Izumo Taisha, the 2nd most important Shinto Shrine in Japan, undergoes Sengu–a complete reconstruction–every sixty years. What with Shinto’s emphasis on purity, the thought is to refresh the whole shrine after every complete cycle, primarily focusing this renewal on the honden, or primary hall of the shrine where the deity resides. The deity in this case is Ookuninushi–a key figure in the Kojiki who I haven’t started writing about quite yet!–and the honden in question is a national treasure of Japan. Like Kamosu Shrine (also a national treasure), it’s a primary example of taisha-tsukuri style shrine architecture.
Imposing as the shrine might already be today, traditionally it is thought to be even more imposing–about 48 meters imposing–in its previous incarnations. There wasn’t actually much evidence for this until 3-meter-wide pillars were discovered in 2000, and since then they’ve been displayed in the nearby Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo, along with models of what the shrine might used to have looked like until its downsizing in the Kamakura era and the previous posts used at the top of the shrine before this round of reconstruction.
There was a lot more wood in that previous version than just these posts, so since reconstruction started in 2008, they’ve been using little pieces of the wood in their o-mamori (good luck charms or emulets). Parts of the old wood are still on display next to where you can purchase these charms.
In addition to being the home of one of the most prominent kami of the kojiki legends, Izumo Taisha is also the spot where all the kami congregate for their annual meeting in the 10th month of the old agricultural calendar. While this is known in the rest of Japan as Kannazuki (the month without gods), in the Izumo region is is called Kamiarizuki (the month with gods). Read a little more about that here.
And what are they all discussing at this meeting? En-musubi! Despite it’s significance in wider Shinto application, Izumo Taisha is a shrine just like any other. In addition to shrine activities like drawing your omikuji fortune slip, you can also purchase an ema, a board with illustrations usually unique to each shrine, on which you would write your petition and leave it hanging at the shrine. Because of Izumo Taisha’s reputation for love, matchmaking, and happy marriages, many of them have petitions like “that I get married within three years and attain happiness” or “that I meet an amazing girl and live happily ever after with her,” or “that I may–no, that I will definitely–start attracting men’s attention!!” I’ve also seen some hung by couples thanking the gods for answering previous matchmaking requests, or ones hung side by side from couples declaring their love for each other and how they want to be the best spouses ever.
While Izumo Taisha is a major spot for almost any visitor to the San’in region, you might that retains a rather quiet atmosphere when it’s in the off season, even though it has a tent with semi-regular Kagura and Kabuki performances. On my first visit there, I could to see everything as an easy place, from the pine tree walkway to the building surrounding the honden to the kagura-den, the traditional performance hall for Kagura dance. This building has the largest shimenawa (sacred rope) of any shrine in Japan. The straw itself already weighs five tons, but it gets even heavily with everyone tossing coins in the rope for good luck–technically you’re not supposed to do this, but tradition is hard to stop!
Then came Golden Week–the on-season for tourism everywhere in Japan. This year it took place one week before the Sengu ceremony, so technically Ookuninushi does not yet inhabit the fresh, new honden! None the less, many people were lined up to make their offerings in front of it, anyway.
I can only imagine how packed its going to be tonight when they move Ookuninushi back in! While theoretically anyone could walk up and attend, the only people who will actually be able to see anything have been invited or made their reservations well in advance. That said, the celebration of the Sengu’s completion will go on for the next few weeks a very, very long list of performances, most notably Kagura dances from Izumo, Iwami, the Oki islands, and beyond, and guest performers of a range of other traditional, folk, and modern Japanese performing arts. Pretty much all but one or two of these performances is free and open to the public, so if you happen to be in Izumo sometime between now and June 8, chances are there will be something going on in the covered stage area next to the pine walkway. More information here.