Teaching Comparative Religion Through Art and Architecture
Sacred Spaces in Shinto: Two Important Shrines



(photo credit)
The Ise Shrine is rebuilt on an adjacent lot every 20 years.

Outlying building at Ise Shrine building,
built in the same style as the main building.(photo credit)

According to Japanese popular belief, the Ise Shrine complex is the holiest of Japan. It is located in Ise City in the Mie Prefecture on the South East coast. The shrine is composed of  two similar complexes. The earliest complex, said to date from the third century, is called the Naiku, or Inner Shrine. It is dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami. The second complex, the Geku, or Outer Shrine, is about six kilometers (3.7 miles) away. It is thought to have been built in the fifth century for Toyouke no Okami, the Grain Goddess. Building material from roof to floors for both structures and finishing comes entirely from Japanese white cypress, Hinoki. The main building of the Inner Shrine is designed in a special form of architectural style, called shimmei-zukuri. This style is prohibited for other shrines. It's simple rectangular design is said to derive from the granaries and treasure storehouses of prehistoric Japan.

The sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami is the mythical ancestor of the Imperial family. She is represented by the sacred mirror, one of the three objects (Imperial Regalia) symbolic of the divine authority of the imperial family. Legend holds that the inner shrine dates from when Princess Yamatohime, daughter of Emperor Suinin, was searching for a final resting place for the sacred mirror. When she reached Ise, she heard the voice of Amaterasu Omikami, saying, "This is a good place, and I would like to stay here." 

Every twenty years the buildings at Ise are torn down and new ones are built on an immediately adjacent site. In this way the site is purified and building materials renewed while preserving the original design from the third and fourth centuries. The new shrines, however identical with the old ones, are not considered a replica of Ise, but are "Ise re-created." That is, the recreation process reveals Shinto's understanding of nature which does not make monuments, but "lives and dies, always renewed and reborn." (William Alex, JapaneseArchitecture.)



Izumo Shrine Entrance with torii and view of haiden.

Izumo Shrine 1   (photo credit)

Izumo Shrine  2  (photo credit)

Izumo Shrine 3    (photo credit)

The Izumo Shrine, located in the town of Taisha on the northwest coast facing Korea, is believed to be the oldest shrine in Japan. The Kojiki in the 8th century describes the mythic origins of the shrine in the story of its chief kami, Okuninushi no Mikoto (also Onamochi). In this myth, Okuninushi no Mikoto is developing the world of mortal man when Ninigi no Mikoto (grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami) descends to earth. Okuninushi no Mikoto gives over temporal rule of the land to Ninigi no Mikoto in exchange for control over divine affairs. The sun goddess was so pleased by this gift to her grandson that she had a shrine erected for Okuninshi no Mikoto on the Izumo site. He is traditionally regarded as the god of marriage, good fortune, and agriculture. 

Some scholars have suggested that this myth might represent a pre-historic territorial agreement between the Yamato (Japanese) invaders and another racial group previously in control of this northern approach to Korea. The design of the present shrine may date back to the first century. It has been periodically rebuilt. The last honden built in 1744 is the twenty-fifth building since the original.

One of the main festivals held at Izumo Shrine is Kamiari Matsuri (the "gods being present") in October. It is believed that at this time gods throughout Japan come to Izumo to discuss their respective kingdoms. For this reason one ancient name for October in many parts of Japan is Kanazuki,"month without gods."  During this festival small box-shaped housed are placed in the shrine precincts to house the visiting gods. 

The architectural style, taisha-zukuri, provides a different style from the the flat roof and almost square shape of the Ise Shrine. The Izumo Shrine is composed with two levels of roof curves and a long narrow hall (see photo 3). During the Nara period, when Buddhism was popularized, changes were made to the design of Izumo Shrine. The roof was made curved and the Chinese style gable-end boards and ridge-end ornament were added to the original structure. Legend holds that the high-floor dwelling style of the Izumo Shrine is meant to resemble the shape of  the emperor's palace. A central post probably symbolizes "the august central pillar," a pillar with which Izanagi and Izanam-I, the first deities of Japanese, stirred the ocean as they created the islands of Japan. 

Plan of Izumo Shrine (larger image)(photo)
The residence of the kami is centrally located in the honden. Pilgrims do not worship within the kami sanctuary. The haiden, or worship hall, for this purpose is considered to be a later addition to the shrine.
More images of Izumo shrine can be found on Martin Gray's Sacred Sites at http://www.sacredsites.com/final40/217.html
Photo credits:
  • From ORIAS archives
    • Nachi Waterfall Shrine
    • Ise Shrine Building
    • Nachi Shrine
    • Shinto Torii at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko
    • Pathway (Sando)
    • Haiden Hall
    • Music Platform
    • Music Hall
    • Izumo Shrine
  • From Don Choi
    • Red Torii in Sea
  • From Donna Kasprowicz (California teacher on summer 2000 Fulbright Memorial Fund trip to Japan):
    • Rock Garden at Buddhist temple (Ryoan-ji)
    • Ainu building - Donna Kasprowicz
    • Purification at Kiyomizu
    • Eight-post torii at Asakusa Buddhist temple
    • Shinto torii before small shrine (at Ryoan-ji)
    • Purification at Shinto shrine in city of Tomakomai
    • Torii at Meiji
    • Tomakamai Shinto Shrine
    • Cloth strips at Tomakamai Shrine
    • Wooden plaque at Tomakamai Shrine
  • Robert Treat Paine and Alexander Soper. The Art and Architecture of Japan. Yale University Press, 1981. P. 283.
    • Izumo Shrine #3 -
  • Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo: Kodansha Ltd. 1993.  P.627.
    • Ise Shrine aerial view
  • Oakland Japan Project, Summer 2000.
    • One month ceremony
    • Shinto priests entering shrine
    • Can you identify the Shinto elements?
    • Heian Shrine in Kyoto
    • Modern shrine using cement
Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo: Kodansha Ltd. 1993.
William, Alex. Japanese Architecture. New York: G. Braziller, 1968. 
H. Byron Earhart. Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity. Third Edition. California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1982.
Robert Treat Paine and Alexander Soper. The Art and Architecture of Japan. Yale University Press, 1981.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Japanese mythology found in the Kojiki see the bibliography for the ORIAS web site on Prince Yamato at http://orias.berkeley.edu/hero/yamato/links_yamato.html

Site authors:
Vimalin Rujivacharakul, graduate student University of California Berkeley, Architecture Department
Donna Kasprowicz, photos taken during  Fulbright Memorial Fund trip to Japan, Summer 2000.
Photo contributions from teacher participants in the Oakland-Japan Project, Summer 2000.
Michele Delattre, ORIAS Web Editor
Special thanks to Professor John Nelson, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of San Francisco.
Return to ORIAS home page Return
to Class Page