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Izumo Taisha

Praying for peace at Izumo Taisha

Izumo-taisha (出雲大社), also known as Izumo Ōyashiro, is one of the most ancient and important Shinto shrines in Japan. No record gives the exact date of its establishment, but some of the oldest mythological stories of the country originate at this very place.

Located in Izumo of Shimane Prefecture, the shrine is dedicated to the god of nation-building, Okuninushi-no-okami, and it is said that, if you visit the shrine, you will have great luck when it comes to your love life and personal relationships. Even though no exact date of establishment exists, the shrine is believed by many to be the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan, even predating the Ise Grand Shrine, with a history that has been recorded in oldest written chronicles of Japan – the Kojiki (712 CE) and Nihon-shoki (720 CE).

How to reach Izumo taisha

Me and my wife, Mani, were staying at the Dormy Inn, just beside the Izumoshi Station. Dormy Inn is a nice place to stay in Izumo, with comfortable rooms and easy accessibility to local convenience stores. This was my first visit to Izumo, primarily because the city is located in an under-populated town on the extreme western edge of the Shimane peninsula, and it takes almost 4 hours to reach from Kyoto. I have been to Shimane before in 2016 when I visited the lovely Adachi gardens, but Izumo remained on my bucket list because of its difficult in accessibility.

The area surrounding Izumoshi station is very quiet, unlike the bustling stations of Kyoto, Tokyo or even Sendai. The town is literally littered with idols of Ōkuninushi, like the one below, which I saw on the roadside. Ōkuninushi has had a massive impact on the history of Izumo, we will delve into his story later on in this article.

It was 9 am in the morning. After a light breakfast of onigiris, we took the local bus to Izumo Taisha. The bus was mostly empty. I guess most travelers here are locals and they use their personal vehicles to travel. We had on us the “Perfect Ticket” which allows for a hassle free travel on local buses. If you are in Izumo for a few days, I would recommend obtaining the “Enmusubi Perfect ticket” from the Izumo Tourist Information Center, inside JR Izumoshi Station.

The “Perfect Ticket” costs ¥1500 per adult and enables you unlimited rides on local trains and buses for 3 consecutive days. The ticket also includes discounts and privileges at a few tourist spots.

The bus dropped us off near a large Torii gate that starts the walk to the heritage shrine. Four toriis in total need to be passed before reaching the shrine and each is made of a different material: stone, wood, iron and copper (sorted from first to fourth Torii). If you are interested there is a larger white torii, made of stone, a couple of stops before, that used to be the original entrance gate to the shrine. You can also take the local train to the shrine, but it will likely take up more time as it involves changing multiple trains.

From the wooden torii, a wide paved path leads visitors towards the shrine grounds. Along the way you will find many stone lanterns like the one below.

Myths surrounding Izumo Taisha

Before I show you the age-old structures inside the Izumo Taisha complex, let me explain to you the myths behind the heritage site. The Shinto myths originating from japan can be segregated into four eras. Izumo Taisha originates from the first or the mythical era of the heavenly and earthly kami. Kami are basically the spirits, gods and deities in the Shinto religion. The gods were divided into Amatsu-kami (heavenly gods) and Kunitsu-kami (earthly gods.)

According to the ancient book Kojiki, this is the era when heaven and Earth were created. The end of this era sees the earthen kami subdued by the heavenly kami. This already sounds interesting… lets delve a bit deeper into this mythical world.

Understanding of Japanese mythology is incomplete without Izumo. According to the two oldest chronicles of Japan, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, in those times, the Japanese islands were controlled from Izumo. Izumo was known to be the realm of gods on Earth.

In the beginning as says Kojiki – five deities came into existence. The Earth itself at that time was just a formless ocean with no landmass. After six more generation of gods, the seventh generation were a male/female pair called Inazagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto. With a jeweled spear, standing on the heavenly floating bridge that connected the heaven and Earth, they stirred the ocean depths. As they raised the spear, it is said, droplets fell from the tip to form solid islands, that together formed the archipelago of Japan. Izanagi assigned his three offsprings to rule various dominions. Amataresu-o-mikami and Susano-wo, two of his favorites were assigned to rule the heaven and the ocean respectively.

Susano-wo however was unhappy and was reassigned by a furious father to rule over Yomi no Kuni, the realm of the dead on Earth. He resigned himself to his fate and eventually after many wanderings on Earth, built a magnificent palace in Izumo, at Suga. He lived there with his wife and had many children. One of Susano-wo’s descendants was Okuninushi. Okuninushi had eighty brothers and was reckoned to be the least among them. How he came to rule these lands from being one of the most unworthy is another interesting story.

The path towards the shrine is surrounded by tall pine trees that are hundreds years old. In order to protect these ancient trees, visitors are not permitted to walk through the central pathway. We took an adjacent path that lead us into a wide open area from where we could see Mt. Yakumo clearly.

At the end of the trail we found a small stone torii. This is the shrine of Kinazuki Forest. Interestingly there is no shrine after the torii. The forested area is itself considered a shrine.

It is said the old days, the gods of Takamagahara gathered in this place to build the ” Sunshine Suminomiya “, the predecessor of Izumo Taisha. At the time of construction, the gods seemed to use a “pine” to beat wood and solidify the ground. And this “pine” used by the gods is buried deep in the ground of this forest and seems to be still asleep. In other words, it is said that a torii gate is built and worshiped as a “place where tools used by the gods are buried”.

The story of Okininushi

As we neared the third torii, that leads directly into the innermost shrine grounds, we found the temizuya, or ritual cleansing place where you should stop and wash your hands.

Near the Temizuya, you can find this statue of Okuninushi-no-okami and what looks like a giant wave with an orb balance on it. This statue is a more artistic depiction when Okuninushi met Omono-nushi, represented by the gold orb on top of the wave. This is an important moment in the mythology of Okuninushi, because at this moment he realized that he had the support of the Gods.

Okinunishi married several times causing his first wife to eventually leave him. The procreative actions of Okinunishi created alarm bells ringing as their descendants started taking over Earth. Amaterasu-o-mikami taking displeasure at this act sent messengers to Okuninushi to desist from their actions. On her third attempt to dissuade Okuninushi, the heavenly deities decided to send a powerful warrior Takemikazuchi-no-kami who descended on Inaba beach in Izumo. After various attempts by Takemikazuchi-no-kami, Okuninushi finally yielded the Izumo to Amaterasu. As a gratitude Amaterasu let him retain dominion over the religious and magical world.

According to the Nihon Shoki, the sun goddess Amaterasu said, “From now on, my descendants shall administer the affairs of state. You shall cast a spell of establishing good relationship over people to lead them a happy life. I will build your residence with colossal columns and thick and broad planks in the same architectural style as mine and name it Amenohisu-no-miya.” The other gods were gathered and ordered by Amaterasu to build a grand palace at the foot of Mt. Uga. I used the term palace, dont be confused by it, I am still referering to Izumo taisha. Izumo Taisha has changed its name in the past > Sunshine Palace → Kitsuki Taisha Shrine → Izumo Taisha Shrine

Brief history of Izumo taisha

There is no knowledge of exactly when Izumo-taisha was built, but a record compiled around 950 CE (Heian period) describes the shrine as the highest building, reaching approximately 48 meters, which exceeds in height the 45 meter-tall temple that enshrined the Great Buddha of Tōdai-ji.

According to Kojiki, the legendary stories of old Japan, and Nihon Shoki, the chronicles of old Japan, Izumo-taisha was considered the largest wooden structure in Japan when it was originally constructed.

During the Kamakura period, around 1200, the main structure was reduced in size. Then in 1744, the shrine was reconstructed to the present size of 24 meters high and 11 meters square at its base. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as travel became more common in Japan, the shrine became a central place of pilgrimage.

Since the shrine spirit was settled in the inner shrine in 1744, it has been relocated three times for renovation of the inner shrine, using a traditional ceremony. The relocations took place in 1809, 1881, and 1953.

From 1871 through 1946, the Izumo-taisha was officially designated one of the Kanpei-taisha, meaning that it stood in the first rank of government supported shrines.

In April 2008, the spirit was moved to temporary housing in the front shrine of Izumo-taisha in preparation for the Heisei-period renovations. Izumo-taisha’s inner shrine was opened to the public for the first time in 60 years in the summer of 2008. On completion of the renovations, Ōkuninushi was returned to the inner shrine in a ceremony attended by over 8,000 people, held on May 11, 2013.

Inner area of Izumo Taisha

Let me quickly share a map of the grounds so its simpler for you to follow. The red rectangular text blurb is where the temizuya is.

Haiden

When you go through the fourth copper torii, you will see the haiden, where visitors in general pray. The Haiden (prayer hall) will be the first visiting point of most people. It was re-built in 1959 after the end of the second World War. The prayer hall holds an impressive three ton Shimenawa, made of rice straw. A Saisen-bako (money offering box) lies in front of the gate.

I have heard that throwing a coin into the Shimenawa will bring luck, if the coin gets stuck in it. However I didn’t observe anyone doing it so I too reclused myself from doing it.

Although it is usual to bow twice, clap twice, pray, then bow once more at Shinto shrines, the practice at Izumo-taisha is to bow twice, clap four times, pray, and bow once more.

The haiden is often directly connected with the Honden. In the case of Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, the haiden is standing on its own. In its role as prayer hall, it is used to pray to the kami of the shrine and also host a variety of ceremonies.

Yatsuashi-mon

Just beyond the Haiden, you will find the honden, or main shrine, where Okuninushi-no-okami resides. Okuninushi is worshiped at the shrine as the deity of nation-building, but, more popularly, also as the deity of ‘en‘, or the ties that bind us to each other.

The main shrine is enclosed inside the yatsuashimon gate, with only a portion of its roof visible. The Yatsuashimon is an eight-columned gate, the front of which is occupied with another Saisen-bako. The main shrine was built using one of Japan’s oldest shrine architectural styles, the Taisha-dzuki method, and is recognized as a Japanese National Treasure. This area is surrounded by a Mizugaki (fence).

I was not allowed entry to the inner-shrine precinct. From what I gather, it can be only entered by priests and Miko. An exception is the New Year when during Hatsumode, the Saisen-bako is moved closer to the Honden and visitors can step through the gate.

If you a souvenir collector, you can buy pieces of the hinoki cypress trees which used to support the shrine for 60 years have been turned into amulets.

Standing in front of the honden, I bowed and then clapped my hands four times, instead of the two that is standard ritual at Japanese shrines. Clapping twice is believed to get the attention of the gods, but since Okinunishi is the deity of relationships, at Izumo Taisha you need to add a couple of claps for your significant other.

Worshipers are not permitted inside the honden except on special occasions.

We walked around the sprawling complex. Long rectangular buildings with shuttered entrances lined either side of the honden. In front on the small structures you can see hundreds if not thousands of omikuji tied to the trees and makeshift wooden panels.

If you’d like to, you can purchase an ema at the shrine here. The small wooden plaques are a way to write down your prayers or wishes, and by leaving them at the shrine, the gods are believed to be able to receive them. It’s always interesting to have a look and see what people are wishing for at different shrines.

Nishi-jukusha

Under Japan’s old lunar calendar, October was the month wherein the various gods gathered together at Izumo. The 10th month of the lunar calendar is known throughout most of Japan as Kannazuki, or the “month of no gods.” During this time, Okuninushi, summons myriad deities to decide the fate of all people for the year ahead. For this reason, the 10th lunar month in Shimane Prefecture alone is known as Kamiarizuki — the “month of the gods.”

Jukyusha is said to be the location within Izumo where the various deities gather and stay during their visits to the area. As we made our way towards the back area, we found ourselves in front of the Shōkokan.

Shōkokan

The Shōkokan consists of two floors. The first floor is the reception office for Kaguraden. The second floor consists of a museum for important items. Unfortunately it was closed at the time of our visit.

Some items in the museum are items designated as national treasure and important cultural assets, like jewelry, household articles, paintings, swords, and musical instruments.

Considered most important in Shōkokan are a set of Japan’s oldest wooden pestle and an igniting board and a small boat that was hollowed out of a piece of wood. The small boat was believed to have come from the upper stream of the Yoshino River, through the Seto Inland Sea, and to the Inasa Beach near Izumo-taisha.

Soga-no Yashiro

A few paces beside the Shōkokan , you can find the Soga-no Yashiro shrine, standing exactly behind the main hall almost enveloped by the forest at the base of Mt yakumo. This shrine is dedicated to Susano-o, the god of sea and storms.

On the right side of the shrine, you will find a tray filled with sand. According to Shinto practice, many shrines in the Shikoku and Chūgoku regions, called Izumo yashiki, were purified with small quantities of sand taken from under the floor of this shrine.

If you take some of Soga no Yashiro’s sand with you and place it around your house, it will protect your home.

Rabbits in front of Soga-no Yashiro. According to legend, Okuninushi-no-okami once saved a rabbit, which is why you will find many cute rabbit statues at Izumo Taisha.

Kagura Hall

Izumo-taisha’s Kagura-den was first built in 1776 by the Senge family, as a grand hall for performance of traditional rituals. It was rebuilt in 1981 to commemorate the centennial of the foundation of the Izumo Oyashiro-kyo order.

There exists a book named “Kuchizusami”, that recorded the names of the famous rivers, long bridges, great buildings or any other major landmarks in Japan. In the book, one of the phrases mentions “Izumo is the top, followed by Yamato, then by Kyoto”. It could have been in reference to the height of the buildings in Japan at that time, the main building of the Izumo Grand Shrine was number one; the hall for the Great Buddha figure of Todai-ji temple in Yamato (present Nara) was second; and Daigokuden Palace in Heiankyo (Kyoto) was the third in height.

The document from the 10th century, indicate that the highest builing in the complex was around 48 meters and stood on 9 massice columns. To reach the temple there was probably a massive flight of steps as well. Excavations have confirmed its probable existence.

The written sign inside Kagura-den is not made with ink, but it’s in fact embroidery. You will see the cross-stitch style if you look closely. There is also a stained glass with pictures of clouds in the shape of Izumo Taisha.

The colossal size of Izumo shrine was quite literally also its downfall as it collapsed on its own weight multiple times in the 11th and 12th centuries. When it was reconstructed, it was reduced in size.

Traditional prayer by Izumo Kokuso, wedding ceremonies of believers, and the performances of sacred dance to ancient Japanese music involve the Oracle with 240 mats. Also worshipped with prayer is a frame with four dyed Chinese characters, meaning “the Oracle Filled with Aureole,” by Prince Arisugawa above the altar.

The Kagura-den features the largest shimenawa (sacred straw rope) in Japan; it is 13.5 meters long and weighs around 5 tons. The rope is one of the most easily recognized and distinctive features of Izumo-taisha. The shimenawa is 13.5 meters long and weighs 4.4 tons, making it one of the biggest in Japan. You are sure to be surprised at the sheer scale of this straw rope.

A few feet away from the Kagura-den you can see a huge Japanese flag swaying in the wind.

After fully exploring the area we walked down to capture the stunning sunset at the Inasahama beach where in a few months the gods would be greeted again for the first day of “Kamiarizuki.”

The sun was just setting behind a veil of violet-hued clouds, and the wide beach was empty save for a few local teenagers and a couple busy with their pre-wedding photo shoot. As the daylight sunk bank into the horizon, we walked back to Izumo Taisha. The road devoid of any streetlights is pretty dark at this time of the day.

Once we reached the shrine, we found ourselves all alone at the massive grounds. A lone guard, neatly dressed in his royal blue attire, was standing guard on the premises. I requested him if I could use my tripod on the shrine grounds. In a very simple gesture of touching the index finger with his thumb, he gestured that it was okay. I took a couple of pictures of the Haiden, and the I walked briskly to the Yatsuashi-mon gate.

Yatsuashi-mon at night

It was a bit eerie around on the grounds with not a soul in sight, but it was also easy on me as I took some pictures of the gate without any photo bombs getting in the way.

Kagura-den at Night

Finally I captured some shots of the Kagura hall which was looking immersive in the beautiful blue night. Once I had my fill of night shots, we made our way towards the bus stop.

On the way the Okinunishi’s statue was sitting beautifully illuminated in the night.

Once we reached the iron torii at the edge of the shrine grounds we waited for the next bus, sitting on a roadside bench in front a lively Starbucks.

Izumo Grand Shrine is one of the most recognized shrines in Japan, and attracts more than 2 million visitors every year. On the grounds, you can find numerous different amulets, from charms for love, ones to help in finding your soulmate, omikuji to tell your fortune for the year and ema prayer boards on which to write your wishes.

Thanks for reading! I you liked my story please add a comment below or follow my story as I visit another extremely old heritage structure back in Kyoto – Yasaka Shrine.

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