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Visiting a sanctuary where myths still live on

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Izumo Taisha shrine on a rainy morning. The copper Do-tori gate is seen in the center. Behind the gate is the Haiden worshipping hall. At the rear is the main Honden hall with its distinctive Chigi (forked roof finials).

By Tetsuya Tsuruhara / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterIzumo — it was a Friday morning in September when I landed at Izumo Airport. A 40-minute bus ride, westbound through the plains, took me to the main entrance of the Izumo Taisha grand shrine.

Unfortunately, it was a rainy day and Kiyotada Koike, a 73-year-old member of a guides’ group, was there waiting, holding an umbrella.

Koike pointed his finger at the Otori shrine gate, located at the end of Shinmon-dori street that stretched ahead of us.

“That gate was built in 1915,” Koike said. “It’s 23 meters tall — a meter shorter than the 24-meter tall Honden main building. There’s nothing taller than the deity [in the main building] around here.”

Apparently, a myth lives on here in Izumo.

According to the tales, Amaterasu expelled her younger brother, Susanoo-no-Mikoto, from Heaven to Izumo, where he conquered Yamata-no-Orochi, the legendary giant snake with eight heads.

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    An artist’s conception of the Honden main hall in ancient times exhibited at Izumo Taisha shrine’s repository

Susanoo’s descendant, Okuninushi, who helped the White Hare of Inaba get its fur back, eventually became the ruler of the area, after accomplishing a number of missions. He subsequently yielded his throne to Amaterasu’s grandson, Ninigi, accepting the honor of being enshrined in Izumo Taisha in return.

The Izumo region is the main setting for the first volume of the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) — Japan’s oldest history book, which describes the lives of the deities.

We walked the approach to the shrine. According to Koike, the area was a sand dune 350 years ago.

We stopped by the Harai-no-Yashiro, a shrine for purification rituals that was on the right side.

The guide told me that a prayer should begin with “two bows and four hand claps,” before chanting the phrase “Haraitamae, kiyometame” — which means “exorcise me, purify me” — three times. Then you should bow once more.

That part completed, we passed through the approach surrounded by pine trees and reached the Chozuya, a water ablution pavilion. I washed my hands and rinsed my mouth. After entering Do-tori, the copper shrine gate, we came up to the Haiden, or the hall of worship. I could see the forked roof finials of the main hall beyond it under the dull, rainy sky.

Completely taken by the gravity of it, my mind wandered off, imagining the fall of ancient Izumo.

Sukeyuki Miura, a researcher on the Kojiki, has pointed out that Okuninushi gave up his territory after Ninigi defeated him. The 72-year-old professor emeritus at Chiba University claims that the Kojiki tells the story from the side of the defeated. He said the existence of the myth itself, which primarily focuses on the fights over territory, actually reflects the fact that the region of Izumo succumbed to the Yamato government.

“Take a look at this.” Koike asked me to come closer to the Do-tori gate, which is said to have been donated 350 years ago by a lord of the Choshu domain. It is believed to be the oldest of its kind.

There were characters engraved on the pillar covered with copper rust. A line meant “Susanoo is the deity of Izumo Taisha.”

Warlords chose to worship Susanoo, a warmonger, during the Sengoku period that extended from the late 15th century to the late 16th century when there was constant military conflict in the country. For four or five centuries, including the Sengoku period, the Izumo shrine is said to have enshrined Susanoo — not Okuninushi.

But just after Do-tori was built, things settled down to how it used to be. “The object of worship was moved to another hall that was newly built,” explained Koike. “Okuninushi was back in his original position, in Honden, the main hall of the shrine.”

Okuninushi’s other feature of being a deity for matchmaking was emphasized during the peaceful Edo period (1603-1867). Susanoo was then enshrined in the Soga-no-Yashiro, located behind the Honden main hall.

I stood facing the Haiden worshipping hall. You won’t be able to see the main hall located way beyond it. Consider the building’s layout, Okuninushi is supposed to be facing to the side, not toward us.

“Wouldn’t you like to make any wishes?” Koike reminded me.

Don’t throw the money in, but place it down gently. Announce who you are and where you are from, after bowing twice and clapping four times; or else he won’t know who made which wishes. Besides, you can make as many wishes you want ...

Really? His words took me aback. I’ve been thinking about how the myths and history could co-exist in Izumo.

And then I wondered; was there anything I wanted to ask the deity to do for me?

Largest building in ancient Japan

An excavation in 2000 within the precinct of the Izumo shrine unearthed four of what seemed to be pillars from the old Honden main hall. The finding substantiated the oral history of the ancient hall being the country’s largest piece of architecture; they were 48 meters tall — twice the height of the current one.

The question is whether the region was capable of challenging the Yamato government.

No, was the answer from Yoshihide Hirano, 67, an adviser to the Archaeological Museum of Kojindani in Izumo.

During the centuries between 300 BC to the early eighth century, covering the Yayoi to Kofun periods, the dominating area was Kitakyushu, followed by Kinai, and then, Izumo. “Izumo would not have been able to defy the Yamato government,” he said.

■Access

It takes about 90 minutes on a JAL flight from Haneda Airport to Izumo Airport. A shuttle bus ride from Izumo Airport to the main entrance of Izumo Taisha shrine is about 40 minutes.

Inquiries: Izumo Tourism Association at (0853) 53-2112.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&dSpeech

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