shimane — part IV: the grand shrine at izumo
I’ve been to Izumo-taisha (出雲大社), the “Izumo Grand Shrine,” three times but I’ve never seen the main hall, called the honden (本殿) in Japanese, which is one of the most famous buildings in Japan. The honden at a Shinto shrine is reserved for the sole use of the god that resides there — it’s a kind of god house — and it’s entirely closed to the general public. Usually the exterior of the honden can plainly be seen; the honden at Izumo-taisha, however, has been in the process of renovation since 2008 and is entirely hidden behind large sheets of white plastic that flap in the wind like sails. Even the ancient entrance and its elaborately carved gateway are currently under wraps.
Izumo-taisha is one of the oldest and most important shrines in Japan. It’s dedicated to Okuninushi (大国主) — the Great Land Master — who is credited with being the first ruler of Izumo and the creator of the Japanese nation. He is the god of nation building, and also the god of marriage. A maker of ties.
The ema (絵馬) pictured above, a kind of prayer plaque on which you write your wishes, features Okuninushi and his bride Suseri-hime, the daughter of the god Susanoo (who we already met at Yaegaki-jinja). Here’s the short version of their story, a la Wikipedia:
In the underworld, he met the storm god Susa-no-Ō and his daughter Suseri-hime, with whom he shortly fell in love. Of course, Susa-no-Ō was aghast. In response, he sent Ōkuninushi to sleep in a room full of snakes. However, Suseri-hime had given him a scarf, which protected him. When Susa-no-Ō sent him to sleep in a room with centipedes and wasps the next night, he was still successfully protected. As a trial, Susa-no-Ō shot an arrow into the middle of an enormous meadow, and told him to look for it. Ōkuninushi searched and eventually reached the middle of the field, at which point Susa-no-Ō proceeded to light the field on fire. A mouse showed Ōkuninushi a hole that he could hide in, and also brought the arrow to him.
By now, after all his various attempts of murder, Susa-no-Ō was beginning to actually approve of Ōkuninushi. One night, after he told Ōkuninushi to wash his hair and go to sleep, Ōkuninushi tied Susa-no-Ō’s hair to the rafters of his palace, and fled with Suseri-hime. He took Susa-no-Ō’s bow and arrows and koto with him. When the couple made their escape, the koto brushed against a tree, awakening Susa-no-Ō. The god jumped up, and pulled down the palace with his hair. At the borders of the underworld, Susa-no-Ō almost caught up with the elopers and called out to them, advising Ōkuninushi to fight his brothers with Susa-no-Ō’s weapons. Ōkuninushi asked him to make Suseri-hime his wife, and to build a palace at the foot of Mount Uka, which he agreed to. After the entire ordeal was over, Ōkuninushi became ruler of the province of Izumo.
One person who was allowed to see the inside of the honden, based on a written letter of recommendation, is Lafcadio Hearn, the first westerner ever to be allowed into the inner sanctum of the shrine. In Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), Hearn gives a wonderful description of the approach to Izumo-taisha, which takes the visitor through the huge wooden torii entrance gate, down a long road lined with stone lanterns, over a bridge, and through a pine-filled sacred grove:
Viewed by the vague light of paper lanterns, the approach to the great shrine is an imposing surprise — such a surprise that I feel regret at the mere thought of having to see it to-morrow by disenchanting day: a superb avenue lined with colossal trees, and ranging away out of sight under a succession of giant torii, from which are suspended enormous shimenawa, well worthy the grasp of that Heavenly-Hand-Strength Deity whose symbols they are. But, more than by the torii and their festooned symbols, the dim majesty of the huge avenue is enhanced by the prodigious trees — many perhaps thousands of years old—gnarled pines whose shaggy summits are lost in darkness. Some of the mighty trunks are surrounded with a rope of straw: these trees are sacred. The vast roots, far-reaching in every direction, look in the lantern-light like a writhing and crawling of dragons.
The avenue is certainly not less than a quarter of a mile in length; it crosses two bridges and passes between two sacred groves. All the broad lands on either side of it belong to the temple. Formerly no foreigner was permitted to pass beyond the middle torii. The avenue terminates at a lofty wall pierced by a gateway resembling the gateways of Buddhist temple courts, but very massive. This is the entrance to the outer court; the ponderous doors are still open, and many shadowy figures are passing in or out.
Within the court all is darkness, against which pale yellow lights are gliding to and fro like a multitude of enormous fireflies — the lanterns of pilgrims. I can distinguish only the looming of immense buildings to left and right, constructed with colossal timbers. Our guide traverses a very large court, passes into a second, and halts before an imposing structure whose doors are still open. Above them, by the lantern glow, I can see a marvellous frieze of dragons and water, carved in some rich wood by the hand of a master. Within I can see the symbols of Shinto, in a side shrine on the left; and directly before us the lanterns reveal a surface of matted floor vaster than anything I had expected to find. Therefrom I can divine the scale of the edifice which I suppose to be the temple. But the landlord tells us this is not the temple, but only the Haiden or Hall of Prayer, before which the people make their orisons, By day, through the open doors, the temple can be seen But we cannot see it to-night, and but few visitors are permitted to go in. ‘The people do not enter even the court of the great shrine, for the most part,’ interprets Akira; ‘they pray before it at a distance. Listen!’
The building pictured above is the haiden (拝殿), the hall where people make prayers to the resident shrine god. The rope that’s above the couple at prayer is called a shimenawa (標縄), a rope that designates sacred and purified space at Shinto religious sites. There are two enormous shimenawa at Izumo-taisha, the one at the haiden being the smaller of the two.
In addition to enshrining Okuninushi, the god of nation-founding and marriage, Izumo-taisha is famous for the annual meeting of the gods that takes place there. Held around the month of October, the kami-ari-zuki (神在月) — the “month of the gods” — is the period of the year when all of the gods of Japan congregate at Izumo-taisha to make decisions about the upcoming year. It’s kind of like a month-long office meeting of the gods. The out of towners are temporarily housed in the banks of small shrine buildings that can be found on either side of the courtyard that encloses the honden. This month is called kannazuki (神無月) — the “month without gods” — in the rest of Japan, though strictly speaking this isn’t quite accurate. Since Japan is said to have eight million gods, and since that’s too many gods to fit into even the large shrine grounds at Izumo-taisha, only the major gods get to come to the god meeting , leaving the rest to stay back home and guard the fort.
The photo of the honden shown above (from Wikipedia commons, by Oonamochi) gives a good idea of the sense of mystery that can hover over Izumo-taisha, given the right conditions. The mountains rise up behind the shrine and behind the mountains there’s nothing but ocean. Mists and clouds infuse the place, and even on a sunny day that sense of something being in the air somehow persists.
The taisha-zukuri (大社造) architectural style derives its name from Izumo-taisha’s honden, and is characterized by the decorative use of chigi, the V-shaped roof finials, and katsuogi, the logs sticking out horizontally on either side of the roof line. These architectural features are exclusive to Shinto shrines, and predate the arrival of Buddhism in Japan.
The current building, however, is only the latest incarnation of a long line of shrine buildings that have occupied the site. No one knows when the original shrine building was first constructed, but around AD 950 it was described as being the tallest building in Japan. The photo above (from Wikimedia Commons, by Blue Lotus) is a recreation of what the original shrine is thought to have looked like, based on the discovery of the remains of several of the enormous supporting pillars.
There is an interesting exchange between Lafcadio Hearn and the Guji of Kitzuki (the head priest of Izumo-taisha, which at the time was referred to as Kitzuki) in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan:
‘Is not this great temple of Kitzuki,’ I inquire, ‘older than the temples of Ise?’
‘Older by far,’ replies the Guji; ‘so old, indeed, that we do not well know the age of it. For it was first built by order of the Goddess of the Sun, in the time when deities alone existed. Then it was exceedingly magnificent; it was three hundred and twenty feet high. The beams and the pillars were larger than any existing timber could furnish; and the framework was bound together firmly with a rope made of taku fibre, one thousand fathoms long.
‘It was first rebuilt in the time of the Emperor Sui-nin. The temple so rebuilt by order of the Emperor Sui-nin was called the Structure of the Iron Rings, because the pieces of the pillars, which were composed of the wood of many great trees, had been bound fast together with huge rings of iron. This temple was also splendid, but far less splendid than the first, which had been built by the gods, for its height was only one hundred and sixty feet.
‘A third time the temple was rebuilt, in the reign of the Empress Sai- mei; but this third edifice was only eighty feet high. Since then the structure of the temple has never varied; and the plan then followed has been strictly preserved to the least detail in the construction of the present temple.
‘The Oho-yashiro has been rebuilt twenty-eight times; and it has been the custom to rebuild it every sixty-one years. But in the long period of civil war it was not even repaired for more than a hundred years. In the fourth year of Tai-ei, one Amako Tsune Hisa, becoming Lord of Izumo, committed the great temple to the charge of a Buddhist priest, and even built pagodas about it, to the outrage of the holy traditions. But when the Amako family were succeeded by Moro Mototsugo, this latter purified the temple, and restored the ancient festivals and ceremonies which before had been neglected.’
‘In the period when the temple was built upon a larger scale,’ I ask, ‘were the timbers for its construction obtained from the forests of Izumo?’
The priest Sasa, who guided us into the shrine, makes answer: ‘It is recorded that on the fourth day of the seventh month of the third year of Ten-in one hundred large trees came floating to the sea coast of Kitzuki, and were stranded there by the tide. With these timbers the temple was rebuilt in the third year of Ei-kyu; and that structure was called the Building-of-the-Trees-which-came-floating. Also in the same third year of Ten-in, a great tree-trunk, one hundred and fifty feet long, was stranded on the seashore near a shrine called Ube-no-yashiro, at Miyanoshita-mura, which is in Inaba. Some people wanted to cut the tree; but they found a great serpent coiled around it, which looked so terrible that they became frightened, and prayed to the deity of Ube- noyashiro to protect them; and the deity revealed himself, and said: “Whensoever the great temple in Izumo is to be rebuilt, one of the gods of each province sends timber for the building of it, and this time it is my turn. Build quickly, therefore, with that great tree which is mine.” And therewith the god disappeared. From these and from other records we learn that the deities have always superintended or aided the building of the great temple of Kitzuki.’
The kaguraden at Izumo-taisha, a building for traditional wedding ceremonies and the performance of sacred dances, features the largest shimenawa in Japan. It’s thirteen and a half meters long, and it weighs five tons. In the photo above you can see people standing below the ropes, trying to throw coins upward so they get caught in between the straw ends of the ropes, a sign of good luck. After some trial and error, I was able to accomplish this trick. If you’re determined to have your coin go up and not come down, the thing to do is use one of the heavier coins since the momentum carries it deeper into the straw where it gets jammed in. Lighter coins tend to fall out. The heavier coins are, of course, the ones that are worth more, so it cost me about ¥100 (US $1.20) to get my luck to stick. The last time I was at Izumo-taisha, however, wire mesh had been placed over the rope ends to prevent this practice. I’m not sure why, but perhaps someone finally figured out that the cost to repair the damage to the shimenawa wasn’t made up for by the amount of spare change that they were able to pull out of it.
Shimenawa are used to designate sacred space in Shinto, but I wonder if the shimenawa at Izumo-taisha don’t, in fact, bear their own special set of resonances. Izumo-taisha, like Yaegaki-jinja, is an en-musubi (縁結び) shrine, a shrine dedicated to the tying of love knots and the strengthening of relationships in general. It’s no accident that a shrine dedicated to Okuninushi, the god of nation building, should also be an en-musubi shrine, since nation building, like marriage, is the an act of creating ties between people and drawing them together under a single symbolic roof.
The metaphorical tying together of the nation is literalized in one of the myths told about Okuninushi’s role in the creation of Japan. Here’s how Hearn tells it:
It is said that in the beginning the God of Izumo, gazing over the land, said, ‘This new land of Izumo is a land of but small extent, so I will make it a larger land by adding unto it.’ Having so said, he looked about him over to Korea, and there he saw land which was good for the purpose. With a great rope he dragged therefrom four islands, and added the land of them to Izumo. The first island was called Ya-o-yo-ne, and it formed the land where Kitzuki now is. The second island was called Sada-no-kuni, and is at this day the site of the holy temple where all the gods do yearly hold their second assembly, after having first gathered together at Kitzuki. The third island was called in its new place Kurami-no-kuni, which now forms Shimane-gori. The fourth island became that place where stands the temple of the great god at whose shrine are delivered unto the faithful the charms which protect the rice-fields.
Now in drawing these islands across the sea into their several places the god looped his rope over the mighty mountain of Daisen and over the mountain Sa-hime-yama; and they both bear the marks of that wondrous rope even unto this day. As for the rope itself, part of it was changed into the long island of ancient times called Yomi-ga-hama, and a part into the Long Beach of Sono.
I can’t but help think that the giant shimenawa at Izumo-taisha must, at some level, represent the rope that Okuninushi used to draw the islands together and, consequently, symbolize the ties holding together the population of the nation of Japan itself.
Because of Izumo-taisha’s position within Japanese national mythology, sake brewers from all over Japan send their offerings to the Grand Shrine. Sake, which is called nihonshu (日本酒) in Japanese, is used as a ritual element of purification in Shinto ceremonies, including marriages. Families traditionally drink nihonshu — especially nihonshu with flakes of gold leaf floating inside (金箔入り祝酒) — as part of their New Year celebrations, and nihonshu is often served at Shinto shrines on New Year’s Eve.
One aspect of Izumo-taisha that is distinctly not traditional and that is always slightly troubling to me when I visit is the giant Japanese national flag, the hinomaru (日の丸), that rises above the shrine. The hinomaru, which features a large red disk that symbolizes the sun, became the de facto flag of imperial Japan in the late 1800s. It wasn’t officially adopted as the Japanese national flag until 1999 when the Act on National Flag and Anthem was passed by a majority vote of both major Japanese political parties (the only major parties to oppose the measure where the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party). Though a majority of Japanese citizens supported adopting the hinomaru as the national flag there was still a great deal of controversy surrounding this move since the flag had become associated with Japanese militarism during WWII and has long been a symbol of Japanese right-wing nationalism. In Hiroshima, a city that felt the force of the war like few others, a strong post-war tradition of anti-militarist sentiment led a high school principal to commit suicide — even before the 1999 Act was passed — rather than force the students of the school to salute the hinomaru and sing the Kimigayo, the national anthem that is a hymn to the Emperor. There is still incredible pressure put on those teachers who refuse to make their students salute the flag and sing the Kimigayo, as can be seen in the 2006 documentary, Against Coercion.
The connections between Izumo-taisha, the sun goddess, and imperial power are rooted in ancient myth, although their appropriation by the Meiji government is a wholly modern story.
Okuninushi may be credited with the creation of the early nation of Japan, but the sun goddess Amaterasu, perhaps the most powerful god in the pantheon of Japanese gods, decided that she wanted control of the country turned over to her. At first Okuninushi and his sons resisted, but eventually Amaterasu’s son Takemikazuchi (the god of thunder and swords) defeated Okuninushi’s son Takeminakata in a test of strength and Okuninushi agreed to turn the lands of ancient Japan over to Amaterasu. Amaterasu was grateful for his act and built Okuninushi a shrine as high as the heavens — the original Izumo-taisha — where Amaterasu’s son and his descendants would serve Okuninushi in perpetuity. The current head of Izumo-taisha is said to be a direct descendent of Amaterasu herself, just as the Emperor is.
Here’s how Wikipedia relates it:
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 the grand palace at the foot of Mt. Uga.
It’s myths like these that were used by the architects of the Meiji Restoration to justify the rule of the Emperor and consolidate the power of the Meiji government as they defeated the Shogunate and established the modern state of Japan.
While the popular image of Japan is that of an ethnically and culturally homogenous population, this idea is a relatively new one and did not exist before the Meiji consolidation of power in the early 20th century. In fact, Japan was a country made up of fiefdoms that were held together by the military dominance of the Shogunate rather than by any idea of a national “Japanese” cultural identity. For most Japanese during this period it was the local ruler, the daimyo, that was the most important political figure and the Shogun and the Emperor (a mere figurehead at this time) were simply whispers. Buddhism was the religion of the ruling classes and the dominant religion in Japan, though Shinto was still important at a local level. There were intense regional rivalries, and regional dialects were so strong as to almost be different languages (as they are still in many regions today).
There is a Shinto god for almost everything in Japan (including toilets) and every region has its own distinct set of rituals, festivals, and Shinto practices. The heterogeneity of Shinto is a mirror of the ancient heterogeneity of Japan itself, which still pokes through the glazed surface of the contemporary nation state (just ask an Osakan what they think of Tokyo if you want to quickly dispel the myth of a single, unified Japanese polity). Izumo itself was almost a separate nation until the time of the Meiji Restoration, and Hearn writes about the head priest of Izumo-taishi being treated as a god in the Shimane region.
During the Meiji Restoration, however, State Shinto was instituted across Japan and the worship of the Emperor as the divine descendent of Amaterasu was encouraged. Although local Shinto practices were primarily left untouched at the smaller shrines, all Shinto shrines were declared the property of the central government, and all local parishioners had to register at their local shrine. Shrines were ranked, with Ise-jingu, the shrine dedicated to Amaterasu, at the top, and everyone in Japan who worshiped at a Shinto shrine automatically became a parishioner of Ise-jingu. This typed of centralized control was entirely alien to the pre-Meiji tradition of Shinto and eventually it was used to encourage patriotism and militarism.
The hinomaru that flies over Izumo-taisha today is an obvious reference to Amaterasu and the mythical creation of Japan, but it’s also a reminder of the way in which myths can be used by the nation state in order to exert control and force conformity — the dark side of en-musubi.
Nationalism, however, is the last thing on the minds of the vast majority of visitors to Izumo-taisha who, like myself, come to appreciate the beauty of the place, its sense of mythic prehistory, and especially the power of en-musibi that is the main draw of the shrine. To the east of the main shrine grounds there’s a smaller shrine complex that’s used for weddings. I’m not sure how to read the name of the main shrine building here, but in Japanese it’s 出雲大社北島国造館 and I think the meaning is something like “the office/home of the north regional administrator of Izumo-taisha.” I’m not sure if the building to the right of the shrine hall pictured above is still used as a house, but it’s quite possible. In any case, this is one of my favorite buildings at Izumo-taisha; there are fewer visitors here and even when there are weddings taking place there’s a sense of contented calm that pervades the area.
My most recent trip was the first time I’ve seen the circle of rice straw pictured above. The character for circle in Japanese is 円 (read as either yen, en, or maru). The symbolic meaning of the circle in the context of marriage is obvious: an unbroken chain of connection that loops back onto itself , a figure of never-ending love. A wedding ring carries some of this same symbolic weight, and in both cases the idea that “the circle shall remain unbroken” is paramount. Since 円 takes on the pronunciation “en,” there’s obviously a kind of rhyme with the en (縁) in en-musubi, which signifies both fate and connection. 円 is also used in Japan to mean money (derived from the round shape of the coin). A cynic might make much of the connection between love and money, but I think it’s even more interesting to consider money, which circulates throughout society and creates its own sets of obligations, connections, and relationships, as an economic corollary to the idea of nation building.
The miniature shrine pictured above — just about the same height as a person — is one of my favorite spots at Izumo-taisha. The shrine sits in the middle of a stunningly reflective pool, and behind it there is a waterfall that courses down from the mountain and plays gently into the water behind the shrine. On the shore of the pond opposite this shrine is another small shrine and a wall that’s covered with heart-shaped prayer plaques, a style of ema that seemed to be particular popular among the small clusters of uniformed school girls visiting the shrine in the hope that their love wishes will be granted.
Once, while walking near the pond, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a ceremonial dragon dance being staged in front of one of the shrine buildings. Two dancers inside the dragon costume brought the dragon leaping and undulating to life while a priest with a mask like a Tengu brandished a ritual wand in the direction of the dragon, his steps slowly marking the shape of ancient ritual. A group of musicians accompanied the dance, which was seen by only about twenty or so spectators. This was old, deep magic — the enactment of a story that roots its origin in the island’s prehistory, a time before Japan had ever even been a thought.
I’m not sure what the particular story behind the dragon dance is, but it certainly resonates with the performance of the sacred dance of the miko witnessed by Hearn on his visit to Izumo-taisha. It’s one of the most beautiful passages from Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, and a fine scene with which to end this visit to the Izumo Grand Shrine.
The Guji waves his hand, and from the farther end of the huge apartment there comes a sudden burst of strange music — a sound of drums and bamboo flutes; and turning to look, I see the musicians, three men, seated upon the matting, and a young girl with them. At another sign from the Guji the girl rises. She is barefooted and robed in snowy white, a virgin priestess. But below the hem of the white robe I see the gleam of hakama of crimson silk. She advances to a little table in the middle of the apartment, upon which a queer instrument is lying, shaped somewhat like a branch with twigs bent downward, from each of which hangs a little bell. Taking this curious object in both hands, she begins a sacred dance, unlike anything I ever saw before. Her every movement is a poem, because she is very graceful; and yet her performance could scarcely be called a dance, as we understand the word; it is rather a light swift walk within a circle, during which she shakes the instrument at regular intervals, making all the little bells ring. Her face remains impassive as a beautiful mask, placid and sweet as the face of a dreaming Kwannon; and her white feet are pure of line as the feet of a marble nymph. Altogether, with her snowy raiment and white flesh and passionless face, she seems rather a beautiful living statue than a Japanese maiden. And all the while the weird flutes sob and shrill, and the muttering of the drums is like an incantation.
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Tags: Amaterasu, circles, connection, 神道, 神在月, 縁結び, Emperor Worship, en-musubi, fate, festival of the gods, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Guji of Kitzuki, hinomaru, honden, imperial Japan, Izumo Grand Shrine, Izumo-taisha, Japanese cultural identity, Japanese flag, Japanese mythology, Japanese myths, Japanese nationalism, kami-ari-zuki, Kitzuki, Lafcadio Hearn, love, marriage, Meiji Restoration, miko, money, month of the gods, Okuninushi, rice wine, ritual, ritual dance, ritual offering, sacred dance, sacred rope, sake, Shimane Prefecture, shimenawa, Shinto, shrine, State Shinto, sun goddess, taisha-zukuri, the creation of Japan, traditional Japanese architecture, traditional Japanese ritual, yen, 円, 出雲大社, 大社造, 大国主, 天照, 島根, 巫女, 日の丸, 日本酒, 本殿, 標縄