Warming to Tsuwano: a wintry visit to the town of fish and foxes

by

Special To The Japan Times

The first official gate to the Taikodani Inari Shrine sits at the turn-off to tiny Tsuwano from the circuitous mountain highway that links Yamaguchi and Shimane prefectures. The shrine’s main hall, however, sits on another peak halfway across town, a good five-minute drive away. I let my car idle at the traffic lights near the valley floor, conferring with my travel companion, Elaine, as to our next move. While the town to our right begs us to walk its lantern-lined streets, the threatening clouds above — a complete surprise in the forecast — encourage us to make the final ascent up to the main parking area of Taikodani.

I’d imagined that one of Japan’s five most important Inari shrines would have more than just us as its visitors, since it annually attracts around 1 million people. Today, however, the grounds are completely devoid of worshippers. The silence is punctuated only by the snapping of flags as the standards lining the shrine’s perimeter dance crazily in the strong wind. Trying to ignore the scattering of snowflakes swirling through the air, I approach the only other beings in the complex — a pair of miko-san (shrine maidens) ensconced in a vestibule that doubles as a gift shop. They smile at my request for more information and happily dig up a photocopied English pamphlet.

My 4-year-old daughter darts around counting statues of foxes — the messengers of the goddess Inari — while I learn that in 1773, the local lord summoned the deities from Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto to come reside in Tsuwano. The shrine became the personal prayer locale of the castle residents and even witnessed the 1924 visit of a princess of the Imperial family.

As we wander the grounds, I’m rather surprised that, for a three-century-old complex, Taikodani Inari Shrine fairly glows.

“It was retouched about two years ago,” smiles the younger miko-san when I query her on the paint job. The vermilion buildings would be striking on a normal day, but they seem even brighter now as the white snow gathers in clumps in the railings. What had begun as a gentle early winter squall is now turning into a storm with accumulation.

Out the side of the complex, a tunnel of 1,045 torii gates leads down the mountain, interrupted every few meters by a decorative lantern. We venture part of the way down the slope, before the white-out in the valley below forces us to beat a hasty retreat back to our car at the peak. The road back down the mountain remains black and passable, but my wipers do a steady business of pushing the flakes into fluffy hills on either side of my windshield.

Down on Tsuwano’s main street, we pull off in a lot just past the river and suffer a cold stroll down part of the town’s historic district of Tonomachi. Old white-washed buildings offer glimpses through their wooden entry gates of gnarled pines and well-trod stepping stones. Small water channels run along the edges of the street, replete with orange, white and spotted carp. Allegedly, Tsuwano has more fish than people, though neither they nor the citizens are out in force today. At the end of the street, a pair of statues commemorates Tsuwano’s annual Sagimai festival, where two performers dressed as male and female herons re-enact one of the country’s most traditional dances.

The snow quickly becomes too much for even we visitors to bear, and the warm glow of our guesthouse is too strong to ignore. The proprietress of Minshuku Miyake seems unfazed by the weather, and she enthusiastically guides us through the premises before bouncing back down to the kitchen to make our dinner.

We install ourselves at a table near the purring kerosene heater and admire the parade of dishes that quickly emerges. Appetizers of sashimi, including a unique konnyaku (devil’s tongue) “sashimi” with a spicy honey mustard sauce, sesame tofu and simmered vegetables give way to plates loaded with tempura and prawns. A sukiyaki of beef, onions and mushrooms bubbles cheerfully on the side. We end with the region’s tart apples and a bottle of fresh apple juice we picked up at a farm stand just outside town.

It’s painful to consider leaving the comfort of our well-heated room, but we venture out once more to the base of the mountains. At night, the lanterns that separate the torii tunnels glow like fireflies against the snow-covered hill. In the distance, drumbeats echo from the direction of the shrine’s Sagimai practice center. We climb through a few of the glowing corridors but the snow is still falling thick and fast and our kotatsu (table heater) is calling.

In the morning, a layer of white powder still blankets the hills and the rooftops of town, but the streets are dry when we start our exploration. In daylight, the town loses a bit of the enchanted atmosphere brought on by the snow. We window shop the various craft and pottery outlets on the Tonomachi district’s main street before savoring a morning cup of caffeine.

On the advice of a friend, we leave Tsuwano for the estate of the Hori family. Signage is practically nonexistent as we wind our way through the barren rice paddies and tiny hamlets outside of town. Just when I begin to doubt our route, we round the corner to come upon the long low wall of the imposing villa.

The Hori family moved to Shimane Prefecture at the behest of the Tokugawa Shogunate. As loyal vassals to the newly installed military rulers of Japan, the Horis were given the rights to the copper mine of Muraki, as well as the now-famous Iwami Silver Mine to the northeast. They constructed their villa just in front of the copper enterprise and quickly began raking in their fortune.

While the main villa, rebuilt after a fire in 1788, is an excellent example of Edo Period architecture, it’s the early 20th-century guesthouse — the Rakuzan-so — that makes visitors swoon. Delicate globes made of washi paper illuminate the spacious rooms and shōji screens slide open to reveal the true gem of the property.

From the guesthouse’s polished wraparound porch, it’s hard to decide which view of the hillside Chisen Kaiyushiki garden is most impressive. My first vote goes for the arched bridge over the pond and the massive mossy lantern at the water’s edge. But then I’m drawn to the multi-tiered waterfall that tumbles down the rock face of the mountain at the property’s rear. It’s not until I’m climbing the well-worn steps up to the garden’s tiny shrine that I truly notice the 300-year-old maple, its branches snaking across the blue sky. In fall, I imagine the tree’s fiery leaves would perfectly frame the wooden guesthouse.

It’s nearly noon as we leave the villa, retracing our steps through rural Shimane until we join the road to Hagi, our next destination. The last vestiges of snow have gone; nature has erased all physical reminders of its wintery tantrum the previous night. Despite our joy at the sight of clear skies, there’s no denying the magic of our snowy sojourn in Tsuwano.

Getting there: Tsuwano can be reached on the local JR Yamaguchi Line from Yamaguchi (72 minutes, ¥970). The Taikodani Inari Shrine is a 15- to 20-minute walk from Tsuwano Station to the bottom of the torii tunnel; a further 15-minute climb through the gates takes you to the main hall.

Mitsumasa Anno’s journey in pictures

In the parade of Tsuwano’s numerous tiny museums, the Anno Mitsumasa Museum is a stand-out. Located just a five-minute walk from the town’s train station and inside a beautifully restored building, the museum honors the life and work of famed children’s author Mitsumasa Anno. Known for his detailed pencil drawings in books such as “Anno’s Journey” and “Anno’s ABCs,” Anno was born in Tsuwano and spent a good portion of his life in the small mountain town. His subject matter, however, reflects his love of travel, and his background in mathematics is evident in the detailed angles and precision of his pencil work. The museum not only showcases Anno’s detailed pictures but also boasts a re-creation of the author’s studio, as well as a planetarium that can seat up to 50 people. It’s open daily and admission is ¥800 for adults, with reduced fees for elementary and junior high school students.