For anyone living in Japan or interested in Japanese culture, Ise Jingu is a must-visit. It is the most sacred shrine in Japan, with great spiritual and historical significance; in fact, some residents of Ise City will even tell you that every Japanese person knows of Ise Jingu, but not a lot of them have heard of Ise. The city of Ise, located in Mie Prefecture, is about two hours from Nagoya.
With a population of only about 100,000, it isn’t a very busy place; but with more than 6 million people visiting Ise Jingu every year, it can become very crowded, especially around holiday seasons. The busiest time of year is definitely oshougatsu (New Year’s), when people gather from all over Japan to pray at Ise Jingu.
Ise Jingu is actually divided into two large shrine compounds, containing over one hundred and twenty smaller shrines in addition to the two major shrines: Naiku (Inner Shrine) and Geku (Outer Shrine). The Inner shrine enshrines the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, who is believed to be the ancestor of the Japanese imperial family. For this reason, the Emperor visits this shrine when he assumes office, and on other important occasions. It is said to have been erected roughly 2000 years ago, and its location was chosen by the 11th Emperor of Japan, Suinin.
The Outer Shrine enshrines Toyouke no Omikami, the goddess of harvest, and is believed to have been erected in 478 A.D. It is customary to visit the Outer Shrine first, but if you don’t have much time on your hands a visit to the Inner Shrine is recommended.
The entrance to the Inner Shrine begins at the Uji Bridge, which passes over the sacred Isuzu River. There are two large torii gates at either end of the bridge, and it is said that by crossing the bridge one’s mind and heart are purified. What strikes visitors to Ise Jingu the most after passing through the gates is the sense of nature and life around them. The grounds is comprised of 5500 hectares of natural forest as well as young hinoki (cypress) trees, which were planted in 1926 for future harvesting. The trees tower over one passing through the grounds. Along the way to the main building in the Inner Shrine, one can wash their hands and mouth with the water from the Isuzu River at the Mitarashi. This is also done for purification purposes.
The main building and inner sanctums of the Inner and Outer shrines are closed to the public, as they are considered to be very holy places. Only the top halves of the buildings can be seen over the gates.
The architecture of Ise Jingu
One of the most amazing things about Ise Jingu is that the wooden sanctuaries are rebuilt and rededicated to the enshrined goddesses every 20 years in a process called “shikinen sengu”. This tradition began with the first rebuilding in 690, and is still being practiced. The sixty-first rebuilding was completed in 1993, with the sixty-second scheduled for 2013. The Uji Bridge is also rebuilt in this ceremony.
There is an identical plot of ground next to each sanctuary (called ‘kodenchi’) for the purpose of the rebuilding ceremony. The construction of the new shrine takes about eight years, and at each stage of construction a religious ceremony is held. The shrines themselves are made entirely out of plain hinoki (Japanese cypress), except for the roofs which are thatched with kaya grass.
The rebuilding is done mainly by local carpenters, who set aside their usual work for this privilege for two to four years. There are plans which have been handed down regarding the rebuilding of each shrine, but in addition to this is it vital that the master carpenters teach the apprentices the steps taken in rebuilding the shrines, as the tools and methods used have been passed down from ancient times. No nails are used at all in the process of rebuilding. By rebuilding the shrines, it is said that the Japanese receive new blessings from the Gods and pray for world happiness.
Ise Jingu’s specialty food
Before heading home, be sure to visit the Akafuku confectionary store in Okage Yokocho on the road leading to the Inner Shrine. Akafuku, Ise’s most famous meibutsu (specialty food), originated at this store near the Inner Shrine, and has been sold here since 1707. It is mochi, but made a different way – where mochi usually have sweet Anko inside, Akafuku is mochi covered with Anko, and meant to be shaped like the Usuzu River.
How to get there
To get to Ise: Take a train to Nagoya on the JR line (600 yen). From there, change to the Kintetsu line and take a train to Ise-Shi Station (1410 yen).
To get to the shrines: The shrines are located approximately six kilometres apart. The Outer Shrine (located in Toyokawa-cho, Ise) is only about a 5 or 10-minute walk from Ise-shi Station, but the Inner Shrine (located in Tachi-machi, Ise) takes about a 10-minute bus ride from either Ise Station or the Outer Shrine. Take the Mie Koutsu Bus, and get off at Naiku-mae bus stop. The Inner Shrine is about a 1-minute walk from the bus stop.