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.

Models of old layouts at neighboring museum of Ancient Izumo (one of my favorite museums).

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!

Throughout the Izumo region, in cities such as Izumo, Matsue, and Unnan especially, there are ancient examples of Taisha-tsukuri shrine architecture. Izumo Taisha is the most famous and national treasure, and completed its Daisengu, a once-every-60-years rebuilding process in May of 2012. Kamosu Shrine is another treasure. With the current building constructed in since 1583, it stands as the oldest example of this architectural style. However, the style itself has been around since at least 552, and Izumo Taisha is likely a few centuries even older than that.

Like the Shinmei-tsukuri and Sumiyoshi-tsukuri styles found elsewhere in Japan, it predates the arrival of Buddhist influence. Therefore, there are some key features of these styles that you’ll find in Shinto shrines, but won’t find in Buddhist temples, such as the katsuogi (horizontal beams although the top of the central beam of the roof) and chigi (forked planks at the ends–or middle–of the central beam). A fun fact about chigi in Taisha-tsukuri: you can usually determine the gender of the kami enshrined within by the angle of the cut of the planks.

Taisha-tsukuri is distinguished by its gable-end pillars and central pillar, and raised square honden (main hall) supported on thick pillars or stilts. You tend to see really thick shimenawa (twisted straw ropes) as well, and Izumo Taisha has the largest shimenawa in Japan. When reconstructing the shrines to withstand the test of time and weather, or to follow a specific renewal schedule to keep the shrine feeling pure and fresh, sometimes only the roof is reconstructed.

Good thing too, as the San’in region is known for its amount of rainfall.

With their many layers of strips of cypress bark, the roofs are often considered the key focal point of any given shrine.

Here’s my head for some size comparison.

The roof starts with a frame…

A metal edge to help protect against rain…

And a whole bunch of hinoki cypress park.

And then you start piling it up.

The renewal construction at Sada Shrine will take place on one honden at a time, starting with the southern-most honden of the three (recall that it is unusual for a shrine to have more than one honden). Each time, the holy item the kami inhabits is moved to a temporary shrine so as not to be bothered by the home renovation. At least in Shimane, it’s not uncommon to offer free tours of the construction process at the beginning stages, offering an angle you don’t typically get to see on a normal visit. If you visit, keep an ear out! In the meantime, I have more photos available upon request.

Izumo Taisha is famous for hosting 8 million gods from around Japan for their annual meeting during Kamiarizuki, but for every big conference there’s always a lot of spillover into the surrounding hotels. Actually, some records indicate that the gods may have been gathering at Sada Shrine before gathering at Izumo Taisha!

While the gods are absent from the rest of Japan and hanging out here in the Izumo region, they discuss romantically (or platonically) thrilling En-musubi, but when they gather at Sada Shrine in northwest Matsue, it’s for a purification ritual to ward off bad luck. It’s also as though they’re stopping by to visit the final resting of their mother, seeing as Izanami‘s tomb is located nearby on Mt. Hiba.

Speaking of Izanami, she’s one of the 12 kami enshrined here. It’s not uncommon for shrines to be dedicated to more than one kami, but it’s uncommon for them to have three honden (main hall which house the deities, normal people are not allowed in here!). While this shrine was likely originally designed with one honden, the north and south shrines were added later on to accomodate more gods, likely by the end of the Heian era roughly eight centuries ago. While Izanami and Izanagi are in the central shrine with Sada-no-Okami, the bickering siblings Amaterasu and Susano-o are seperated in the north and south honden respectively.

The current shrine architecture has been around since 1807, and have since been deemed Important Cultural Property. Like Izumo Taisha, it’s built in Taisha-tsukuri style architecture. While Izumo Taisha is the typical example, there are variations on the layouts of these kinds of shrines, and many of them (such as Kamosu Shrine, another Izanami shrine) have been quite famous and/or influential throughout history. Like shrines throughout Japan, they may have auxiliary shrines dedicated to other gods throughout the premises, and worshipers are typically not allowed to enter center parts of the shrines without permission, a good reason, paying money, or some combination of the three. Instead, you leave your offerings in the designated spaces, clap your hands, and then don’t get in the deities’ personal space.

Click to view larger version.

Click to view larger version. I’ve indicated where visitors go, and where the holy objects go while the shrine is under reconstruction.

Click to view larger version.

Click to view larger version. Note the four-square layout of inner shrine, a characteristic of Taisha-tsukuri shrine architecture.

As for that personal space, what’s there? It varies according to each shrine, but quite often there is a holy object. As opposed to idols signifing the physical appearance of the kami, one of the oldest items still used today is but a simple, circular mirror. At some shrines, such as Iya Shrine, these are in plain site from where you make your offerings. As for Sada, it happens to be home to Saiehiogi, one of the oldest paintings on a fan screen in existence.

Since the honden is a dwelling place for the gods and Sada welcomes millions of them, the floors must be kept clean. Hence, there is a ceremonious changing on the tatami mats every year. And by ceremonious, I mean song and dance known as Sada Shin-Noh, better introduced by way of a video. This is UNESCO intangible world heritage, a Noh-like performance that has a strong influence on the more sprightly performances of Kagura dance.

Performances are broken up over two nights, the first being more subdued, the second being more energetic. I’ve watched the first, but did not have permission to take photos (and wouldn’t have gotten good ones anyway). Hence, here are some photos of the empty performance hall during the daytime.

Excluding the interior of the honden, I did have permission to enter part of the inner shrine recently to see the reconstruction process on the roof of the southern honden. Pictures are in this entry.

A quick explanation and purification rite before we begin…

…and up we go.


Hello, Followers and Visitors! I’d like to ask for your help in sharing this image/request. The City of Matsue is on the hunt for early Meiji era material that will be helpful in reconstructing a historically accurate main gate (Ootemon) at Matsue Castle, and is offering a short-term financial reward. Please dust off your history books and see if you have something hiding in there, or send it to your academic communities to get some students on a hunt through the university collections to see what they can uncover. We appreciate it!

Please help us share it around Facebook (especially)!

You can click the image above to see it larger, but here is some text for good measure:

WANTED: Photos of Matsue Castle’s main gate
REWARD: 5,000,000 YEN
Matsue Castle was completed in 1611 and is one of Japan’s remaining original castles, but the main gate (Ootemon 大手門) was torn down in 1875. The City of Matsue would like to reconstruct a historically accurate gate, and is looking for pictures or documents that may be hiding in family albums or books published outside Japan with material from the early Meiji period. A 5 million yen reward will be offered for material that is deemed applicable to the reconstruction process. Submission deadline is March 31, 2014, so SHARE this picture with your friends, families and universities before time runs out!
>More information (in Japanese): http://www1.city.matsue.shimane.jp/bosyu/ootemon/shiryobosyu.html
>Email questions and submissions to: matsuecityguide@gmail.com
>Matsue City Sightseeing Website: http://www.visit-matsue.com

>問い合わせ:松江市産業観光部観光施設課松江城国宝化推進室 TEL0852-55-5594

Happy hunting, and thanks for sharing!

I’ll bet you read the title and thought this would be about Kiyomizu-dera of Kyoto. Surprise! There’s more than one temple of pure water–this one is about a couple hundred years older, and affiliated with the Tendai sect of Buddhism rather than the Kitahosso sect like the one in Kyoto. This one in the San’in region (of course), specifically Yasugi City, Shimane Prefecture, on the border of Tottori Prefecture.

Like a great number of old temples and towns across of Japan, over the course of its history it has gone through many fires and reconstructions. The temple itself is 1400 years old, but the oldest surviving building is its main hall, Konpondo, which was reconstructed in 1393 and renovated in 1992, both times funded by the faithful. After it was tied up in (or burned up in) the battles between the Mori and Amago clans in the warring states era, the Horio clan of Matsue saw to the reconstruction of many of the other buildings.

One of the major things that has earned this temple so many faithful followers is its reputation for yakubarai, or “expelling evil.” Like many other cultures around the world, Japanese culture has notions of supernatural luck and influences, and there are times you are more prone to bad influences than others. In particular, there are certain unlucky ages called yakudoshi when you are especially susceptible. Shrines and temples that specialize in this often have a large sign posted about what ages people need to watch out for.

“How is your destiny at 25 years old?”

Deeply religious people entering these years have the option of paying about ¥5000 (roughly $50 USD) to undergo a purification ritual. I’m not very familiar with these rituals, but I’ve seen some of them advertised as only taking about 15 minutes. I also don’t have any knowledge of how many people have these rituals performed. Others may simply be more cautious than usual during those ages.

While both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples offer yakubarai rituals and protective charms and talismans, they seem to differ on which years are lucky and which ones are not. The first time I saw one of these boards at a Shinto shrine, I was entering the unlucky part of my luck cycle (luck tends to build and then plummet and start over). A handful of years later, and now according to this temple, I am once again entering a bad luck period. Maybe I should time my visits so I only visit places that say I’m having good luck?

There are other reasons for visiting any given shrine or temple, though. Many have reputations as nature-viewing spots (Kiyomizu-dera is known for its cherry blossoms as well as its autumn leaves), and others provide a retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life. We went as just another part of enjoying a hot summer day.

Hot and humid those Japanese summers are, it’s cooler in the forests and up the mountains.

On the short hike up (or down) from the parking lots, there are a handful of inns where visitors stay during the heights of cherry blossom or maple leaf seasons, as well as restuarants providing Buddhist-style vegetarian cuisine.

Besides Konpondo, one of the other famous buildings in the treasure tower, a the 3-story pagoda–the only one of its kind in the San’in region. While many pagodas in Japan are just for viewing from the outside, this is one of the few you can climb up from the inside.

Leave your shoes outside, and climb on up! It was a narrow space and hard to say whether you climb stairs or ladders.

I thought it was fun, but it was even more fun to go with someone who was afraid of heights.

Around the center pillar and on each level, there were a number of little treasures.

I also really liked seeing the complex woodwork. Lacking the mind of an architect, I don’t understand how it works, but it looks neat.

And, of course, there was a stunning view. Can you spot the tip of Lake Nakaumi?

Being named after the pure water the mountain is known for, there are a number of uses for that pure water. Hence, the temple is also known for its youkan, a traditional confection described here in more detail.

We took home some gelato made with said youkan.

It was the kind of summer temple visit that was refreshing in more ways than one.

Simple idea: Build a wall!

Horio Yoshiharu, the founder of Matsue, established the city around the castle–which even today among multi-story buildings is the highest structure in the city–and the only remaining original castle in the San’in region. It’s a castle build on a hill with a stone wall, which most castles in the San’in region were not (notice which castles aren’t around anymore!).

By wall, I don’t mean a single wall–rather, the moat is lined by a wall, higher and higher levels of the hill have their own walls, and the castle tower itself has a base of stone. They wind around the hill, separating different sections and levels that had different defense and storage purposes back in the Edo era.

Did you know?
The entire walled area can be considered Matsue Castle, though many of the outermost gates have since been demolished. What we would consider Matsue Castle proper is merely the tower, one of several buildings that had special functions. Nor was this the feudal lord’s dwelling place–he lived just south of the castle hill, in close proximity to where government affairs were (and still are) handled. Castles like this were designed as a safe getaway place if he needed to take cover from an attack on the city.

Three wall building methods
The stones used were all taken from Nakaumi (the lake bordering Matsue to the east), and then cut and arranged according to the following methods:

Can you find all three types here?

Besides just making it hard to scale the hill unless you have an army of monkeys, parts of the wall were also designed to give the defending armies the upper hand. For instance, a large square platform called the Katen (firing point) was located along the stairs from the forefront gate. Defending armies could easily shoot at attackers from this point, as the attackers would have little choice but to use the stairs.

The thick brown lines are where there are stone walls.

Speaking of stairs, they were built unevenly so as to make it harder for attackers to run up them. The stairs from the forefront gate at the southeast corner are now a little more conducive to visitors (although still a trek if you try to run up them!), but some stairs, like these on the north side, are still a good challenge if anybody really wanted to try to attack.

It seems to me this quiet set of stairs on the west side has been redone, but they’re still a little too steep to run up them easily.

So… rocks. Walls. That’s great. End of story?
Wrong! What in the world are you supposed to make of this carving?

The answer: sanctioned graffiti!
In some ways, these were the builders’ way of signing their work, or possibly for marking which boulders were to go in which places, as many of the carvings where found along the wall marked below:

Again, the thick brown lines are the stone walls.

They may have also been used to keep track of events and construction associated with the wall, as there is one location marked with “安永八” which most likely marks the eighth year of the An’ei period (1779 a.d.), when part of the wall was reconstructed after heavy rains the previous year had damaged it.

The symbol of a weight in the above example was particularly popular, because it wasn’t the mark of a worker, but of the overlord. It was a family symbol bestowed on the Horio clan from Yoshiharu’s first lord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (there would be two more clan symbols added later). While samurai clans each had their own crests, family symbols were a little different, as lower ranking families may have them as well. Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of my knowledge about their use, but here are some examples of the common symbols carved on Matsue Castle’s walls:

I find it really funny that someone is using the symbol of onmyouji Abe no Seimei (the star).

You might notice on the map that the wall doesn’t run all the way around the castle hill, but if you were visiting in person, you would notice the forest around the north and west sides of the hill right away, lining the edges of the moat. Some of the individual parts of the forested area had other functional purposes, but the main purpose of the little woods was for defense.
Why go with trees when you can have such a cleverly designed wall? Well, trees are cheaper, and stone walls have a high labor and material cost, and establishing a whole town around your new castle is rather costly, as well as the moving process. In short, they ran out of budget. Thanks to this lack of money, we get to enjoy a number of trees that are hundreds of years old!

Following up the previous post about the first shrine and temple visits of the new year, this is a report on my visit to Kamosu Shrine.

Not that it looked like this when I visited at night. Thanks, Wiki!

Kamosu Shrine (an Izanami shrine–and one that the people of Matsue are most proud of) is the oldest shrine with Taisha-tsukuri architecture, which is particularly known for its roof design unlike that of the curved roofs of temples borrowed from Chinese style. Like most Shinto shrines, it is not just one shrine–rather, many little houses for different Kami, with a primarily one facing the entrance of the shrine. Vistors don’t enter them, but instead stand in front and peer in from windows or doors, if they happen to be open. Furthermore, the main focal point for the offerings isn’t even the true shrine itself. Instead, the main shrine (the honden) is behind this room and elevated. Kamosu’s honden is a National Treasure.

One of the key points about Taisha-tsukuri shrines is that based on the angle of the ends of the crossed sections on top, you can tell whether the diety being honored is male or female. That doesn’t make much sense in words, so take a look at a couple of the smaller shrines within Kamosu:

Click to follow to photo source and more photos of Kamosu Shrine (Japanese)

After watching the end of Kouhaku Uta Gassen–the biggest musical event of the year, over 4 hours of popular performers in a men-versus-women singing competition–and bringing in the new year with soba noodles and watching the ringing of the joyonokane on TV (a Buddhist ritual to cleanse humanity of the 108 sins and temptations), we set out at around 12:30am on January 1st to do our visit. It was like shrine visits any other time of the year–rinsing your hands before entering, tossing money before the kami, then praying in the bow-twice-clap-twice-wishful-thinking-bow-again style, and repeating the process at any of the smaller kami houses throughout the shrine.

Here's a little of my pocket money. Now can I get rich this year, please?

Also like any other time of the year, you can buy o-mamori (good luck charms and talismans) and draw omikuji fortunes, but the ones being sold at New Years are new, and many people return the previous year’s good luck charms so they can be burned.

Time to pick out this year's omamori...

Nevertheless, heavy emphasis is placed on many firsts of the year, and the visit felt special. It helped that the weather created a certain mood–it was a windless night with slowly falling snow, the moonlight was hazy, and the features of the shrine seemed to glow under a light layer of snow. Unlike larger shrines around Japan that were packed with people even at midnight, Kamosu was nearly silent. Even the miko (shrine maidens) offering New Years amazake (sweet rice wine) moved silently with sweet smiles, and spoke in soft voices like whispers.

Would you care for some sake and brown rice?

Oh, but this was different. Brown rice was being offered with the sake? We asked the miko what the significance of this was, and their pleasant atmosphere seemed to shatter into confusion. These miko probably had no idea why they were serving rice–after all, contrary to what popular culture might lead one to believe about the fine upbringing of holy maidens, these girls were most likely high schoolers who took on a part time job for the New Year season.

After our brief visit, we took a drive over to the Tamazukuri Onsen area to take a 1am visit to the outdoor ashiyu (hot spring foot bath) as the snowfall gotten thicker. We stayed under a covered roof for this visit, but it’ll be nice to go back when the weather is warmer to use the ashiyu in the stream! This was my first time at trying out the waters at Tamatsukuri, which are said to have some of the best minerals for your skin in all of Japan (on that note, according to POLA research done last year, Shimane is the best prefecture in Japan for beautiful skin!).

Our local hot springs--highly recommended!

Today is my first day back at work, but the season of firsts will still go on until about January 15th or so. I still have time to write another entry about my other firsts of the year and how else I celebrated Japan’s most important holiday of the year!