Tucked between the mountains and the winding Gonakawa River surrounded by trees, rice fields, flowers, and less than 6000 people, Misato Town is the hidden gem of the Shimane prefecture. If I am making this town sound like a Robert Frost poem then I feel like I may be underselling it. While it boasts no grand shrines, famous museums, or major cultural events there is beautiful scenery around every turn in the road and the smiling faces of locals who greet you warmly upon arrival. The sheer excitement of seeing new foreign faces will surely be the talk of town (you’ll likely be the gossip at the grocery store for 2 weeks) and after you leave you’ll find you have several new Japanese friends in your phone contacts who will invite you to harvest rice or make mochi at their houses. The pace of life is slow and relaxed, perfect for spending a lazy day kayaking or fishing in the river in warm months or gathering at a friend’s house to enjoy nabe under a kotatsu during the winter. The outdoors are something to be enjoyed and relished in this town as it offers a kayak and canoe village where you can tour the rivers, camping grounds with beautiful views, fly fishing, a spectacular space themed playground with zip lines (and an actual field of grass — you’ll understand how exciting this is after living here for a few months), and a myriad of hiking trails that are full of gorgeous little waterfalls and shrines along the way. Misato is also a mere 15 minute drive to the famous Mt. Sanbe, the highest peak in Shimane. You can climb to the top of one of three majestic peaks and look down on Misato and other surrounding towns as you breathe in the fresh mountain air. After your hike you can soak in one of the 8 onsens in the surrounding area and enjoy a delicious and well earned burger at Sanbe Burger.
Culturally, Misato is famous for its Iwami kagura and there are several events throughout the year where you can take in the fascinating shows whether it’s during the cultural festival at the elementary school (you have not lived until you experience the adorableness of kodomo kagura) or during the fall when the village of Daiwa lights 1000 bamboo lanterns and kagura is performed late into the night in a local temple’s outdoor area. You will bring a chair, cold beers, purchase some takoyaki from the tiny matsuri stalls and then be transported to another time in Japan. Due to the community being mostly an older population there is no shortage of mentors or teachers to be found for traditional Japanese arts. Calligraphy, tea ceremony and ikebana are just a few of the pursuits you can enjoy in your free time. If you miss speaking English (and with a town where you may be the only foreigner – you will) there is a fabulous international language group that meets to practice English and teach you Japanese once a week that I highly recommend attending.
Before arriving in Misato I was terrified I’d never make friends or go out as I am the only JET in town and I spoke no Japanese, but I have found the community to be kind and welcoming and the natural surroundings to be breathtaking. On my daily drive to work, I often stop near the top of the mountains where the river twists and shimmers with morning light below and take a mental picture of it all. Misato’s charm and beauty are certainly not lost on my JET friends who visit and often remark that it is indeed one of the most beautiful places in our prefecture. As a very people oriented person I was very nervous about being social and while I may have to drive a bit further to visit with other ALTs or friends I find the peace, quiet, kindness, and relaxed pace of life in my town have been conducive to enjoying and pursuing hobbies such as photography, hiking, calligraphy, and writing. I have also made wonderful friends through my language group and through everyday activities such as going to the gym, grocery shopping or eating at local restaurants. Japanese hospitality is alive and well in Misato and before you know it people will be smiling and calling out your name as you stroll down the street.
- Canoe Village: A lovely little spot situated on the Gonakawa River where you can camp, kayak, or canoe. Guided tours of the river are offered along with kayak lessons for newbies or options to go out and explore on your own. I’ve spent a few nights camping along the river here and the night sky on a summer night is something to behold.
- Golden Utopia: The local gym in Kasabuchi offers a weight room, treadmills, bikes, tennis courts and an awesome indoor pool complete with a totally amazing tube waterslide. There are several hot tubs to soak in after swimming laps, a sauna if you are more hardcore than myself, and of course a little onsen for your soaking enjoyment. The complex also has a restaurant, an amazing playground and a community center that will hold arts and crafts classes on occasion.
- Onsens: There are several onsens scattered throughout Misato and the surrounding area. Mt. Sanbe has 8 onsens around the mountains – the best being Sanbe Onsen (the outdoor bath is beautiful in the winter). Misato also has Daiwa Sou and Yugakaiso onsen to name a few. Onsens are terrific and a wonderful way to relax and unwind after a hard day.
- Daiwa Shokudo: My favorite restaurant in town is owned and run by the in-laws of a former ALT who married a Japanese man and settled in Misato. The owners of the restaurant are so kind and the food is delicious. The cook was trained in Tokyo before he moved back to his hometown to open a restaurant and be closer to his family. From the umeshu made by the 90 year old grandmother to the fabulous Japanese and Chinese dishes that are made here I guarantee you are going to love this place. IfIf you’re very lucky Toshio will take you back to the kitchen and show you how to make his famous mabou tofu!
Golden Utopia Gym has a nice indoor pool for swimming laps or relaxing, aerobics classes, treadmills, weight machines, outdoor tennis courts, and a big playground and green space. The canoe village in Kasubuchi has a pool that is open in the summer months as well.
Japanese Cultural Activities JETs Have Participated In
I take a calligraphy class once a month with a group of elementary school students in town that is great fun. In addition to calligraphy there are opportunities in town to learn tea ceremony, ikebana, and pottery to name a few. If there is something you are particularly interested in, just ask around and you’ll find that someone will have a friend of a friend who is married to their cousin who teaches what you are interested in. This is how it works in a town as small as Misato. It’s definitely part of the charm.
Things JETs Do in Their Spare Time
The international language group (Halo Halo) meets once a week at a local temple in town. The group is wonderful and so helpful if you have questions, concerns, etc about life in Misato Town. I joined the gym in the winter when the weather started getting bad and enjoy swimming most days after school. I also spend a lot of time after school going on walks, taking pictures and exploring. I often meet up with other JETs who live nearby at least once a week for dinner to get in some bonding time and English speaking outside of school. A group of us from Kawamoto, Ohnan and Gotsu started a weekly “family dinner” tradition where we’d try to get together for a meal at a local restaurant or someone’s house as well. Camping is also quite a bit of fun in my area and you can introduce your other JET friends to the real inaka as you enjoy a campfire and night under the stars.
Festivals and Town Events
- Obon Festival (mid August): Many people return to Misato Town to celebrate and remember their ancestors for this holiday. On the first night of Obon there is a little festival behind Daiwa Green Road Station. A stage is set up for a concert and kagura and delicious matsuri food such a yakisoba, takoyaki, and karage are sold. The second night of Obon includes fireworks over the river as well as people releasing floating paper lanterns on to the river. The sight is quite lovely and a wonderful photo opportunity. On the third night of Obon there is traditional dancing at many local temples with people dressed in yukatas as they sing and dance around a raised platform. I have participated in the dancing and singing and it’s something not to be missed.
- Aki Matsuri (fall festival): This happens the second or third weekend in October. In the morning children in brightly colored yukatas will gather near Daiwa Green Road and have a small procession that eventually meets up with other parties from different parts of town. You can join the parade and wave a bamboo branch around as you walk through town. The whole parade eventually marches up to a small temple and there is ceremonial marching and carrying of the temple god in his holy box. The boys from town, dressed in their mothers’ bright kimonos and aprons then do some incredible drumming on the hillside. The temple ground is lit up with hundreds of bamboo candle lanterns in the evening and a kagura performance is given on the temple’s stage.
- Harvest Festival (November): In the Ochi end of town there is a harvest festival in November that includes lots of craft and food booths much like an American town fair. There are also costumed team races which are usually quite funny to watch. Usually there is a team of men in fundoshi (traditional Japanese underwear) which will incite hilarious shrieks from the women in town.
- Rice Planting (Spring): The timing for this depends on the season but you can just ask around and the locals will give you information. Women dress in colorful yukata uniforms with straw hats and then plant rice while children play the drums and Japanese flute. Many people go to watch the ceremony and if you ask early enough, you may be able to participate as well.
- Hanabi Taikai (Firework Rally): Misato’s hanabi taikai takes place on a late Saturday in July. It happens down the river in the Ochi section of town just after turning off Rt. 375 going towards Kawamoto Town. The festival starts at 6 with competitions for children and later there will be a concert and kagura. Of course delicious matsuri food and plenty of beer will be available for consumption as well. The fireworks start after dark and are a beautiful sight as they light up the night sky over the Gonakawa.
Restaurants and Nightlife
I can’t lie to you – there isn’t much night life in Misato. There are two or three small bars run by locals and one tiny karaoke bar in the Daiwa part of town. I go away most weekends when there isn’t a special event in Misato in order to enjoy night life in some of the bigger towns/cities in the prefecture.
- Miyoshi City (Hiroshima prefecture) is a mere 40 minute drive from the apartment and Miyoshi features a large grocery store that sells some foreign foods, a big electronics store, a Uniqlo and many other shops and restaurants.
- Oda City is a forty-five minute drive from the apartment and a nice place to meet up with other JETs coming from other parts of the prefecture. The JETs in Oda are also a notoriously fun bunch who are always up for having a good time.
- Hiroshima is one of the best road trips from Misato is to Hiroshima City which takes about 2 hours and fifteen minutes by car if you avoid the highway tolls and about 1 hour and fifty minutes if you decide to splurge and take the expressway. Hiroshima is a wonderful city full of great stores, foreign foods and fun night life.
My biggest travel tip about living in Misato is to get used to driving often and far. I no longer think it’s insane to drive 45 minutes each way to meet a fellow JET for dinner in a neighboring town. In fact, anything short of a two hour drive seems like nothing to me anymore. Be safe on the narrow country roads and be sure to use your mirrors and look out for monkeys, old people, wild boar and raccoon dogs on the road.