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.

嵐山 Bamboo Boulevard

Arashiyama 嵐山 is depicted in most guidebooks as a lush bamboo forest; an idyllic photograph, no tourists, the sun piercing the bamboo. Thanks to such guidebooks, this type of shot is virtually impossible unless you want to get up at crack of dawn on a weekday, preferably during rainy season or some other time when less people are outside – Arashiyama’s bamboo grove is normally packed. The guidebooks aren’t wrong though, the bamboo is fantastic and serene and beautiful, it’s just that the path isn’t.

As you have seen in my other two posts on Arashiyama, there is so much to this area of North-West Kyoto which you should not miss. This is a place I am definitely returning to in order to get a bit more ‘in depth’ rather than the tourist check-list I covered last time. The bamboo forest, like those other ‘check-list’ tourist activities I covered, is unmissable and a fantastic experience, despite the presence of other people also admiring the bamboo (how dare they).

You can start your bamboo experience around the back of Tenryuji temple, or by following the crowds leaving the main Tenryuji gate, which is what we did. Almost every Buddhist temple in Japan has a bamboo grove, but Arashiyama’s forest is much larger. It doesn’t stretch on forever, but there is enough for a 10 – 15 minute stroll. Nestled in the bamboo are a few temples and shrines. We managed to find three, but I am sure there are more hiding away from the main tourist paths.

The first temple we came across was Nonomiya-jinja 野宮神社, a small shrine with a moss garden, several main shrines and loads of people. Nonomiya shrine does not have a founding date like most shrines as it is actually the last of a series of shrines called ‘Nonomiya’, which were where daughters of the imperial family would undergo 3 years of purification before becoming priestesses at Ise grand shrine, one of the most sacred shrines in Japan. As it happens, I have just visited Ise, so hopefully you will learn more about this unique shrine in my next post! Nonomiya shrine is the ‘last standing’ of the Nonomiya shrines, and no longer serves its purpose as a purification shrine.

The present day Nonomiya shrine is dedicated to several gods. Residing here we have the Sun Goddess herself, the God of fire, a God of good matches in marriage and a God of easy child birth. This makes the shrine popular with pretty much everyone, but especially women, who come to write their wishes for a good match in marriage upon heart shaped ema 絵馬 (prayer tablets). This shrine is also featured in the Tale of Genji, the Japanese classic, written in 1008, and there are several prayer tablets with the meeting of the two characters there. The two characters are often known as The Shining Prince and the Rokujo Lady (most characters in the story do not really have names but have titles).

After Nonomiya shrine we continued our walk through the bamboo forest, passing a lot of rickshaws. It seems that the thing to do as a young Japanese lady is to get your best friend, dress up in beautiful kimono and go for a rickshaw ride around Arashiyama. It does look like a fun thing to do and the girls look really pretty. I always feel awkward taking pictures of people when they can see me doing it, plus they were moving at speed, so sadly I don’t have that many pictures of the girls on their rickshaws.

The next shrine we visited was very small. This was Mikami Jinja 御髪神社, which literally translates to ‘shrine of hair’. This name piqued my interest from the outset, and I was even more intrigued to see a small pair of scissors chained to the place you buy charms. It turns out that at this shrine people cut off a small piece of hair and offer it to wish for good fortune. This is because this is allegedly the site of Japan’s first hairdresser, set up in 1281. The prayer tablets there are concerned with not going bald, getting thicker hair and other hair-related wishes. I think its nice that Japanese religion allows people to focus in so much on a specific thing, it’s pleasing to imagine a hair god hanging out with the god of the sun, the god of the sea and maybe even the god of vending machines (Japan must have one, there are so many vending machines here, someone has to watch over them).

Finally we came across Jojokkoji temple 常寂光寺, a peaceful temple a little out of the way of the main path through the forest. This temple climbs up the mountain, giving a pretty good view over Kyoto. This temple was founded in 1596 and features a pagoda from the 17th century. I strongly suggest visiting their website and looking at the ‘movie’ section to see how beautiful it is in the Autumn and Spring. The website is in English and Japanese and it’s the best temple website I’ve ever come across. The main hall is under construction until 2016 but it’s definitely still worth a visit.

Arashiyama bamboo forest is beautiful, and right next to the forest is the beautiful river. Much wider than my local Kamogawa river, the Hozu river is spanned by the ‘moon bridge’, which was originally built in the 8th century (latest reconstruction 1930s). Crossing this bridge takes you to the mountains and the monkey park, but even if you don’t want to venture that far, I would recommend just going to the bridge to see the river.

Arashiyama is a fantastic day out and is one of the best complete day trips you can do in Kyoto – it’s top of the guidebooks for a reason. To avoid the crowds I would suggest going on a weekday, and if you want that bamboo shot, go early in the morning on a clear day for a really beautiful picture. I know I’ll be going back on a sunnier day to appreciate the bamboo.