Unnan is one of the newest “cities” in Shimane, although it is not a city in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a collection of 6 small towns and villages operating under a central government. Formed in 2004, following the merger of Daito town, Kakeya town, Kamo town, Kisuki town, Mitoya town, and Yoshida village, Unnan has around 42,000 people and a huge official area of 553.4 km². This area includes town centers with shops, business and residential areas, along with plenty of farmland and green hills. Since the merger of these towns and villages, all of the ALTs and CIRs live in Mitoya.
Unnan is famous for a number of great sites spread around these 6 towns/villages. From natural wonders such as waterfalls, “fire” trees, and gorgeous mountains, to the more cultural hillside shrines, large summer festivals, ancient bronze bells, and tatara iron works, Unnan has it all! We are also one of the best places in Shimane to view the thousands of fireflies that light up the night skies every year in June. All of these things are sights worth seeing, but Unnan’s true claim to fame is the longest tunnel of sakura (cherry blossom) trees in Japan. In Spring the flowers bloom and hundreds of people flock to the Kisuki and Mitoya rivers for their Sakura Matsuri (cherry blossom festivals) and hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties).
Unfortunately, as a good percentage of its population is involved with agriculture, Unnan doesn’t provide much in the way of work to hold its young people back from migrating to larger cities. However, a number of the prefecture’s younger teachers are posted somewhere in the city early in their careers. Unnan also has a number of English conversation classes and many of the city’s young people can be found in attendence. The life here is very laid-back and friendly. Most people are eager to accept foreign residents with open arms, and will do all they can to make your life here as easy as possible.
- 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. Yoshida holds a small festival to celebrate the event each year.
- 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 hill overlooking Mitoya, Mineji’s bell can be heard around town on a clear day. The walk 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 a 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 has specially-constructed walkways around prime viewing spots, and these attract many visitors.
- Sakura (Cherry Blossoms): Two famous cherry blossom sites in Unnan are the Kisuki sakura tunnel and the Mitoya green sakura. During the blossom season the paths under these trees are lit with lanterns at sunset. Also popular with picnicking families and couples in the afternoon, the trees are beautiful whether viewed during the day or at night.
- Tatara Iron Works: Yoshida, along with the nearby Okuizumo area, 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. Yoshida is proud of its heritage, and visitors with knowledge of Japanese can enjoy learning about the process in the village’s museums, which include preserved tatara furnaces. Those without Japanese ability may find themselves a bit at a loss, however, as there isn’t much in the way of English-language information provided. 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.
As the ALT/CIR apartments are located in Mitoya, all amenities in both Mitoya and Kisuki are within walking or bicycling distance. Amenities in Daito, Kamo, Kakaya and Yoshida can be reached in 20 minutes or less by car.
There are two supermarkets in Mitoya, one in Kisuki, one in Daito and one in Kakeya. There are also large pharmacies in Mitoya and Daito, as well as a number of smaller ones around the city. Kisuki also has a department store called Sun Cheriba, which, in addition to a supermarket, includes a large 100 yen store, clothing stores, book store, flower shop, photo store and omiyage stores. Throughout Unnan there are many other stores, including two huge homegoods stores, a shoe shop and a number of clothing stores. Casual Shot in Mitoya would have to be the most entertaining store – you can pick up T- shirts there with crazy “Engrish” slogans on them for less than 500 yen.
There are also a number of hospitals in Unnan, the largest (and cheapest) of which is Unnan City Hospital in Daito. There are also post offices and banks in each town. Unnan has three high schools (Mitoya, Daito and Kakaya), 8 junior high schools and 16 elementary schools.
There are many options for keeping fit in Unnan. In Mitoya there is the Uspal gym complex, which has a large gym for basketball, volleyball and badminton. There is also a small training room in Uspal with treadmills, bikes and weight machines, but many of these are falling out of repair. Uspal also has a number of meeting rooms available for hire. Kisuki has its own small but well equipt gym and a 15 metre swimming pool with attached onsen. Other sports amenities in Unnan include batting cages and a country club with mini-golf course.
There are a number of onsen in Unnan. We recommend:
- Izumo Yumura Onsen: 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 (open-air baths). One of the hidden gems of Unnan.
- Orochi Yuttari Kan: Also located in Kisuki, 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 even a 15 meter-long heated pool. A great place to relax.
- 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! A quaint spot filled with inaka charm.
Japanese Cultural Activities JETs Have Participated In
Mitoya’s taiko group meets every Monday evening at 8:30pm. Some of the members speak a little English and they always go out of their way to help newcomers. However, be aware that this is a serious group, and time spent teaching the newbies is time away from their own practice. But if you are able to give 100%, this group is the one for you!
Every second Wednesday from 8:30-10:00pm there is a free J-kaiwa in Mitoya. This volunteer run class is great way to sharpen up your Japanese skills in a pressure-free environment. The teachers are lovely and can help with everything from confusing grammar points to checking self-study homework.
Every Thursday night there is a volunteer eikaiwa from 8:30-10:00pm at the Uspal gym complex. Many of Unnan’s JETs join this group because it is a fun and relaxed way to meet the young people of the area. The whole class is run as free-talk time, with no designated teacher (think coffee group style) and there are lots of events throughout the year (enkai, BBQs, potlucks, nabe parties, campouts, hanami, etc.).
Another side benefit of the Mitoya eikaiwa is the opportunity for JETs to enjoy the cultural activities participated in by many Japanese eikaiwa members. In recent years, JETs have been invited to events including private koto, shamisen and shakuhachi concerts, kyōgen performances (Japanese comic theatre), sadō (tea ceremony), mochi-making (pounding of rice to make glutinous rice cakes), private sake brewery tours, and much more.
Things JETs Do in Their Spare Time
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, Kawamoto, Misato and Iinan. This makes Unnan a great central meeting place. We often go out for dinner together at one of Unnan’s great restaurants, or host parties in the apartment complex many of us live in. Most of the Unnan JETs are also involved in one or more eikaiwa, and there are always a number of events to attend through these classes, for mingling with both Japanese and foreign friends.
The JETs in Unnan have a number of hobbies. One of these is cooking so we often get together for potlucks or for one of the city run community cooking classes. Because we are all from diverse backgrounds it is a great opportunity to learn about cooking in other cultures. Another popular hobby is hiking. There are a number of trails in the area and it is easy to get out and explore. Cycling is also a favourite among the Unnan JETs with many of the schools within biking distance. We are also only a 1 hour ride from Izumo with the cycle route following along the gorgeous Hikawa river. Matsue however is a more challenging 2 hour ride. Other hobbies include running, rugby, swimming and movies.
Festivals and Town Events
- Cherry Blossom Festivals (Kisuki, Mitoya): Sometime starting in mid-to-late March (depending on the year and the weather), the sakura in Shimane begin to blossom. Two of the best places in the prefecture – if not all of Japan – to view them are located in Unnan. Kisuki stakes its claim to fame by having the longest cherry-blossom “tunnel” – a path lined on both sides with cherry blossom trees – in Japan. Located by the Kisuki River, the area becomes a center for Kisuki’s Cherry Blossom festival, with food, music, and of course, hanami. Mitoya has a very nice, long row of cherry blossom trees, and hosts its own smaller, quieter festival. Mitoya’s claim to fame, however, is its gyoikō – green cherry blossoms which bloom a few weeks later than the more common variety.
- Rice-Planting (Kakeya): Each year in late May, Kakeya holds a special rice-planting event, wherein women dress up in matching outfits and plant rice in unison to the beat of a taiko drum. Men are also welcome to participate as drummers!
- Tanabata Matsuri (Daito): Tanabata Matsuri is a star festival held in early August, which celebrates the meeting of the Japanese deities Orihime and Hikoboshi. Daito’s festival is lively and celebrated traditionally, with delicious festival foods (takoyaki, anyone?), taiko drumming, fireworks and parading through the streets of tanzaku (wishes written on small pieces of paper and stuck to bamboo branches).
- Summer Festivals (Mitoya, Kisuki): Many towns and cities around Japan have basic natsu matsuri, summer festivals celebrating the season with festival foods, taiko drumming, music, dancing, games, and fireworks. Kisuki and Mitoya are two towns to host summer festivals, and are a great chance to get out into the slightly-less-oppressive summer evening air, meet your neighbors, and maybe make use of that yukata you bought in Kyoto that’s sitting in the back of your closet.
- Yoshida Tatara Iron Making: Every year in October, skilled volunteers from all over 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 invited to watch at any point of the fascinating process as it unfolds over 24 hours.
- Don Shuu (Chinese restaurant): People come from all over to eat at Don Shuu, one of the best Chinese restaurants in Shimane. The food is a little pricey, with dishes around the ¥700-900 mark. But dishes can be eaten family style and shared among a number of people. There are also a number of delicious ramen options. Try the subuta (sweet and sour pork) if you go there, it is one of the best we’ve tasted in Japan. The restaurant is on the small side with just four tables, a seven-seater bench and two private rooms. Don Shuu is found in Mitoya, on Route 54, the main road through Unnan.
- しーじゃっく [Sea Jack] (conveyor sushi restaurant): This large conveyor-belt sushi restaurant is also located in Mitoya on Route 54. Most of the sushi is served on ¥105 plates, but there are also monthly specials that in the past have ranged from raw horse sushi to pork cutlet rolled sushi. One of the most popular restaurants with the JETs in Unnan, we can usually be found here at least one night every couple of weeks.
- Ziatto (Italian/Spanish restaurant): One of the newest restaurants in Unnan, Ziatto is a beautifully decked-out restaurant set back among the rice fields in Mitoya. The food is great, if a little pricey. They specialise in Spanish style entree dishes and pizza and pasta mains. There are even 90 and 120 min. nomihodai options. Definitely worth checking out. The restaurant is very popular and on the small side, so reservations are recommended. They only open for dinner.
- Maruya (Japanese/steak/general restaurant): Have a craving for beef steak? Maruya will sort you out. Also located on Route 54 in Mitoya, this large restaurant has a wide variety of meal options, from traditional Japanese dishes to some pretty yummy desserts. The steak set is a popular option, with ¥1,300 getting you soup, salad, rice, vegetables, 150g steak with homemade sauce, and a drink. The quality of the steak varies between visits, though.
- Kisuki Diner (general diner-style restaurant): Cheap and quick meals served in a large diner setting. Kisuki diner serves everything from udon to pizza. But if you feel tempted to try the rice gruel, take our advice and try something else! Located on Route 54 on the Kisuki side of the river.
- Osaka Osho (Chinese restaurant): This Chinese chain restaurant has a store in Mitoya on Route 54. The food is reliable and inexpensive. The gyouza is a winner and Osho even does takeout.
- 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 the vineyards with beautiful views year round. The wine is fabulous and there are free tastings in the small store attached to the restaurant. There are usually 2 or 3 choices for the lunch set (¥900-1300) and in winter you can even have cheese fondue. There is also a wine tasting set which gets you three glasses of wine of your choice with your meal. The restaurant seats about 20 people.
There are a number of small family run bars throughout Unnan. Some of them are used as private venues for enkai (drinking parties) but mainly they are just the local watering holes for the people of Unnan. If you are feeling adventurous wander into a few and meet the neighbours!
Although usually head over to Izumo or Matsue for nights out. When staying closer to home here are our recommendations:
- 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 favourite tunes.
- Thumb Manga cafe/Karaoke Box: Located in Mitoya this internet cafe has it all, from manga to karaoke and even shower facilities!
- Daikichi/Hakkenden Izakayas (Japanese style pub): Izakayas are plentiful in Unnan, and there are even a couple of larger restaurants capable of catering group bookings. Serving traditional Japanese pub food these places have a relaxed, if a little smokey, atmosphere.
Anything is possible from Unnan! We are close to the major cities in Eastern Shimane (Izumo and Matsue), and even Yonago in Tottori. Mt. Sanbe and Kawamoto are also just over an hour away, making the mountain an easy day trip. Also close by is Okuizumo (approx 30 min. drive) and the Kotobiki ski field (approx 40 min. drive). Remember, though, that “close” is pretty subjective; living in rural Japan, you get used to travelling long distances to visit the sites and your friends.
Trains are infrequent and as there is no train station in Mitoya, the closest is in Kisuki (a 15 min. walk from Mitoya). The last train into Kisuki station is at 9pm. The closest expressway bus stop is at Shinji (with buses to Osaka, Tokyo, etc.), a 20 min. drive from Mitoya. There is also a local travel agent in Mitoya. The owner doesn’t speak English, but she is used to foreigners speaking basic Japanese. You can book bus tickets here very easily, and for around the same price as online.
Hiroshima: 3-4 hrs. by car (depending on traffic), 3.5 hrs. by bus.
Osaka: 8 times a day (from Shinji expressway bus stop) and it takes 5 hrs. for the day bus and 7 hrs. for the overnight bus
Tokyo: The overnight bus to Tokyo leaves from Izumo or Matsue station and takes 12 hrs. There are a number of companies offering this service. Ichibata has the most comfortable buses but booking 3 or more weeks in advance will get you super cheap tickets on the Willer Express.