Field Report: Myth and history at Izumo, Japan (06 July 2015)

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Although the long ride from Tōkyō to Shimane Prefecture on one of Japan’s last sleeper trains was almost an attraction in itself, that epic journey was but a means to an end. The end, of course, being the small but incredibly historic city of Izumo, which hosts one of the country’s oldest and most important shrines.

At Izumo-shi Station, I hopped onto a bus that brought me to within walking distance of Izumo-taisha (出雲大社). As with most Shintō shrines, the entrance to the sacred precincts was guarded by a soaring torii

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…which straddled a tree-lined, stone-paved pathway. The long road sloped gently downwards as it led me away from the bland modernity of the town that had grown up around the shrine, taking me closer to the thickly wooded hillside that forms the backdrop to this ancient compound. It was a long but quite pleasant stroll, with the vibrant green shades of the surrounding forest and the colourful bunches of ajisai in full bloom – not to mention the heat and humidity – reminding me that we were deep in the embrace of summer.

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As I drew closer to the inner compound, the road split into three separate paths: a paved lane on either side of an unpaved, gravel-strewn corridor flanked by pine trees. A wooden sign instructed visitors to take the paths on the left or right … apparently only spirits are allowed to tread upon the sacred ground in between.

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The shrine’s monumental gateway was sheathed in scaffolding for restoration work, and some of the pavement inside had been taken up for more rebuilding, but these were fairly small blemishes in what was still a most impressive collection of classical Japanese architecture.

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Izumo-taisha is one of the country’s highest-ranked shrines, and is so ancient that the date of its establishment doesn’t even appear in historical records, but pretty much everything we see today dates back only a few centuries or so. This might be due in part to the now virtually extinct tradition (formerly observed at some of Japan’s major Shintō sites) of completely demolishing and rebuilding shrine structures every couple of decades – an ancient custom still undertaken only at the Ise-jingū – with the last full reconstruction programme of Izumo-taisha’s key buildings completed in 1744. Nevertheless, the distinctive architecture of the inner shrine preserves something of the character of its many previous iterations, with the profoundly archaic style having purely native origins as opposed to the Chinese-influenced aesthetics that arrived later from the Asian mainland (more commonly associated with Buddhist temples).

From here, I returned to the approach road and took a detour that brought me to the neighbouring Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo (島根県立古代出雲歴史博物館, Shimane-kenritsu Kodai Izumo Rekishi Hakubutsukan). It’s easy to pass this rather nondescript campus by, but that would be a huge mistake – it’s a splendid museum filled with many impressive exhibits detailing the history of Izumo-taisha and the wider region around it.

Amongst those exhibits were several painstakingly crafted scale models showing what Izumo-taisha looked like at various points during its long history…

…with the largest model depicting the shrine as it might have appeared in the 10th century A.D., during the Heian Period. Observe the miniature white-robed figures ascending the steps of the shrine, and try to imagine how impressive – and how breathtakingly huge – the structure must have seemed to those beholding it a thousand years ago.

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Excavations in and around Izumo-taisha have uncovered a host of artefacts that offer clues as to its past appearance, with one of the more interesting finds now a centrepiece exhibit at the museum: the remnants of a massive pillar, consisting of three huge logs bound together into a single column, that once supported an ancient iteration of the shrine.

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After my time at the museum, I rushed back to the bus stop near the shrine entrance and began my journey to the station … but not the one from which I’d set out that morning. My stop was the Former Taisha Station (旧大社駅, Kyū-Taisha-eki), once the terminus of JR West’s Taisha Line: a 7.5-kilometre stretch of track running from Izumo-shi Station that was closed down in 1990. Now abandoned railway stations don’t often feature on tourist itineraries … but this is no ordinary abandoned railway station.

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Opened in 1912 – although the present building dates from 1924 – the station is a splendid example of the hybridised architecture that was in vogue during the Taishō Era, featuring a Western form and layout heavily overlaid with traditional Japanese elements. It’s a fantastic gem of a structure both inside and out, and I’m quite pleased to see it so lovingly preserved for future generations … but the eerily silent platforms that once teemed with passengers, the overgrown iron rails now leading to nowhere, and the rusting locomotive displayed behind the building merely underscore the lamentable decline of rural railway lines in Japan’s steadily depopulating countryside.

With that, my brief visit to Izumo was at an end. I walked back to the nearest bus stop and returned to Izumo-shi Station, where I’d left the Sunrise Izumo train that brought me in that morning…

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…there to greet the train that would bring me to my next destination. This was the Yakumo 26 limited express service (departing 16:31), employing a JR West 381 series EMU. A rather ancient piece of equipment, although the large seats in the spacious Green (first class) Car offered plenty of comfort.

Less than half an hour later, I stepped off at the old castle town of Matsue…

… of which I’ll have more to say in a future post.

Cheerio.

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One response to “Field Report: Myth and history at Izumo, Japan (06 July 2015)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Slurping, sipping, and stepping my way around Matsue, Japan (07 July 2015) | Within striking distance·

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