Walking around Sagiura, a port waiting for the wind
The red tiled houses and the scenery of the harbor seen from the hill, the Namako wall mansion with trowel painting and Bengala paint, the insect cage window, the painted lattice, and the Inasehagi Shrine, which is the shrine of Izumo Taisha, are full of highlights.
Sagiura’s excellent natural harbor, a sheltered haven on a coast often battered by rough winds and violent waves, has attracted residents for thousands of years. The deep inlet,with its narrow mouth and enclosing hills, offers protection from the wind, while Kashiwa Island, standing guard at the harbor entrance, provides a natural breakwater. Japan prospered during the middle years of the Edo period (1603–1867).
Merchant vessels from Kyoto and Osaka traveled the Sea of Japan, bringing business and wealth to their ports-of-call along the northern coast of the mainland. Sagiura thrived, offering wholesale trade, lodgings, and safe anchorage to sailors awaiting favorable winds in its harbor. Mooring points can still be clearly seen carved into the rocks along the waterfront on the town’s west side, some of which were hollowed out to form attachment points for guy-lines.
During the Meiji (1868–1912) and Taishō (1912–1926) eras, Sagiura was visited<br>regularly by Osaka merchant vessels. Boats carrying rice from Tōhoku and Pacific<br>herring and kelp from Hokkaidō brought significant business. At the height of the<br>town’s prosperity, around 1888, a shipping agent might have handled operations for<br>more than 100 boats per year.
Today, fishing is the primary occupation of Sagiura’s residents, and Sagiura Harbor remains crucial to the local fishing industry. The waters of the Shimane Peninsula produce excellent yellowtail, threeline grunt, Japanese Spanish mackerel, squid, and righteye flounder. Some local fishermen offer guided boat tours of the rugged coastline. Sea caves, grottos, and islets weathered into fantastic shapes dot the coast beneath rugged cliffs, and many of the most breathtaking spots are only accessible by sea.
Between November and July, explorers will likely encounter the harbor’s crowds of black-tailed gulls. The gulls, who come to Shimane each year for the breeding season, are distinguishable by their unusual call, which resembles a cat’s meow. This is also the source of their Japanese name—umineko, meaning “sea cat.”
Tucked against the hills in southwestern Sagiura, Inasehagi-jinja Shrine has a long and distinguished history. The shrine’s principal deity, Inasehagi, is recorded in Japan’s creation myths, and this shrine is mentioned in the region’s earliest written history, the Izumo fudoki of 733.
Inasehagi-jinja Shrine is an auxiliary shrine of Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, and the two are linked in the prevailing legend. Inasehagi was instrumental in the mythological agreement that transferred control of the land from the deity Ōkuninushi, enshrined at Izumo, to the sun goddess Amaterasu and her descendants. For this reason, Ōkuninushi—under the alternate name of Yachihoko—is one of the secondary deities enshrined at Inasehagi. Moreover, the line of head priests at Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine is said to be descended from Inasehagi’s father, the god Amenohohi.
Connections between Izumo and Inasehagi are reflected in many of the auxiliary shrine’s structural details. The postures of the komainu, the lion-like guardian figures at its entrance, are unique to shrines associated with Izumo. Inasehagi’s main sanctuary,like the one at Izumo, is constructed of unfinished wood, elevated on stilts, and surrounded by a wooden-slat fence. Every 60 years, Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine undergoes periodic reconstruction (sengū), during which Inasehagi-jinja Shrine is rebuilt as well.
In 1744, leftover materials from the Izumo reconstruction were used to repair Inasehagi-jinja, further strengthening the link between the two shrines. The deity Inasehagi is known for his efficacy against smallpox, and carrying a pebble from this shrine in one’s clothes is said to ward off the disease. Records show that Emperor Momozono (1741–1762) donated two paper lanterns decorated with the royal chrysanthemum crest in gratitude after his two sons recovered from smallpox. Inasehagi-jinja Shrine’s annual festival is held on October 8.
Bordered by cherry trees, this clear-running river flows along the borde of Inasehagijinja Shrine and into Sagiura Harbor. Its pure waters are the ideal habitat for one of nature’s top vocalists: the Kajika frog, also known as Buerger’s frog (Buergeria buergeri), a flat-bodied, gray-brown stream frog endemic to Japan. Between April and August, male frogs stake out rocks in the Yachiyo and call for mates with an ethereal trilling.
Sagiura residents hold an evening gathering toward the end of each May to celebrate the amphibian serenade. Bamboo candles are placed along a 30- to 40-meterlong section of the river’s banks, where families gather to watch the fireflies and listen to the kajika.
The Sagiura Nature Trail is a 2.5-kilometer route that begins at the town’s western waterfront and winds along the western hilltops overlooking Sagiura Harbor, offering fine views of the stunning coastline. Around the halfway point, a side trail leads to a secluded swimming cove known as Umenada. The main route continues on to Sagiura Lighthouse and panoramic vistas of the intricately carved islets and grottos along the shore. The cliff on which the lighthouse stands contains some of the area’s largest sea caves.
In addition to Japanese cedar, an impressive array of flower- and fruit-bearing trees grow along the trail, including the Japanese bayberry, Japanese chestnut, tung-oil tree, and yabutsubaki camellia. Deer and wild boar are among the wildlife that can be found in the area.
Kashiwajima Island and The Gongen Festival
The craggy form of Kashiwa Island rises from the waves at the mouth of Sagiura Harbor. A natural breakwater, it has long been venerated for the crucial shelter it provides. High on the island’s rocky slope and accessible by rough steps carved into the cliffside, Kashiwa Shrine is nestled below a stone overhang. Two deities are enshrined here: the unruly Shinto storm god Susanoo, and Ebisu, patron of fishermen.
Every July 31 at sunset, residents celebrate the Gongen Festival. A Shinto priest offers a ritual invocation, and townsfolk board their boats. For the festival, the boats are specially decorated with lanterns and tairyōbata, banners that signal an especially big catch. Maneuvering in procession, the boats circle Kashiwa Island as those aboard pray for safety and good fishing in the year to come.
The streets of Sagiura
The entire town of Sagiura evokes life in a different era. The town’s houses are adorned with traditional architectural elements, and its streets, many of them too narrow for cars, look much as they did in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Seen from the rise on the eastern edge of town, the red-tiled roofs of Sagiura seem to cluster together between the sheltering hills and the harbor. Not far down a path from the rise is a short tunnel into the hillside that was constructed in 1933 and connects Sagiura with the neighboring district of Udo. To the left of the tunnel entrance are a stone monument and small altar containing a carved fragment of the Lotus Sutra that was discovered during the tunnel’s excavation.
Near the tunnel mouth is the Shioda house, owned by a family that once managed the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine. Note the exquisite sculpture of a red-crowned crane below its eaves, crafted early in the Taishō period (1912–1926) by a family employee. Just down the hill is a storehouse dating from the end of the Edo period (1603–1867). Its walls and outermost door are constructed of thickly plastered clay that offers excellent fire protection.
Several of the houses fronting the harbor have bamboo-slat walls that cover their northern faces to protect and insulate them from cold winter winds coming off the water. The Edo-period Shiwakuya warehouse nearby was once owned by a prosperous salt merchant. Now open to the public, it houses the local art gallery and café.
The nature of Sagiura
Over the centuries, little has changed in the area around Sagiura. Forested hills encircle the town on three sides. The Sagiura Nature Trail, which begins at the western waterfront, travels 2.5 kilometers through wilderness that is home to sika deer and wild boar. The path is bordered with Japanese bayberry, Japanese chestnut, tung-oil tree, and yabutsubaki camellia. From the trail, hikers can take a side path down to a secluded swimming cove. At the end of the Nature Trail, which emerges on the summit of the western cape, a panoramic vista of the open sea appears. The coastline’s sheer cliffs, sea caves, and jagged islets of volcanic rock form an impressive landscape that has been designated part of the Daisen-Oki National Park.
Black-tailed gulls, which migrate to the Shimane Peninsula for the breeding season, can be found perched upon the jetties and breakwaters around Sagiura Harbor. Their distinctive cries, resembling a cat’s meow, are the reason they are called umineko, or “sea cats.” Another creature with an unusual call lives nearby in the Yachiyo River, which flows into the harbor. This is the Kajika frog, whose trilling song fills the summer nights and is said to resemble the mating calls of bucks in autumn.
Much of the area’s dramatic beauty can only be appreciated from the sea. Some<br>enterprising locals offer guided explorations of the many sea caves and jagged cliffsides north of the harbor.
The story of Sagiura
People have lived in Sagiura since ancient times. The earliest records of Sagiura appear in the 733 compilation of regional lore known as the Izumo fudoki, in which the district is referred to as “Sagihama.” Inasehagi-jinja Shrine is mentioned in the Nihon shoki, a collection of Japan’s earliest myths that was set down in 720. By the middle years of the Edo period (1603–1867), merchant vessels from Kyoto and Osaka regularly traveled the Sea of Japan. With its fine harbor, Sagiura thrived, offering trade, lodgings, and safe anchorage to ships awaiting favorable winds.
Local wholesalers also managed cargo shipments from distant regions of the country. The Shiwakuya company, whose former warehouse is now open to the public, made a fortune shipping salt from the Shiwaku islands in the Seto Inland Sea.
During the Meiji (1868–1912) and Taishō (1912–1926) eras, Sagiura remained a regular port-of-call for Osaka merchant vessels. At the height of the town’s prosperity, around 1888, one shipping agent might have handled the operations of more than 100 boats per year.
Copper mining, spurred by rapid modernization and a demand for natural resources, also brought additional industry to the area. By the late 1920s, however, the closure of the mines and the arrival of a national railway line that vastly reduced sea traffic spelled the end of Sagiura’s commercial boom. Today, fishing has replaced shipping as the primary industry.