• john barr

Sumiyoshi Taisha, Osaka

Sumiyoshi Taisha (Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine), located in Osaka, is one of Japan's oldest and most important shrines. Founded in the 3rd century before the introduction of Buddhism and the arrival of stylistic influences from mainland Asia, it gives its name to Sumiyoshi-zukuri, one of the three architectural styles considered native to Japan.


Sumiyoshi Taisha is another Shinto shrine with claims to be one of the oldest. It is recorded in the Kojiki, the oldest written records in Japan, as being founded in the 3rd century. The shrine celebrated its 1800th anniversary in 2011 which, if correct, would place its foundation in 211 A.D. It is said to have been established by the empress-regent Jingu, under the direction of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess. The last detail tends to cast some doubt on the historical veracity of that claim and many researchers now believe Jingu to be a mythical rather than historical figure. The casual intermingling of early imperial family and gods in order to construct a narrative establishing a divine right to rule no doubt makes it difficult to establish which of the early emperors and empresses were real and which were mythical.

Like Ise Jingu and Izumo Taisha discussed in previous posts, the main buildings at Sumiyoshi Taisha were periodically rebuilt until the practice was interrupted by civil war in the 16th century and finally halted early in the 19th century. The current buildings were constructed in 1810.

Located on the edge of Osaka Bay, Sumiyoshi Taisha was established initially to protect seafarers. Over the years it has expanded its concerns and now includes poetry, performing arts, sumo wrestling, and success in business and love in its portfolio. It has spawned over two thousand minor Sumiyoshi shrines throughout Japan, often built near harbours and dedicated to the protection of sailors, fishermen and travellers.


Sumiyoshi Taisha is built in Sumiyoshi-zukuri (Sumiyoshi style). Sumiyoshi-zukuri is one of the three architectural styles considered native to Japan, and developed before the arrival of Buddhism and other ideas and techniques imported from the continent. The other two native styles are Shinmei-zukuri, used at Ise Jingu, and Taisha-zukuri used at Izumo Taisha. Whilst all three styles manifest a simple and comparatively unadorned architecture, Sumiyoshi-zukuri is particularly modest and straightforward.

The main hall (honden) is a simple rectangle in plan, two bays wide by four bays deep, formed by five columns on either side and one column in the centre of the back wall. The columns support a simple, straight pitched roof with its ridge running up the middle of the building and its gables on the short front and back walls. The structure is clearly expressed and apparent from outside the building. There is one entrance, in the front gable wall, and the interior is divided into two equally sized square rooms separated by a partition with sliding doors. The front room, unsurprisingly, is known as the outer sanctum (gaijin, pronounced gejin in this case) and the rear room as the inner sanctum (naijin). The hall is raised slightly off the ground (about four or five steps) and has no verandah around it. Two low fences are placed close to the building.

Sumiyoshi Taisha : Floor Plan of Honden

Sumiyoshi Taisha : Rear Elevation of Honden : Simple, straight roof and clearly expressed structure.

Like other shrine styles, the roof has a pair of projecting crossed finials (chigi) at each end and a number of billets (katsuogi) that sit on top of the ridge and are orientated at right angles to it. In this case there are five billets to coincide with the five lines of structural columns. However, where the finials in other styles can be decoratively shaped, the Sumiyosh-zukiri finials have a simple rectangular section, and where the billets in other styles are usually circular in section and slightly tapered towards each end (a bit like a conga drum if it had the same diameter at each end), those of Sumiyoshi-zukuri are of square section.

Sumiyoshi Taisha : Simple, rectangular-section crossed finials at each end and five

square-section billets along the ridge of the roof.

Unusually, Sumiyoshi Taisha has four honden (main halls). Three of them house gods of the sea: Sokotsutsuno-o no Mikoto, Nakatsutsuno-o no Mikoto, and Uwatsutsuno-o no Mikoto, more easily remembered collectively as the Sumiyoshi Sanjin. The fourth houses the, probably mythical, empress-regent Jingu, or rather Okinagatarashihime no Mikoto, the diety she became after her death. In order of the gods just mentioned, the four honden that house them are known, prosaically, as Dai-ichi Hongu, Dai-ni Hongu, Dai-san Hongu and Dai-yon Hongu (Main shrine #1, Main Shrine #2, Main Shrine #… you get the idea).

The layout of the four buildings is also unusual. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 sit with their long axes on a straight east-west line and with their entrance gables facing west, towards the sea, like a row of ducklings one behind the other. Number 4 sits parallel to and on the south side of number 3.

Sumiyoshi Taisha : Site plan of the four main halls in their original form.

The main approach to these buildings is from the west, over an impressive red bridge known as the Sorihashi. Approaching from that direction brings you to the twin entrance elevations of Halls 3 and 4 first, with Halls 2 and 1 hidden behind Hall 3.

Sumiyoshi Taisha : Sorihashi, an imposing bridge that is crossed on the main approach to the shrine buildings. Also the name of a novel by Japan's first Nobel Prize winner for literature, Yasunari Kawabata. There is a small memorial stone to Kawabata in the grounds, inscribed with a passage from the book.

The planning and architecture of Sumiyoshi Taisha is simple and elegant, but has become more complicated over time. At some point during the Edo period (1603-1867) a wide porch used as a worship hall (haiden) was added in front of the entrance to each of the four main halls. These porches, almost the same size as the original buildings, are oriented with their long axes at right angles to the long axes of the halls to which they are attached. The original entrance gable to each hall is now invisible, and a simple rectangular plan has become T- shaped. Hall 1 has been given a larger worship hall and there is more space in front of it, suggesting that it was seen as more important. It might seem strange for it to be tucked away at the back, but it is not unusual in Japanese culture to place the most important thing in the furthest recess.

Sumiyoshi Taisha : Site plan of the four main halls in their current form with worship halls added to the entrance elevations.

The additions are constructed in a completely different and more ornate style that includes curved roofs and ornamentation. They make a dramatic counterpoint to the original buildings. To our modern eyes, the straightforward simplicity and structural clarity of the original buildings appear far more modern than the more recent additions.

Sumiyoshi Taisha : New worship halls added in the Edo Period obscure the original entrances to the main halls. Eaves detail of addition to Hall No.4 just visible on the right-hand edge of shot, Hall No.3 to its left, and Hall No.2 just visible in line behind Hall No.3.

Ise and Izumo announce their importance and gravity overtly; Sumiyoshi wears its lightly. Where the others are constructed in tasteful, natural timber that darkens with age, the structural members at Sumiyoshi are painted a jaunty red (common in many shrines) with white infill panels. The added porches however are formed of untreated timber that has been left to darken with age. And while Ise lurks deep in the shadows of its forest of giant Japanese cypress trees, and Izumo has a remote, sombre dignity, Sumiyoshi is woven into the fabric of Osaka city and feels like a familiar part of everyday life, welcoming and inclusive rather than daunting and exclusive. Every year millions of Osakans visit for major festivals to celebrate: New Year in January; rice planting and fertility in June; and the Sumiyoshi festival in July. There are also monthly services to pray for success in business, something seen as close to the hearts of Osakans.

Leaving aside those organised events, Sumiyoshi Taisha is also used daily by local people. Unlike Ise and Izumo, which feel like destination shrines to be visited on special occasions or once in a lifetime, Sumiyoshi is part of the everyday lives of the people of Osaka. This is partly due to location, but scale and accessibility are also factors. Sumiyoshi may have four main halls, but they are all on a small domestic scale. They are also very approachable. Unlike the high fences around the sacred precincts at Ise and Izumo that create a wide exclusion zone around the main buildings, the main halls at Sumiyoshi can all be approached. Visitors can enter the haiden (worship hall) in front of the original entrance, and the other three sides of the main hall are surrounded only by a low, see-through fence close to the building that creates no visual separation and hardly any physical separation between visitor and building. This is known as the outer fence. The inner fence does little more than encase the low undercroft of the hall.

Sumiyoshi Taisha : Hall No.2 in foreground, Hall No.3 in background. Extremely approachable, with fences providing only a minimal barrier.


Sumiyoshi Taisha raises several questions. The first concerns its relationship with the sea. If the shrine is dedicated to the protection of seafarers, why is it so far from the coast? The answer is that it originally stood close to the sea, before the industrialisation of Osaka Bay led to extensive infilling around its edges, leaving the shrine so far from the water that there is no longer any hint of the sea nearby.

A second question concerns the construction of later additions to the four sacred halls. Why was this done and why were they constructed in a completely different style? It is possible that they reflect the influence of Buddhism, which was by then established in Japan, and might be based on the worship hall in Buddhist temples and on a more ornate Buddhist style of architecture. We can surmise that they were built to provide a place for the public to make offerings and that, as such, they were seen as part of the profane world and so it was appropriate to use a different style, or that they reflect the original mingling of Shinto and Buddhism prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the subsequent politicising of State Shinto to suit a nationalist narrative (see previous post). We don’t know for sure, but the decision to build them is like deciding to build an addition to the front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, in a radically different style, and so large that it completely hides the original frontage.

Sumiyoshi Taisha : Worship hall added to the front of Hall No.1 in the Edo period (upper image) and the original entrance glimpsed through it (lower image).

These questions illustrate an aspect of Japanese society that is rarely acknowledged. Often portrayed as having a unique sensitivity to nature and a deeply cultured tradition, Japan is also an extremely pragmatic place. Major, and sometimes damaging, interventions into both the natural and built environment for practical or commercial gain is common.

Further questions involve the unusual layout of Sumiyoshi Taisha. Why were Halls 1, 2 and 3 arranged one behind the other and not side by side, like Halls 3 and 4, all equidistant from the sea and with a clear view towards it? And why is there a greater distance between Halls 1 and 2 than that between Halls 2 and 3? Was this always the case, or was Hall 1 repositioned when a larger worship hall was added to the front of it? I haven’t found answers to these questions and possibly never will…