Travel | Snow Day in Izumo Taisha

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen snippets of my eventful pilgrimage to Izumo Taisha (Grand Shrine). TDLR; a once-in-a-decade snowstorm hit on the exact day I decided to visit the famous shrine. After briefly checked the weather forecast in the morning, I knew it'd be pretty cold as it was early February but I did NOT anticipate heavy snowfall.


 
Izumo Taisha (出雲大社) is located in the city of Izumo in Shimane Prefecture, a one hour train ride west of Matsue. It is one of Japan's most important shrines.

There are no records of exactly when Izumo Taisha was built, but it is often considered the oldest shrine in Japan, being already in existence in the early 700s as revealed by the nation's oldest chronicles. 
Izumo used to be ruled by a powerful clan in pre-historic times, and the region plays a central role in Japan's creation mythology.

Japan Guide, 2018

 
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My plan was visit Izumo as a quick a day trip:

  • catch the bus from Hiroshima Station early in the morning

  • spend the afternoon in Izumo

  • be back in my hostel bunk by the early evening

 

It wasn't an usual route, as Hiroshima is the largest city in close proximity to Izumo. As one of the highest-ranking shrines in Japan, many people make this journey throughout the year. 

 

However, my itinerary——like so many of my carefully plotted plans——did not go as anticipated. 

 
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As the charter bus trekked toward Izumo City located in Shimane Prefecture (roughly a 3 hour drive out from Hiroshima...in good weather, that is) the snowfall increased steadily from small flecks into huge cotton ball flakes. The number of cars on the highway steadily declined, as did my hopes of making it all the way to the shrine.

 

Each time the automated bus announcement declared the last stop would be Izumo Taisha, the otherwise-steadfast driver muttered to himself: 「行けるかなぁ〜」

 
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The Kagura-den features the largest shimenawa (sacred straw rope) in Japan; it is 13.5 meters long and weighs around 5 tons. The rope is one of the most easily recognized and distinctive features of Izumo-taisha.

Wikipedia

 
 

The bus pulled into the lot at the back of the shrine and everyone sighed in a mix of relief and genuine disbelief. Me, the driver, a couple, and another woman traveling solo stepped off the bus into a pile of snow. I'm relieved to find that I'm not the only one embarking on this journey.

The snow was light and powdery (not the wet slushy stuff I'd grown used to in the long Northeast winters), so clomping around in sneakers wasn't completely treacherous. In fact, it was kind of beautiful.

 

the bright snowfall made for some really lovely lighting.

 

I snapped photos, grabbed a few souvenirs, and even collected two gorgeous go-shuin from the shrine. Riding a spiritual-snow-day-high, I decide it's been swell and that I should back to the city a little early to catch my evening bus back to Hiroshima. 

 

THEN, I GET stranded at the shrine.

 

The long distance bus that dropped us off had departed shortly after. The town's already few buses were getting delayed and/or cancelled due to the snow day. I had no choice but to trudge through knee-deep fallen snow for 40 minutes to get to a local trolley train station, all while crossing my fingers that it was still running. (No information posted online.) Every store on the main road is closed and there isn't another person in sight. 

 

Mid-trudge, I received an automated text message from the long-distance bus company notifying me that the bus back to Hiroshima was cancelled. Indefinitely. No more tonight. None tomorrow. The day after...maybe?

 

Do I live at the shrine now?

 
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Traveling alone in a rural Japanese town proved to be a great test of my limited language abilities.

 

I make it to the one station in the town adjacent to the temple. Very few of the signs are translated to English or even simplified to phonetic hiragana. I enter the wet, cavernous station room to find the first humans I'd seen in nearly an hour huddled here. Dripping melted snow (and blinking back tears), I scan the few posted signs to confirm this trolley will take me back to Izumo City.

 

The ticket machines are of the old school variety: absent of screens and instead a grid of large buttons labeled only in kanji. There are more than 20 options to choose from. Cue the perpetual sweating. (At least it was keeping me warm.)

After meticulously matching up the kanji, I cross my fingers and press the button. A ticket is promptly punched out and I clutch it tightly while waiting in a corner of the soggiest waiting room to ever exist. The room was buzzing with muffled and disgruntled conversation, which suddenly dissipates as a 3-car trolley totters it way into the track. Everyone (mostly commuting adults and students) packs onto the train, grumbling yet grateful it arrived. 

 

The little trolley staggers into a stride and I'm starting to feel confident that I'll make back to civilization before dark.

 
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Before long, we arrive at a much smaller station, where most of us need to transfer to get to the main city station. A station worker greets us at the platform (it is a really small town, guys) ask us to please squeeze into their waiting room since they aren't sure exactly when the next trolley may arrive. 

 

The sun begins to set while we huddle in concentric circles around a large electric heating stove in the middle of the tiny wooden station room, which is honestly no larger than my bedroom. I stare into the orange glow of the heater as my hopes of sleeping in a bed tonight evaporate along with the damp in my sneakers. Is there where I'll stay until that bus to Hiroshima starts again? In a room full of people I can barely stumble through a conversation with? Clutching the same little ticket, whose ink is now starting to rub off on my sweaty hands?

 

「来るかな。。。」

 

My phone buzzes and knocks me out of my melancholy trance. It's a text from Shuji: he's booked me the last room at a hotel adjacent to the Izumo city station. It's Dormy Inn——my favorite of the chain business hotels. The dude is forever saving my ass. 

 
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30 minutes later, another trolley appears amidst the darkness. The main city-bound folks all hurry to pile in, while passengers destined to other parts sigh and inch closer to the heating stove.

 

The ride between Kawato Station and Izumo City Station usually takes about 10 minutes (via Google Maps). This night, of course, it takes exponentially longer. Suddenly, the trolley came to a complete grinding halt. As did my heart. 

 

The announcements on the trolley are done manually: a train conductor muttering apologetically over the PA system while high school students sighed audibly. まじ〜!?!From what I could gather, there was too much snow / ice on the tracks in front and the trolley was stuck. We hear the conductor call it in to their people, who reply that they're unsure if someone can get out to the trolley anytime soon. 

 

I start to imagine spending the night in this trolley, with troves of disgruntled Japanese high school kids and exhausted salarymen. I sniffle back a tear and try to focus on getting to a warm shower at Dormy Inn. (My nose is also just super runny at this point.)

 
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Moral steadily declines as passenger agitation grows when the train suddenly lurched forward. YAY!!!!! We finally pull into the larger city station and I want to kiss the floor, cry, happy-dance.

 

A journey that would've ordinarily been 40 minutes had taken nearly 4 hours. 

 

I hustle into the station konbini for some culinary provisions, only to see the prepared food case completely empty——save for 1 pack of edamame. (People were even buying up the packaged white business shirts!!) I settle for some seaweed chips and grab a beer too.

 

Stepping into the hotel lobby, I find that it's completely packed! I step in line behind a pair of construction workers stranded in the city and realize that this snowstorm was truly no joke. It's only 7pm at this point, but I'm ready for a long hot shower and some sleep. 

 
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The next day, I wake up to a fresh blanket of snow. I must admit it is incredibly beautiful. It is also super unplowed.

The bus back to Hiroshima is still very much cancelled. I still need to find a way back to Hiroshima since my things are still locked up in the hostel bunk.

 

But first, breakfast.

 

As my dinner the previous night consisted of a bag of chips and a small beer, I take full advantage of the breakfast buffet at Dormy Inn. I indulge in local specialities like Izumo soba (a must-eat in Shimane) and steamed crab rice. My tummy is so happy. I'm ready to tackle the long day of traveling ahead.

 

You see: the bus I'd taken the day before was a 3-hour ride door-to-door.

Taking the train back instead meant:

  • a 4-hour ride on a regional train to Okayama
  • transfer to Shinkansen (bullet train) for another 1-hour ride to Hiroshima Station

I'm just doing everything the long way.

 

Finally stepping through the ticket gates Hiroshima Station, I see the station agent who originally sold me the round trip bus ticket to Izumo. She recognizes me immediately and exclaims, "We were so worried about you!!" See asks about my journey and I attempt to give an abbreviated version of the last 24 hours of my life. (Thank you for indulging in this unabridged post.) Needless to say, we're now BFFLs.

 

 

Hopefully I'll learn to check the weather report before taking a long-distance day trip, but this was truly an unforgettable pilgrimage.

Lessa Chung