5 things I learned about Japan at Ise Shrine

By Adam Douglas

Ise Grand Shrine (called Ise-jingu or often just Jingu in Japanese) is Japan’s most important Shinto shrine. It’s the main location of worship for the top deity in the Japanese pantheon, the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami.

It also directly connects to the Imperial Family, with the emperor of Japan said to be a descendent of the goddess. You can learn a lot about Japanese culture by visiting it in Mie Prefecture, as I recently did.

Here are five things that I learned about Japanese culture while there.

1. A Love Of Nature

The view from Ise’s outer shrine (Geku). Photo: Wikicommons/ Edomura tokuzo

Ise Shrine is a Shinto shrine. Shinto is the native religion of Japan. It’s animistic, meaning everything has a spirit: rocks, trees, rivers, mountains. For this reason, it’s also referred to as nature worship.

This can be seen at Ise Shrine. The shrine is actually split into two main sites, Geku (outer shrine) and Naiku (inner shrine). Naiku houses Amaterasu, while Geku is the place of worship for Toyouke Omikami. In addition to the Toyouke Daijingu, Toyouke’s main shrine, Ise’s Geku has smaller shrines for the gods of wind and earth where you can literally worship nature.

Both shrines are heavily wooded, with large and old trees reaching to the sky. The outer shrine is particularly lovely. On the day I visited, I could hear the choruses of birds and frogs coming from shaded areas off the path. Despite being in downtown Ise City, it felt like I was out in nature.

2. Praying Practically

Lifetime lucky bags

Many people who come to Japan are surprised to learn that most Japanese people don’t identify themselves as religious despite regularly visiting Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.

For many people, Shinto and Buddhism are background elements of everyday life and are more of a cultural thing rather than a lifestyle in Japan. This is reflected in the role Shinto plays in life. While every person is different, in general, Shinto is practical, with people praying not regularly but when they need something. You can see this in omamori, the good luck charms that shrines sell.

Looking over the omamori at Ise Shrine, I noticed ones for simple everyday things like passing tests, road safety and avoiding illness. While Ise offers many of the same omamori as other shrines, the difference is that they never expire. An omamori needs to be renewed every year but at Ise, they are good for a lifetime. Talk about practical.

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One of Japan’s lovely and absolutely invigorating power spots.

Wishing peace, good health and prosperity to all those that come here.

12 ( +13 / -1 )

It is a place of solemn beauty worth seeing, especially the earliest time in the day possible before the crowds.

Yes, there seems is a certain sense of ‘a power’ there, whether one chooses to believe it divine or, just the choice of setting within nature itself.

Have often wondered about those women seen stroking their long hair with handfuls of water and those elderly witnessed ‘hobbling’ to the Isuzu River water’s edge then, turning and ‘walking’ upright with an added vigor to their step.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

Considering that you cannot even see the shine and it is rebuilt every 20 years, I would see it is the least interesting and most disappointing shrine in Japan. Indeed, the only power it has is the power to make you leave, shaking your head and muttering.

-11 ( +2 / -13 )

waddo, Geku is open to public, so yes you can see a large part of the shrine. Naiku belongs to emperor himself, it's private space.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

I finally went after about 25 years in Japan. As a coincidence, it was the day the "Reiwa" name was announced.

The approach is quite funky with lots of stalls selling treats and a nice river. The grounds themselves are okay, nothing special or particularly "just like nature". What you can see of the shrine and surrounding buildings is nice, and on the whole I'm pleased my family went. Of the points made in the article, the one I agree with most is "Praying Practically" one, the idea that people visit shrines out of custom and to seek blessings, often for material goals like passing tests. This contrasts strongly with claims I often see about Japanese people being "deeply spiritual", usually based on the standard Western view of Buddhism and ideas like satori. I'm an atheist/agnostic, but in my definitions "spirituality" and "materialism" are pretty much opposites.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

"Love of nature", really? I get exactly the opposite message, same as looking at bonsai trees, something natural that is forcefully shaped so people can enjoy seeing it.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

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