Izumo Taisha (出雲大社) is located in the city of Izumo in Shimane Prefecture, a one hour train ride west of Matsue. It is one of Japan's most important and oldest shrines. There are no records of exactly when Izumo Taisha was built, but it is often considered the oldest shrine in Japan, being already in existence in the early 700s as revealed by the nation's oldest chronicles.
Izumo used to be ruled by a powerful clan in pre-historic times, and the region plays a central role in Japan's creation mythology. The main deity (kami) enshrined at Izumo Taisha is Okuninushi no Okami. According to the creation myths, Okuninushi was the creator of the land of Japan and the ruler of Izumo. He also became known as the deity of good relationships and marriage. Visitors consequently clap their hands four times instead of the usual two times during their prayers: twice for themselves and twice for their actual or desired partners.
Every year, from the 10th to the 17th day of the 10th lunar month (falls usually in November), Shinto's eight million deities from across the land gather at Izumo Taisha for a meeting. It is for this reason that the 10th lunar month is known as Kamiarizuki ("month with deities") in Izumo, and Kannazuki ("month without deities") everywhere else in Japan. As per tradition, the Kamiari Festival is held at the shrine during this period.
The main approach to the shrine starts at a giant torii gate and a shopping street lined by stores and restaurants. At the end of the street stands a large wooden torii gate, which marks the entrance to the actual shrine grounds. Continuing north, the approach uniquely leads downhill for a few dozen meters, leading to the Matsu no Sando where the trail is divided into three lanes by two rows of pine trees. Visitors are to refrain from taking the center lane, as it is said to be the path reserved for the deities.
Going past the pine trees finally leads to a bronze torii gate, the entrance to the main shrine grounds. Immediately upon entry, visitors will be confronted by a beautiful wooden structure with a huge sacred straw rope (shimenawa) hung across half its length. This is the Worship Hall (Haiden). The shimenawa indicates the presence of a deity and separates divine space from the mortal realm. Large shimenawa are a characteristic of the Izumo region, found also at other shrines in the area.
Behind the worship hall stands the Main Hall (Honden) at 24 meters tall, making it the tallest shrine building in Japan. Interestingly, it used to be even considerably taller in the past, perched on large pillars. The current structure was built in 1744 in a purely Japanese architectural style called Taisha-zukuri, which predates the arrival of Buddhism to Japan and the non-native influences it had on shrine architecture.
The main hall together with a few smaller shrine buildings are surrounded by two sets of fences which demarcate inner sanctuaries not accessible to general visitors. It is however possible to walk around the outer fence and view several more shrine buildings standing around it. Among them are two long wooden structures on both sides of the main sanctuary, called Jukusha, which serve as the lodgings for the eight million deities when they assemble at the shrine for their annual meeting.
Until 1744, Izumo Taisha used to be periodically rebuilt like the Ise Shrines. Since then, the tradition has been only partially maintained with major renovations instead of full rebuildings carried out once approximately every 60 years. The most recent such renovation began in 2008 and was mostly completed by spring 2013 when the construction scaffolding around the main hall was removed and the deity moved back into the building. Some minor works, including the renovation of the Jukusha buildings, will continue through March 2016 but should not have a major impact on a visit to the shrine.
At the southeastern corner of the main shrine grounds stands a treasure hall which exhibits paintings, documents and lavishly ornamented containers, as well as a model and artist impressions of how Izumo Taisha might have looked in the past when it stood on tall pillars. Unfortunately, there are almost no English explanations. Immediately east of the shrine grounds stands the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo where visitors can learn even more about the shrine and the Izumo region.