IZUMO

Here be the land of the gods

by Chris Bamforth

You get them in research institutes, tucked away in small caves, perched atop spanking-new urban developments. Clamber up Mount Fuji and one is waiting there at the summit. Aside from desperately keen Shintoi aficionados, few people would complain that Japan suffers any dearth of shrines. While Shinto shrines can often be interesting, atmospheric spots, they tend not to be regarded as actual destinations in themselves.

Notable exceptions to this would be the grand shrine of Ise, Shinto’s holiest spot, and Itsukushima Shrine near Hiroshima, which with its famed torii standing out in the bay is probably Japan’s loveliest shrine. Another place that is definitely worth a long trek just for the shrine alone is Izumo Taisha. Located 40 km west of Matsue in Shimane Prefecture in western Honshu, the shrine of Izumo Taisha is one of the country’s most venerated. It is also one of the oldest and, with a height of 24 meters, the tallest Shinto place of worship.

Grand though the structure is today, the present shrine is, in fact, nothing like the size it once was. On the main pine-flanked approach road leading to Izumo Taisha stands the excessively named Exhibit Hall for the Miniature of Ancient Izumo Grand Shrine, within which stands a one-tenth scale model of the shrine as it was between around the years 900 to 1270.

“Since ancient times, there have been records of Izumo Taisha once having been housed in a 45-meter-high building, but those records couldn’t be substantiated,” commented the information guide at the hall. “But then in 2000, enormous pillars were discovered that could have supported a structure of that height. That would have made it taller even than Todaiji, the temple housing the giant Buddha in Nara.”

Today’s main shrine hall is the 25th such structure to have been built since Izumo Taisha was originally constructed. Though this hall dates from 1744, the style in which it is built is considered Japan’s oldest form of shrine architecture. The shrine does indeed carry a great sense of majesty and antiquity. The deep ancient forest begins on the hillside directly behind the main hall, from within the plain undressed timbers of which rise at regular intervals the soulful beatings of a drum and the haunting, ethereal chords of the sho (bamboo mouth organ).

The most notable feature within the shrine is its great shimenawa rope. Shimenawa are the rice-straw ropes that are used to demarcate sacred areas in Shinto. The two great shimenawa at Izumo Taisha are the most prodigious in the country, with the larger being 13 meters long and weighing 5 tons.

The favored custom under the massive flared ends of the shimenawa is to fling a coin up into them in the hope that the money will be trapped among the straw strands, thereby guaranteeing the granting of one’s wishes. An awful lot of wishing clearly goes on at Izumo Taisha since the lower shimenawa ends are studded with enough coins to pay for a few months’ utility bills in a Tokyo apartment. Popular though Izumo Taisha is among human tourists, the numbers of these visitors are nothing compared with those of the divine out-of-towners who make their way here every year. In October, according to Shinto belief, Japan’s 8 million deities descend on Izumo Taisha from all parts of the country for their annual get-together to discuss godly matters. As a result, the month of October is known in other parts of the country as Kannazuki — the month without gods — whereas in this region it is known as Kamiarizuki — the month with gods.

Reminiscent in a small way of the grandeur of the local shrine is the grandeur of the town’s old railway station. Though, unfortunately, since 1990, it has existed simply as a museum piece, Old Taisha Station has a fair claim for the title of the most elegant station building in the country. Opened in 1912, the station, with its unusual wooden structure, was deliberately modeled along the lines of the big shrine. And you don’t have to be an anorak to be charmed by the building and its period lamps and wood-and-plaster interior.

Having checked the sights in Taisha, the next thing to do is take the 20-minute bus ride to Cape Hinomisaki. The sinuous road follows the rocky coastline, hugging the side of the steep cliffs onto which the odd tree somehow manages to cling precariously.

As the road swings in and out along the curves, sudden views are offered of teetering sea stacks and spectacular beds of sedimentary strata, plunging almost perpendicularly into the sea. Just offshore, there are rocky outcrops, upon which cormorants stand drying their outspread wings, as well as sporadic islets, gracefully capped with pine trees. The whole would be rather exquisite if there weren’t similarly sporadic dumpings of the concrete tetrahedrons that do such an efficient job of disfiguring the coasts of Japan.

The first sight at Hinomisaki is another place of worship, Hinomisaki Shrine, though with this ebullient vermilion structure, built in 1644, a greater contrast to the subdued character of Izumo Taisha would be hard to imagine. Beyond Hinomisaki Shrine is the other structure for which the cape is renowned. With a height of 44 meters, Hinomisaki Lighthouse is the tallest in Asia, and from here, on a good day, you can see across the Sea of Japan to the rugged Oki Islands, once a glum place of exile for political prisoners now better known for their bull-fighting and horse-rearing.

An island much closer to hand is the one called Fumishima, a short distance offshore from the cape, which every year is the breeding ground of 5,000 black-tailed gulls.

The mewling voice of these seabirds is the constant backdrop in this dramatic area of windswept coast, just as in the village below the lighthouse the constant background smell is that of the locally caught seafood — grilled, fresh, aromatic and crying out to be savored.