Izumo Taisha

An exception and exceptional
Symmetry figures quite strongly in western design, whereas in Japan it is asymmetry and a much looser sense of composition which characterises much of the nations design thinking.

In ikebana—Japan’s own version of flower arranging—three main elements are ideally placed so as to form a balanced and yet asymmetrical arrangement.  The sense of perfection which many people find desirable in a symmetrical arrangement is nowhere to be seen.

The tokonama—the alcove of a traditional house in which a hanging scroll, flowers or a cherished art work are displayed—forms the major part of one end of a reception room.  This alcove will often overshadow the space next to it, in which an arrangement of shelves and small cupboards are artfully placed.  An abundance of space is paired with an abundance of detail.

Dating from 607, the plan of Horyuji Temple in Nara, is often cited as displaying an arrangement that was much more to the liking of the Japanese people.  Early Buddhist temples in Japan followed the strict symmetrical arrangement of buildings found in continental Asia, from where Buddhism was introduced.  It was as if the proffered model was respectfully spurned in favour of a homegrown solution.  Symmetrical arrangements were, however, sometimes honoured.

At Horyuji the overall arrangement is symmetrical but although the Pagoda and Golden Hall sit either side of a central axis, the effect is one of an harmonious juxtaposition—a tall narrow building (Pagoda) balanced by a low structure with a large footprint (Golden Hall).

At Izumo Taisha, one of Japan’s most iconic Shinto shrines, there is once again an asymmetrical arrangement, which actually may not have been intended but was accepted.

Standing close to the Sea of Japan, Izumo Taisha is even today an imposing structure.  Its original form, however, was nothing short of staggering.  At one time it is thought to have stood 48 metres (about 160 ft.) tall.  Recently the remains of massive pillars have been discovered.  Whole trees or perhaps trees shaped and banded together may well have been used to raise the building to this prestigious height.

This was not done without problems.  It seems that the building collapsed seven times during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  Subsequently a more stable construction of reasonable dimensions was used.

The present building is a shadow of its former self and yet still of an impressive size.  It was built in 1744.  The plan is very unusual and essentially speaking is thought to maintain the layout of the original building.

History of Japanese Architecture, Edited by Architectural Institute of Japan, Published by Shokoku Co. Ltd.

With a square plan of some 11 metres (36ft.), the four corner pillars are structural—helping to raise the building off the ground—and mark the extent of the walls along with two others on a line bisecting the square laterally.  The pillars on the central axis running from the front to the back of the building are structural and also support the roof ridge.

The stairs up to the shrine are located in the bay to the right of this central axis.  This results in what would appear to be an inescapable asymmetrical arrangement, given that the building is approached from under the roof gable.  Two sets of stairs could have been located either side of the central axis but were not.  So either by design or inevitability, the ensuing asymmetrical arrangement within the building means that the approach to the object of worship facing the left-hand wall can only be achieved by making three right angled turns.  Very unusual.

All in all, Izumo Taisha is an exceptional building.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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