Located on the Sea of Japan at the Western end of Honshu, Shimane is a prefecture that often falls below the radar of most tourists. However, it is rich with history and the home of much of Japan mythology and not to be missed.
Recently, I (Accessible Japan’s founder, Josh Grisdale) had the opportunity to visit Shimane as part of a trial run for future accessible tour to the area. The tour was operated by Miki Tourist, a Japanese travel agency that was awarded a grant to produce the tour by the Chugoku Transport & Tourism Bureau.*
One of the biggest challenges to visiting Shimane for most visitors to Japan is getting there in the first place. While there is an overnight train from Tokyo, it cannot be used with the JR Pass. On this trip, we took a short flight from Haneda Airport to Shimane’s Izumo Airport. Since it is only a little over an hour in length, and not a frequent flight, we boarded from a satellite terminal. Other customers took a bus to the plane and used stairs to board, I and two other passengers with mobility disabilities were taken to the plane in a truck that could be raised and boarded via a ramp on the other side of the plane. This also meant that I needed to check-in my wheelchair at the counter, and not the gate as usual (since there really wasn’t a gate).
The flight was uneventful and when I arrived at the very small airport, I was greeted by the tour guide and the tour operater. I made use of the accessible toilet before heading out on my adventure. I was then very surprised to see our transportation for the next three days – a full sized coach bus! Even though there were fewer than 10 people in total, they wanted to try out a large vehicle in case they run a large tour in the future.The bus was quite new and has a lift that can handle up to 300kg, with one spot to tie down a wheelchair. The window next to the wheelchair space was large and unobstructed – a nice change over wheelchair taxis with low windows where you can only see the car next to you!
Our first stop was lunch. We had lovely boxed lunch at a local Japanese restaurant that had a flat entrance. While the restaurant did not have an accessible toilet, the tour operator made sure to choose a restaurant next to a community center with a toilet.
After getting back on the bus, we headed to our first tourist attraction – Iwami Ginzan (Iwami Silver Mine). Nestled amongst forested mountains, the small town was the home to silver miners and the Shogun’s officials in charge of guarding the mines during the Edo Period. Through trade, the silver in the mines spread around the world for around 400 years. After the mines dried up, the area became a shell of itself until it was registered as a heritage site. Many families have returned and set up in the historical town. The town is made up of restored houses and shops from many different eras, but thanks to still being occupied by residents, you can hear the laughter of children playing at the temple grounds or in houses and be whisked away to the past in a way that seldom happens when the buildings are unoccupied. Some of the buildings are impossible to enter as a wheelchair user, but many others have adapted the entrance or have a ramp available upon request. The road leading through the village is smooth, but does head upwards and might be difficult for some travelers with disabilities. Accessible toilets are indicated on the maps.
We took a short ride in the bus to the Iwami Silver Mine World Heritage Site Center for a lesson on the history of the site, Japanese silver mining methods, and a short 360 video presentation on a spherical screen. It was great to see that they offered wheelchairs, 3D touchable models of the area, and an accessible toilet.
The final stop for the day was the Iwami Winery Hotel. As we sipped on – you guessed it – wine, we were treated to a traditional performance of Iwami Kagura with performers wearing elaborate costumes made from Japanese paper dancing to drums and flutes.
The room I stayed in had a nice view of the river outside. While it was new, there are some adjustments that could be made to improve accessibility which I shared with the tour operator and hopefully can be implemented before the tour starts operating.
Up at the break of dawn, we had a light meal and listened to our guide as he explained Japanese mythology. Starting from Japanese creation myths, Shimane has been the stage for many of the early stories of the gods. The great explanation (including family tree charts and pictures!) we headed off to Shimane’s most famous tourist destination – Izumo Shrine. After Ise Jingu, Izumo Taisha (or formally Izumo Ōyashiro) is the most important shrine in Japan, with it’s enormous shimenawa (sacred straw rope) appearing in many pictures of Japan. The shrine is dedicated to god Ōkuninushi, famous as the Shinto deity of marriage, and Kotoamatsukami – the collective name for the first gods which came into existence at the time of the creation of the universe.
Before heading into the shrine, we visited the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo next door. After a short lesson on the shrine, we went through the museum and saw scale models of the ancient shrine as well as many artifacts discovered through the ages. Accessible toilets and free to use wheelchairs will benefit many guests who visit the museum.
The main gate into the shrine has steps and a steep incline, making it impossible for visitors with mobility needs. Thankfully, the side entrance next to the museum is completely flat and not too far from the main entrance. Aside from the entrance, the main shrine grounds and buildings are surprisingly accessible for the most part. Several of the main buildings have ramps providing access (a few smaller ones don’t) and there are accessible toilets available as well. The main issues in terms of accessibility are related to the grounds themself. There are some areas with a bit of shallow gravel, but not many. The rest of the grounds are covered with stone slabs which can be rather uncomfortable in a wheelchair. There are also no places to rest if needed.
After getting back on the bus, we stopped for lunch en-route to our next destination. The restaurant was a small soba noodle place that also had an accessible toilet.
Unfortunately, the historic Matsue Castle is not accessible. Right from the entrance there are large flights of stairs and no alternatives for getting in. However, there is a museum on the opposite side of the moat that offers not only the history of the castle, but also a matcha tea shop. The floors are made of tatami and guests remove their shoes, but for guests in wheelchairs, staff wipe down the visitor’s tires at the top of the ramp before they enter. Wheelchairs are again available if needed, however the accessible toilet seems to be completely unusable due to poor design choices – including a handrail for the sink right in front of the toilet(?!). Even though there is no access to the castle, the Matsue Historical Museum has a VR area where you can explore virtually.
A unique offering at Matsue Castle is the moat and canal boat tours. There are several locations where you can get in the boats for a ride and has an accessible toilet and ramp down to the pier. While staff can assist people on getting into the boats, it must be noted that this activity is limited to those who can walk a short distance and balance while sitting. We recommend thoroughly communicating with the tour operator and staff about your mobility needs to determine if the boat ride is suitable or not.
After a long day, we arrived at our hotel – Naniwa Issui. The hotel overlooks Lake Shinji and has a hot spring bath. The public bath has a chair that slides into the onsen. While that alone is amazing, what is more amazing is that the owner over the last number of years has dedicated himself to creating a lodging that is both stylish and accessible. In fact, the majority of rooms have been adapted to make them as accessible as possible, including the en-suite hot spring baths. Even the traditional dining room with tatami mats had a small lift to get up the traditional step into the room. The owner uses his experience in creating an accessible lodging with traditionally inspired aesthetics to encourage other facilities to become accessible and that becoming accessible has a positive impact on profit. I only hope more places listen and that he creates other facilities as well!
Day 3 was an even earlier start than the others because we were off to see the Port of Sakai wharf and fish market. Even though we arrived for 9:00am, other 5:30am tours of the auctions had already finished. While we didn’t see the auctions, we had a tour of the facilities and a good explanation of how the auction process worked. We were, though, able to see some fish being offloaded from boats into crates via large nets. Afterwards we crossed the street to the fish market to buy some souvenirs. Tables are available and some of the booths even sell freshly cooked rice, so if you want you could make your own sashimi rice bowl! Both the wholesale market and the regular market have accessible toilets.
Our final stop for the tour was the Adachi Museum. Home to many works of art from early modern Japan, the museum is most famous, though, for its beautiful Japanese garden. The garden has been selected as the most beautiful garden in Japan for the last 19 years in a row. While no one is allowed in the garden, there are numerous places to stop and take in the view from the museum building, including a cafe and a small restaurant. This museum also offers wheelchairs to those who need them. The building itself is older than accessibility requirements and the ramps that have been added to staircases are rather steep and even power wheelchair users will need someone to spot them. There is an accessible toilet, but it is a bit small.
From there we got back on the bus and headed to Yonago Airport in neighboring Tottori Prefecture (since it was closer to our last stop than Izumo Airport). My wheelchair was again checked-in at the counter due to the size of the plane and airport requiring extra time to move it. After another short flight, we arrived back at Haneda Airport where we needed to use a bus to get back to the main terminal and into a taxi home.
For a long time I had hoped to one day visit Izumo Shrine but the logistics of getting to and getting around in Shimane kept me putting it off. So, when the opportunity to go on this tour came up, I couldn’t refuse. I am very grateful for the opportunity to see a place I had hoped to visit, but also learned so much about the other attractions and cultural events you can enjoy in Shimane.
While the facilities themselves tend to be accessible, getting to them is a significant challenge. As a prefecture where most people use cars to get around, public transport isn’t as extensive as other parts of Japan. On top of this, a number of the places we visited (even Adachi Museum) were located in the countryside, outside of the reach of most accessible public transportation. Accessible taxis would be very expensive to use to get around, and while accessible rental cars are available, not everyone can drive. The tour organizer said that they are not directly selling the tour but will provide it as an offering to travel agents in Europe etc and then provide the on-site support. It is good that the government is supporting travel organizations in making accessible tours so everyone can enjoy even the far off parts of Japan where myths are born.
Please be sure to share your thoughts in the comments, or if you have any questions about accessible travel in Japan, please join us in our TabiFolk group and start a new discussion!
*As a monitor/familiar tour, please note that all expenses were paid by Miki Tourist via the government grant for this trip.