born Misumaso Anno, known mostly as an illustrator of children's books, his paintings are now become more widely known. 600 yen admission. 9am - 5pm
Oki House of Ogai Mori (Tel: 0856 72 3210) is open to the public for a 600 yen entrance fee. The novelist lived here until he was 11 years old. Ogai Mori's major works include Vita Sexualis and Wild Geese.
Right next door is the Sekishukan, a museum of washi, Japanese paper. Papermaking was a major industry in Tsuwano for hundreds of years. There is no entrance fee, but with advance notice and a 600 yen charge visitors can take a class in paper-making. Dolls and other products made from the local paper are widely available at the many souvenir and gift shops around town.
The Hori Teian, just outside Tsuwano are the beautiful gardens and country residence of the Hori family.
Tsuwano castle and town were founded in 1325 and the castle remained until the Meiji era. All that is left now is the stone base of the castle, but the mountaintop is open and treeless, so great views can be had over the surrounding countryside and down on the town 127 meters below. Footpaths head up to the castle ruins from near Taikodani Shrine. There is a ski-lift most of the way up for those that can't manage the climb on foot. One of the lesser-visited sites in Tsuwano, so not crowded.
At the base of the castle mountain, about 2 km north of the main part of Tsuwano, lies Washibara Hachimangu Shrine. Built by the Lord to enshrine the samurai's tutelary God, Hachiman the God of War, the shrine is also less visited but well worth the trip. In front of the shrine is the only original yabusame (horse-back archery) grounds left in Japan, and is particularly beautiful in April when the cherry blossoms are in full splendor. The entrance to the main shrine has a thatched roof that is worth seeing, but probably the most interesting sight is a small shrine within the grounds. This shrine is for women, and inside are shelves lined with dolls left as offerings.
Tsuwano Yabusame Festival is held on the third Sunday in April at Washibara Hachimangu Shrine, and this very colorful spectacle is enhanced by the cherry blossoms in full bloom around the grounds. Held at the only traditional yabusame grounds left in Japan, is well attended, especially by photographers, but is never too crowded. Before the horseback archery contest is held, the morning is taken up with ceremonies and processions. Entrance is free. View a short video, and a detailed, illustrated article on yabusame at Tsuwano Yabusame Festival.
Shinto ceremony at Taikodani Inari Shrine, Shimane
Just a 10 minute walk from the station is Yomeiji Temple. Built in 1420 it is a quiet Zen temple that contains Ogai Mori's tomb. It is known as one of the two great Soto sect temples in Japan, and has a thatched roof, garden, and a treasure room. Entrance is 300 yen.
Maria Cathedral is a church built at Otome Pass in 1951 to commemorate the Christian martyrs who were tortured there in the late 19th century. When Japan "opened-up" in early Meiji, a group of "hidden Christians" emerged from 200 years of hiding their faith. Unfortunately, Christianity was still illegal in Japan, and 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.
Taikodani Inari (Tel: 0856 72 0219) is the large, bright shrine on the hillside overlooking the town. Built by the local lord to emulate the famous Fushimi Inari in Kyoto. It is possible to drive up, but the best way is to climb the hill through the tunnel of more than 1,100 vermillion torii that switchback up the hillside. The shrine itself is new and bright, and built mainly of concrete, but has great views down on to the town.
Sagi Mai, the White Heron dance is performed at Yasaka Shrine, near Takodani Inari, on July 20th and 27th . Originally from Kyoto, the dance came to Tsuwano via Yamaguchi City, the "Kyoto of the West", more than 400 years ago, and is the only version of the dance still performed in Japan in the traditional style. Two dancers dressed as a male and female heron, perform a dance that emulates the courtship of the birds. The elaborate winged costumes are made from cypress and paulownia wood. The dance attracts thousands of visitors, but as it is performed at 11 locations around the town it is possible to get a decent view.
Heron Dance Festival, Tsuwano
The Otome-toge Festival takes place on May 3rd to commemorate the Christian martyrs tortured and killed here. A procession starts from the Catholic Church in the Tonomachi district and ends at Maria Cathedral with a Mass. Christians from all over Japan attend.
If you happen to be in town on August 15th, the Bon Odori dance is worth a look. Dating from the Muromachi period (1336-1573), the dancers wear an unusual black and white outfit.
There are several ryokan and minshuku in the town as well as a Youth Hostel (Tel: 0856 72 0373). An hour away in either Masuda or Yamaguchi there is a wider range of accommodation options.
The Tsuwano tourist office (Tel: 0856 72 1771) is right next to the station. Some English materials are available, and a little English is spoken.
Bicycles can be rented by the hour or by the day just across from the station.
Iwami-Hagi Airport is the nearest airport, and has flights to Tokyo Haneda Airport (85 mins.) and Osaka Itami Airport (65 mins.)
Tsuwano JR station is on the Yamaguchi Line, 40 minutes from Masuda, and 70 minutes from JR Ogori Station (2 hours 30 mins from Shin Osaka or 5 hours 35 mins from Tokyo). The Yamaguchi Line connects Tsuwano with the Shinkansen at ShinYamaguchi.
The most interesting way to arrive in Tsuwano is by the Yamaguchi Go steam train. The train makes one round trip a day from Shin-Yamaguchi station on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from late March through to November. The train features carriages refurbished in a variety of different era styles. The journey takes about 2 hours each way, and stops in Tsuwano for 3 hours. Tickets are much sought after and enquiries should be made to Shin Yamaguchi or Yamaguchi JR stations.
By car, Tsuwano which is on Route 9, is about 30 minutes from Masuda, around one hour from Hagi. Express buses take 1 hour, 15 minutes to Hagi while by local bus the journey time is approximately 2 hours.
Accommodation in Tsuwano
Tsuwano offers a number of traditional, Japanese-style ryokan and minshuku. Rooms are normally tatami-style, with a shared bath or furo for all the guests and room rates include breakfast and evening meal. The tourist office near Tsuwano Station can help with reservations.
Heron Dance Sagimai Video Tsuwano
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