Izumo Taisha is the oldest shrine in Japan, claiming to predate even the Ise Grand Shrine. From a map I saw, but could not read in detail--I promise I will keep studying--it seems to line up with Ise in the path of the sun, on the opposite side of the country.
Here is the deepest source and preservation of the history of Japan and its basis in Shinto, the way of the kami. The very ground is steeped in ancient spirituality. Gagaku music, the sacred music of the shines and the court, plays everywhere.
It's definitely not Buddhist. This is true even though a miko born in 1572 called Izumo no Okuni left the shrine and performed dance and music from the sacred heritage to raise money for one of the periodic reconstructions, known as sengu. Since this was very unusual, she was called kabukimono, or one acting against social norms.
Eventually, she created a theatre company called Okuni Ichiza performing Kabuki Odori or dance, as a continuing source of fundraising for the shrine. Unfortunately, it became so popular it was widely imitated by more commercial entertainers, including courtesans and yujo (less expensive and discriminating sex workers). In 1629, Tokgawa Iyeasu forbade women from performing in this style. Izumo no Okuni retired to become a Buddhist nun at a temple near Izumo Taisha and kabuki theatre was officially established as a male art form, though there are currently a couple of small all-woman companies.
Buddhism and Shinto have thus coexisted very peacefully for centuries, with Buddhism focusing on the enlightenment of the individual practitioner, while Shinto concentrates on interacting with the kami to solicit their help with daily life of the land and the people. Or so I understand it.
Izumo Taisha is enormous, and hosts one of the largest festivals anywhere, the annual meeting of the kami, in October, "Kamiarizuki" (month of the kami) in Izumo, but called called "Kannazuki" (month without kami) every where else, because they have all come to Izumo Taisha to discuss the coming year. There is literally a motel-of-the-kami in which all the kami who arrive on the beach and are escorted up to the shrine are housed during this event.
Like many events here, people can attend the various rituals surrounding this, and there are snatches of photographs and videos here and there, but photography seems very much discouraged.
In fact, my presence was discouraged, seemingly by the kami themselves.
I actually planned this trip to see the former home of the writer Lafcadio Hearn, now a museum, located by Matsue Castle on Lake Shinji, not far from Izumo and known for spectacular scenery. He didn't live there long, and it's not a fabulous museum, but it's fun, especially if one enjoys his works on Japan, a country he embraced to the point of becoming a citizen, immersing himself in folklore, faith and culture. Of course, I like him.
I also was on the lookout for snow, since Tokyo, on the Kanto Plain, is one of the very few areas of Honshu (main island) that doesn't get inundated with the stuff, owing to the placement of the mountains. Anyway, I am a train fan and not only is there a train, there is a special overnight sleeper train called the Sunrise Izumo. How could I resist?
From the platform at Tokyo Station. It leaves just before 10 PM and gets in at 10 AM.
It actually splits into two parts at Okayama, with half going to Takamatsu on Shikoku and the other half going across the mountains (snow!) to Izumo. I got the second level of one person sleeper cabins, the "Deluxe" Single being slightly bigger than a breadbox and unavailable. My Single was smaller than a breadbox and makes a capsule cabin on the ferry look spacious. There's a smaller cabin still, and a couple of twin versions, with bunks, and very large sort of divided carpeted area for those who don't value privacy as much. It takes 12 hours for the Izumo run. There are some drink machines, but you have to bring food. Of course, the station vendors take advantage of this. And the run takes place at night. So the time to do it would be in high summer, of course, when the sun is out most of the time and the mountain scenery is visible. But if you turn out your lights and open your shade, it's possible to see a lot, especially on the way over after the sun come ups.
Yes, there was snow. The area has plenty of mist and fog as the train runs through steep mountains along a river valley. The snow stretches like a blanket until it merges into the mist and clouds. Nicer than it looks!
The hotel I could book was in Matsue, near the Hearn museum and halfway between Izumo and Mt. Daisan, where I hoped to see plenty of snow, falling. Naturally, the instant I left Tokyo snow was forecast and did in fact fall there, though it didn't stick around and Sunday was quite warm. But I could spend Thursday, the day I got in, at Izumo Taisha, take a fun little electric train around Lake Shinji, go off to Mt. Daisen, and then visit the Hearn museum and adjacent attractions, and get the train back from Matsue. It almost worked.
Hares are popular here because it was Onamuchi, enshrined at Izumo Taisha as Okuninushi, who paused in a quest to save a hare who tried to outsmart some sharks but had its skin pulled off instead. The hare obtained a renewed coat, and foretold that Onamuchi, for his kindness, would be rewarded by beating out all his competitors and win the quest. This is seen as a victory of civilization over barbarism. There are hares, real but mostly sculptured, all over the place, at the shrine, like these, and elsewhere.
I arrived at Izumo, having slept better than one might think possible. The train is mercifully quiet between Yokohama and Okayama so people can sleep. It's not nearly as smooth as a boat, but I did happily sleep, looking out my big window at regular intervals. I took a bus to the shrine, but the coin lockers I had been promised were all full, so I had no place to stash my suitcase. I looked carefully at my map and thought it would be able to haul it along. It has wheels! But it had been wet and there were no paved trails and soon I gave that up as a bad job and detoured to the shrine museum. There isn't much to see in the shrine itself, anyway, if you aren't a Shinto practitioner.
The museum, however, is a treasure trove. There are models of all the buildings you can't go into and dioramas and animations--things you'd never see or learn walking around with a guide book or your phone. There are explanations of various festivals and legends, and those are legion. The sense of history here, that this is the site, still visible, of Japan's creation and of its founding mythos, where one of the creator kami, Izanami, died giving birth to the fire kami. She entered the underworld and was trapped there, right there, by her husband Izanagi, who looked when he shouldn't have and saw what he regretted. In terror, he closed the entrance with a gigantic rock, that rock there, and you can visit it, see it and even touch it, but it would be very unwise to try to move it. There is far too much here to take in, and one could spend many years learning even the basics of the stories that feel all too real here, where they originated, the lore rising from the earth like the mist.
From the electric train. Back there you can just see Mt. Daisen, where I hoped to go. This is Lake Shinji.
The adorable electric train, with Izumo Taisha's very own cartoon mascot. That's not a bow: those are cross-hatched roof beams like those that top all the ancient shrine buildings.
I slept like a rock, then tried to set out for Mt. Daisen. It was raining, but it would be snowing up there. And there's a great deal of legend surrounding that mountain, too. But could I get there? It would be an hour's train ride to Yonago and from there...nobody, not even the tourist office, actually knew if there was a bus or not, and if there was, whether it would be operating today! It might be possible to take a cab. If I found a daring soul with snow tires. Oh, dear. Another bad job. But I did see a poster for the Shimane Prefectural Art Museum that was having a very special Hokusai exhibit. This museum has one of the three largest Hokusai collections in the world, thanks to the generosity of a Hokusai scholar named Nakata Seiji. And there was definitely a bus running there.
They did have snow in Matsue proper, and a down of hares racing along the lake shore.
While photography inside the museum was discouraged by many, many security guards in tidy suits and silk scarves, outside on the roof terrace, it was fine to take pictures of the sculptures. Or, below, of Matsue itself, across Lake Shinji. The culturally significant castle is behind those clouds to the left, as is the Hearn house. Finally, the precipitation stopped.
The Hokusai collection is magnificent. If you've heard of a work, they have at least one copy of it. If the darned thing hadn't been so huge, I would have bought a copy of the catalog! I may still order it. This exhibit, of several periods of Hokusai's art, will only go on until March 26, but they have fabulous plans for this collection in terms of study and exhibits, and I think the whole trip would be worth while just to go to this museum and see whatever's on offer when you arrive.
There was one funny thing. I went into one of the permanent collection rooms on the second floor, marked Hokusai, and saw...that's not Hokusai! That's Hiroshige! I even own a print of that. That one is Hiroshige, too! I strode across the room and discovered a small, but quite nice, Hiroshige collection. Right in the middle of the Hokusai room! And not just one, but two of the items in that collection are ones I own. Naturally, I think they have great taste!
Those were the highlights. But the next day, overwhelmed with information, I wasn't in much of a mood for Hearn's cricket cages, beautifully made though they are, or his desk, but rather thought longingly of my own. Matsue castle is very nice, as castles go, and one of the twelve major ones in Japan. There's not much point in climbing the six very steep flights to the top when it's enshrouded in mist and fog, although the mist and fog seem to have a charm here, first concealing, then revealing the ancient depths of Japanese history and culture.
There is so much to take in from such a short trip, it's going to take me some time to assimilate it, and I may just need to go back. The myths and the legends, the history and the Hokusai call to me. I'd like more time at the ocean, and in the mountains. But I had a train to catch, and went from Tokyo station to Myokoji for the Oko, and to get my Tensho for my March Tozan.
The newest addition to my refrigerator magnet souvenir collection. The museum has an on-line shop. I can still order the catalog! And I can always go back.