An ancient shrine where Japan’s past and present meet and the immortal mingles with the mortal.
Travel articles are normally written for humans. This one, however, is written for Japan’s sacred Shinto spirits. With eight millionkami (deities or sacred spirits) visiting Izumo Taisha every year, this Shinto shrine is easily the most popular tourist attraction in Japan’s active spirit world.
Izumo Taisha, or Izumo Ōyashiro, is anancient shrine located just a one-hour flight from Osaka, Nagoya or Fukuoka. While there is no definite date of establishment, archaeologists have uncovered artifacts suggesting that the complex was built before 660 BC, making it over 2,600 years old and one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan! Given its age and prominence to the spirit world, Izumo Taisha is one of the most famous and important shrines in the country.
Let’s backtrack a little here for our human guests, to give them a little background on Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. Shinto has no founder and no sacred scriptures. It is an ancient religion that focuses on rituals, such as sumo wrestling, and allows modern-day Japan to maintain connections with its past. The practice of Shinto involves worshipping kami that represent various purposes such as wars, harvest, families and even organizations. There are over 88,000 shrines in the country, located in every conceivable place: street corners, forests, islands, mountains and even in malls and multi-storey parking lots. The kami are comprised of millions of minor deities, and a few major deities—including Izumo Taisha’s resident sacred spirit, Ōkuninushi-no-ōkami (also called Daikoku-sama), the god of nation-building, farming, business, medicine and marriage.
The main hall of Izumo Taisha is the tallest and largest of its kind in Japan. The complex is comprised of four large toriigates, the Main Hall (Honden, established in 1744), Kagura Hall (first built in 1776), Haiden, the old Shōkokan building, and about a half dozen other structures dedicated to related deities. Once they have passed through the gates, guests may pay their respects before entering the sacred grounds by cleansing themselves of impurities at the well before bowing twice, clapping four times (twice for yourself and twice for your partner, in homage to the god of marriage), praying and bowing once more. Deities are then escorted to their quarters at Jukusha, where they stay during their meetings held annually in November.During these meetings, deities can expect mortals to join them and celebrate at the Kamiari Festival. While floating around the grounds, kami (and mortals) are encouraged to marvel at the colossal 400-year-old cedar trees and seek out the 40 rabbit statues, scattered around the grounds as a tribute to the myth “Inaba no Shiro-usagi,” in which Ōkuninushi-no-ōkami aids a suffering rabbit, who in exchange helps him to win the hand of his love.
Winter is another popular time to visit the shrine, with a number of festivals taking place over the course of January and February. The Omike Festival is held on January 1 and celebrates the New Year. The Kitcho-san, or Fukumukae Festival, on January 3 is filled with groups in traditional kimono and demon masks waving large, colourful flags and dancing in processions to ask for health and safety over the upcoming year. The Beginning Sermon Festival follows on January 5, and the Fukujin-sai celebration begins in February on the Lunar New Year at 1 am to celebrate the start of the lunar year. In this festival, worshippers fill Kagura Hall, receive fortunes and revel until the party winds down at dawn.
Izumo Taisha is one of the most magnificent, sacred sites in Japan, and everyone who visits, corporeal or not, can experience the transcendental wonder of this National Treasure.
The grounds leading to the shrine are lined with shops and restaurants, some as old as 200 years. Here you can find traditional local dishes like Izumo soba, made by grinding buckwheat kernels in stone mortars and served with tempura shrimp, stringy seaweed and fresh scallions, and Izumo zensai, a porridge-like dessert made with cooked red azuki beans and chewy rice cakes (mochi). The shops sell many trinkets and souvenirs, with little auspicious amulets sold in booths on the grounds at Izumo Taisha being the most popular. Blessed by the shrine’s priests, these amulets, or omamori, bring the holder good luck and a loving partner, and they will even ward off evil.