If you want to really get off the beaten track in Japan, then the places to visit are usually the ones that don’t (or just barely) warrant a mention in guidebooks. Generally speaking, if you’ve never heard of the place you’re probably in the right area. I had a five-day weekend in early November so decided to head out to Shimane and Tottori prefectures, on the sea of Japan coast. I had lived in Tottori previously, and had barely visited Shimane, and thought that this would be a good time to revisit both those places. In Shimane I was particularly interested in going to the Iwami Ginzai Silver Mine, a World Heritage Site located in the middle of the prefecture (i.e. the middle of nowhere). During the 16th century it was producing about 30% of the world’s silver. Now, you can visit some of the old mines, go on numerous walks in the area, and visit the wonderfully preserved old town of Omori, which served the miners in that area.
Unfortunately, due to some very bad planning on my part (not leaving early enough, not bringing enough money, not leaving enough time to explore the place) I ended up having to make a choice between seeing the mines and maybe being able to catch the last bus back, or to visit the town and be secure that I could. So, I stayed in town. The town is a site in and of itself, but in particular I wanted to visit Rakanji Temple and the Gohyaku Rakan (500 rakan statues). This is a picturesque little area near the entrance of the town. The clear draw are the 501 statues to the left side of the road (the stone bridges next to them appear photogenic in photos but modern inconveniences like cars and pylons made it hard to get a good shot), but to see them you have to pay at the temple across the street, which I did.
This is not a cemetery as such, but a memorial for miners that died while working in the silver mines. It used to be said that it was possible to see the face of real miner in one of the smiling, laughing, contemplating, or otherwise animated statues. I found it to be quite moving. After walking up some stairs you go through some doors and then it’s just you and the statues. You can light incense and candles if you wish (which I did). It was really touching to look at each of the faces in those small caves and to imagine what it must have been like to have been living in that area back then.
Quality of Monuments: Interesting. I love these little rakan statues that you can find at different temples in Japan. Again, these are not memorials to specific people, but memorials to the miners in general.
Cemetery Grounds: The temple is on the right side of the road and the statues are in 3 caves and various nooks and crannies on the left side of the road. It’s quite a small area and for most people won’t take more than 10 minutes to visit both sides.
Visitors: Very few. For the most part I was alone when visiting the caves, but a few people (not more than 10) came by while I was there.
Photographer notes: Officially, there are signs not to take photographs of the statues but I’m not sure why. If you do decide to photograph them, it’s really dark inside the caves which makes it a bit difficult if you don’t want to use a flash. I would not recommend a tripod, but a wide angle and a fast lens is definitely needed.
Cemetery: Gohyaku Rakan and Rakanji Temple
Location: Omori Town, Shimane Prefecture
〒694-0305, Gohyaku-Rakan/Rakanji, Shimane Prefecture, Oda City, Omori-cho I-804
Hours: 9:00-17:00. Costs 500 yen for adults.