Shimane proves that travel in Japan's hinterlands can be more rewarding that its megacities

If you've visited Japan once or twice and are looking to delve deeper on your next trip, head to Shimane; a hidden gem that offers a thoroughly genuine and alternative Japanese experience with far fewer foreigners than most regions.

Shimane is an enchanting land of ancient myths, gloriously lush gardens, forests and beaches, historic islands, relaxing onsen and delicious local delicacies.

It has a slower pace than much of the country with vast rural areas to explore and relax in. It also carries enormous cultural significance for Japanese people, particularly the Izumo area - often referred to as the birthplace of Japan and the province of the gods.

Although it has cities, it's one of the nation's least populated prefectures, located between the Sea of Japan and the Chukogu mountains. It's a more remote and less visited part of Japan that's harder to get to largely due to its lack of a Shinkansen (bullet train) service.

This difficulty of access is a crucial part of its charm, however. It's because fewer people make the effort to get there that those who do reap greater rewards.

Joji Itagaki, the international tourism group leader at the Shimane Prefectural Government Tourism Promotion Division, told Newshub the prefecture is a truly unique part of the country.

"Shimane Prefecture is a place with a very long history. The legendary Kojiki is Japan's oldest chronicle of myths and history - from about the 8th century - and a third of all its stories are set in Shimane," Itagaki said.

"Many ancient buildings and sites, such as the Izumo Taisha, remain here from those mythical ancient times. Also, as exemplified by the Oki Global Geopark, there remains a large amount of untouched nature in Shimane. There are also places in the mountainous areas where you can still find the terraced rice fields of old Japan.

"Shimane offers visitors a lot of natural scenic beauty as well as the opportunity to experience the essence of traditional Japan."

Shimane feels like a Ghibli movie.
Parts of Shimane make you feel like you're in a Ghibli film like Spirited Away. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

I'm fortunate enough to have spent a lot of holiday time in Japan. While every part of the country has its own charms and unique allure, Shimane is the area I've travelled to the most and will continue to be for many years to come.

How to get to Shimane

Shimane is located in the southwest of Honshu, Japan's main island. Izumo and Matsue are its two biggest cities and each is around a three-hour train ride from Okayama, which is itself a three-hour-17-minute shinkansen ride away from Tokyo.

There is also the famous Sunrise Izumo, a direct overnight Tokyo-Izumo train that takes 12 hours and eight minutes, but scoring a place on it can be a challenge due to its popularity and unusual booking restrictions. A direct overnight Tokyo-Izumo bus service also takes around 12 hours.

Rather than embarking on that 800km train or bus trek, one can fly to Izumo Airport in Shimane from Tokyo's Haneda airport with an easy hour-and-a-half flight.

And then of course, there is the car. Japan is a fun and safe country to drive around in once you're out of the big cities and doing so offers the delightful option of stopping at any restaurants, shrines or sightseeing locations you happen across.

Having a car in Shimane once you're there can offer greater enjoyment too, as driving yourself around its various attractions is an optimal way to do it. The prefecture doesn't have nearly as robust a public transport system as the country's bigger cities and while there are taxis, buses and trains, your own vehicle is best for getting around the roughly 6708km-squared area.

Everyone will have their own preferences but for me, the best way to get to Shimane from New Zealand is to fly to Tokyo and after a night or two there, take the shinkansen to Okayama, get a rental car and then enjoy a peaceful three-hour drive to Shimane.

Izumo soba.
Izumo soba. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

What to eat in Shimane

  • Izumo soba
    Darker and with a stronger buckwheat flavour than other forms of soba, there are many ways to enjoy this essential Shimane delicacy. Hot or cold, in a soup or dry with a dipping sauce, as a vegan treat or in a tasty meat broth - be sure to try out a few varieties of this during your time in the region.
  • Ika Yaki
    It's a supremely Shimane experience to stroll along a beach or coastal area munching on a grilled squid skewer. The seafood is always super fresh, each outlet flavours them a little differently, and it's a lovely way to spend time by the sea.
  • Shinji lake clams
    You'll notice the miso soup is particularly tasty at a lot of restaurants around Shimane thanks to its inclusion of these shijimi. They're also yummy as a pasta topping. Historical records show they were eaten during the Edo period, and they're known for their nutritional benefits as well as flavour.
  • Matsuba crab
    Only available between November and March, the male snow crab harvested from the Sea of Japan is a very large and very tasty delight. They're best if eaten with patience and a healthy amount of time, so you can really enjoy cracking through the shell and drawing out the succulent meat.
  • Shimane Wagyu
    For me, the ultimate food in Shimane is the Japanese cattle raised in the prefecture itself. Simply branded 'Shimane Wagyu', it is incredibly rich, marbled and delicious, and while not cheap, it's generally more affordable than the more world-famous Kobe beef. Spending an evening gorging on Shimane Wagyu at a yakiniku (Japanese barbeque) restaurant is about as good as meat-eating gets.
Shimane Wagyu yakiniku.
Shimane Wagyu yakiniku. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

What to do in Shimane

A lot of the best experiences visitors will have in Shimane will be unplanned. It's the sort of place where something will catch your eye midway through a journey and turn out to be an unexpected and incredible experience, or you'll try your luck at a tiny coffee house and end up spending a couple of hours there chatting to the adorable 90-year-old owner.

There are so many gorgeous gardens, onsen, parks, forests, mountains, shrines, temples and more to discover, but many of these you'll likely not get to on your first trip. As well as the hidden gems, there are of course more well-known attractions to check out. Here is a rundown of my top picks:

Izumo Taisha.
Izumo Taisha. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

Izumo Taisha
Millennia old, this is an extremely important place in Japanese history and the second most important Shinto shrine to exist. It's an immensely fascinating location to spend time at, with much architectural beauty to admire and ancient history to absorb. For domestic Japanese tourists, it is the number one attraction in Shimane due to its historical and mythological significance.

Oki Islands
This UNESCO Global Geopark is an archipelago of extraordinary natural beauty. There are plenty of cliffs over wild beaches with unusual volcanic-sculpted rock formations to check out, and then there are coves, mountains and an abundance of other landscapes to explore. I recommend hiring a bike to get around and taking a sunset cruise to observe Candle Island.

Matsue Castle.
Matsue Castle. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

Matsue Castle
Although Japan has around 200 castles dotted across the country, almost all of them have been destroyed and then rebuilt over the years. Matsue is one of only 12 original castles left standing, almost the same as it was when first completed in 1611. I love checking out the surrounding battlements from where arrows were fired, and the windows made from dropping stones within the castle itself. As you ascend the interior levels, each serves as a mini museum filled with awesome facts about the castle's history. You can take boat rides around the moat, too.

Tamatsukuri Onsen
One of the best ways to relax in Japan is spending time in onsen (traditional hot spring bathhouses). This quaint onsen resort town has gorgeous, mineral-rich hot springs supplying several bathhouses, with a superb array of ryokan to choose from. Tamatsukuri is also centuries old and has been enjoyed by nobles and samurai throughout its history, as well as the gods themselves, according to Shintoism. As an onsen resort town, most people walking about the quiet main street are dressed in yukata and super relaxed - as you will be.

Matsue Vogel Park.
Matsue Vogel Park. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

Matsue Vogel Park
As a point of difference to most of Shimane's attractions, this bird park is very modern and better for children who may be less interested in the prefecture's more relaxing and historical appeal. Here you can interact with playful toucan, watch a scary big shoebill and admire parrots, owls, penguins, cockatoos, hawks, eagles and more, sometimes performing shows. Being in Shimane, it isn't just an incredible bird park - it's also an incredible indoor garden, with some stunning flower beds to walk by and gaze upon.

This ancient castle town, sometimes referred to as the region's 'little Kyoto', has a lot of fascinating heritage packed into a tiny area that's easy to get around in just a couple of days. When you're not wandering about the peaceful streets lined with carp-filled canals checking out the well-preserved samurai residences, be sure to head up to the castle ruins, the Taikodani Inari Shrine and the sombre Otome Toge Maria Chapel, an area that honours the Christian martyrs once imprisoned and tortured there.

Hinomisaki. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

This rugged coastal area is a great place to spend an afternoon. Strolling around the coastline taking in the scenery is grand, especially at sunset, but it also features East Asia's tallest lighthouse. For a small fee, you can climb the stairs of the lighthouse and look out over one of the best views there is of the Sea of Japan.

Gakuenji Temple
If you're in Shimane in autumn, you must head to this Buddhist temple that is one of the oldest in Japan, having been founded in 594. Much of the foliage across Japan turns glorious red, orange, crimson and yellow around October, but not many places are as striking as it is at this temple. Walking the ancient stone steps while they're covered in the gorgeous autumn leaves is a special experience you won't forget.

The award-winning garden at the Adachi museum of Art.
The award-winning garden at the Adachi museum of Art. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

Adachi Museum of Art
Pretty much everywhere in Shimane you will come across amazing gardens, but this is the best of the best. It was founded in 1970 by Zenko Adachi, who believed a Japanese garden should be seen as a living painting. Inside there are several amazing artworks in both permanent and rotating exhibits that are worth looking around, but it's the outdoor views that make this well worth the travel. In 2023, this garden was officially ranked the best in Japan - for the 21st year in a row.

Inasa Beach.
Inasa Beach. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

Inasa Beach
There are plenty of great sandy beaches in Shimane but this one in Izumo is the most conveniently close to an urban environment and also a site of tremendous cultural importance. It's here that once per year all eight million Shinto gods of Japan arrive at Izumo before heading to Izumo Taisha for their annual meeting. It's a very scenic beach that makes a fabulous vantage point for watching sunsets from, with an iconic small rock island adorned by a tiny shrine to gaze upon as well.

Iwami Ginzan
This small town was built around a silver mine that was established in 1526 and remained active for nearly 400 years, and at one time was responsible for a third of the world's supply of the precious metal. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 and is well set up for tourists to explore the mine itself as well as the surrounding town. If you want to stay longer than a day in the area, there are temples, shrines and onsen to check out too.

Tachikue Gorge.
Tachikue Gorge. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

Tachikue Gorge
This riverside walk is something you may want to include as a pitstop during a drive, rather than a destination itself - but it will be a thoroughly enjoyable stop. Impressively tall rocky cliffs peer over the forest to look at from afar, and when you're up close, the cliff base is adorned with over a thousand mostly moss-covered Buddhist statues. If you want to stay longer, there is an onsen that affords great views of the area while you soak.

Sunset over Lake Shinji, Shimane.
Sunset over Lake Shinji, as seen from aboard a cruise. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

Lake Shinji cruise
Much of Shimane is famed for its beautiful sunsets and one very lovely way to enjoy these is over the area's largest lake from aboard a guided boat. As well as the sunset itself, there are various species of bird and other wildlife to take in, as well as snacks and beverages to treat yourself to onboard. The one I went on also required some ducking each time we went under a bridge, which may be a little scary for some.

Iwami Kagura
Kagura is a traditional performance art that blends dance, music and theatre, and Shimane has its own version of the practice known as Iwami. It has rhythmic, captivating music along with intricate costumes and expressive masks to go with the lively dance and choreography. Many of the performances depict the Shimane legend of Yamata no Orochi of Shimane, an eight-headed dragon, being overcome by Susanoo the storm god. Iwami Kagura performances happen often across the prefecture and are an entertaining way to absorb local culture.

Yushien Garden at night in autumn.
Yushien Garden at night in autumn. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

Yushien Garden
This 40,000m-squared garden near central Matsue is famous for its enormous collection of peonies, but that is just one of several magnificent areas that can be explored for hours. I particularly loved the central pond, which is lit beautifully at night to appear as a huge mirror reflecting the incredible foliage around it. I went there at night in autumn, and it was astonishing.

Mount Sanbe
This cluster of peaks, which reaches 1126m at its highest, offers glorious 360-degree views of western Shimane and has plenty of trails ideal for both novice and experienced hikers alike. In winter, skiers and snowboarders can enjoy its multiple runs and hire gear if they need to, with a great local onsen to relax in after a day on the slopes.

Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo.
Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo
While it is amazing exploring the ancient land of Shimane as it is today, this museum gives a much greater understanding of what the birthplace of myths and land of the gods was like thousands of years ago. It's a short walk away from Izumo Taisha and has a large section dedicated to that shrine, including a cool depiction of how it looked when it was thought to reach 48m. There are many artefacts, some over 2000 years old, among other fascinating stuff.

Tachikue Gorge onsen, Shimane.
One of the many outdoor onsen with a view in Shimane. Photo credit: Daniel Rutledge

Just make sure you have good amount of days off sightseeing during your time in Shimane.

Spending much of a day checking out an amazing cultural site founded thousands of years ago, then soaking in a gorgeous outdoor onsen with a view before kicking into a night at a yakiniku joint feasting on Shimane Wagyu will be so good you may not want to do anything the next day - or you might want to relive that perfect day all over again.

I have many times and hope to many, many more.