Shimane’s prefecture, in western Honshu, is home of many legends. For the Japanese, Izumo is known as the mythical area where Japan was founded and as the God’s territory, the place where they still all gather each year in November. Izumo Taisha, one of the 100 landscapes of Japan, is the most ancient and important shrine of the country.
Many clues help the visitors understand that something is different about Izumo Taisha – different from every other shrine in Japan. The serious and diligent way the shinto officiants are walking around. The respectful and sincere piety you can feel among the visitors. Or the huge Japanese flag, officially the biggest of the country, welcoming the newcomers from far away. While Shimane prefecture might not be the more famous one, Izumo-Taisha is a very well known place in Japan.
The details might also help to realize what is going on in the shrine is slightly different, maybe more meaningful. Before praying, the visitors do not clap their hands twice but four times – which is only to be seen in Izumo. And the Shimenawa, the ritual laid rice straw enclosing the entrance of shrines, is here the biggest and heaviest of Japan. The Izumo’s one is 45 feet long and weighs 5 tons.
Izumo Taisha among the myths
Izumo Taisha’s long history is deeply related to Japan creation myths – also explaining why the shrine is so important. Its exact date of establishment is not known, but the place is already quoted in the Kokiji and the Nihon Shoki, the two oldest extant chronicles of Japan. Both dating back from the early 8th century. In the Kokiji, one third of the facts are related with Izumo’s area. It tells how, when the grandson of the Sun goddess Amaterasu came down to Earth, the fellow Okuninushi gave him his lands.
The pleased goddess decided thus to give Okuninushi Izumo Taisha as a place to worship him. From that, the shrine has been the first ever established, and Okininushi is remembered as one of the founders of Japan. Without land, he became the invisible-related god, ruling happiness and relations between people. That last point enlightens some of the shrine special features. The biggest Shimenawa stands for solid relations, and clapping hand four times implies clapping twice for oneself and twice for another person.
It is not possible to visit Izumo Taisha main buildings, sheltered behind a double wood wall. But it is possible to walk around the fence. The shrine architecture belongs to the Taisha-zukuri style, the more ancient of Japan. The main building is 80 feet high (again number one in Japan), while the Kokiji describes an even highest structure reaching 160 feet. An impressive and hard-to-believe scale, until diggings revealed the remains of several huge pillars in 2000.
Everywhere in Japan, the tenth lunar month is traditionally called Kannazuki, the “month without gods”. Except in Izumo, where Japan 8 billions of shinto spirits gather for two weeks. This month is called there Kamiarizuki, the “month with gods”. And the purpose of several buildings in Izumo Taisha is to welcome these annual guests.
Benten-jima sacred rock
To reach Izumo Taisha, the numerous kami all arrive through Benten-jima, a tiny shrine standing on a rock on the neighboring beach of Inasa. Only the gods and some officiants are authorized to go through the small tori.
How to get there?
Izumo Taisha is about 13 miles away from Izumo airport, and one hour by train from Matsue, on the other size of the lake Shinji. From Tokyo, the easiest would be to come by plane. But from Hiroshima or Okayama, several bus lines are convenient to reach Shimane prefecture, mostly Matsue. Some information are to be found on the prefectoral tourism promotion website.