- San'in Travel Diary Vol.4 -
Hi, I’m Tom Miyagawa Coulton and I’m a photographer and writer currently living on a small island in Hiroshima. I’m back in the San’in area, this time to watch a kagura performance and walk along the Shinmon Avenue to Izumo Taisha - one of Japan’s most venerated shrines.
By Tom Miyagawa Coulton
If it wasn’t for the red lanterns, the Sanku Shrine on Route 186 was easy to miss. In the dark, the lights guided the visitors who came into the shrine one after another.
Inside, the stage was set and the anticipation grew. Everyone had come to watch a performance of ‘kagura’ – a traditional Shinto theater performance.
Kagura is massively popular in western Japan, and especially in Shimane Prefecture. As soon as you leave the station at Hamada, you can see its influence on billboards and signs throughout the city.
In the shrine, the musicians took their positions and began their distinctive high-pace melody. The speed of the rhythm controlled by the taiko drummer dictated the tempo throughout the performance.
As soon as the actors came on stage, I knew this was not going to be a subdued affair. The golden threads of the costumes glistened bright as the actors weaved and twirled through their routines with vigor. Being so close to the stage in the tiny shrine meant I could literally feel every jump and every clash of their swords.
The main event was a rendition of the popular tale of ‘Orochi’ – where the hero Susano defeats an eight-headed serpent. The performance lasted for 45 lively minutes, ending when Susano defeats the last of the fire-spitting serpent heads. After the dust settled, there was time for us to take pictures and try on the costumes.
The kagura performances are held every weekend at this shrine just outside the city, with a different local kagura troupe performing every week. This was a memorable evening. I’d love to be back.
I met my Tour Guide-Interpreter Ritsuko Yamamoto in front of the 23-meter-tall stone torii gate. It was the beginning of the Shinmon Avenue ( Shinmon-dori )- a line of 80 shops and restaurants on the approach to the famous Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine. The torii gate also marked the traditional boundary between our world and the spiritual world.
A few meters from the enormous gate is the beautiful retro train station of Izumo Taisha-mae. Built in 1930, the trains run on a single line between Izumo and Matsue City, passing the beautiful Shinji Lake. For those not traveling by car, this is the perfect way to visit Izumo.
The majority of shops on Shinmon Avenue were founded in the last ten years as part of an initiative by local residents to regenerate the area. According to Ritsuko, there are two popular local dishes in Izumo – a delicious wholegrain buckwheat soba noodle and a soybean and mochi dessert called ‘ zenzai ’. You can find them served in most of the restaurants on the street.
Towards the top of Shinmon Avenue, we came across Fukunowa – a shop dedicated to pufferfish-based foods. Why pufferfish? It’s all to do with luck. The Japanese for pufferfish ‘fugu’ sounds very similar to ‘fuku’ – the Japanese word for good luck. They also sell a special pufferfish soup usually reserved for Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine’s high priest’s family.
Across the road we visited the popular Menoya store. This shop is famous for crafting stones and crystals into the distinctive shape of a ‘magatama’. These are small amulets shaped like one side of a yin and yang symbol. The amulets have been worn by the Japanese since prehistoric times and still prove popular today. In Menoya, they have pre-cut stone amulets of all shapes and sizes, some made from highly rare crystals and gemstones. Also, take a look at the biggest magatama in the world hanging in the center of the shop. This beast is made from pure quartz and weighs a whopping 180kgs.
Having browsed the shops of the Shinmon Avenue – all that was left to do was visit the shrine.
This article is the forth in this series. Follow our Facebook account for notifications on the latest articles.