Sunday Drive to Gakuenji

A free Sunday. No plans. Nothing to do, but drive. I jumped onto Google Maps on Saturday night and decided upon a place to visit a couple of hours drive away. I wanted a relaxing drive with little traffic, some good views, and a rewarding end location. And wow, did I get just that. Let me quickly fill you in about whereabouts I live in Japan.

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Here you can see Japan. At the top the island of Hokkaido, and at the bottom Kyushu (of course go down a little bit further and you can find Okinawa). I’m currently living on the main island of Honshu where you can find Tokyo and Osaka.

Zoom in a little bit more and you come closer to my place. You can see I’ve travelled around a fair bit, all of these stars are places I have visited. Under ‘Islands’ and above ‘prefectures’ you have something called a ‘region’. Maybe you’ve heard of the Kanto Region? Well, I don’t live there, no, I live in the Chugoku Region (meaning middle land) of Japan. This region consists of 5 prefectures, Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori, and Yamaguchi.

Let’s zoom in just a touch more. To the right of this map is Tottori Prefecture, and to the left is Shimane Prefecture. I live on the right side. However, my travels would take me to the left as you can see if you follow the blue line. Starting in Yonago City, I drove towards Matsue City, then along the lake, crossing over the mountains to get to the ocean. Finally driving inland to Gakuenji hidden in the lush forest. The adventure doesn’t end here though, If you look closely I drive through some epic touge roads, pass Izumo Grand Shrine, and head into the city.

I think I departed my city around 9:30 am. No alarms to wake me up didn’t decide on a set time, just got up and left. How great.

This photo was taken from Eshima, to get here you must go over Eshima Ohashi Bridge. Have a quick google search and see just how impressively steep it looks. There are actually two small islands inside of this lake. This island, and right next to it a slightly bigger one called Daikon Island. Both are great to drive over because you are right beside the lake.

After grabbing a quick snack from Family Mart, it was time to carry on. Hoping it wasn’t going to rain all day, I set off towards Matsue City.

This was actually a rather nice touge pass. Nice incline, with a steady decline. I remember last year around this time it was still snowing, I hit some black ice and just lost all control. That was an experience I don’t want to do again. Not fun at all!

Thankfully this time around, the snow had not created any black ice where I could spin out. For the most part, driving around where I live looks just like this. Farms in every direction with mountains separating them from the sky.

About 40 or so minutes into the drive, I arrived at Matsue City. This city hosts one castle that never got reconstructed like most of the others. So the inside still looks like an original castle, because it is. Worth the visit if you’re around this area. The lake you can see here isn’t the same as the one before. This one connects Matsue and Izumo together, whereas the previous one connected Matsue and Yonago.

Driving along the lakeside road towards Izumo is one of my favourite drives. It’s just so peaceful. Beautiful lake on your left, big mountains on your right. At this point, I’m just about at Gakuenji which was the place I choose to stop at. This isn’t a photo of the lake, it’s of the ocean. Japan is not as clean as you’d think. In the off seasons, most of the beaches around here have rubbish littering it. A little sad really…

The car was holding up good, and the rain had almost vanished.

I’d finally reached the parking lot for Gakuenji (Gakuen Temple) and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to drive along this awesome little bridge. When I got off the car I nearly fell into the river it was that narrow!

After parking the car I started my walk into the unknown. I hadn’t done any research on this place, so wasn’t sure what to expect.

The road had been blocked off, this cone says ‘don’t enter with a car’. After seeing the condition of the road I can see why they would not want you to. However in saying that, I’ve driven on roads just inches wider than this with my car before and in worse condition through a dense forest, no problems there.

The road up to the temple was followed by a flowing river, something that made for a more pleasant walk, I had nearly forgotten what rushing water sounds like.

鰐淵寺 (gaku-en-ji) actually means crocodile-pool-temple. I’m glad I didn’t know that before I went there! Thankfully there were no crocodiles to be seen. This temple had two different paths I could embark on. Go over the bridge to the right. Or go straight and cross over the water entering a dense forest.

I chose right, up the stairs. If you’ve been to Japan, I’m sure you’re accustomed to the stairs. They are everywhere! The top of the stairs brought me to the main temple. I didn’t take a photo because the building right beside it was being renovated and had a massive blue tarp infesting my view.

Walking over to the left would open up views to another smaller building. I liked this one much more. It seemed isolated from the rest. Just this building and the forest around it. Gakuenji is one of the older temple sites in Japan, built around the year 600. I can say with confidence, that if you don’t rent a car, you won’t be getting to this temple any time soon.

The winter snow was nowhere to be seen, green trees were touching the blue sky like spring was already among us, I mean, one more week officially. The best time to come to see this temple is during Autumn, the main temple has a massive tree that turns red and litters the ground creating a red overload. Something I must return to see.

Okay, I was finished on the right side. As I was heading back to the car park I nearly didn’t bother to take the path over the river. I’m glad I did though. It was a little longer than the right side, but still only about a 10-minute walk to get to the end. At the end was a cute little building, abandoned looking. The path went around it, so I followed. Dirt turned into slippery rock, I was starting to think this wasn’t actually a path. Until I found another open style building. With a table and small log chairs around it. And that’s when I saw it!

This made my trip. I saw a tiny bridge just past the shelter, being intrigued by it, I walked on it, and turned a corner to find THIS. The source of the rushing water and a building is hidden right behind it. Apparently, this is where the name came from. It was said that a crocodile in the pond at the bottom of the waterfall returned lost items to someone when they dropped it in there.

I hope you liked the temple if so let me know and I’ll do more articles like this. Back on the road now. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do now. Go home, or go into Izumo City. At this point, it was about 1 pm, and I still hadn’t eaten lunch, plus I wanted to fix my annoying wiper blades. I travelled around the coast towards Izumo Grand Shrine.

The road hugged the land just by the sea. An epic road that kept a big ol smile on my face. Didn’t see one other car until I got closer to the city. After going along the coast for about 15 minutes, a made a turn into the mountainside.

This is how I would get to Izumo City. Some more touge through the mountain. It was good. Perfect turns, long straights, something right out of a comic book. You might think that this photo is rather cool, but to be honest, these little towns, with bridges like this are abundant around here. Anywhere is satisfying to take a photo!

After driving through the peaceful Izumo Grand Shrine with my excessively loud car, I headed into the centre part of the city to find some lunch. Yoshinoya is a very fast food, rice bowl with meat on top kind of restaurant. You can find these literally anywhere around Japan. Worth a visit, maybe only once though. It’s kind of like the Japanese version of Burger King.

I grabbed myself a cheese-topped beef & rice bowl. The big size came out at only 620yen ($5.60usd) Not bad, for a nice filling meal.

The sun was now blistering hot, no clouds anywhere. Autobacs was just around the corner, that was my next stop. I cleaned the windscreen, then put some wd40 on the wipers to try and get rid of the squeak. Nope. Went and bought some washer fluid, found out motor had broken. Nope. Bought a weird kind of paste to go over the windscreen. That fixed it up straight away. I spent a little bit too long here, trying to fix it, in the sun, which produced a slight headache. Oh no…

Trying to remedy my headache I stopped in at a Family Mart on the way back to my city. Grabbed an ice cream, then did some stuff to my car in the parking lot, because why not?

It was about 5.30pm now. The sun was just about setting and I wasn’t even back yet. In Matsue City, there is a little island called Yomegashima. And the sun sets right behind it. I’ve been living here for 2.5 years now and still haven’t witnessed its beauty. I had to do it. Had to see what it was all about.

On that little island, there is a shrine. I feel like in Japan, people put shrines everywhere. “Oh that place looks cool, let’s put a shrine there.” You can’t see the shrine from the photo, so to me, it wouldn’t matter either way.

If you put your eye close enough to your phone. Right between the gap in the trees is where the sun sets. The shoreline was filled with other photographers doing exactly what I was doing. I kind of wished I had my 70-200 at this point to get a close up of it. Oh well, next time!

It was dark now. And my petrol was dangerously low. A quick pit stop into a Shell would have my tank filled right up. 148yen for 1 litre of high octane. 8,880yen (80usd) to fill a 60-litre tank. Not bad at all. I kid you not, one of the staff here, had his old school hachi roku parked up at the gas station. The real Takumi right here.

On the way home I got in contact with a friend to grab some dinner, it had just hit 7 pm at this point and my stomach was rumbling. I bet you can’t guess where I went?

That’s right, McDonald’s. In Japan, would you believe it, it tastes fresh, and like actual food. I don’t mind a good old burger from McDs or BK. Japan does something different. Compared to NZ or the US it’s just so much better.

They even have a night menu. Where it’s the usual burgers, but the meat is doubled for only a small price increase. What a great deal? A double cheeseburger only sets you back about 4usd (that’s having 4 pieces of meat now).

Dinner was done, I was satisfied. It was now time to head back home and sift through the photos I had taken. It was fun. No plans, just drive with only one thing to visit. If you liked this article let me know because there are many other places like this where I live.

Until next time.

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Photos: Shaun Constable | Words: Shaun Constable

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