Many of Japan’s best tourist destinations have been preserved due to their locations well off the beaten path. The town of Tsuwano sits in a valley in western Shimane Prefecture near the border with Yamaguchi Prefecture. It is known as the Little Kyoto of the San-in Region and is highly recommended for travelers willing to make a little extra effort in order to have fantastic sightseeing spots all to themselves! And, once you’ve reached Tsuwano, almost every major attraction can be reached on foot from the train station.
Upon arrival, pick up an English map at the tourist information center in front of the station. Tsuwano’s ‘heart’ is a long main street lined with historic buildings. The area was originally merchant and samurai districts that supported Tsuwano Castle. As for the castle, only ruins remain, but they are worth a visit and should be the first stop on your itinerary.
Five minutes by taxi from Tsuwano Station is a chair lift that will take you most of the way up to the ruins. It might also be possible to hike up, but the trail is steep and could be closed due to construction (ask before you choose this option).
Be aware that once you reach the top, it will be another 15 minute walk from the chair lift to the heart of the castle ruins. Some of the walk is through construction and, unfortunately, repairs are at a snail’s pace due to a lack of funding. (Another reason to visit – Tsuwano needs your tourist dollars to help maintain its heritage). Once you reach the summit, sit down and take in the amazing view. The townscape of Tsuwano is especially beautiful due to the red roof tiles made of local clay that cover the traditional buildings below.
Just up the street from the bottom of the chairlift is one of Japan’s five most important Inari shrines, Taikodani Inari Jinja. The shrine was established in 1773 to protect the castle from harmful spirits. The shrine has a long ‘tunnel’ of over 1000 torii gates, which are reminiscent of Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine. The tunnel is impressive and is usually void of any other tourists.
At the bottom of the torii gate ‘tunnel’ is a lovely riverside walk and the far end of Tonomachi-dori, Tsuwano’s main street. It is lined with white mortar-walled storehouses, traditional samurai residences, and man-made canals filled with colorful carp. Spend time exploring here and dine on some local specialties.
Along Tonomachi-dori, stop in for a look at the interior of the Tsuwano Catholic Church. This historic structure has Western stained glass windows and, instead of pews, a unique tatami mat floor. Also wander around the Hanko Yorokan, which was originally built in 1786 as an educational facility and is now a folklore museum. *Closed for renovation until spring 2019.
About five minutes walk outside the town center is Kakuouzan Yomeiji, the family temple of the Tsuwano Castle feudal lords. Originally built in 1420, it has a thatched roof and is especially beautiful in autumn. Visitors can wander the entire temple and should take some time to sit and enjoy its garden.
Up a narrow path, in a forest clearing nearby, sits the Otome Toge Chapel of Saint Maria. It was built in 1951 in memory of Christians who were tortured and died here in the late 19th century. Read this excellent article before visiting.
Back in the center of town, Tonomachi-dori becomes Honmachi-dori. This stone-paved section is lined with traditional buildings, some of which have been converted into art galleries, local craft shops, etc. A favorite is the souvenir shop, Ebiya, which has a wonderful selection of handmade items. There are two breweries where you can do some sake tasting, Kasen Shuzo and Furuhashi Shuzo. Also, visit the Tsuwano-cho Japan Heritage Center for a look at the Tsuwano Hyakkeizu, a collection of 100 pictures depicting Tsuwano sights and customs during the Edo Era.
As it is impossible to visit, and truly enjoy, all of the sights listed above in a single day, an overnight stay is highly recommended. One of the highlights of visiting Tsuwano are evening performances of Iwami Kagura. Kagura is a theatrical performance with traditional music that is dedicated to the Shinto deities of Japanese mythology. All the musicians and actors are locals, but their performances are amazing and watching them was one of the most enjoyable cultural experiences I’ve ever had in Japan. Aim to visit when a performance is scheduled or travel to the region on a tour with Heartland Japan – attending a Kagura performance is a central part of their itinerary.
Almost all of the accommodation choices in Tsuwano are small family-run Japanese inns. I have stayed at Meigetsu Ryokan and would highly recommend it. It is a simple, lovely place. The inn’s owner is very friendly and if you contact them in advance they are able to accommodate most special food requirements. The meals, focusing on local specialties, were amazing. A nice ‘extra’ – female guests can get dressed in yukata (casual kimono) and walk around town. It is also helpful that some kagura performances are held in building directly across the street. See the accommodations list below for other options.
If you are a museum lover, there are a number of them in town. Three are dedicated to famous ex-residents: photographer, Shinsei Kuwabara; an illustrator of children’s books, Misumaso Anno; and novelist, Ogai Mori. Other museums cover Tsuwano history, folklore, washi paper, and antique dolls. For those who like craft-making, visit the souvenir shop and restaurant, Sara-no-ki. The shop sells locally made washi paper products and also offers paper making classes.
The coolest way to reach Tsuwano is by steam locomotive. On weekends from March to November, there is one round trip per day, from JR Shin-Yamaguchi Station. Advanced seat reservations are required.
Limited Express trains also travel between Tsuwano and Shin-Yamaguchi Stations (60 minutes), stopping at Yamaguchi Station along the way. Travel by shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Yamaguchi takes about 4 1/2 hours.
If you fly into Hagi-Iwami Airport, there is a private taxi service that will take you directly to Tsuwano for only 2000 yen (100 minutes). Or, take a bus to Masuda Station and an express train from there. The trip takes about 90 minutes total.
Tsuwano is also accessible by bus from a variety of places, including Hiroshima and Hagi.
Meigetsu Ryokan: Lovely inn located just off the main street. 13 Japanese style rooms, all with toilets & some with baths – note that five of them have old-style floor toilet.
Wataya Onsen Ryokan: The town’s only inn with a natural onsen. Japanese style rooms with futons or beds.
Tsuwano-no-yado Yoshinoya: Rooms with futons or beds. Traditional building that has been nicely renovated.
Tsuwano Machiya Stay: Two lovely traditional Japanese homes for rent – one holds up to 5 guests, the other, up to 10 guests.
Tsuwano Hotel: 15 minute walk from station (in opposite direction than sightseeing spots). Single and twin rooms with beds.
Wakasagi-no-yado: Small inn with 7 Japanese rooms, no private baths.
Hoshi Ryokan: Small inn with 6 Japanese rooms. All share bath/toilets.
Minshuku Miyake: Small inn with 6 Japanese rooms.
Haradaya: Small inn with 6 Japanese rooms.
Ryokan Koraku: 25 Japanese rooms, 12 with bath and toilet.
Ekimae Business Hotel Tsuwano: 16 Western-style rooms with bath and toilet.
For a tailor-made trip to the area, contact Heartland Japan. https://heartlandjapan.com/tailor-made-trip/