Alex Robertson finds his feet in the perfectly preserved historic silver-mining town of Iwami Ginzan.

Mr Arime stands outside his shop in Iwami Ginzan, the Unesco World Heritage silver-mining town at the heart of Shimane Prefecture. He's beaming with pride, holding a 2018 calendar open at September, where a photograph shows a sleek state-of-the-art car sitting outside a beautiful wooden building.

It's his shop in the picture, where he sells lollies handcrafted from soya beans in a centuries-old practice. He offers a sample and they are surprisingly good: sweet, salty and crunchy, or flavoured with plum and other fruits that populate the valley.

 Mr Arime proudly displays the calendar showing his shop. Photo / Alex Robertson
Mr Arime proudly displays the calendar showing his shop. Photo / Alex Robertson

It's a perfect image of modern-day Japan: a people immensely proud of their heritage, tradition and history, but with both feet firmly planted in the 21st century.

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It's the preservation of their culture that most visitors to Japan come to see. And they are coming in their droves: from 8.3 million in 2008 to more than 28.6 million in 2018 according to the Japan Tourism Board.

Most are going to the tourist hotspots of Tokyo, Kobe and Kyoto but with 350 per cent growth in 10 years, tourism numbers are a bit of a problem in the already crowded centres.

With more tourists expected, especially in the next few years as the Rugby World Cup (2019), Tokyo Olympic Games (2020) and World Masters Games (2021) encourage even more visitors, the search is on for the less-visited areas that offer the full Japanese experience, but without the crowds.

Heartland Japan, a tour company founded by 30-something entrepreneur Keijiro Sawano, aims to do just that.

Sawano hails from the Shimane Prefecture in Japan's southwest — the oldest settled area of Japan, according to archaeological discoveries — but has settled in Tokyo after travelling across the globe, establishing a tour company specialising in getting travellers off the beaten track. Iwami Ginzan is off the beaten track for foreigners, but once suffered from tourism pressure with more than 800,000 visitors to the town in one year until cars were banned in 2016. Visitor numbers have since dropped to 300,000 a year, enhancing the visitor experience.

The town, Omori, grew up to service the silver mine over the 400 years of its existence. It was extensively rebuilt after a fire destroyed nearly all the buildings 200 years ago and remains beautifully preserved, nestled in a valley forested with a huge variety of trees that change with the seasons and offer a multi-coloured backdrop to the picture-postcard-perfect wooden buildings that line narrow streets.

A hand-painted dragon on the ceiling of the Kigami shrine. Photo / Alex Robertson
A hand-painted dragon on the ceiling of the Kigami shrine. Photo / Alex Robertson

There are many highlights to the town: the Samurai Magistrate museum; the historic shrines of Kigami, which were built in 1812 as a reminder of the great fire and include a dragon painted on the ceiling; and Gohyaku Rakan that includes 500 stone statues in two caves, commemorating men who died in the mine, all individualised. The Kumagai house, a merchant's house that was home to 16 generations of the same family gives an insight into how locals lived, including traditional cooking experiences.

Kumagai House in Iwami Ginzan, Shimane Prefecture. Photo / Alex Robertson
Kumagai House in Iwami Ginzan, Shimane Prefecture. Photo / Alex Robertson

The main street winds uphill through the town that gives way to forests of maple, bamboo, myrtle and pine, narrowing in places to a footpath. Historic mine entrances litter the way up to the Ryugenji Mabu Mine Shaft, a 273m-long tunnel and the only shaft of more than 600 that is open to the public.

The path continues up and over the hills, marking the old trade routes to the Yunotsu port beyond. It's still possible to walk along these paths, but a guide is recommended: bears, wild boar and snakes live in these forests and snow makes the paths impassable in winter.

The lower parts of the path are easily negotiated through bamboo groves leading historic silver-mining town of Iwami Ginzan through the historic port town of Okidomari, a natural deep-water harbour where it's still possible to see bollards cut into the sandstone in the 16th century to moor ships taking silver to China and beyond. The path becomes a road snaking along the edge of the Sea of Japan to the port of Yunotsu where fishing boats bob on the waves.

Yunotsu is known for its natural hot springs, which feed a couple of onsen, the public bath-houses.

The Motoyu onsen features two mineral pools in gender-separated areas with hot and even hotter water. The locals seem immune to the heat but caution is advised when entering the pools.

Yunotsu is known for its natural hot springs. Photo / Alex Robertson
Yunotsu is known for its natural hot springs. Photo / Alex Robertson

Yunotsu is a well-preserved town of historic wooden buildings and shrines, the flickering glow of electric lights seemingly the only nod to present day as day fades into night. That is until the bus arrives to take us back to the ryokan — the 21st-century visiting the past.

Mr Arime would be proud.

Checklist

DETAILS

Heartland Japan offers a range of tours in Kyushu, Chugoku, Kinki and Tohoku, suitable for different levels of fitness. For more details, see heartlandjapan.com