What of the






Temple Patterns in Ancient Japan-5 Mark A. Riddle



VI. A Second Temple Pattern in Japan 

1. Munakata

We have observed, so far, one important temple pattern in Japan—that of the e Miwa form,f the tripartite mountain—and have found that threefold-ness is an essential aspect of Shinto shrines and ritual, and of Japanese culture.  We will see now that there is a second major temple pattern in Japan—one also using natural terrain, as does the mountain pattern, but based on islands of the sea or a lake.

Oki-no-shima is an isolated mountain island lying in the strait between Japan and Korea, 77 km from Fukuoka and 145 from Pusan, Korea.  It is one km east to west and ½ km north to south, four km in circumference, with three peaks, the highest of which is 243 meters.  The entire island is sacred, the precinct of the Okitsumiya Shrine, one of three shrines which together are called Munakata.  Oki-no-shima (lit. `the island of the offing, of the open sea`) is also called kaminoshima, island of the gods, because it is the most sacred, most restricted of the three Munakata shrines.  The other two, physically and ritually more accessible, of the three shrines are the Hetsumiya (`the temple of the shore`), which is in the Munakata District of Fukuoka Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, not far from the sea at the northernmost point of Kyushu; and Nakatsumiya (`the middle temple`), which lies on Oo-shima, a much larger island (approximately five km east to west) which lies less than 10 km from the nearest cape of Kyushu.  All three shrine sites lie on a single axis—a familiar temple pattern.  Ponsonby-Fane pointed out long ago the correspondence of the names Okitsumiya, Nakatsumiya and Hetsumiya of the Miwa and Munakata shrines.  Three female deities are worshipped at Munakata, and three male deities at Miwa. [1]

The island was subjected to archaeological excavation beginning in 1954;  23 ritual sites were discovered which date from 350-400 to about 900 AD.  In these sites, artifacts from Korea, China, and from as far away as Sassanian Persia were recovered, and some Korean-made items are believed to derive from West Asian motifs—hence the appelation gUmi no Shousouin,h (`museum of the sea,`) given to the island, the reference being to the Shousouin of Nara, an 8th-century building which houses treasures from all over East Asia and from as far away as Persia, demonstrating Narafs importance as the eastern terminus of the ancient Silk Road. [2]

The Oki-no-shima island shrine includes a tripartite division within a tripartite division—there are three stages of the ascent to the innermost shrine site, the honden, and three torii, one after the other (ichi no torii, ni no torii, san no torii) on the steeply-ascending sandouo approach from the shore to the inner shrine.  And we encounter there other, now familiar, aspects of our temple pattern, too—all who set foot on the island must undergo ritual cleansing (misogi) and the purification site is at the shoreline.   The sacred precinct at the Hetsunomiya, where sacred rituals have been continuously performed gfrom great antiquityh is called the Taka-no-miya; it is sacred as the site where the kami of the shrine appeared (YSRK).   The holy shinza site on Oki-no-shima is surrounded by huge boulders. [3]

Okinoshima has long been called o-iwazu-shima (`the island you donft talk about`), and the following prohibitions are still in force there:

(1) saying the name of the island or speaking of it is taboo.

(2) Nothing is taken from the island—gnot even a twig or a blade of grass.h

(3) Women may not set foot on the island.

(4) Pilgrims to the island must undergo ritual purification rites both at Oo-shima, before embarking, and at Oki-no-shima, before disembarking.  This requirement prohibits pilgrims from making any but a sequential progress between the second two of the three Munakata shrines.

(5) Fishermen who stay on the island during the winter, and those who operate the light house, must leave the island immediately upon learning of any misfortune in their families, and cannot approach the island again for 35 days.

(6) There are certain words which must not be uttered by persons while on the island. [4]

We are now prepared to call the second of our two Japanese temple patterns ethe Munakata form,f after Kyushufs Munakata Shrine. 

2. Islands and Mountains

Before we proceed further in Japan, letfs step back and get ethe big picturef again. Architecturally, the basic characteristic of an Egyptian temple is its axial alignment from the entrance to the innermost shrine room. The inner part is set at a higher level, usually as the result of a gradual rise at each successive door; the elevation symbolizing the Island of Creation which, emerging from the primeval flood, was the place on which the god first settled, thus creating the first temple. [5]

In ancient Egypt, the Primeval Hill which emerged from the primeval ocean was the center of the earth, gcharged with vital power.h  gEach temple was supposed to stand on it.h  The temple, the throne of Pharaoh, and the tomb all assimilate to the primeval hill.  The pyramid was the symbol for the hill.  At Hermopolis, the Primeval Hill was an island in a lake. [6]

The Chinese axis mundi could be either sacred mountains such as Tai-shan or gcertain gourd-shaped islands in the eastern sea.h  [7]

Returning to Japan, we can find more shrine sites and rituals with elements either or both of the Munakata (three island) and Miwa (tripartite mountain) patterns.  The mountain-based rituals performed at the three Dewa peaks of Yamagata Prefecture, for example, have the following elements in common with those of Okinoshima: (1) the use of special substitute words and phrases (imikotoba) while on the mountain (called yamakotoba);  (2) the prohibitions against women (no women are allowed on the mountain during the rituals); and (3) rites of purification conducted at the foot of the mountain before the ascent. [8]   And there are many examples of the Munakata pattern throughout Japan.  There are, for example, other islands and mountain-tops in Japan upon which women may not set foot. [9]    Other examples include:

*the Kashima Shrine, which has an okunomiya about 400 meters from the main shrine building (honden) at which strict quiet is observed. [10]

*The Mitsumine Shrine in Saitama Prefecture has a gate which women are forbidden to enter, and climbing the mountain itself is prohibited to women and the sick. [11]

*A wealth of unusual ritual articles was found on Kamijima (`Godfs Island`), in Mie Prefecture  between Ise and the Atsumi Peninsula (Ooba, 1967, pp.140-7, with many examples of archaeological excavations at other island ritual sites in Japan).

*The Asuka Shrine in Wakayama Prefecture is the foot of a hill called Horai-san; this hill was once a sacred island, an itsuki no shima, at the mouth of the Kumano River (Ooba, 1967, pp.187ff.). The Aihara Shrine in Oita Prefecture also was once on an island in a river (Shinto Daijiten I:3).

*There is also an Oki no Shima island in the Ariake Sea, the inland sea west of Kyushu.  Once every 50 years, the mikoshi of the Upper Shrine of the Kinryuu Jinja, situated on the top of Mt. Kinryuu in Saga Prefecture, is taken in a procession (shinkou) down the mountain and out to this Oki no Shima. [12]

*The Munakata Shrine at the Hikawa Jinja in Saitama Prefecure is on an island in a lake in the shrine area. [13]

*The Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya has both a sacred mountain (Kumomiyama) and a sacred island (Horai no shima). 

*The Kamijima (`godfs island`) Shrine, on Nozaki Island in Nagasaki Prefecture also has a kamiyama (`godfs mountain`).

* Hetsukagami (`Mirror of the Shore`) and Okitsukagami (`Mirror of the Offing`) are paired sacred treasures at the Moto-Ise Kono Shrine in Kyoto Prefecture, the Isonokami Shrine in Nara Prefectur,e and the Izushi Shrine in Hyogo Prefecture.

*There is a Kamijima near Susaki, in Kouchi Prefecture, a Kamitsushima in Saitama Prefecture, and a Mikamijima in Fukui Prefecture--all smaller islands not far from Shikoku or Honshu (all three names mean `Island of the Gods`).

*Ooba [14]  lists nine offshore islands in Japan with ritual sites which have been excavated by archaeologists.  Of these, Oshima in Fukui Prefecture is noteworthy because the taking of any vegetation from the island is prohibited still today, as is setting foot on the island with shoes or sandals made of leather.

These examples permit us to conclude that the belief that both mountains and small islands can be temple sites has long had a pervasive influence in Japan.   

3. Ritual Processions on the Sea

The second of the two ancient temple forms in Japan requires ritual procession over water.

At  Munakata there is annually a procession of boats to the island, Oki-no-shima, October 1-3, on the occasion of the Fall Festival; this is a shinkou (divine procession) over the ocean, called the Kami-mukae no Shinji (`welcoming/greeting the god`).  There are a great many other such sea-based ritual processions of boats in Japan.

Prominent examples of the Japanese boat festival (fune matsuri) [15]   are those of the Itsukushima Shrine of Hiroshima Prefecture, famous for its torii gate which stands in the inland sea not far from its shoreline.  In the sixth month of the lunar calendar, at the Kangen boat festival, three shrine boats carrying three mikoshi lead a procession of many boats, leaving the main shrine and touring the surrounding inland sea area, visiting three other shrines (Mimae, Nagahama and Oomoto). [16]   The Shimameguri (`visiting the islands`) Festival is held several times per year, March through November, but the one performed on May 15 is especially popular.  Held in commemoration of the shrine dietiesf first visit to this land, when they were guided by a pair of crows, the procession of boats first crosses the sea to the Sugiura Shrine, where they perform ritual purification.  They then proceed to visit seven other shrines at seven other sea inlets before returning to the main shrine.

The Hinomisaki Shrine in Shimane Prefecture has a sacred island, called an itsuki no shima  in an early (733 AD) written source, the Izumo Fuudoki. [17]  The key word itsuki comes from an old verb now found only in dictionaries of archaic Japanese (kogo).  The verb itsuku means (1) gto purify heart and body and serve god humbly;h (2) to celebrate or worship (iwaimatsuru) the gods.  The noun itsuki is used in combination with shima (island) and miya (temple or palace; the Yukiden and Sukiden, twin temporary ritual sites of the imperial enthronement ceremony are itsuki no miya). [18]  The Hinomisaki Shrine annually performs a boat procession around the island, commemorating the command given by the goddess Amaterasu to the god Susa-no-o to worship her here.  The shrine was originally on the island, and moved to its present site on the main island of Honshu in 949 AD.  The island has sacred stone formations, and still, today, no one is allowed to set foot on the island except the head priest of the shrine, who visits once per year. [19]

Another procession of boats travels an unusual distance, almost 50km, to the Iwai Island of Yamaguchi Prefecture from a shrine in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu.  The entire event lasts eight days, August 1-8—on August 6 there is a service for the god at twin ishibokora (small shrines formed of stones) on the island; the island is also known as Iwayajima (`island of the stone enclosures`) and has many iwakura.  The island is referred to in the Manyoushuu, Japanfs earliest anthology of poetry (claiming to include poems from the four centuries prior to 759 AD), as an itsuki no shima, showing its importance in ancient times.  It has a sacred mountain (Aragamiyama) which has an ishibokora to which in past times pilgrimage was made by visitors in order to perform a kamimai shinji (`dance of the gods`).

  These few examples represent many more which could be adduced, and the similarities between these and the mountain-based rituals permit us to conclude that in previous times, both mountains and small islands were the sites of the same or similar ritual performances. 

4. Benzaiten

Before we an conclude we must briefly mention the islands of Benzaiten, a Buddhist divinity who has her roots in the Hindu goddess Sarasvatii, daughter of the Dragon King who rules his kingdom from a palace in the sea.  The three Munakata goddesses are often compared to, and assimilated to, Benzaiten (a.k.a. `Benten`).  The Munakata shrine at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto is, for example, often called gBenten-sama.h  Among the islands in Japan devoted to the worship of Benzaiten are five famous ones, including Chikubu Island in Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture and the island Enoshima, close to the coast near Kamakura. Ritual at the former includes a boat procession and the latter has a tripartite structure (HetsumiyaNatatsumiya and Okitsumiya) like that of both Miwa and Munakata. [20]  

VII.  Conclusions 

We began with a question—what can we learn from other temple traditions?  Japanese temple patterns use of two distinct natural settings—mountains and islands—to express a single cosmology, the vision of the cosmos as divided into three realms of graduated sanctity.  The Shinto religion is said to have no theology, but in fact its shrines and their rituals point humankind toward Heaven, and clearly teach that both purification, especially by ritual ablution, and persistent upward progression through successive levels of advancement, are necessary preparation for entry there. 

Early LDS temples expressed a similar cosmology by permitting a procession of worshippers to progress from one room to another, each successive room being a little higher in elevation than the previous, and that pattern is preserved today in, for example, the temple at Manti, Utah.  Many LDS temple pilgrims today are not able to experience the Manti form, but examples such as these from Japan serve to remind us, help us to remember, the ancient pattern and procedures.


[1]  Richard Ponsonby-Fane, Visiting Famous Shrines in Japan Vol, VI of the Richard

Ponsonby-Fane Series (Kyoto: Ponsonby Memorial Society, 1964), p.266


[2]  J. Edward Kidder, Early Japanese Art (London, 1964), p.74; the Shousouin itself also has a tripartite structure: it is divided into North, Middle, and South storerooms (K, p.1100)

[3]  Mainichi Shimbun, Oki no Shima: Umi no Shousouin (Tokyo, 1972, p.159  

[4]  Ibid.; for a list of the imikotoba (taboo words), see p.162

[5]  ER, XIV:383

[6]  H. Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (Chicago, 1948), pp.151-4

[7]  ER, III:300


[8]  H. Byron Earhart, ...Mt. Haguro Sect..., pp.89ff. including 92, 99, 105-6, 109, 172 

[9]  See the examples cited by Jean Herbert, in Shinto (1967), pp.472, 476 

[10]  N. Watanabe and T. Kawase, Kashima Jingu  (Tokyo, 1980), p.20

[11]  Numano, Tsutomu, Mitsumine Jinja (1989), pp.6, 35  

[12]  AERA, June 25, 1991, p.38

[13]  from the shrinefs yuisho-ryakki (official guide), in the possession of the author; and likewise for the following points

[14]  Ooba, Iwao gNihon Kodai no Saishi Isekih in Okinoshima: Umi no Shousouin, Tokyo:

      Mainichi Shimbun, 1972, p.173

[15]  For fune-matsuri (eboat festivalsf), see N, pp.712-3; for more examples, not cited herein, see Irie, Hidechika, Umi o Wataru Matsuri (Tokyo: Keiyuusha, 1975)

[16]  N, p.52 

[17]  N, p.689

[18]  Nakada, Norio, Kogo Jiten (1963), pp.93-4; see also i (holiness) and itsu (majesty)

[19]  from the shrinefs yuisho-ryakki (official guide), in the possession of the author; likewise, the following

[20]  N, p.480; see also p.712; and shrine yuisho-ryakki