A Walk through Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, Land of the Gods
It’s easy to make mistakes at shrines. For example, absent-mindedly walking in the middle of the torii gate is a direct affront to the Shinto gods. This was my mistake at Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, made all the more embarrassing by the fact that I was in a full kimono.
According to Shinto mythology, the entire pantheon from all over Japan makes its annual trip to Izumo in the late autumn. This can make the entrance to the shrine divinely crowded indeed.
What does “Izumo” mean?
The Japanese characters for the name Izumo literally mean “out of the clouds,” evoking images of a place where the seen and the unseen worlds blur together. Indeed, a journey through this site evokes feelings of being anywhere from a well-manicured city park to an ancient forest teeming with both earthly and mythical fauna.
It’s not (yet!) as famous as others in bigger cities, but Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine feels more primordial. A visit here will allow you to touch Japan’s ancient culture and mythology away from the tourist crowds in Kyoto or Nara. It seems even the gods agree!
Your first impression of Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine will likely be the natural features and the main gate.
It is an immense copper structure, a deep forest green rather than the usual red-orange of many Shinto shrines. The buildings on the grounds are a subdued color as well, in their natural hinoki, or Japanese cypress wood. The overall effect is of a harmonious blending with the surrounding forest trees.
After entering through the gate, you will continue along a concrete footpath through the grounds. Some of the pine trees are even taller than the gate itself, and their long and delicate needles seem to diffuse both light and sound to envelop the visitor in a cocoon of silence. Trees are sacred in Shinto, and cutting certain trees is thought to bring misfortune. The site is somehow as neat and orderly as any modern city park, and yet it was built without disturbing the clearly ancient and revered trees.
Did I mention I got to wear a real kimono for my visit?
The lush purple kimono I wore to visit the shrine was rented from Go-En Style. This wasn’t my first time wearing one, but it’s probably the most comfortable one I’ve worn! This shows the skill of the kimono stylists at this shop.
Be sure to walk slowly with small steps in your kimono to keep it neat. Not only is wearing the kimono to the shrine a special cultural experience, but it forces you to slow down and really take in the sights.
Anyway, back to the walk through the shrine grounds and approach to the main hall.
It was declared a Designated National Treasure of Japan in 1952. It’s there that you will notice one of the distinguishing features of Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine: the shimenawa, or immense straw rope hanging from side to side in the front.
The Kaguraden building shimenawa is the largest of its kind in Japan, measuring eight meters in diameter at its largest hanging parts, and must be replaced every six years with fresh straw.
It is a reflection of the main god enshrined here, Okuninushi-no-Okami, the god of human relationships.
The Japanese word for this is enmusubi, which we can translate literally as “bound fate.” This makes Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine a popular place for lonely worshippers from all over the country to come and pray for the gods to help them find a romantic partner.
Okuninushi doesn’t just preside over intimate partners, however. It is also quite common for people to come here to pray for good relationships with anyone from business colleagues to in-laws.
If you are interested in learning more about Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, I recommend taking a shrine tour called the“Socho-sanpai”. This is a guided tour with an optional breakfast for an additional cost. It is available only on Saturdays and Sundays and a pre-registration is required.
This morning worship tour starts at the Seidemari torii at the entrance to the shrine, from where you will then continue to walk down the pine tree-lined path to the shrine as the guide tells you all about the shrine’s history and worship etiquette.
You can also enjoy the guide’s many interesting stories about Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine. There are English-language tour groups available as well, so I recommend consulting with the tourism association for more information.
Walking around the shrine in the quiet early hours of the morning before it gets busy with visitors was very refreshing and I learned a lot about Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine thanks to the tour guide. (Please note that tours are not held on some Saturdays and Sundays, so be sure to check the tour schedule when you register.)
Tour fee : ¥600～¥1600（※Depending on which tour option you choose）
If you have something to request from the gods, this is how you should do it.
Non-Japanese are more than welcome to pray at any Shinto shrine, but it helps to know the etiquette. Bow slightly before entering the torii gates, and keep in mind to walk on the side of the path to the shrine rather than in the middle.
The middle of the path to the shrine and the middle of the torii are reserved for the gods, not for humans. On the way to the shrine, you will see a small pavilion with a basin filled with water; this (called the temizuya) is where you purify yourself before approaching the main shrine.
First thing to do before starting the purifying process is to bow once in front of the temizuya. After that, fill the ladle with water and pour some water on your left hand, then right hand. Next, clean your mouth by holding the ladle in your right hand again and pouring some water into your left hand and rinse lightly - don’t wash your mouth directly from the ladle! Finally, hold the ladle vertically, allowing for the remaining water to trickle down the handle and cleaning it. You can wipe your mouth and hands with a handkerchief if you like to. At last, bow one more time in front of the temizuya.
When you reach the shrine you are now finally ready to pay your respects. At the Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine this process is kind of special. First, gently toss a coin into the box in front of you. The amount of money does not matter; just because you used a 500 yen coin, it does not mean that there is a higher chance of your wishes coming true. Many Japanese people believe that using a 5 yen coin increases their chances of finding a sgnificant other, since go-en is homophonous to the Japanese word meaning “relationship". After that, deeply bow twice (until you reach a 90 degree angle), clap four times (with your left hand slightly in front) pay your respects and deeply bow once more. You have to clap four times only at Izumo Taisha. At the rest of the shrines in Japan, you have to clap your hands just twice when you visit a shrine.
After saying your prayers, you can visit the stands on the sides of the main hall to buy amulets to ensure a good marriage, safe birth, luck in your studies, or even traffic safety. These amulets generally cost about ¥500 or ¥1000, and make a great souvenir regardless of your belief system.
Here I’d like to add a little bit about the Kamiarizuki, or “month of the gods” and where they stay.
It is here that, according to Shinto mythology, the gods from all over Japan gather in the late autumn to decide the fate of the humans and their relationships in the coming year. In Izumo, this is called Kamiarizuki, or “the month of the gods.
There is even a structure built on the grounds of the shrine that is meant to house these gods during their annual stay in Izumo. Sadly, it’s not possible for us mere mortals to see the inside of the gods’ own dormitory, but there is a useful signboard outside with a QR code so that smartphone users can get information about it in English, Korean, or Chinese. In fact, this feature is available on many of the shrine’s buildings, but the information provided is a bit sparse at this time.
Did you know that Izumo is thought to have a kind of natural power?
Perhaps related to Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine’s designation as the home of the gods is its role as a “power spot” for its particular energy or connection to nature. Walk behind the main Okuninushi no Okami Shrine and find a smaller site called Soganoyashiro where Susanoo no Mikoto, the god of sea and storms, is enshrined. Here you will be able to touch the rock face that has been specifically noted as having some sort of special energy.
The interesting sites of Izumo and its famous grand shrine are not limited to the grounds themselves. Here is a little about other spots you can visit nearby.
There is also Inochi Nushi no Yashiro, a small, tucked-away shrine in a residential neighbourhood. It is kind of a curious place stuck in time, with a 1000-year old tree on the grounds. We can only imagine what this tree has seen!
And if you’re tired at the end of the day and need a bit more natural power, head down to the nearby Inasanohama Beach in the late afternoon. This beach boasts a shrine high on a rock jutting out of the water, making it a favourite spot to take in a gorgeous sunset.
Finally, there are great natural hot spring baths in Izumo.
One of these hot springs is at Inishie no Yado Keiun, you can borrow a “yukata”, a more relaxed casual kimono for lounging, drinking tea, and then soothe your tired muscles in the hot spring.
If you stay the night here, the rooms are a pleasant blend of East and West, with straw tatami mats and luxuriously soft beds so you can get your rest for the next day of sightseeing.
Some of us take to mystical notions easily than others. However, the day I visited Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine was one of those days when the sun and rain seem to be fighting each other.
Could it be the sun goddess Amaterasu having a tiff with one of her brothers? Whether the Japanese gods had anything to do with this or not, it ended with a magnificent double rainbow that led everyone from visitors on the street to shopkeepers to stop and marvel. This is something I will never forget.
Advice And Summary
Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine and its surrounds should absolutely be on your shrine visit list if you’re planning to visit the southwestern parts of Honshu in Japan. Just remember your shrine visit etiquette as best you can, give the place the time and attention it deserves, and perhaps you too can touch the divine.