Sunday, May 25, 2014

Shimane So Far

A view of my town from Senganji-Temple

Distance is all a matter of perception.

Wherever I am in Japan, when people ask me where I came from I say, “Shimane.” This is met with only one response:
“Shimane? That’s so far away…”
It’s always a sympathetic tone, never one of curiosity or excitement. And the emphasis is always the same. 
That’s SOOOO far away.

This proclamation of distance makes sense when I'm in Hokkaido, or Tokyo, where Shimane prefecture is a couple-hour-plane-ride or several-hour-shinkansen-ride away. But even when I'm in our neighboring prefecture, Hiroshima, which I can drive to in under 45 minutes, I am met with the same expression from sales clerks and strangers.
“Shimane? That’s so far away…”

At first I was perplexed by this. A clerk in Hiroshima wouldn’t react that way if someone came from Tokyo, which is 4 hours away by bullet train, but somehow my 40 minute drive is seen as the more challenging journey.

My house in the spring
If you live on a bullet train stop, like Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, or Hiroshima, the perception is that you are not far from anywhere. In sheer kilometers you may be separated from your destination, but the shinkansen is so fast and easy (not cheap, though) that companies don’t think twice about sending an employee from Osaka on a day-trip to Tokyo. My friend does this all the time. It takes her two and a half hours one-way.

But for me to drive into Hiroshima, it seems I have crossed a great threshold. Indeed, the threshold is in everyone’s mind. Shimane is the least densely populated, least well-known, and least traveled-to prefecture in the country. It is also the birthplace of the ancient Japanese traditions from which so many modern people have distanced themselves.

Most Japanese people can’t even find it on a map. So what happens when a foreigner, new to Japanese culture, lives in the most richly cultural and least-understood part of the country? Well, for starters I get some major street cred.

People treat me like I know something they don’t know.

And I do.

Most Japanese people have never experienced the performance art of Kagura, which is famous in this prefecture, or seen Izumo Taisha, the oldest shinto shrine in Japan. Fewer people know about the great silver mines of Iwami Ginzan, or how the weather pattern differs drastically from the Sanin to the Sanyo (north and south coasts on Honshu).  Almost no one knows of the amazing scenic running paths I’ve charted in my tiny town. They probably don't know the smell of burning crops in autumn, or the sound of bull frogs in the spring. There are the things I take with me into the city, and the things I will remember when I leave Japan. 

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