On the north coast of western Honshu, well off the bullet train line, is Matsue, home to Adachi Art Museum, its impressive dry landscape garden and perhaps the most complete castle experience in Japan. Like the one in Matsumoto, Matsue Castle is a black wood original feudal-era building, not a concrete reconstruction. It is impressive enough from the outside, but within lies a rare treasure trove spread over three floors and accessed by ladders for a real sense of adventure. Marvel at the intricacy of the craftsmanship on tables, pottery and best of all samurai armour from the days when the Matsudaira clan ruled the roost here.
Adachi Art Museum is a hidden gem, with the consistently rated ‘best garden in Japan’ for over a decade taking centre stage. The perfectly manicured trees frame the intricate dry landscape design while a waterfall flows in the distance. We highly recommend those interested in traditional Japanese garden design and the aesthetic concept of ‘borrowed landscape’ to visit this masterpiece. The moss, rocks and mountainous backdrop add natural touches to this picture-perfect view. A new state-of-the-art café is neatly tucked into a corner of one of the other smaller gardens where one can take a pitstop to sip on green tea and admire the surrounding pond, koi fish and floating tea house.
The galleries housed in this museum are not quite as striking but are nonetheless worth a stroll around. The collection includes a wide range of artwork from ceramics, lacquerware, hanging scrolls and a mixture of traditional and modern paintings by both Japanese and international artists. An exhibition room dedicated to the figurehead of the magical Nihonga painting style, Yokoyama Taikan, is by far the most impressive. On entrance, his magnificent ‘Autumn Leaves’ piece steals the show as the 12-panelled screen covers the far wall in all its scarlet and aquamarine glory.
Surrounded by two scenic lakes, this coastal city is famed for its glowing sunrises and sunsets, and is often nicknamed ‘the Venice of Japan’. There is a lovely walk along a lane of tea shops as well as along the lakeside here and although the hotels aren’t up to the standard of the cities on the south coast, there are some excellent ryokan choices to be found. For foodies, we recommend tasting the local soba buckwheat noodles, fresh clams from nearby Lake Shinji and the unique Rihaku sake.
Nearby is the hot spring onsen town of Tamatsukuri, said to have been established in the Nara Period (710-794). The tranquil onsen here beckon after soaking up the arts and culture of the surrounding Matsue. While the indoor baths are cosy and memorable in themselves, the outdoor baths are particularly outstanding as you can relax in the piping-hot water while steam rises into the cool fresh air above. Just outside Matsue sits the Izumo Taisha shrine. This is well worth the detour as it is believed by many to be the oldest shrine in the entirety of Japan.
Matsue is reachable from Kurashiki and Hiroshima but if one is travelling further afield, Izumo domestic airport is easily accessible from here.