Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine (Izumo Taisha) -- The most important religious structure in the vicinity of Matsue is easy to see on a half-day side trip, but come only if you have extra time. Izumo Taisha, 195 Kizuki Higashi, Taisha-cho, Izumo-shi (tel. 0853/53-3100; daily sunrise-sunset), is considered one of Japan's holiest shrines because, according to popular lore, all the gods in the Shinto pantheon gather here for 1 month every autumn to determine the world's fate for the upcoming year. In Izumo this month is called the "Month with the Gods." Everywhere else in Japan, it's referred to as the "Month without Gods," because they're all away performing their duty here, housed in those long buildings flanking both sides of the main shrine. Otherwise, like the Ise Grand Shrines, the main shrine here, reconstructed in 1744, is considered too sacred for mere mortals and is hidden away from close inspection. You'll have to content yourself with a picture showing how it looked 1,000 years ago, when it was reputedly 24m (79 ft.) higher to heaven on top of huge pilings. This makes it the oldest site of a Shinto Grand Shrine displaying the Taisha style of architecture. It's dedicated to Okuninushi-no-mikoto, the Shinto deity responsible for medicine, farming, and happiness. To the left of the main shrine is the marriage shrine, where you'll see people throwing coins up into the bristled ends of thick, twisted rice ropes adorning the entrance; legend has it that if a coin gets stuck in the bushy end, the thrower will have good luck in marriage.
It's a 30- to 40-minute JR train ride from Matsue Station to Izumoshi Station (¥570), followed by a 30-minute bus ride (¥510) bound for Izumo Taisha ("Taisha-yuki"; get off at the last stop). Or, for a more atmospheric journey, you can also reach Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine by taking the private Ichibata Railway from Matsue Shinjiko Onsen Station (departures are once or twice an hour) 55 minutes to Izumo Taisha-mae Station (¥790). Note, however, that you'll probably have to change trains at Kawato Station, as there's only one direct train on weekends and holidays. Still, it's an interesting ride, with the train stopping at stations no larger than American closets. From Izumo Taisha-mae Station it's a 3-minute walk to the shrine entrance. Admission to the shrine is free.
Adachi Museum -- I was blown away the first time I laid eyes on the Adachi Museum, 320 Furukawa-cho, Yasugi (tel. 0854/28-7111; www.adachi-museum.or.jp/e; daily 9am-5:30pm, to 5pm Oct-Mar), which houses one of Japan's premier collections of Japanese modern art (from the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa periods) amid the meticulously sculpted garden that I consider one of Japan's finest. Exhibitions in the main building, which are changed four times a year to reflect the seasons, are comprised of some 200 early modern Japanese works and include the largest collection of distinguished painter Yokoyama Taikan, with at least 20 of his 130 works here always on display. Also on display are Japanese douga, or illustrations from children's books and magazines, as well as pottery by Kawai Kanjiro and Kitaoji Rosanjin. An annex, opening in November 2010 to commemorate the museum's 40th anniversary, will display another 120 paintings of late-modern Japanese artists.
But what makes this museum truly unique is its perfectly landscaped Adachi Museum Garden, crafted to complement Taikan's masterpieces and continually visible through cleverly designed windows to incorporate it into the museum's artwork. The effect is surreal, as though the garden is a still picture, a scroll, a Taikan painting. There are several outdoor viewing spots, as well as a coffee shop overlooking a koi pond and two teahouses serving traditional cakes and powdered green tea (one with a nice view of a moss garden). You'll want to spend at least 2 hours here, more if you opt for the ¥500 audio guide describing more than 100 works of art or the ¥300 audio guide that provides highlights of the gardens and exhibits.
Admission to the museum is ¥2,200 for adults, ¥1,700 for university students, ¥900 for high-school students, and ¥400 for children, but foreigners can get a 50% discount by showing their passport. To get there, take the JR train from Matsue Station 20 minutes to Yasugi, and then board one of the free shuttle buses that depart nine times a day for the 20-minute ride to the museum. (At last check, buses departed for Adachi at 9am, 10am, 11am, and 11:55am; and at 1pm, 2pm, 2:25pm, 3pm, and 4:15pm, but you'd be wise to verify this.) There are also city buses directly from Matsue, but they're infrequent, so check with the tourist office for a schedule. Alternatively, the Yakumo limited express train traveling between Okayama and Matsue also stops at Yasugi Station, so you could disembark here and deposit your luggage in one of the station's 12 coin lockers before visiting the museum and then traveling onward.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.