The 17th-century Matsue Castle and samurai district contain many museums and historic sites in a compact area easily explored on foot. The city is also the adopted home of 19th-century Irish American writer Lafcadio Hearn, who became a naturalized Japanese citizen as Koizumi Yakumo. 島根県松江市 介護
Southern Matsue is home to two shrines—Yaegaki and Kamosu—that commemorate happy marriages, plus Kumano Taisha, said to be the first site in Japan where fire was created. Here, a lively folk entertainment depicts heroic deeds from the pages of mythology.
1. Shimane Lake
With its natural and cultural treasures, the land of Shimane is a place to immerse yourself in Japan’s rich traditions. A visit to this prefecture is a chance to explore ancient shrines, serenity at onsen, and more.
The most prominent feature of the region is its remarkable Shimane Lake. It is a brackish lake that stretches to the west of central Matsue city and is connected to Lake Nakaumi by Ohashi River. It is a large lake that hosts more than 240 species of fish and shells. It is also known as one of the best locations in Japan to view the mystical en-musubi—divine matchmaking force that supposedly brings together those seeking a soulmate.
Aside from its impressive nature, the lake is a popular site for fishing, cruising, and other recreational activities. It is a wonderful place to spend time, and it is even more alluring during the springtime when the area is graced with beautiful cherry blossoms that create an atmosphere of serenity and beauty.
One of the best ways to take in the stunning landscape is on a boat cruise around the lake, which can be complemented with the delicious local sake made by many of the city’s sake breweries. You can also try iwagaki (large oysters) from the brackish water of Lake Shinji and other seafood delicacies including Suzuki (Japanese sea bass), sardines, and shrimp.
Shimane is steeped in ancient legends and folklore, and you can explore these connections at the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, a museum dedicated to the Irish author who wrote “The Tale of Genji.” It is a beautiful and fascinating museum that allows you to understand the myths and stories that helped shape modern Japan.
You can also visit a number of museums and art galleries in Shimane to learn about the culture and history of the region. Some of these include the Matsue Castle Museum, the Takayama Art Museum, and the Matsue Prefectural Historical Museum. There are also many art galleries and exhibitions that showcase the work of contemporary artists.
2. Matsue Castle
Matsue Castle is one of only a dozen original castles still standing in Japan. Despite being threatened by fire, earthquakes and anti-feudal demolitions during the Meiji period, the main tower has survived to this day, making Matsue Castle a popular choice for those who want to get a glimpse of Japan’s feudal past.
Within the castle grounds, visitors can walk on dark wood floors and steep stairs worn smooth over centuries. They can also visit different floors of the castle to see relics and historical artifacts. The castle’s darkly colored austerity makes it one of the most beautiful castles in the country, and it is especially stunning when visited during spring (end of March to beginning of April) and autumn (late November).
Outside the castle walls, Matsue Castle Park is a delightful place to walk around. During the spring, it’s a delight to stroll among the cherry trees, camellias, and azaleas that color the grounds. The castle’s Kounkaku was built to entertain the Emperor of Japan if he ever came to Matsue during his tours of the country, and it contains rooms that have been preserved with their original furniture and decorations.
Further down the park is the Jozan Inari-jinja Shrine, a small shrine tucked away in a quiet corner of the castle park. Its torii gates lead down to a series of steep steps, where two guardian foxes watch over worshippers.
In the same area is Gessho-ji, a temple dedicated to the Matsudaira clan that ruled Matsue Domain from 1638 to 1871. Its nine gates and gravestones are arranged in a circular pattern, and the temple’s name is derived from the legend of a giant tortoise that supposedly took nightly strolls through the town wreaking havoc.
Other attractions that are worth visiting include the Shiomi Nawate, a 500m long traditional Japanese street that runs along the castle moat. The street is lined with historic buildings, including former samurai residences and tea ceremony houses, and Lafcadio Hearn’s old residence and museum.
3. Izumo Taisha
Located on the western end of the Shimane Peninsula, Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine is the oldest shrine in Japan. The large shrine gate, said to be the largest in Japan, towers over the surrounding area which bustles with worshippers and visitors. Inside, the shimenawa is one of the most distinctive features; this huge rope of straw hangs in front of Kagura-den, and must be replaced every six years. It represents the god Okuninushi-no-Okami, who, according to legend, helped form the earth and transferred his power to Amaterasu, the sun goddess, creating the world of the gods.
The main hall, or honden, and other buildings at Izumo Taisha were designated National Treasures in 1952. They are built in the traditional style of taisha-zukuri (shrine architecture), and it is thought that this type of structure was first used here. The main building’s hinoki bark roof rises to 24 meters, but legend—supported by archaeological discoveries of enormous pillars—claims that the honden was once twice as high.
Many locals come here to perform a special ritual called “shiokumi,” which involves taking water from the sea in a bamboo container and visiting each of the shrines within the compound, making offerings at each one. This tradition is especially popular during the annual Izumo Festival in October, but if you can’t make it to the festival, you can still participate by bringing water and offering it at each of the shrines throughout the year.
Getting to Izumo Taisha from Matsue is easy, thanks to the Ichibata Railway. Trains leave from Matsue Shinjiko Onsen Station and take about an hour to reach Izumo Taisha. A one-day pass for unlimited rides on the Ichibata trains costs around 1600 yen. Alternatively, you can also head to Izumo Taisha from Matsue by JR train or bus. Book a private tour of Izumo and its shrines with a fully-licensed guide-interpreter who can customize your itinerary based on your interests. All guides hold the nationally-accredited Tour Guide Interpreter Certificate issued by the Ministry of Justice. You can choose from a 6 or 4-hour option, and the guide will tailor your experience based on your needs.
4. Tamatsukuri Onsen
The beauty of Matsue is not limited to the castle town itself and its many shrines, temples, parks, and natural beauty spots. The prefecture is also home to the onsen town of Tamatsukuri, one of Japan’s most famous onsen, known as the “baths of gods.”
A popular legend in Japanese history has it that a feudal lord discovered the hot spring waters of Tamatsukuri when he was recovering from an illness in the 8th century, and was amazed to find his skin became smoother after just a single soak. Today, Tamatsukuri Onsen is known for its beautifying and restorative properties and boasts numerous high-end ryokan (inns) along the small Tamayu River.
Enjoy a luxurious stay at KAI Tamatsukuri, an exquisite traditional Japanese ryokan located in this sacred onsen town. All rooms are equipped with outdoor baths made of either cypress wood or Shigaraki pottery, where you can soak in the natural hot spring water said to have numerous health benefits. Guests are treated to a variety of Kaiseki meals showcasing local seasonal foods from the Matsue and Izumo area.
While staying at KAI Tamatsukuri, explore the town of Matsue on foot. The castle is a short walk from the hotel, as is the famous Yozan Inari Shrine with its hundreds of fox statues. Across the castle moat, stroll the picturesque traditional Japanese street of Shiomi Nawate lined with Edo-period samurai residences and visit the former residence of Lafcadio Hearn, an American writer who became the first Westerner to become a naturalized citizen of Japan.
Whether you are looking for a relaxing getaway, a place to connect with the past and nature, or a chic experience, Matsue has something to offer every traveler. Spend a few days exploring and enjoying the wealth of natural, cultural, and historical sights and experiences that this castle town has to offer.