The city of Matsue, on the shore of Lake Shinji 110 mi/180 km north of Hiroshima and famed for its gorgeous sunsets, has much to offer. Its sinister-looking black castle is a 17th-century original—not a reconstruction—that broods over moats lined with pine trees and a street of restored samurai houses. An enjoyable way to see this watery town is by taking a boat tour through the canals. Hot springs and a couple of nice teahouses are additional treats in the area.

Matsue's famous adopted son is Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-American writer who lived there for about a year in the late 1800s, married a samurai's daughter and wrote 14 books that introduced Japanese culture to the Western world. Don't miss his residence (a charming samurai house) and the adjacent museum.

Also in the area, Izumo is home to the Izumo Taisha Shrine, one of the oldest Shinto sites in Japan. Tradition says that during the 10th month of the lunar calendar (late October-early November), all of Japan's Shinto gods vacation in this shrine. On both sides of the main shrine are long shelters that serve as "guesthouses" for the visiting gods. The main shrine torii (gate) is one of the largest in the country.

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