The Architecture of Izumo Grand Shrine


The Izumo District is well known for its air of mythology that has been inherited from ancient days. Historical and ethnological books edited by the central government of Japan during the 8th century list descriptions that illustrate Izumo at the center stage of ancient myths. These records detail the important roles that the Gods of Izumo played in creating and developing Japan in the myths. Present day Izumo finds every community continuing to maintain local shrines and holding various ceremonies and festivals to worship Gods. The representative shrine of the community shrine is Izumo Grand Shrine. Izumo Grand Shrine is one of the most recognized shrines in Japan, and thus attracts more than 2 million visitors every year.


The architecture of Izumo Grand Shrine has an extensive history. The oldest record detailing the shrine can be found in Nihonshoki (Ancient Japanese National Chronicle). The chronicle states that the shrine constructed under the order of the Emperor, in the middle of the 7th century. The greatness of the shrine since ancient time is well known, due to the descriptions and emphasis on the height of the pillars and the thickness of the boards. This height clearly distinguishes the shrine and is seen as a distinction of the Grand Shrine.

Figure 1. is of Izumo Grand Shrine in its present state. Its simple figure, free from over decoration, is seen as the embodiment of classic buildings of Japanese style and has been highly valued. Figure 2. is front view of the main shrine. The roof is of gable-style. A door and a ladder are situated on the right side of the front wall. The floor, beam and ridge are just about evenly arranged and present a handsome figure. The height of the ground to the roof decoration, which is called "chigi", is about 24 meters. It is a marvelous height as a hall building of shrines. Figure 3. is the floor plan of the main building. The upper structure is supported by nine ground pillars. It is well recognized that the simplicity of the design and the largeness of each of the logs are the major characteristics of the Izumo Grand Shrine. The interval of each pillar is about 5.4 meters. Figure 4 .is the plan for the whole sacred area of the Izumo Grand Shrine. The main building is constructed in the center of this area and is surrounded by many buildings that frame it. Those buildings include, Sessha (shrines adoring relative gods), Haiden (buildings for ceremonies and festivals) and gates. Figure 5. allows a birdfs eye view of the sacred area.

Izumo Grand Shrine has no regular tradition of moving the shrine. However, it has experienced many moves and thus reconstructions during its long history. The present building was constructed in the middle of the Edo Era, around 1744. The surrounding buildings were also reconstructed, transported or repaired at that time. It is quite rare and thus valuable that such a collection of buildings have remained grouped together for 260 years.

Compared with immemorable long history of Izumo Grand Shrine, the time that has passed since the construction of the group of buildings, and the surrounding scenery that we see today is not so old. The most epoch-making reconstruction is said to be the one performed at the beginning of the Edo era, in 1667. Dr. Akira Fujisawa, Professor of Shibaura Institute of Technology, and the Shimane Prefectural Board of Education completed a reconstruction model by studying this plan and some others (Figure ‚U.). The plan is nearly equal to the present one both in the style of the buildings and in their arrangement. The reconstruction at this time was performed on a large scale with the monetary funds allocated by the Tokugawa Shogunate as a national project. The major alternation undertaken at that time in the architecture was the total elimination of Buddhist organ or related object under the corporate boycott campaign practiced by both Matsue Clan and the Shake (Shinto-propagandist group). A rough shrine plan remains from before this time. It provides us with a view of the shrine in 1609, at the very beginning of the Edo-era. This provides the opportunity to learn of the existence of some Buddhist buildings such as a storied-pagoda or a Dainichidou praying hall (Figure 7). The main building has many unique characteristics and expresses the Buddhist color at the time; pillars painted in scarlet; figures of dragons.

Pictures, maps and records of the construction of the shrine have been found dating back to the Edo-era. Unfortunately, there are no records, and only scarce information of what the grounds were like before Edo-era. Some ancient documents imply that the scale of the main building was rather small during the Middle Age (from the 13th century to the 16th century). This may have partly been due to financial circumstances. On the other hand, some records state that main building of the shrine had been much taller in the Heian and Nara-eras (before the Middle Age). There is a document to this conclusion, that has been preserved and of great importance to the shrine that refers to the height of the main building. This document from the 14th century states that "the main building has a height of just 13.5 meters today. However, formerly the building existed at 24 meters. Then, before that age, the building totaled 48 meters. Moreover, before that age, it had a height of 96 meters". This document was written in the 14th century, the age when the main building was said to have been rather small: not the age when the building was said to have been quite high. This does not provide enough ground that the contents of the documents are true. However, we can at least perceive that people in the 14th century had the recollection that the height of the main building had been far higher and is had gradually gotten smaller and smaller with the time.

While some scholars doubt the reliability of this record with reason, one old text proves the outstanding height of the building clearly. There exists a book named "Kuchizusami", or a resource written for the scions of the lords in the 10th century, to memorize the names of the famous rivers, long bridges, great buildings and so on in Japan. One of the phrases states "Izumo is the top, followed by Yamato, then by Kyoto". Meaning that in reference to the height of the buildings in Japan at that time, the main building of the Izumo Grand Shrine is number one; the hall for the Great Buddha figure of Thodaiji-temple in Yamato (present Nara) is second; and Daigokuden Palace in Heiankyo (Kyoto) is the third. The order may not be correct; however there is great reliability in the recognition of the people those days that the main building of Izumo Grand Shrine was higher than the hall of Thodaiji-temple. This hall is said to have been 45 meters high. There is no doubt that the building was of great height.

The two records are of the general opinion that the main building of the main building of ancient Izumo Grand Shrine was 48 meters high. In addition to these records, the family of the Guuji (the noble priest of Izumo Grand Shrine) has treasured one mysterious draft (Figure 8.), called "Kanawa-no-gozouei-sashizuh. The name means a draft to construct the main building by using metal belts and it has been said to be the ground plan for the main building of the ancient Izumo Grand Shrine. Regretfully, we have no knowledge of the time it was drafted. The existence of this draft was kept quiet until before the Edo-era. Some characteristics that are common to the structure of today are the sustaining by nine pillars, the inner construction and two lapping pillars, which are on the central axis, to support the ridges. A surprising fact to be found by observing this draft is the three circles that are drawn on each of the nine big circles and the indicated scale of them being huge. The three circles described inside the larger circle seems to indicate that the structure of the ancient Izumo Grand Shrine at that time had three logs that were made up into one pillar by tightening the metal band encircling the logs, as the title of the plan under discussion indicated.  According to this plan, each pillar was 3 meters in diameter, and we could suppose that each pillar consisted of three logs that were extremely large. In reference to the stairs that ascend the altar, the plan describes them as being 1chou (A Japanese ancient unit of length, measuring to 109m). As mentioned above, this plan describes ancient Izumo Shrine as having a larger scale than we could imagine. Some people suppose that this plan is of Izumo Shrine in ancient times when it is said to have been a skyscraper, others suppose that it is an imaginary plan described in the later times, as they could not make out why this plan was designed. Nobody has been able to make a conclusion concerning the evaluation on this plan up to the present day.

Professor Toshio Fukuyama, of Kyoto University, historically evaluated this plan, and carried out research on the restoration and reconstruction of Izumo Grand Shrine based on this plan. He examined the figures, and the names for the portions and so on, described in the plan. As the result of that, he issued the plan for the reconstruction of ancient times in 1940, and then revised plan in which he deprived the former one of the nuki (horizontal beams)h in 1955 (Figure 9.) . According to these new plans, the Izumo Grand Shrine in ancient times had a height of 48 meters in accordance with tradition as mentioned, and stairs which were a 109 meters in length. The plan issued by Professor Fukushima had a great impact on the historical and architectural society. The project team of the Obayashi Corporation- a Japanese construction firm- examined if the construction of the shrine based on these plans, and techniques at the time, would be possible or not, and published a book that contained the results of these examinations. The conclusion was that it would have been possible to construct the shrine using the techniques at the time based on Fukuyamafs plan. Supported by present day technicians and researchers of architecture it has been concluded that such a structure as the tall shrine like Figure 9. could have been more than possible and no doubt existed in ancient times. However, there are contrary opinions against those of Professor Fukuyama and Obayashi Corporation in the Architectural Society. These opinions are varied. For example, construction materials, such as wood and iron that had been used for Izumo Grand Shrine were too much compared with the total amount of distribution of such materials at that time. But the critical point against the conclusion was that the plan named Kanawa-no-go-zouei-sashizu itself, on which the reconstruction plan of Professor Fukuyama were based, were not viewed as reliable historical materials.

Sadly, before a conclusion concerning whether the tall main shrine could be constructed or not was made, Professor Fukuyama passed away. So, the big questions concerning the Izumo Grand Shrine of ancient times remain unsolved. However, the situation started to change with the unearthing in 2000 of the precincts of the Izumo Grand Shrine before constructing the cellar for the arrangements of the festival. The center of the precincts was excavated. On April 5th, the parts of the big pillars were unearthed from a point 1.5m below the ground. As the unearthing proceeded, it became clear that the pillars were of cylindrical shape made of Japanese cedar. Three logs were made up into one pillar by closely bonding them together. Each log is 1.3 m in diameter and one pillar which consists of three logs is about 3m in diameter. This discovery for the first time confirmed that the pillar consisted of three logs as mentioned in Kanawa-no-gozouei sashizu above, and attracted the attention all over Japan as the material evidence that a tall shrine formerly existed in Izumo.

Because of this discovery, the construction of the cellar stopped, and the research around the spot where the pillar was excavated proceeded in more depth. In the summer of 2000, another two sets of pillars which have the same structure as the first were unearthed. These discoveries make clear the scale of the shrine and the arrangement of each pillar (Figure 10.) .The detailed investigation for the way of the construction and the arrangement of the pillars went on, though it was restricted by the shrine at present and stone wall.    

Figure 11. indicates the section of the pillars excavated first. You may see the slope towards the pillar and many stones which surround the pillar. This makes it clear that every log was borne through this slope, and was erected by ones, and after erecting three logs, these were made up into one pillar by the belt.

    According to the Carbon 14 analysis of the unearthed log, it was in the first half of 13th century that these pillars were erected. Compared with the historical documents, these pillars used for the main shrine seem to have been constructed around 1248 during Kamakura-era. This was the last construction of the tall main shrine, which had been constructed throughout the Heian-era. Since the construction in 1248, there seems to have been construction of the lower shrine and this construction was on a reduced scale during the medieval times. Figure 12. is said to describe the shrine and its precincts after the construction in 1248 is handed down by the Izumo Kokuso (high priest of the Izumo Grand Shrine). The main shrine or sanctuary is described as being bigger than any other shrine. Figure 13. is an enlarged picture around the main shrine and you may see that the pillars of the main shrine were painted red. Actually there remains a red pigment over the unearthed pillars. This illustrates that the site described in the picture corresponds with the unearthed one. Figure 14 is the outline of the shrine described in the picture to show that the flooring was placed at a higher position than the ground and the stairs of the shrine were very steep.

The study on the tall shrine entered a new phase in 2000 with the results of the investigation for the site of Izumo Grand Shrine. At present, there are some clues for restoration of the Izumo Grand Shrine in ancient times as follows;

1.  The scale of the unearthed pillar and the arrangement of each pillar

2.  Old pictures depicting Izumo Grand Shrine and its precincts

3.  Historical materials concerning the construction of the shrine

4.  Kanawa-no-gozouei-Sashi -zu diagram

Based on these resources, restoration drafts have recently been issued by some researchers. Each plan is drafted based on detailed research into all of the available resources. In addition to the four resources above, some secondary resources, such as the plans for other buildings at that time and the present structure of Izumo Grand Shrine, are also referred to.

    The results showed quite a difference between the plans drafted by each researcher. This may be a result of researchers using different resources or placing more emphasis or certain aspects than other researchers. While some plans eventually are quite similar, the process to reach the conclusion is quite different. It is not too much to say that this process in itself has the most critical meaning in the study of reconstruction.         

The summary of each plan is as follows.

Figure 15 is a plan by Dr. Nagajirou Miyamoto. The most evident characteristic of this plan is that all of the nine sets of pillars, each consisting of three combined logs, are cut-off just under the ground. He places emphasis on the relics unearthed and the Kanawa-no-gozouei-sashizu diagram. He interprets a part, which is painted in red, not as a beam but as a foundation called Doiketa (terrace or supporting parts for foundation). The pillars of the Koyagumi (the floor over the pillars) are fixed by inserting them into the central-combined-pillar rising from the ground. 

Figure 16 is one by Dr.A.Fujisawa mentioned above. It is based on the idea that Taisha-Zukuri, which inherits a traditional architecture style, should stick to Tooshi-bashira, which means pillars that have not been cut-off from the ground to the Shinden-altar on the floor. The most remarkable part that attention must be paid to is the central three pillars that support the ridge. Dr. Fujisawa interprets this red line in the Kanawa-no-gozouei-sashizu diagram as a ridge and another five lines as Doiketa mentioned above, that support the floor. Dr. Fujisawa also calculates the scale of the floor on the pillars by counting the size of the furniture within the Shinden-altar recorded in related documents. The enclosing eight pillars stand inclined for the central pillar since the size of the palace calculated is considerably smaller than that of the relics unearthed .

The above-mentioned two drafts propose that the centerline of some of the pillars consisted of three logs under the floor and some pillars of the upper structure are on the same line. This is to say that the straight line penetrates from the ground to the top.

The draft by Professor Shigeo Asakawa, Tottori University of Environmental Studies, proposes a different way (Figure 17) .

He proposes that each pillar, excluding the central pillar, had only one log among the three that penetrated into the floor and sustains the beam and the ridge of the upper structure, while others reach at the floor and sustain the floor.   As for the central pillar, which is said to be the most important part of the Izumo Grand Shrine, he supposes that all three logs penetrated into the floor to sustain the ridge of the upper structure. And each of which was joined with another log in order to lengthen the top for fear that the jointing of each of three logs should be situated in the same position. The characteristics of the appearance of the shrine were analyzed by the features described in the picture of Figure 12 dating back to 1248.

Kuroda Ryuji, Assistant Professor of Kobe University, proposes a draft that states that two logs among the three support the floor of the upper structure like that of Dr. Asakawa. Dr. Kurodafs purpose of the study was not restoration research, but to re-examine the historical materials with details on restoration and to make clear specific points for attention. As a result, he proposes a draft for restoration Figure 18 based on the investigation of the actual site and the pictures.


    Research into the architecture of Izumo Grand Shrine thus has been proceeding at a high level. The quantity and quality of historical materials relating to Izumo Grand Shrine have been maintained and catalogued well. And thus such research is possible.


    You can expect to appreciate these reconstruction models and the excavated pillars at Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo, which is under construction near Izumo Grand Shirine, from the spring of 2007. 




 This paper is based on the lecture g The history of Izumo Grand Shrine and its Architecture reported by Mr. Mistsuaki Matsuo of Shimane Investigation Center for Buried Cultural Items in g 5th International Symposium of Asian Architecture in 2004, and translated by T. Tsukitani and T. Shinagawa, Prefectural Institute for Ancient Culture.

@The list of persons and organizations we must express our deepest gratitude for their grant in inserting the instructive pictures in this paper is as follows;

EMr. Sukemasa Senge@EMr. Hidetaka Senge@

EDr. Akira Fujisawa    EDr. Nagajiro Miyamoto

EDr. Ryuji Kuroda      EDr. Shigeo Asakawa

EBureau of Izumo Grand Shrine

EOhobayashi-gumi Co. Ltd.