Territory of the Gods Yokozuna and Izumo Taisha

In Japan, there is no doubt that you will see straw or hemp ropes tied on shrine gates, at the entrances to historical ruins, at waterfalls, on large trees, or around boulders. Those ropes indicate that what lies beyond them or within the area they are tied around is the territory of the gods. For Japanese people, it means that those are places where one should be serious and never goof off.

In fact, the same meaning is expressed in the yokozuna of the sumo world. In old Japanese, “yokozuna” referred to a white rope made of hemp. The origins of sumo are from a festival event where humans and the gods competed in a contest of strength, pushing back at each other. Until the Middle Ages, during this event people would compete in sumo contests to determine a winner. That person would then compete with the gods in a contest of strength. At that time, because the opponent was a god and therefore invisible, the contest was brought to an end with a performance where the person would always lose. During the Edo Period, with the arrival of a sumo wrestler who kept winning year after year, a new status of “yokozuna” was established, and he was raised up to a position on the side of the gods. Even now, the only yokozuna are allowed to have a thick white rope made of hemp wound around their waists. Just like the ropes you see at shrines, the yokozuna’s rope functions as a sign that says, “What is within this rope is the territory of the gods.” Currently, yokozuna have bouts with other sumo wrestlers that determine winners and losers. However, one a wrestler reaches yokozuna status, unless he decides on his own to retire from sumo, he will never lose the rank of yokozuna. This is because as a person with the status of being on the side of the gods, no other person can make that decision. Also, people view the words and actions of yokozuna very strictly because they expect them to act in a way befitting someone on the side of the gods.

The ropes placed on shrines are called shimenawa. The largest of all shimenawa in Japan is hanging from a shrine on the grounds of Izumo Taisha. (Although it is widely known by this name, the official name is actually Izumo Oyashiro.) All of the gods from around Japan are said to gather here at Izumo Taisha during the 10th month of the old Japanese calendar, which means the dates are usually in November. The yokozuna of all shimenawa is the only kind suitable for such a place, and you can see it up close here. It is 14 meters long and weighs 5 tons. It is replaced every few years, the most recently in the summer of 2018. This huge shimenawa is made by local residents using traditional methods. Japanese people place great value and mystique on the act of weaving a rope and tying it to something. You can experience making your very own (much smaller) shimenawa using the same methods as the one at Izumo Taisha, so why not give it a try? Placing it somewhere that you don’t want other people to set foot, or in a place that’s particularly important to you could be very effective…but you will have to try it first.

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