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The Otherworldly Coast

Taking in temples, castles, legends and lore in historic towns of the San-in, on the less visited side of the country's megalopolis island, Honshu


MATSUE, Japan — Our train to Matsue was painted jaunty yellow and had exactly two cars. After we'd trundled along for a few miles, it stopped at a rural station. The driver got out. He strolled to the opposite end of the train, sat down at the second control panel there, checked his watch and drove us back toward the previous station.

Several passengers dashed for the exit, while the schoolgirls next to me sat giggling. "Don't worry, we're just going to Matsue on a different track," one told me. "Tourists don't know that this train goes backward."

Backward trains are hardly the only surprising thing on the San-in coast. This is a different side of Japan, literally and figuratively. Most of the country's 125 million people crowd into the cities of the Pacific coast. The Japanese call that region San-yo, "the sunny side of the mountains." There, futuristic cities, such as Osaka, Kobe and Hiroshima, form an unbroken urban mass stretching hundreds of miles.

Not so the San-in, "the shadow of the mountains," on the west side of Honshu, Japan's largest island. This rugged coast, the landfall for storms surging across the Sea of Japan, is sparsely populated and looks to the past.

A treasure house of Japanese tradition and history, the San-in nonetheless receives few foreign visitors. My husband, Kevin, and I had nearly finished our three-year stay as teachers of English in ultra-modern Osaka when we discovered this timeless region.

Our exploration of offbeat Japan last November began with a bus trip. Travel on the renowned bullet train is nearly as expensive as flying in Japan, so we took the budget-friendly overnight bus from Osaka to Hagi, 240 miles south. The coach was almost ludicrously comfortable, with huge seats reclining nearly flat. Amenities included video movies and free drinks, but I was blissfully asleep before we even escaped the blinding neon of Osaka, and I didn't awaken until we were winding between pine-covered mountains near our destination.

Hagi, at the tip of Honshu, is one of the country's most historic cities. The seat of powerful samurai lords in the 17th to 19th centuries, it also gave birth to the Meiji Restoration, the 19th century revolutionary movement that hurled Japan into the modern age. Japanese tourists flock to its streets of perfectly preserved samurai houses, and Hagi still produces some of the finest handmade pottery in Japan.

Hagi's far-flung attractions finally enticed me to do something I'd avoided for years: get on a bicycle. From the rental stand near the ruins of Hagi castle, we wobbled off through Horiuchi, the inner-moat district, once home to the highest-ranking samurai. The area is a wonderful maze of old earthen whitewashed walls. The last of the local summer oranges called natsumikan spilled over the walls' gray-tiled tops.

The nearby Jokamachi district is lined with the former houses of poor samurai who had to struggle. "A samurai uses a toothpick even on an empty stomach," an old saying holds. The proud wooden gates sometimes conceal modest residences. Shizuko Matsumoto, out walking her dog, saw us trying to peek past a gate and kindly invited us in for a look at her home. The small rooms, with family photos hung on the uneven, ocher-tinted walls, opened onto a simple garden.

Back on our bikes, we pedaled past the port, where fishing boats dozed, to the pottery kilns north of town. Noted for its subtle, sunset-colored glazes, Hagi ware is in much demand by tea-ceremony enthusiasts. In one workshop we watched two potters at their wheels, making sake flasks with fierce concentration. After finishing each piece, they carved a small notch into its base. This custom harks back to the time when Hagi pottery was reserved for nobles, but damaged pots could be bought and enjoyed by commoners.

Hagi has several quaint traditional inns, charging not-so-quaint prices. We chose instead to spend the night in the Hagi Youth Hostel, with a Canadian geologist and a group of students from Tokyo for company. The hostel's cooks, obviously accustomed to famished bicyclists, served tempura, croquettes, salad, pickles, gobo (a stick-like vegetable) and fruit for dessert, all for $8.

Our next destination was, alas, a disappointment. The town of Tsuwano, a favorite with Japanese sightseers, is known for the 50,000 ornamental carp swimming in its canals. The fish were originally stocked as an emergency food supply in case of siege, and tourism posters depict them fatly crimson and white, gliding past beds of purple irises at the foot of sun-dappled stone walls.

That wasn't quite what we saw. It was pouring rain, the canals were dirty, and the fish were barely visible in the muck.

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