Established in honor of the mother goddess Amaterasu around 2,000 years ago, Ise Grand Shrine is one of Japan’s oldest shrines. And yet, in another sense, it is one of Japan’s newest shrines.
For more than 1,300 years, it has been a tradition at Ise Shrine that its various structures are rebuilt every 20 years. This year marks the opening of the latest rebuilding of the main shrine of the Naiku inner shrine complex. Various ceremonies, known as "shikinen sengu," commemorating this 62nd shrine rebuilding will be held during the month of October, making this an especially auspicious time to make a pilgrimage to Ise. As the 17th century poet Basho Matsuo said, “Everybody storms to Ise Jingu in reverence for the 'shikinen sengu' ceremony.”
Most tickets to the formal ceremonies were given to substantial contributors or raffled off more than a year ago, so attending the formal ceremonies may be unlikely. Instead, consider your visit as simply, and probably more pleasantly, a chance to observe the atmosphere of this extraordinary place during an extraordinary time.
The Ise area, on the Shima Peninsula in Mie Prefecture, is packed with shrines (roughly 125), all affiliated in some way. The two main shrine complexes are the Naiku (inner shrine) and the Geku (lower shrine), which are about six kilometers apart. The traditional route of worship encompasses both of these, usually beginning at the Geku to pray for the harvest, and then proceeding to the Naiku to honor Amaterasu.
Keep in mind that the Naiku is the center of attention this year.
A distinguishing feature of both of these shrine complexes is the architecture, which is more traditionally Japanese (i.e., showing less influence from other Asian architectures) than other shrine designs. This "shinmei zukuri" style of building is characterized by its simplicity—angled rafter beams that protrude above the ridge, thatched roofs, simple porticos, and lack of decoration. Preserving knowledge of this traditional architecture, and the skills necessary to build in that style, is one reason for the 20-year rebuilding cycle. One constant reminder of this rebuilding cycle is the fact that each major structure at both shrine complexes sits next to the foundations of its replacement structure, so that each structure is really a pair.
The Geku sits in a large wooded area about 5 kilometers from Ise Bay and just 300 meters from Iseshi train station. After crossing Hiyoke Bridge to enter the shrine grounds, you will see a modern building next to the pond on your left. This building is a museum, the "sengu-kan," which houses displays on the rebuilding cycle and the ceremonies that surround it. There are limited English explanations.
Shrines are meant to be surrounded by sacred trees, which are often just as important as the shrine buildings themselves. Walking among the giants that line the shrine approach at the Geku one gets a strong sense of the importance of the forest. Ironically, the principal deity of the Geku is Toyouke, the god of agriculture and industry; in other words the god of the ways in which humans bend nature to their own will.
Proceed along the shrine approach deeper into the forest to reach the "shogu," or main shrine. Fronting a small pond and surrounded by a palisade, the shrine exudes a strong sense of “other-ness”. It is a special place; so special, in fact, that photography of the shrine itself is forbidden.
On the small hill across the pond are three more small shrines honoring the guardians of the land, the wind itself, and the “animating spirit of all deities”.
The Naiku is about six kilometers south-southeast of the Geku and is easily accessible by public bus or private car. It sits in an idyllic spot, on a heavily wooded hillock that slopes down to the slow-flowing Isuzu River which forms the western border of the shrine grounds. For many Japanese, a pilgrimage to this sacred place inspires of sense of purified rebirth. It is said that number of visitors annually is approximately 20% of the population of Japan.
Tour buses and city buses drop passengers near Uji Bridge, with its stately torii signaling that it is the entrance to the shrine. The bridge, like the shrine buildings, is reconstructed every 20 years. Just as with the shrine buildings, the footings of the duplicate bridge are visible in the river alongside the existing bridge even when there is no construction going on.
Upon crossing the sacred Isuzu River via Uji Bridge, the pilgrim walks south (upstream) along a wide “approach” road. Unlike the rest of the shrine grounds, this area consists of manicured lawns and sculpted trees. Where a small tributary river that bisects the shrine grounds flows into the Isuzu there is a paved area where pilgrims can walk to the water’s edge to use water from the river itself to perform ablutions before proceeding to the shrine to worship.
Proceeding deeper into the shrine’s forest of majestic Japanese cypress, there are a number of very busy shrine buildings, where amulets and votive plaques are sold and where private ceremonies take place. One must pass through the crowds here and continue up the gently sloping hill and finally a long, wide staircase to reach the Naiku’s main shrine, which is the subject of this year’s "shikinen sengu." Here, too, the shrine itself is surrounded by a palisade and photography is prohibited.
Below and behind the main shrine (turn right as you are returning down the hill) are a number of lesser shrine structures, including the guardian of the four winds, the food and treasure halls, and the shrine to the spirit of the gods. Interesting, this latter is regarded as the best place to make your own personal requests to the gods.
Outside the shrine grounds, running alongside the river downstream from the Uji Bridge is O-harai Machi, a commercial district developed over the years to cater to pilgrims visiting the shrine. The buildings of the bustling cobblestone streets of O-harai Machi exude an Edo period atmosphere, while the wares on offer are those traditionally sought by tourists, ranging from trinkets to mobile phone straps to boxes of sweets, pickles and preserved fish to take back to the folks at home. This area is the home of Akafuku, a Japanese sweet made of azuki bean paste with mochi in the center.
At the center of O-harai Machi you will find Okage Yokocho, a commercial district within a commercial district developed by the Akafuku confectionery company, purportedly in gratitude for their commercial success in the shadow of the shrine. Okage Yokocho also boasts an Edo-era atmosphere. In additional to themed shops and restaurants, visitors will find a traditional style theater featuring taiko drum performances and studios offering hands-on experiences at various traditional Japanese handicrafts, depending on the season. Spending a bit of time here, one can feel like a religious pilgrim, or a time traveler.
The stately atmosphere of the Naiku and Geku of the Ise Grand Shrine, provide both Japanese and foreign visitors with a deeper appreciation of Japan’s long history and indigenous religion, while O-harai Machi and Okage Yokocho provide a bit of fun and distraction, lest one begins to feel too pure.© Japan Today