Mystical province of magatama and waters of god

Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov 13, 2011

Yuka Matsumoto

TAMAYUCHO, Shimane–The air here seems filled with light, probably due to reflections off the mirrorlike surface of Lake Shinji. It lends a shimmering atmosphere appropriate to Tamayucho, a city in the former province of Izumo, which appears in Japanese mythology and is now known as Shimane Prefecture.

The city became part of Matsue following the so-called Heisei megamerger of local governments. Tamayucho–the name comprises the kanji for “tama” (beads) and “yu” (hot water)–is a hot spring resort where many magatama, or comma-shaped beads, were said to have been produced long ago as tribute for the Imperial court.

Izumo Fudoki (record of Izumo compiled in 733) says magatama were produced in this area, where people bathe in hot water gushing from a nearby river.

According to this historical record, people who bathe once in Tamayucho’s waters will develop beautiful facial features, and a second bath will cure any disease. Often called waters from the gods, they have long been seen as a cure-all.

Tamatsukuri hot spring now is popular among women eager for smooth skin and to acquire good luck. Young women crowd into Tamatsukuriyu Shrine, which houses a rock believed to fulfill visitors’ wishes, and a footbath along the Tamayugawa river.

Despite its current popularity, the resort town “once faced a crisis just like other hot spring resorts,” according to Minoru Sudo, head of the Matsue tourist association’s Tamatsukuri Onsen branch.

The number of tour groups decreased as luxurious hotels alone were no longer a sufficient attraction. “So we decided to rebuild the town focusing not just on business but also its cultural aspects,” said Sudo, 65.

Five years ago, the association launched a project to revitalize its tourism sector in cooperation with the local government and an association of hotels and inns.

The project team had a pharmaceutical company check whether the spring actually was beneficial to the skin. Its tests revealed that the water boosts the skin’s ability to retain moisture.

The team then advertised the water as Himegami no Yu (princess-goddess water) via the Internet and magazines, and constructed footbaths.

Walking around the resort at dusk, I felt relaxed as I watched the town’s light reflected on the Tamayugawa river. The soft, thick water in an open-air bath kept me warm and felt good on my skin.

Matsudaira Fumai of the Matsue clan worked actively to reform his clan’s finances, and late in the Edo period (1603-1867), he dispatched so-called yumori, people to watch and manage spas. Signs of his work can still be seen in pipes made from pine trees.

Fumai, who was an aficionado of the tea ceremony, designated pottery that became known as Fujina ware as a specialty of the clan and opened exclusive studios to revitalize this traditional craft of the region.

I visited two pottery studios: Yumachi-gama near JR Tamatsukuri Onsen Station, and Funaki-gama near Lake Shinji. Inspired by British potter Bernard Leach and philosopher Muneyoshi Yanagi, these studios create pottery for use in daily life.

The Yumachi-gama studio is full of beautiful earth-colored plates and cups. Each item seems to convey the friendly nature of Shuji Fukuma, 70, the third-generation head of the studio. A plump egg-cooker with a handle, he said, is a longstanding best-seller.

At Funaki-gama, sixth-generation potter Shinji Funaki, 51, uses techniques inherited from his ancestors while also trying to adopt new methods as an independent artist.

Funaki uses yellow and green glazes made from local stones called kimachi-ishi to bake large plates designed with emerald green and primrose yellow droplet patterns.

I was invited to a Japanese-style room that he said was Leach’s favorite place. The room had a commanding view of Lake Shinji, shimmering with soft lights.

“There’s a good reason why certain things are created in a certain place,” Funaki said as I looked at the lake.

Travel Tips

— Flights from Haneda Airport to Izumo Airport take about 1-1/2 hours. From the airport, it is about 30 minutes to JR Matsue Station by bus, and about another five minutes from Matsue Station to Tamatsukuri Onsen Station on the JR Sanin Line.

— For more information, call the Matsue tourism association’s Tamatsukuri Onsen Branch at (0852) 62-3300 or visit the association’s Web site at www2.crosstalk.or.jp/onsen/

(Nov. 13, 2011)
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