Izumo Taisha (or more formally, Izumo Oyashiro), considered the largest and perhaps oldest shrine in Japan, has a number of points of note on a normal visit. I’ve written about it and mentioned it many times throughout this blog, but I’ll address a few of the major ones here.
First, like any Shinto shrine, there is at least one Torii gate to signify the boundary between the mundane world and the spiritual realm. In Izumo Taisha’s case, there are four gates made of different materials: stone, wood, iron, and copper. Visitors bow under each of these, spiritually preparing themselves to may their respects. Also as part of this entrance, there is a cleansing pond (not actually for bathing in, but for see your reflection and therefore self-reflecting) and a small shrine were a god lives and purifies you without your even noticing. This is all before you even reach the hand-washing font, a typical feature of Shinto shrines.
One of the points of interest comes after the wooden gate. Between the stone gate and the wooden gate, there is a bustling street of gift shops and restaurants full of Izumo-style items, and it all leads uphill. The wooden gate is like the main entrance, and after that, the path continues downhill to the main shrine (the honden). This is highly unusual, as most honden are placed at the highest point in the shrine, making it necessary to go up to them.
Along this path, there are two rows of old pine trees. It’s common nature to want to continue straight through the middle of them, but this path is reserved for the gods! Walk along the left or right of them instead.
Either way will lead you to a statue of Okuninushi. On the left, a statue of Okuninushi admonishing the White Hare of Inaba for fooling the sharks but giving him medicinal advice anyway, and on the left, a statue of Okuninushi handing over the lands of Japan to the heavens and is granted domain over En-musubi (signified by a giant wave he kneels in front of, as this scene did take place at nearby Inasa-no-hama Beach). Also, they’re a recent addition, but there are now statues of hares all over the shrine grounds.
After passing one of the worship halls inside which personal rituals are performed, the honden comes into view. Built in Taisha-tsukuri style, the oldest style of Japanese shrine architecture which supposedly predates the influence of Buddhism, it is 24 meters high (as a point of reference, the stone torii gate is 23 meters high). Izumo Taisha practices sengu, a reconstruction of the shrine at fixed intervals so as to keep the shrine’s spiritual power continually refreshed. In Izumo Taisha’s case it is done every 60 years in rotating construction on one part of the shrine at a time instead of everything all at once, and in 2013 the honden was reopened after reconstruction on the roof. Because this was relatively recent, Okuninushi is said to still be in a good mood with his fresh new space.
Impressive at the honden is now, historical records referred to be once being the tallest wooden structure in Japan, towering at 48 meters. Most historians had dismissed this as fantastical until the year 2000, when clusters of three gargantuan wooden pillars each were discovered underground slightly in front of the current location of the honden. Their places are indicated in the concrete now, and three model pillars are on display outside on of the treasure storehouses to the east side of the shrine. The originals are on display inside the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo, and tests and sources indicate that they were used to help the shrine attain its 48 meter height in the Kamakura Period, built in the year 1248. As another point of reference, the pole on which the largest silk Japanese flag is flown is 48 meters high.
As another couple points of interest, the long buildings to the east and west of the honden have doors which are only opened during Kamiarisai, the week when the myriads of gods from around Japan are meeting. That’s because these Jukusha are hotel rooms for the visiting gods. Furthermore, Susano-o, god of the seas and suppressor of the Yamata-no-Orochi beast, as well as father-in-law to Okuninushi (or his ancestor depending on your sources), has his own little shrine nestled in the forest just north of the honden.
At the westernmost point in the shrine is the Kagura-den, another spot for performing rituals and especially popular for weddings. It is also home to the largest shimenawa (sacred rope) in Japan, which weighs about 1,500 kilograms and is about 8 meters long. (I’ve visited the facility in Iinan Town where they make the rope and tried out making some much smaller ones).
This only scratches the surface of the details about Izumo Taisha, but we’ll take one more look at the shrine in the following entry!