Tsuwano, a castle town nestled in a valley in the southwest of Shimane Prefecture, bills itself as a “little Kyoto,” but that’s really an injustice. It has its own distinctive character and is eminently more manageable in size.
In spite of its remote location, Tsuwano is easily accessible, with train service from Masuda in the northeast and Yamaguchi in the southwest as well as being about an hour by bus from Hiroshima and Hagi (among other places). We chose to travel by train from Yamaguchi. On weekends and holidays between May 3 and Nov 3, this delightful trip can be done by steam train (“SL” to the Japanese), although ordinary trains are also available. The journey reminds us that getting there truly is half the fun.
As the train sets out, just after breakfast, everything around us seemed sleepy. The surrounding hills were misty and little was astir. Even the rice paddies seemed to be sleeping. Train trips through rice paddies are interesting at any time of year, as their condition reflects the seasons: untilled in winter and spring, flooded and shimmering in early summer, greening through the summer and turning golden as the harvest season approaches.
The route initially traverses a flat area of farmlets: well-delineated rice paddies with a little “island” of farm buildings on an elevated patch of land in the middle. Some of these clusters of buildings were quite picturesque; tidy and nicely painted with roofs pitched in various directions.
After the train left Yamaguchi Station, it began to climb and we could hear it labor. The train chugged up a narrow valley where the rice paddies formed stairsteps, working their way up the incline, just as the train did, until bamboo and then woodland took over, lush and green. I watched amazed as a hawk swooped across our path and disappeared into the gloom of the forest, into a gap that didn’t even seem big enough for its wingspan.
The train line here is just a single track, a fact that is particularly obvious as we plunge into the blackness of a narrow tunnel. We emerge with a sense that we have truly entered the mountains. We progress through another valley with lots of rice paddies, a few orchards, and scattered villages. We enter another tunnel, emerge into another valley and repeat this a third time, each valley narrower than the last. Finally we reach what feels like “the top,” if for no other reason than that we are no longer climbing. The valley broadens, the train makes a few stops, children wave as the train passes. After another tunnel, the train begins to descend, hugging the side of a deep valley with a river at its bottom.
Upon arrival in Tsuwano, we drop in to the tourist information center in front of the station to pick up maps and brochures. We are delighted to discover that we can rent the Tsuwano Sightseeing Guide, a navigation device with Japanese, English, Chinese or Korean capability providing audio guides, maps and other useful information as we explore the town.
Just a short distance from the station is Honmachi Dori, a cobblestone street that vaguely resembles Kyoto’s Gion District. As we walk down this street in the direction of the Tsuwano River, we encounter galleries, shops and sake breweries (some even provide free tastings). Closer to the river, Honmachi Dori is lined with fast-flowing waterways filled with colorful carp. The Tsuwano Catholic Church, founded at the end of the 19th century by a French missionary, boasts impressive stained glass windows. Next door is a complex of Edo-era buildings that were a clan school and now house a small museum of farm implements and other relics of Tsuwano’s past. On a nearby side street leading back to the main road are shops selling Tsuwano’s famous local hand-made paper. One shop even offers the opportunity to try our hand at papermaking.
Reaching the Tsuwano River, we stay on the left bank and walk upstream, passing through a stone torii leading to the grounds of Yasaka Shrine, and then taking the red torii-lined stairs to Taikodani Inari Shrine. Yasaka Shrine is quite old (albeit boasting a new roof) and relatively simple. Its main claim to fame is that it is the home of Tsuwano’s famous heron dance, performed during the town’s summer festival in late July. The well-appointed Taikodani Inari Shrine, one of Japan’s five great Inari Shrines, was built as a guardian of Tsuwano Castle.
The castle was first built atop the mountain overlooking the river in 1283 and expanded over a period of 400 years. It was destroyed in 1871, along with several other castles, on the orders of the Meiji government. But the extensive stone ramparts remain and can be quite fun to explore. We found the easiest way to reach the castle is to take the chairlift, less than 150 meters down the road from Taikodani Inari Shrine, and then follow the hiking trail. It’s about a 15-minute walk to the top and on the way we passed by the remnants of an old castle guardhouse. The panoramic views of the valley below are yet another reward of making the trek.
Rather than descending via the chair lift, we followed the hiking trail down to Washibara Hachiman Shrine (about an hour’s hike), where a traditional horseback archery competition takes place in mid-April. On the other side of the river from here is the Tsuwano Onsen.
Also on the river’s right bank on the way back to the heart of old Tsuwano are a number of museums featuring Tsuwano’s favorite sons, an antique doll museum and more paper galleries. Just before the bridge leading back to old Tsuwano, we stopped to visit Kyodo-kan, a museum housed in a rebuilt Meiji-style government building. Among the interesting exhibits here are portraits and stories of famous people hailing from Tsuwano, as well as a replica of the “prison boxes” used to torture Christians during the Meiji period.
A number of hidden Christians from Kyushu who had proclaimed their faith in the mistaken belief that the Meiji Restoration would allow them religious freedom, were removed from Kyushu in the 1860s to various towns in western Honshu to be “re-educated,” meaning pressured to give up their Christian faith and assimilate into mainstream Japanese society. Tsuwano hosted a number of these individuals, whose re-education turned out to feature torture and starvation until they apostasized. A popular method was imprisonment in small cells left out in the elements, where many died of starvation or exposure. Otome Pass, in the hills less than a kilometer above Tsuwano Station, was one site of these incidents, which resulted in the deaths of 36 people. In 1951 a chapel was built at the pass to commemorate their sacrifice. Other historical exhibits here also tell the story.
One last “must-see” in Tsuwano is Kakuouzan Yomeiji, the family temple of the former lords of Tsuwano Castle also in the hills above Tsuwano Station. Although very quiet now, in the Edo Period this was a major monastery and center of worship. The main temple still has a thatched roof. Visitors are welcome to enter the temple and walk through its many fine rooms with their painted wooden panels to enjoy the views of the garden behind it.
All of this can easily be done as a two day/one night trip. Stay at one of the traditional “yado” inns near the station to experience the delights and hospitality of Tsuwano more thoroughly.
The SL Yamaguchi-go steam train departs Shin-Yamaguchi at 10:48 a.m. and arrives in Tsuwano at 12:58 p.m. For the return trip, the train departs Tsuwano at 3:19 p.m. and arrives at Shin-Yamaguchi at 5:04 p.m.© Japan Today