The town of Tsuwano is nicknamed the Little Kyoto of the San-in Region, and for good reason. The stone road of Tonomachi street exhibits traditional samurai houses, the historical Yorokan Clan school, and water canals filled with enormous koi. But that’s not all Tsuwano has to offer. With attractions such as the massive Taikodani Inari Shrine, multiple famous sake breweries, the Yamaguchi Steam Locomotive, and Tsuwano Castle Ruins, outdoor and cultural enthusiasts alike can enjoy the historical atmosphere of this Japanese valley.
In addition to its general attractions, Tsuwano is incredibly famous for its cultural heritage events. The spring plays host to Yabusame (traditional horseback archery), while the summer offers visitors the chance to see Sagi Mai (the heron dance) that has been performed for over 200 years. Local food and fireworks festivals round out the other seasons, making it worthwhile to check in and see what the locals are up to at any time of year. Nestled under the shadow of Mt. Aono, Tsuwano is small and humble, but its year-round beauty is unmatched throughout Japan.
- The Taikodani Inari Jinja: A gigantic Shinto shrine sitting on top of a mountain. Visitors have the option of walking underneath over 1000 red torii gates to reach it. Be on the lookout for white fox figurines.
- Tonomachi Street: Step back in time to the Edo period where being surrounded by white walls, wooden gates, and carp-filled moats was considered normal.
- The Catholic Church and the Chapel of St. Mary: The former is dedicated to an old Catholic missionary and the latter to Japanese Christians imprisoned and tortured under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The church remains active to this day and, for a little Japanese flavor, offers tatami mats in place of pews.
- Tsuwano Castle Ruins: Originally constructed in the 1200s, Tsuwano Castle was used and expanded upon for over 600 years. While only its stone foundations remain today, the view from the top of the mountain is stunning. For those looking for a morning hike, in the fall, mists enshroud the valley, making the sunrise over the “sea of clouds” an unforgettable experience.
- The Yamaguchi Steam Locomotive: Running on weekends during the spring, summer, and fall months, this old-fashioned steam engine runs from Tsuwano to Shin-Yamaguchi and barely costs more than a regular train ticket. It’s a perfect weekend experience for those who want to travel in style.
- Hori Mansion Gardens: A historic mansion filled with intricate woodwork leading into a gorgeous garden. The Hori family was involved in local bronze mines and the Iwami Silver Mine in Oda. They used their amassed fortune to invest in medicine, funding a hospital next to their villa. In recent years, visitors are able to eat at a farm-to-table cafe at the old hospital and then enjoy the natural beauty of the Hori Gardens.
- Yomeiji Temple: The family temple of the Tsuwano district lords of old, Yomeiji Temple has an ancient-styled thatch roof and a relaxing garden hidden away in the back. The monks also offer zen meditation for those who express an interest prior to their visit.
- Ondaki and Mendaki: Two waterfalls lying between Tsuwano and Nichihara. They are included within the Hyakkeizu, a collection of 100 paintings from the end of the Edo period. They also make a perfect summer getaway for those looking to get off the beaten path and enjoy the cool water.
- The Anno Art Museum: While most of the materials are in Japanese, this museum boasts hundreds of watercolor paintings from Anno Mitsumasa, an illustrator for children’s books and recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. There is also a miniature planetarium connected to the museum with a narration that Anno performed himself.
- Mt. Aono: A picturesque mountain that overlooks Tsuwano and the surrounding valley. Perfect for a day hike, the main trailhead is a 10 minute drive from downtown.
- Mt. Azoji: The highest single-standing mountain in Shimane Prefecture. While navigating this area requires a car and patience, Mt. Azoji is full of hiking trails, wild wasabi, and nature enthusiasts. Be careful in the winter, as the trails are often covered in snow.
- Nagomi no Sato: A rest stop near Tsuwano with an onsen, restaurant, and local produce stand. On weekends they often have special events and Iwami Kagura performances.
Japanese Cultural Activities JETs Have Participated In
- Some JETs have joined a local choir, participating in events throughout the Iwami region.
- Tsuwano is deeply connected to Japanese culture and music. One JET participant took koto lessons from a local expert.
- Two local taiko groups (one in Tsuwano and one in Hikimi) are good options for JETs who have an interest in this powerful form of music. Or if you like to dance, the Yasokoi group combines traditional and modern Japanese dance in a mesmerizing style.
- Become a tour guide or volunteer at the Heritage Center in town!
Things JETs Do in Their Spare Time
- Create an original blend of tea at the Komien Kamiryo Tea Store
- Hike the area using the Chugoku Nature Trail, Mt. Aono paths, or even just to the Taikodani Shrine
- Watch Iwami Kagura during special weekend performances
- Attend local pop-up book cafes or hang out at the cat cafe in town
- Make miso, yuzu-kosho, and other traditional Japanese seasonings during special cooking events
- Local badminton, soft volleyball, baseball, and futsal leagues are just what a JET needs to satisfy their competitive edge. Some restaurants also hold special dinners during the month.
Festivals and Town Events
- The Fox Wedding Ceremony: A recently revived custom that takes place in February. A married couple dons white fox masks and elaborate costumes while they parade from Tonomachi Street to the Taiko-Dani Inari Shrine. Attendees often wear kimonos to celebrate.
- The Otome-Toge Festival: A Catholic festival that pays homage to the Christian martyrs of the Edogawa Period. This event takes place in May each year.
- Yabusame Horseback Archery: Tsuwano’s pride and joy, this traditional festival is incredibly rare throughout Japan. Moreover, the Tsuwano horseback archery range is the only remaining of its kind, making it special even amongst enthusiasts. Visitors from all over the country gather to witness the archers attempt to hit their targets while galloping by on horseback. The festival is conducted in the spring under the blooming cherry blossoms.
- The Koi Koi Koi Matsuri. Tsuwano’s summer festival with local performances and fireworks.
- The Nichihara Fireworks Festival. Enjoy a fireworks show over the Takatsu River in early August.
- The Sagi-Mai: One of the most famous events in Tsuwano, the “Heron Dance” has been performed for over 500 years since it was brought in from Kyoto. Now, Tsuwano is the only place in Japan where this dance can be seen in its original form. The Heron Dance is performed twice in July, following different routes throughout Tsuwano.
- Imoni Fair: In the fall, Tsuwano hosts an “Imoni: Great Three” festival where local chefs prepare a traditional Japanese stew from three different regions. It’s a great time to try local delicacies as the local sake stores provide samples during the event as well.
- Chestnut Week: Tsuwano is known for its chestnuts. In the fall, be on the lookout for local restaurants incorporating them into their dishes. From pizza to ice cream, this week has it all. Also, be on the lookout for “pick your own” chestnut events and activities where chestnuts are used in traditional crafts.
Restaurants and Nightlife
- The Cardboard Box Cat Cafe: A hidden gem, the drink menu is quite limited, but the cats and music make up the difference. There is no base fee for playing with the cats, and the cafe itself makes an excellent space for working on a project or curling up with a good book. Free wifi.
- Pinot Rosso: Italian food and some of the best pasta around. The front of the store also carries homemade cakes and breads that are available for takeout or special order.
- Kureha Cafe: A cute cafe run for decades by a local couple. The omurice is their specialty, but the curry, pasta, and dessert options are also worth a visit.
- Artigiano: An excellent option for those craving pizza or pasta. They also have a large variety of wines and other alcoholic beverages. Reservations are recommended to get a table.
- Camellia: A small restaurant with a variety of home-cooked options. Be on the lookout for their “Dachou Curry” (using ostrich meat) and Mayonnaise Ramen!
- Chisha no Ki: A great option for vegetarians or vegans. This soba shop is also packed with chestnut goods that the owner makes from scratch using local ingredients.
- Inakamon: A 5-minute drive from downtown Tsuwano, this family-run restaurant serves Japanese-style steaks and hamburger steaks. Enjoy a vista out over the Tsuwano valley while satisfying your meat craving.
- Minoya: The most “Japanese” setting you’ll find for a casual lunch, this restaurant boasts traditional decor and a thatched roof. Their menu includes soba, udon, and other traditional fare.
- Sara no Ki: A mixture of a Japanese cafe from the 50s and an omiyage-store, this is the perfect place to grab tea and cake in the afternoon. They also offer an option for diners to eat “Uzume-Meshi,” a Tsuwano specialty, while enjoying a view of a Japanese garden.
- Hyotan Yazawa: A bar with personality and good food and beverages as well. Despite its location in rural Japan, visitors will feel like they’ve teleported to a more tropical lifestyle.
- Naniwa: Kansai-style okonomiyaki, rice bowls, and noodle dishes. Good prices for a good amount of food.
- Creperie Ito: A modern cafe in Nichihara that serves both sweet and savory crepes. An excellent location for enjoying a coffee along the riverside or for a tasty lunch on your way into Tsuwano. (limited hours)
- Aoki. For when you’re craving sushi.
- Tokumasa. A large selection of dishes including tempura, fried chicken, and baked fish.
- Gengoro: A store that serves wild boar meat. Local hunters bring in their catches and the owners carve and prepare the meat themselves. The Shishi Nabe is especially delicious.
- Dajima: an affordable and good small cafe on the road, that’s actually open on Wednesdays (most restaurants are closed on Wednesday here)
- Kate: Next to the Hori Gardens, this farm-to-table cafe is tucked away in a refurbished Edo-style hospital. A perfect place to grab curry or to enjoy freshly picked vegetables, Kate also sells spices and local artisan crafts.
Getting to Tsuwano
- Masuda: 40 minutes by car/train
- Matsue: 3 hours by express train, 4 hours by car
- Hiroshima: 2.5 hours (2 hours using toll roads) by car; 2.5 hours by bus via Nichihara
- Hagi: 1.5 hours by car
- Yamaguchi: 1.5 hours by car/train