Daisen-Oki National Park spans Okayama, Shimane and Tottori, the three westernmost prefectures of Japan's main Honshu island. Far removed from urban life the national park offers a rewarding journey for the adventurous traveler keen to find the enduring essence of Japan.
The first major attraction and one difficult to miss is Mount Daisen, a magnificently imposing 1,729m volcanic peak often referred to as the local Hoki "Mount Fuji". Revered for thousands of years by the Tendai Buddhist sect, it is home to the well-known temple Daisen-ji and was in fact deemed too sacred to climb by regular citizens right up until the Edo era (1603-1868). Nowadays, you too can enjoy the mountain on a spiritual walk, as well as take the original pilgrimage route to the historical Ogamiyama shrine and Daisen-ji temple. The full ascent to the summit makes for a wonderful day trip where you can enjoy views over the three prefectures the national park spans, and it is hard not to feel a sense of the mountain's spiritual significance regardless of your beliefs.
With less foot traffic compared to Mount Fuji, the feeling of being at peace in the midst of the nature is instantly apparent. The ascent takes roughly three hours through a maze of steps and it can be accomplished at any time of the year, from verdant spring to snowy winter. Indeed, in the winter, many locals go skiing down these slopes for a rush of excitement in the peaceful scenery.
At the peak, there sits a single hut, a warm sanctuary where you can rest and recuperate with a Japanese obento as you enjoy the splendid vista. On clear days, the Daisen-Oki National Park can be seen stretched over untold leagues of land all the way to the waiting oceans beyond.
Beyond the sacred mountain itself there are also a number of important religious structures and areas of interest dotted around the base of the mountain, a tour of which makes for an excellent spiritual walk. The full circuit around the base takes visitors around the mountain's wonderful forests with many stops to enjoy the national park's unique flora and fauna as well as numerous spots of spiritual significance.
For those who wish to dig even deeper into the national park's spiritual side there is a special morning offering experience available at Matsue City's Mihonoseki Shrine. Participants start the morning donning pure white robes and sweeping the shrine grounds to purify themselves and release negative energy. Only in this refined state are then permitted to enter the inner shrine and observe the morning offering ritual performed by the priests and the accompanying dance of shrine maidens. Powerful and mesmerising, it is a uniquely intimate experience that gives one renewed energy and clarity of mind for the rest of the day and beyond.
Needless to say there is so much more to the national park than Mount Daisen. The area boasts a strikingly small distance from mountain to sea, best taken in on one of the guided downhill cycling courses that descend the mountain through scenic pastures and roadways. There are number of leisurely routes that can include everything from an old elementary school converted into a chic working space for local artists, forest rivers where the naturally filtered water is clean and tasty enough to drink straight from the source, and cheese makers and wineries. The enthusiastic guides make it a fun and informative trail, and the consistently downhill nature and powered bicycles means even unseasoned cyclists can complete the course to the sea in a breeze.
For more experienced cyclists there are plenty of other courses too, including one along the Hiruzen cycling road where you can explore the national park's scenic highlands, including shrines where you can experience local culture and an old-fashioned guest houses where one can try traditional wagashi sweets and try your hand at making their own wooden tableware with mountain chestnut wood at a local atelier.
After all that exercise why not sit down for a spot of relaxing birdwatching at the Yonago Waterbird Sanctuary in Yonago City? An important research and education centre, the scopes at the viewing windows offer views of 130 species of local birds depending on the season including a flock of 1000 tundra swans that make the place their migratory home for the winter. Full of informative displays and activities, there are also some great photo opportunities especially at dusk and dawn.
For those who want to get more up close and personal with the native wildlife, there is an opportunity to interact with Japan's beloved ōsanshōuo, more commonly known as the giant salamander, the biggest amphibian in the world. In Nichinan Town of Tottori, local researchers give visitors the chance to learn about the lives of these amphibians who can grow as long as a meter and a half. As they only grow a few centimetres each year, giant salamanders are said to live for many decades, although the exact life span is still a mystery to this day.
After the explanation, visitors can visit one of their largest remaining habitats, where experts have been conducting research and tracking the local giant salamanders. There is an opportunity here to hold a tracking device and look for a giant salamander on your own with the help of the expert guides.
These tracked amphibians are quite calm. Take the chance to find one in your own hands, and the giant salamander may even surprise you with how friendly and cute they are! A fun and educational tour for the whole family, this experience is also a great occasion to learn about habitat conservation that is a universal lesson for us all. As the sun sets and the tour comes to an end, enjoy a bowl of local oshiruko, a soup made from local sweet red beans and mochi.
Speaking of Japanese washoku cuisine, as you would expect the area has a number of unique and tasty options for good healthy local cuisine. Be sure to try the locally-sourced beef curry at Hiruzen Herb Garden, a charming eatery tucked away in the Hiruzen Highlands surrounded by lavender flowers with views of the three peaks of Hiruzen. For something more classic there's the traditional vegan lunch at Sanrakuso in Daisen, a calm and tranquil hotel restaurant with a rich selection of Japanese ornaments and interior styling that sends diners back into the 18th Century.
For those who wish to try a little cooking themselves there is the port of Sakaiminato and the Sakaiminato Marine Product Direct Sales Center, a time-honoured indoor market chock full of the day’s catch and brimming with fresh fish.
After a full day of activities there is nothing better than good food, steaming baths and comfortable beds, all of which you will find at Mihokan, a historic ryokan inn and little taste of traditional luxury in the Matsue City. Patrons including television celebrities, public figures and even the Japanese Imperial Family come for the old fashioned hospitality, quality seafood and rich variety of sake. Straight out of a period drama, the public areas and private rooms are rich with antique details and it will take more than a single visit to take everything in.
After a gorgeous and memorable meal, step outside and explore the nearby Aoishidatami Street, a charming temple road illuminated by lamplight with countless shops specialising in traditional produce including sake and soy sauce. Beyond the local specialities you will find the locals themselves to be full of character and more than happy to guide you around their town.
As enticing as a luxurious inn may sound, for the traveler who wants to get closer to nature within the national park there is also a great glamping experience to be had at FBI Daisen, the self proclaimed "First Class Backpackers Inn", in full view of Mount Daisen and its majestic forests. The furnished tents are fully equipped and cosy so you won't need any specialist equipment, and there is even a forest cabin bar restaurant with great hamburgers and beers.
As you can discover for yourself, there is just too much to take in around Daisen-Oki National Park in a single trip, and there are precious few areas in Japan which offer such variety and charm all in one place. So for those keen to explore a side of Japan rich in untouched nature, hospitality and spirituality, put Daisen-Oki National Park on your itinerary
Inquiries on activities in Daisen
Daisen Tourism Bureau
Inquiries on activities in Mihonoseki
Matsue Tourism Association Mihonoseki Branch
Inquiries on downhill cycling in Daisen
Inquiries on giant salamander conservation experience
Inquiries on activities in Hiruzen
Hiruzen Tourism Association
Inquiries on overall San’in tourism
San'in Tourism Organization
Daisen-Oki National Park visited between October and November