伊勢 A Rocky Marriage

Wandering back from my trip to the sacred inner shrine of Ise, I came across a street packed with people, food, and old shops. From this place a bus journey and a train journey carried me to the coast, where I discovered two rocks joined in eternal matrimony. This is the second part of my trip to Ise (part one). I ate lots of delicious food, saw the sea (which is rare for a Kyoto-dweller), and witnessed a symbol of the link between life and death.

First, let us take a stroll down Oharai Machi, a street leading up to the Naiku 内宮 of Ise Taisha. I walked down this street rather than up towards the shrine as I got the bus direct from the outer shrine to the inner. There were lots of delicious foods and souvenirs down this street. I certainly enjoyed trying some of the local foods.

First I came across a rather interesting ice-cream shop. It seemed normal until I read the sign that advertised the flavours: strawberry, chocolate, sakura, spiny lobster, vanilla… yeah. Spiny lobster is a flavour of ice cream now. I’ve seen wasabi ice cream, I’ve seen tomato ice cream, but this is the first seafood soft-serve I’ve met. Looking back I wish I’d bought it, but alas I lacked the commitment to tackle a whole questionable ice cream alone. Instead I went for the more traditional strawberry swirled with chocolate. ★★★☆☆

The next snack I had was an ‘Ise croquette’, a really creamy delicious croquette with a seafood filling. It was warm and crispy, delicious. I love visiting seaside towns in Japan, the sudden availability of fresh seafood is fantastic. ★★★★

I strolled down the street until I came across Okage Yokocho, a small town that was constructed in 1993 in the style of Edo and Meiji period streets. It really felt like travelling back in time to when all of Japan was wood and narrow streets. I love the old style of street though it is fairly rare. You can find some old streets in Kyoto but it is broken up by the wide modern roads, which, while there would have been wider roads in Kyoto in ye olde times, are not exactly ‘old style’. Though impractical and dangerous (fire spreads quickly with wooden buildings on narrow streets, see: fire of London), there is a certain charm in a perfectly reconstructed capsule of old Japan. Okage Yokocho is one of these.

There were also lots of tiny swifts flying around and making nests in the eves of the houses. I tried to get some pictures but they were pretty flighty and hard to sneak up on.

In this small town I found something that is rather rare for the price in Japan, watermelon! It was only 100円 (60p) which is so cheap for watermelon. Watermelons can sell for up to £2000 (average price around £40), as they are considered a luxury gift you give when you visit someone, not for personal consumption. I really enjoyed the crisp melon in the heat of early Japanese summer. ★★★★

There were lots of lanterns and hidden mini-shrines in Okage Yokocho, it really was a pleasure to explore. One section appeared to be a temple but upon further inspection it was an elaborate lottery booth. I also saw the most fancy konbini (convenience store) in Ise; a beautiful Family Mart that was occupying an old town house.

My next snack was the best of the day. A man and his wife were grilling scallops. I bought one and the man gave me one for free! This is probably because I was one of very very few (visible) foreigners in Ise, and I was alone. They were so delicious, I haven’t had anything quite so delicious since (and I’ve had plenty of nice food). One of those rare moments of absolute pleasure from food. For me that taste will stand out in my mind when I remember my visit. ★★★★★

On my way to the married rocks, I stopped off at a shrine at the end of Oharai Machi. There was a Shinto wedding taking place and I managed to get a photo of them preparing to take an official picture. I didn’t want to be rude so I tried to do it subtly. The shrine I visited was Sarutahiko Shrine 猿田彦神社, dedicated to Sarutahiko Okami, leader of the Kami of the earth and a symbol of guidance and strength. He is patron of several martial arts, including Akido. He is one of the 7 ‘great Kami’ or 大神 (ookami). The shrine was fairly simple but a nice extra, especially with the wedding taking place.

I then got the train from Ieshi Station to Futaminoura station, a short train journey of 6 minutes. From there I walked down the fairly deserted streets (it was around 4pm) towards the rocks. It took me around 30 minutes to reach the coast and the rocks. You are probably wondering what the history of these sacred stones is, so I will tell you while you look at the pictures.

The Meoto Iwa 夫婦岩 represent the parents of most of Japan’s Kami and the parents of the Japanese islands themselves, Izanami and Izanagi. Izanami and Izanagi were brother and sister and also became husband and wife. It is said that they tried to marry once but during the ceremony Izanami (female) spoke first, and they failed to produce any children that were not daemons. The second time Izanagi spoke first, and as they had followed the rules of the man speaking first, they gave birth to the Japanese islands and many other gods. This underlines how Japanese myths  bolster the patriarchal nature of Japanese society, though I find it interesting that Izanami is clearly spirited enough to not simply submit, showing that she is a strong character in her own right, despite the eventual submissive role she has to play. Of course, the larger of the two rocks is male.

Sadly, the marriage of Izanagi and Izanami was not to last. Izanami gave birth to a fire god, and in the process was mortally wounded and died. Izanagi, distraught, travelled to the Japanese underworld, Yomi, a shadow-like land in which the dead exist in neither pleasure nor punishment, to try to get her back. When he found her in Yomi, Izanami, shrouded in darkness, informed him that as she had eaten food in Yomi, she would be unable to return. Izanagi refused to leave her and lit a torch to see her. He saw her decomposing and in decay and, horrified, fled. Izanami was enraged that he had seen her and sent a hideous hag to chase him from Yomi. So enraged was she that she shouted that she would kill 1000 of his people every day as revenge. Izanagi retorted that he would just make sure that 1500 people were born every day. Thus death and life came to be.

You may have noticed several similarities between this myth and Greek mythology, particularly the story of Persephone (the food of the underworld being a binding force) and that of Orpheus, who followed his wife into the underworld in hopes of getting her back. There is no evidence that these are connected to Japanese mythology, more that similar societies seem to produce similar myths, neither story is so unique and strange that it could not be thought of twice. The idea of food as a force tying one to a realm is powerful in religions concerned with the body itself, and the inability to retrieve people from the dead is of course a tale as old as time.

When Izanagi returned from Yomi, emerging from a cave in Izumo province (yes there is a physical site in Japan that is considered the blocked off road to the underworld), he cleansed himself in a stream. When he washed his left eye, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, was born. He cleaned his right eye and Tsukuyomi, the moon god, was born. Finally he cleaned his nose and the storm god, Susanoo, was created. These are some of the most important kami in Shinto.

The two rocks are still married despite the falling out between Izanami and Izanagi, showing the eternity of their bond. The two rocks are bound by a huge shimenawa, a sacred rope made of rice straw, which is replaced several times a year due to its sheer weight (it weighs over a ton). The rocks are considered a shintai, a vessel for kami to inhabit. In Japan many things are considered shintai, including ancient trees and Mt Fuji. The top ranking Sumo champion is also considered a vessel for kami and wears a shimenawa before his matches to keep him pure. Yes, if you get that good at Sumo you are considered a living god, not even something the Emperor is allowed to claim any more (this was banned by the US after WWII).

The rocks are a beautiful sight, and the shrine dedicated to them, Futami Okitama Shrine 二見興玉神社, is a lovely small shrine clinging to the cliff face. It features a lot of frogs (not entirely sure why) and it had the most beautiful stamp I have ever collected, so it was worth it for that alone.

If you visit Ise, don’t just stop at the main shrine, take a trip down to the Meoto Iwa, they are a special experience that anyone visiting Ise should see. If you visit really early in the morning you can see the sun rising between the rocks. Here is a bonus picture of the cat in the hostel I stayed at, he was lovely and his name was Yuki, which means snow.

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.