Foodie hotspots: Matsue, Izumo, Tsuwano.
Foodies Look Out For: Buckwheat noodles; shijimi freshwater clams;
The Basics: Shimane is famed for Izumo Taisha shrine, and the legends surrounding the Gods enshrined there. The main city, Matsue was home to Lafcadio Hearn, also known as Koizumi Yakumo, one of the first great reporters on Japanese culture for the West.
As it is still something of a hike to get there - four and a half hours by train from Osaka - this sparsely populated prefecture still remains relatively unexplored. Heading West towards Yamaguchi prefecture, you'll come across hot-springs, mountains, and the old castle town of Tsuwano.
Foodies Go Shimane: Shimane is especially famed for its freshwater shijimi clams, taken from Lake Shinjiko, and Izumo soba buckwheat noodles. The latter are dark in color, as the flour is milled to include the hikigurumi chaff, giving it a distinctive 'earthy' flavor as well as a strong hagotai 'bite'.
The shijimi freshwater clams are indeed worthy of their fame. Best of all is the simple soup, shijimi-jiru, made with clams plucked straight from the pure waters of the lake. The ordinary supermarket varieties pale into insignificance by comparison. Look out also for suzuki sea bass, shirauo whitebait, moroge-ebi sand shrimp, unagi eel, wakasagi (known locally as amasagi) and koi carp, all of which are served in ryokan around LakeShinji and along the San'in coast.
Wariko soba buckwheat noodles, largely found in Matsue and Izumo, are served in a three-tier lacquer ware circular container. Apparently they were invented in their modern form (in 1907) by the Matsue chief of police, who claimed circular dishes were easier to clean, and therefore more likely to fit within hygiene laws! With Izumo kama'age soba, the buckwheat noodles are served in the soba-yu hot water in which they have just been cooked.
The old castle town of Tsuwano's Tono-machi is famed for its sake and wagashi Japanese sweets. The latter's Ganso Genjimaki Souhonpo Souke and Sanshodo are especially highly regarded. Meat lovers check out the local Iwami and Izumo wagyu beef, and the Shimane Piyo Jidori chicken. The informal canteen-style Resutoran Irodori at Kiri no Yu Iwami Onsen is a good, rural option.
The region's relationship with sake is ancient, fundamental. This explanation, from the good people at Shimane's tourist promotion board, is worth quoting in full:
"One of the strongest images connected with Japan is that of rice wine, or sake. Shimane is considered to be the birthplace of sake, because it has a rich tradition connected to sake which goes all the way back to the myths found in the Kojiki. In the legend of the Yamata-no-Orochi, Susano-o has Kushinada-hime’s parents brew a particularly strong type of sake. He then uses it to get the Yamata-no-Orochi so drunk that it passes out, after which he slays the serpent. It is the first mention of sake in The Kojiki.
It is also said that during Kami-ari-zuki, when the gods have all gathered at Izumo Taisha, they enjoy drinking sake together. This can be traced back to another connection between mythology and sake in a story found in the Izumo-no-kuni Fudoki. One of the functions of this text was to give the origins of location names, and for the origin of an area named Saka, it gives the following story:
Long ago, a great number of gods gathered along the banks of a river in this area, and set up a kitchen to prepare food and drink. Then they made sake, and spent the next 180 days drinking, after which they went their separate ways. The term used to describe this is sakamizuki, and from that word, the area got its name of Saka.
That place is now Kozakai-cho in the Hirata area of Izumo City. Through the years, the place name changed several times, but the character for sake was often used. A small shrine in the area, Saka Shrine, preserves the original place name, which is another way the character forsake is pronounced. The shrine also goes by the name Matsuo Shrine, which is the name used for shrines throughout the country that enshrine the deity of sake brewing, Kusu-no-kami".
How cool is that ?!
The Shimane Budget Gourmet
Look out for the shijimi burger, in Matsue. The patty is made with the unlikely blend of shijimi tsukudani and tofu. The local specialist is Shijimijaya in the Shijimikan in Matsue, beside Lake Shinjiko. Matsue odon is oden hotpot mixed with udon wheat noodles (what else?!). Also in Matsue, it features a tobiuo agodashi flying fish flavor base, with all the regular oden ingredients, and green vegetables such as kikuna and komatsuna. Instead of serving it with karashi mustard, it comes with yuzu kosho. Find it at Jisan Jissou Takanoya in Matsue's Isemiya-cho. In Hamada city, try their akaten, kamaboko fish paste containing red chillis.
The Ramen Professor Recommends: Shinasoba Katsumi's wonton soup ramen in Matsue's Gakuen-cho, Ramen Shinokan with their funky butamaki riceball 'charshiu grenade' option, and Ramen Ryuo in Izumo are good.
FGL Favorite Tipple: Stately Ouroku, the pleasantly tart Rihaku junmai ginjoshu, the crisp, bright Gassan (it is kosher, don't you know) are our current favorites.
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