伊勢大社 The Shrine Trapped in Time

Ise shrine is so important to the native Shinto religion that its official name is simply ‘jingu’, loosely translated as ‘Imperial Shrine’, which is usually a suffix attached to high ranking shrines associated with the Imperial family such as Meiji Jingu or Heian Jingu. Jingu 神宮, more commonly known as Ise Taisha 伊勢大社 is often called ‘the most sacred site in Japan’. I simply had to visit to see the heart of Shinto itself, so two weeks ago I packed a backpack and jumped on the train for a spontaneous weekend trip to Ise.

Most people would expect an elaborate, ancient shrine for the ‘shrine of all shrines’, however Ise shrine is completely the opposite. Rebuilt every 20 years as part of a ritual that has gone on for over 1000 years, Ise shrine looks brand new, forever. I saw a poster for Ise shrine which said roughly (it was in Japanese), “in this world, some things never change”, this really captures Ise shrine and its atmosphere. The ritual rebuilding is part of the Japanese sense of ‘wabi-sabi’, the idea of the impermanence of all things and the constant renewing cycle of nature. The other striking aspect of Ise shrine is the total minimalist simplicity; built out of mostly bare wood, this shrine stands out from its more elaborate cousins (I’m looking at you Fushimi Inari).



Ise shrine is split into two main parts, Naiku 内宮 and Geku 外宮, the outer and inner shrines. The outer shrine is dedicated to Toyouke no Omikami, the god of agriculture and industry. This god is not actually that prominent in the rich tapestry of Japanese mythology, but the importance of harvests to the people of Japan make him important enough to be enshrined here. The inner shrine is dedicated to the most important Goddess in the whole of the Japanese plethora of Gods, Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess and the direct descendent of the Imperial family of Japan.




It is unknown when exactly this shrine came about, most Japanese think it is over 2000 years old, though historians have suggested dates up to the 5th Century. The legend from the Nihon Shoki goes that the daughter of the Emperor was ordered to find a place suitable for the worship of the Sun Goddess. It took her 20 years to find Ise and establish the first shrine here. I suspect it took her so long because she was enjoying getting away from her apparently rather bossy father and enjoying Japan, but maybe she really was hearing the voice of the Sun Goddess when she settled on Ise. There is an atmosphere about the place, the type you get in large cathedrals, or at certain times of the day in a large forest, or stone henge, though this may be a product of thousands of years of worship rather than a natural occurrence. It’s like a held breath in an otherwise bustling world. Even with the crowds there is a sense of purpose to everyone’s step and a bubble of excitement and ‘special-occassion-ness’ under the respectful surface.




The link to the Imperial family continued through the role of Saio, the high priestess role that could only be filled by the daughter of the Emperor (or close female relative). She would leave to serve Ise shrine after a few years of purification at nonomiya Jinja in Arashiyama (see post here), and serve until the Emperor she was appointed by died, or until a close family member died, rendering her impure and no longer fit to serve Ise shrine. The girls were usually sent very young, around 12 or 13, so by the time they returned they were usually in their early 20s; they weren’t stuck as shrine maidens forever. This system ended around the 14th century when the division of the Imperial family into Northern and Southern courts created so much turmoil that the tradition died.




Between the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and World War II, the Emperor was head priest of Ise shrine, as part of the policy of State Shinto, which used Shinto to bolster the position of the Emperor. Today the head priest or priestess is a member of the Imperial family – the current head priest is nephew (by adoption) to the current Emperor, and his mother, sister to the Emperor, had served 25 years as head priestess.



Housed within Ise shrine is the Yata no Kagami 八咫鏡, the sacred mirror. Well, I say that as though it is definite fact, but as those outside the priesthood are not allowed to see it, no one really knows if it is actually there, and there are rumours that it was burned in the 11th century. This mirror is said to be a relic from Amaterasu herself and is one of the 3 Imperial Regalia of Japan. The mirror represents wisdom and honesty and it is said it was used to lure Amaterasu out of a cave, where she was hiding from her brother, as she was casting the world into darkness (she’s literally the sun). At the end of World War II the Showa Emperor ordered the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal of Japan to protect the three regalia “at all costs” – these regalia have survived civil war after civil war and are important components of Japan’s identity.




The Naiku and Geku look pretty similar, and I have mixed the pictures of both during my explanation of the shrine. The style of architecture is Shinmei-zukuri, and is the epitome of simplicity. There was a small amount of gold on the furthest back shrine buildings but the public could barely see them, and pictures were banned after a certain point. Only Ise shrine is allowed to use this particular variant of Shinme-zukuri, and the style dates back to the Kofun period (250 – 538). It is an unusual living heritage of building construction techniques and architecture – they rebuild the shrine exactly the same way on the current 62nd rebuilding (2013) as they did the first time in 692. The Naiku also features the Uji bridge, a bridge beautiful in its simplicity, also rebuilt every 20 years with the main shrines. Even the stamps I got were minimalist.







The shrines have two plots, one for the current building and one for the next. The currently empty spot is simply white stones aside from a small hut that is covering the centre pole for the next shrine. This pole cannot be seen by the public so before the small hut is deconstructed, the new shrine is assembled. There are a lot of things people are not allowed to see at this shrine, and yet there are massive crowds. Perhaps it’s all in the mystery. I was one of the only foreigners there – it is not the most impressive shrine visually but it is certainly an experience.



Near the Geku there was a beautiful pond with stunning irises, which I enjoyed strolling around before catching the bus to the Naiku (they are around 6km apart). I would recommend taking a stroll there too – most people don’t bother so it is very peaceful.







I also came across a monster koi at the Naiku, this fish was huge, I cannot begin to tell you how big and the pictures do not do it justice. There was a small child standing next to the water and it was at least 2/3 the size of her. In the pictures below it’s the huge white one.




Ise shrine truly is a unique and mysterious place, if you have time in Japan I would go to just soak in the true experience of Japanese Shinto. As my religion teacher at university keeps telling me, Shinto is something you feel in your body, not something you read in a book. Next blog I will share with you my experiences with Ise town itself as well as a rather interesting sea-side shrine that has two married rocks.

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