Population: 37,000 Area: 553.4 km² /213.7 mi²
Climate: Varied, with hot humid summers and moderate to heavy snow in winter.
JET ALTs: 6 (4 JHS, 2 SHS) JET CIRs: 1
The best way to think of Unnan is as a really big small town. Unnan is not a city in the conventional sense of the term, but rather is an amalgamation of Daito Town, Kakeya Town, Kamo Town, Kisuki Town, Mitoya Town, and Yoshida Village. It has a vast area of mountains, valleys, rice fields, rivers, forests, and small city centers. There is a major roadway (Route 54) running through Unnan on the way to Hiroshima along which can be found many restaurants, convenience stores, shops, gas stations, and gambling arcades. Despite this, Unnan very much has the feel of a small town. Shop options can be limited, especially at night, as many (though not all) businesses close around 8pm.
Now, don’t think that means Unnan has nothing to offer! Unnan has a number of famous sites among its towns and villages. From great waterfalls, ancient “fire” trees, hillside shrines, and rolling mountains, to ancient bronze bells, tatara ironworks, local cafes and restaurants, large summer festivals, and cultural events, whether natural, historical, traditional, or mythological, Unnan has it all! On top of that, Daito Town is one of the best places in Shimane to see fireflies dazzle the night sky in June. While all of these are sights worth seeing, Unnan’s real claim to fame are its bountiful sakura (cherry blossom) trees. Along the Hii riverbed in Kisuki is one of the longest and most breathtaking sakura tunnels in all of Japan. In spring, when the flowers are in full bloom, hundreds of people flock to Kisuki from far and wide for hanami (flower-viewing parties) and the annual Sakura Matsuri (cherry blossom festival.) In neighboring Mitoya, you can find gyoiko (green cherry blossoms) along the Mitoya River. Gyoiko are somewhat rare and bloom about two weeks later than traditional sakura. They are a point of pride in Mitoya and can be identified by hand painted markers set out by the town.
Unnan is primarily a city of agriculture (wait until you try the famed Kisuki milk!) so there aren’t a lot of work opportunities for young people. Unfortunately this means there isn’t much stopping high school graduates from fleeing to bigger cities to look for jobs and enroll in higher education, only returning to the countryside when it comes time to settle down and start a family. However, young teachers are often placed in Unnan during the start of their careers, and the JET community in Shimane is quite active, so you won’t be too starved for the company of young people. Life in Unnan is very laid-back and friendly. Most residents welcome foreigners with open arms and will do all they can to make your life here easier. It’s a serene oasis of nature in a bustling world, and if you ever crave some bigger city adventures, opportunity awaits just a car/train/bus ride away!
- Yaedaki, Ryuzugataki and Kumominotaki Waterfalls: These falls are stunning year-round, and great for swimming in the summer. All three have picnic areas and toilets.
- Yoshida’s Katsura Judas Tree: For a week every spring, the leaves on this tree inexplicably turn a bright, fiery red. A small festival is held annually to celebrate.
- Ancient Bronze Bells (Kamo Iwakura Site): In 1996, 39 dōtaku bells were discovered in Kamo. Dōtaku were ritual bells smelted from bronze and used between the 2nd century B.C.E. and the 2nd century C.E. (the middle Yayoi period). The 39 bells found in Kamo represent the largest number of dōtaku bells excavated from a single site in all of Japan. Although the bells themselves are housed outside of Unnan (in the nearby Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo) the excavation site in Kamo has been preserved as a monument to this important archaeological find.
- Mineji Temple: Located on a small mountain overlooking Mitoya, Mineji’s bell can be heard around town on a clear day. The hike up to the temple (mid-way up the hill), and beyond to the summit, is beautiful year-round. Access to the top of Mineji hill is along an NTT maintenance trail, and the 45 minute walk is well worth it for its stunning views over the surrounding towns.
- Fireflies: Every year in June and July, hundreds of fireflies appear around the river banks in Unnan. Daito Town in particular has specially-constructed walkways around prime viewing spots for insect-loving locals and visitors.
- Sakura (Cherry Blossoms): Two famous cherry blossom sites in Unnan are the Kisuki Sakura Tunnel and the gyoiko (green sakura) in Mitoya. During blooming season in April the paths under these trees are lit with lanterns at sunset, and food stalls offer sweets and hot meals to eat while you take in the view. Popular with picnicking families, groups of friends, and couple, the trees are beautiful whether viewed during daylight or under the stars.
- Tatara Iron Works: Yoshida, along with nearby Okuizumo Town and Yasugi City, is famous for its long history of tatara iron making. The word “tatara” refers to the furnace used in the smelting of this iron, which is known for its quality and strength. At the height of the Iron Age in Japan, Shimane Prefecture produced over 80% of all the iron in the country. Yoshida is proud of its heritage, and visitors can enjoy learning about the process in the village’s museums, which include a preserved tatara furnace. Yoshida also holds an annual event in October, during which skilled volunteers from all over Japan come to Yoshida to participate in a tatara iron-making event. This event is viewable by the public, and not to be missed.
Comforts and Amenities
All JET ALTs and CIRs in Unnan city will have apartments in Mitoya Town. The CIR and junior high school ALTs live in apartments in one building, which is just a short walk from the building where the senior high school ALTs reside. The CIR/JHS ALT apartments are owned by the Unnan City Board of Education, with some necessary appliances provided. The SHS ALT apartments are owned by Mitoya High School and do not provide any appliances. SHS ALTs will be responsible for fully furnishing their own apartments or purchasing/inheriting from their predecessors. Amenities in Mitoya and Kisuki are within easy walking or biking distance from all JET apartments, and amenities in Daito, Kamo, Kakeya, and Yoshida can be accessed by car. All JET ALTs in Unnan city will require a car to get to work.
There are a handful of supermarkets in Mitoya and Kisuki, as well as Kakeya and Daito. There are two large pharmacies in Mitoya, one in Daito, and one in Kakeya, as well as several smaller ones around the city. In Kisuki there is a large department store called Sun Cheriba (Marcherises,) which advertises a bookstore, a 100-yen shop, a supermarket, a clothing store, a hair salon, flower shop, omiyage store, and an attached theater called Cheriba Hall, where several events such as plays, concerts, lectures, and speech contests are held throughout the year. Throughout Unnan there are several other stores including homegoods and hardware stores, a second-hand shop, a shoe shop, and an electronics store.
There are a number of hospitals in Unnan, the largest (and cheapest) of which is Unnan City Hospital in Daito. Each town has a bank and a post office, and there are Sagawa and Yamato transport offices in Mitoya. There are community centers in Kisuki and Mitoya that offer events and classes. Unnan has three high schools (Mitoya, Daito, and Kakeya), seven junior high schools, and fifteen elementary schools. Elementary school ALTs in Unnan are contracted through Interac.
There are many options for keeping fit in Unnan. Apart from the location offering gorgeous nature walks and hikes, the Aspal Community Center in Mitoya offers a large gymnasium for basketball, volleyball, and badminton. There is a small training room at Aspal with treadmills, bikes, and machines, but much of the equipment is old and in need of repair. Aspal also has a number of meeting rooms for hire. In Kisuki, you can find a small but well equipped gym called Sun Work and a 15 meter swimming pool with affiliated onsen. Other sports amenities in Unnan include batting cages, tennis courts, bocce ball, and even bird target golf.
In terms of guest lodging, there is one hotel in Mitoya called Hotel Jōdai. There are also several locally-owned ryokans (Japanese-style hotels) and for the adventurous spirit, there are bungalow-style cabins available for rent at Mineji Temple.
Recommended Onsen (Hot Springs)
- Orochi Yuttari Kan: Located in Kisuki next to Sun Work, this modern onsen is characterised by a steel dragon head on its roof, representing Orochi, a giant serpent from Japanese mythology. This onsen includes both a stone and a wooden bath, two rotenburo (outdoor baths), a sauna, and a 15 meter-long heated pool.
- Izumo Yumura Onsen: Also located in Kisuki, this onsen’s main selling point is its age. At roughly 1,000 years old, it has all the charm you’d expect from an ancient, traditional, wooden Japanese bath. Overlooking the Hii River in Kisuki, this onsen was popular with travelers in centuries past as a stopping-point along the road leading from Hiroshima to Izumo. These days, modern travelers and locals can still relax in its small, quiet wooden and stone-lined baths, including full and partial rotenburo. It’s one of the hidden gems of Unnan.
- Fukatani Onsen: Located in the hills of Mitoya, this onsen is small but has all the charm of a locally-known bathhouse. There are separate men’s and women’s indoor baths providing a quiet and personal atmosphere. Often, the owners offer free tsukemono (pickled vegetables) to guests. It’s a quaint spot filled with inaka (countryside) charm.
Local Community Activities
- Mitoya Taiko: Every Monday evening at 8pm, members of Mitoya Town’s taiko group meet at Aspal Community Center for practice. Some of the members speak a little English and they always go out of their way to help newcomers. The group is very welcoming to ALTs, but it is a serious group with weekly practice and several performances throughout the year, so if you are able to give 100%, this group is the one for you!
- Mitoya Eikaiwa: Every other Thursday, Mitoya Eikaiwa (English conversation) is held in a small conference room at Aspal. It’s free for English speakers to join and a great way to get to know locals in the community. The group’s leader also coordinates events throughout the year, from flower-viewing parties and picnics, to holiday parties and trips to the movies in Izumo. If you like socializing and events, this group is for you!
- Japanese Lessons: Every other Wednesday, beginner Japanese lessons are offered at the community center in Kisuki. Each lesson costs 200 yen, plus the cost of the textbook. Though not particularly rigorous, these lessons can be a great help to new JETs who are living in Japan for the first time.
Things JETs Do in Their Spare Time
One of the great things about living in Shimane is the friendly and active foreign community, and one of the great things about living in Unnan is the large number of foreigners who live an hour or less away. From Unnan, you have easy access to Yasugi, Matsue, Okuizumo, Izumo, Iinan, Kawamoto, and Misato. This makes Unnan a great place to meet friends and get together. Outdoor activities easy to enjoy in Unnan include hiking, camping, biking, running, swimming, skiing/snowboarding, and exploring. If you’re not the outdoor/sporting type, Unnan has a number of cozy cafés offering local treats, a couple of spots for nightlife, an active D&D group, and plenty of JETs to hang out with after work.
Festivals and Town Events
- Cherry Blossom Festivals (Kisuki, Mitoya): Sometime around mid to late March (depending on the weather) the sakura in Shimane begin to bloom. Two of the best places in the prefecture (if not the country) to view them are in Unnan. Kisuki’s claim to fame is its breathtaking sakura tunnel (a path lined by sakura on both sides) along the gorgeous Hii River, which becomes the center attraction for Kisuki’s Sakura Festival in early April, along with food stalls, music, performances, and of course hanami. In Mitoya, long rows of cherry trees frame the Mitoya River, offering breathtaking views, though a markedly more modest festival. Mitoya’s true crown jewel is its collection of gyoiko, which bloom a few weeks after the more common pink blossoms.
- Iruma Rice Planting (Kakeya): Every year in late May, Iruma Village in Kakeya holds a special rice planting event which locals and foreign residents alike are welcome to join. Women dress up in matching traditional outfits and plant rice in unison to the beat of a taiko drum. Men are also welcome to participate as drummers. This event is great for people who don’t mind being at the center of attention, as there is a photo competition every year to see who can get the best shot of the action, and the paparazzi will be out in force.
- Tanabata Matsuri (Daito): The Tanabata Matsuri is a star festival celebrated in summer all across Japan, which celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi. Daito’s festival takes place in early August, and is a lively traditional event celebrated with street food stalls, taiko drumming, fireworks, and parading through the streets carrying tanzaku (wishes written on small pieces of paper and fixed to bamboo branches.)
- Summer Festivals (Mitoya, Kisuki, Kamo): Towns and cities across Japan have Natsu Matsuri (summer festivals) which celebrate the season with festival foods, taiko drumming, Kagura dance, fireworks, and carnival games. The summer festivals in Mitoya, Kisuki, and Kamo are a great opportunity to get out into the (mildly less-humid) evening summer air, meet your neighbors, and maybe make use of that yukata you bought in Kyoto that’s been sitting in the back of your closet.
- Tatara Iron Making (Yoshida): Every year in October, skilled volunteers from across Japan come to Yoshida to make tatara iron using old-fashioned methods. This work is done mainly for cultural celebration and preservation, and the public is welcome to watch at any point as the process unfolds over 24 hours. For those who want to delve into ironworking themselves, there is a forgery in Yoshida that offers ironworking classes where participants can make anything from letter openers to katana swords for as little as 600 yen.
Restaurants and Cafés
- Café Kudata: Also known as “Café With a View,” this small, trendy café offers a spectacular view of the Kisuki valley, train tracks, and the Hii River framed by rolling mountains. They offer light meals, tea and coffee, cakes, and other desserts, as well as free WiFi.
- &Café: This adorable, cozy café in Kisuki opens for lunch and offers teishoku (set meals), tea and coffee, and cakes. The dining tables are made from antique sewing machine tables and lacquered burlap, and the antiques around the café (some of which are for sale!) offer the place a lovely charming atmosphere. There is a small shop area on the first floor which sells locally made crafts, and the second floor offers traditional goods including cloth, pottery, mirrors, and other small furniture items.
- Kitchen Hanamizuki: This restaurant in Mitoya is located on Route 54 (the main road in Mitoya) and offers delicious teishoku, including pork cutlets and seafood salad.
- Patisserie Fleur: This charming dessert shop and bakery offers delicious cakes, pudding, cookies, and other baked goods. Located in Mitoya on Route 54, they have a huge emphasis on local pride and often offer limited items showcasing local ingredients from around Unnan, including jelly made from local sake.
- Sea Jack: Also on Route 54, Sea Jack is a large kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt sushi) restaurant in Mitoya. Most of the plates are 105 yen apiece, so it’s a delicious option for those seeking a more affordable meal.
- Osaka Osho: This Chinese chain restaurant has a store in Mitoya on Route 54. The food is reliable, inexpensive, and they’re open late. It’s one of the only options for takeout in Unnan, and their gyoza is particularly scrumptious.
- Udon Nagaya: This small restaurant in Mitoya is run by a husband and wife. The offer teishoku, nabe (hot pot,) and of course, Udon. If you stop by, try the Katsu Curry Udon. It’s delicious!
- Pasta Felice: Pasta Felice is a tiny Italian place next to the Mitoya River that offers dinner, dessert, and nomihoudai for guests with a reservation. It’s a popular enkai (drinking party) location for locals, and the owners are very kind and welcoming.
- Sachinoya Yakitori: This small local watering-hole is owned by the same people who run Pasta Felice. Sachinoya is an izakaya (Japanese bar) style restaurant that offers grilled chicken kebebs, fried foods, local dishes, salads, and local sake. It’s small and popular, so reservations are recommended.
- Okui: This traditional Japanese restaurant in Kisuki is locally owned and run by very kind people. The menu offers noodles, soups, and a highly recommended ten-don (tempura bowl.)
- Don Shuu: Don Shuu in Mitoya is one of the best locally owned Chinese restaurants in Shimane. The food is a little pricey, with dishes around 700 to 900 yen, but they are easily shared family style among friends. For those who love spicy food, Don Shuu is the place for you; and for those who don’t, there are a number of delicious ramen options.
- Okuizumo Winery: Despite its name, Okuizimo Winery is located in Kisuki, just a 5 minute drive from the center of town. Famed for being the smallest winery in Shimane, the restaurant overlooks its vineyards with beautiful views year round. They offer fantastic lunch sets, and in winter you can even have cheese fondue. Of course, there are plenty of options for wine tasting available.
There are a number of small family run bars throughout Unnan. Some of them are used as private venues for enkai (drinking parties) but many are open to the general public. So, if you’re feeling adventurous, why not wander in and get to know your neighbors?
Although JETs often opt to travel to nearby Matsue or Izumo for a night on the town, here are some recommendations for those seeking something a bit closer to home:
- Star Karaoke Box: With more than 10 private karaoke boxes for rent, Star is a great option for private parties. Grab a couple of friends and head down to Mitoya to belt out your favorite tunes! Star is a popular location for nijikai (second parties) following enkai.
- Thumb Manga Café & Karaoke Box: Located in Mitoya, this internet cafe has it all, from manga to karaoke, snacks, and even shower facilities!
- Izakayas (Japanese-Style Pubs): Izakayas are plentiful in Unnan, and there are even a couple of larger restaurants capable of catering group bookings. Serving traditional Japanese pub food, (gyoza, French fries, fried chicken, grilled meat, Japanese sprits and draft beer) these places have a laid back (if a bit smoky) atmosphere. Two recommendations are Hakkenden, a traditional Izakaya, and Sachinoya, a new trendy bar under the same management as Pasta Felice that offers local dishes, drinks from local breweries, yakitori (grilled chicken,) and fantastic salads.
Anything is possible from Unnan! All ALTs placed in Unnan will require a car to travel to and from their assigned schools. With your fabulous four-wheeled ticket to adventure, the whole of Japan is your oyster! Below are a few tips for traveling by land, sea, and sky.
It can never be overstated how much freedom your car will grant you. From Unnan, anywhere in Shimane can be easily made into a destination day trip. You can also explore Tottori, Okayama, and Hiroshima prefectures. Here are some travel times for Shimane cities and other popular destinations. To learn more about a nearby city, check out their page via the links at the bottom of this page!
Matsue- Shimane’s capital city is just 45 minutes away by car; 35 if you take the expressway. Izumo- One of the most culturally diverse cities in Shimane, you can arrive in Izumo in just 30 minutes. Okuizumo- 30 minutes. Iinan- 45 minutes. Yasugi- 1 hour. Oda- 1 hour. Misato- 1 hour. Kawamoto- 1 hour 30 minutes. Ohnan- 1 hour 45 minutes. Gotsu- 1 hour 45 minutes. Hamada- 2 hours 15 minutes. Masuda- 3 hours. Tsuwano- 3 hours 45 minutes; 3 hours 10 minutes on the expressway. Yoshika- 3 hours 50 minutes; 2 hours 45 minutes on the expressway. Sakaiminato, Tottori- 1 hour 15 minutes. Yonago, Tottori- 1 hour 25 minutes; 1 hour on the expressway. Tottori City- 3 hours; 2 hours 30 minutes on the expressway. Hiroshima City- 3 hours; 2 hours 15 minutes on the expressway.
There is a small train station in Kisuki, but the trains are very infrequent at this rural station. The train ride to Matsue however, is gorgeous, and everyone should experience it at least once. If you’re going on a long-distance train journey, it’s recommended that you set out from Izumo or Matsue stations. From there, you will have access to the entirety of JR West, with the ability to transfer to JR Shinkansen lines from Okayama and Hiroshima stations. There are a few specialty train lines in Shimane worth checking out, including the Sunrise Izumo Train (an overnight train between Tokyo and Izumo,) The Twilight Express (a luxury sightseeing sleeper-train,) and the Okuizumo Orochi Train (a sight-seeing train that travels deep into the mountains of Shimane.)
From Shinji or Matsue stations, you will have access to busses that run to several major cities including Osaka, Tokyo, and the infamous 500-yen bus from Matsue to Hiroshima. (Don’t forget to bring your passport for booking!) For overnight buses, the Willer Highway Bus offers cheap fares as well as options for female-only seating.
By Boat (yes, really!)
Just a car-ride away are the Shichirui and Sakaiminato Ferry Ports, where you can hop on a ferry to Shimane’s gorgeous Oki Islands, South Korea, or even Russia! Who do you know who’s taken a boat to Russia? There’s a rumor going around that the ferry features a statue of a dinosaur on the main deck.
There are two airports easily accessible from Unnan. The largest is Hiroshima Airport in Mihara, which offers international flights as well as flights across Japan. The Izumo airport, while smaller, is much closer to Unnan and offers free long-term parking and several domestic flights per day. One of the best ways to travel from Izumo Airport is via Fuji Dream Airlines, which offers cheap daily flight services to Shizuoka, Sendai, Nagoya, Aomori, Hanamaki, and Fukuoka.