The holy site among holy sites, the so-called first among Shinto shrines, Ise Jingu. Nestled in something like the middle of the main Honshu island, pilgrims have been making their way to this place to worship for centuries. So what’s stopping you from joining them, huh?
Ise Shrine is actually composed of two shrines, the Inner (naiku) and Outer (geku), each of considerable size and importance, so for organization’s sake I will be splitting this post up in to two parts to match. For now, let’s make our first stop at the Outer Ise Shrine.
The more easily accessible shrine of the two, we can leisurely stroll to the outskirts of the Geku from the Ise Shrine train station. Once you cross the street you’ll step on to the gravel ground that will lead you towards the shrine. After crossing over a small bridge you can take a brief detour to your left to the shrine’s Magatama Pond. A ceremonial hall is located next to it and provides benches to sit and enjoy the view. A lacquered stage rises out of the water, the sight of performance and dance depending on the festival or occasion. If its a warm season the pond should offer a nice view of water lilies and other flora, and a teahouse is visible off in the distance as well.
Once you’re done there you can file past the first torii gate and down through a wooded path. The sunlight filtering through the trees here, combined with the atmosphere of the shrine, really serves to remind how ancient people might have thought about their concepts of sacred space.
It’s not far down the path until you come upon the ceremonial halls and shrine offices first of all, offering omamori, ofuda, goshuin, and more for sale. Straight ahead, though, is the prize of the visit- the main hall. Pictures aren’t allowed in the Ise Shrine main hall areas, but you can manage some since the rule is “not past the torii”. Once you do pass it, though, it feels like a whole other age. Architecturally speaking, at any rate.
Unlike the more modern concrete or brightly lacquered shrine buildings you might encounter in many places, Ise Shrine is all natural cedar, all the time. There is actually a forest in Japan that is only used for the purpose of furnishing wood for this shrine, seeing as they rebuild it every twenty years. And that takes a lot of wood. The rebuilding itself is a rare process, and the only other shrine famous for such is Izumo Shrine in Shimane prefecture, that does work every sixty years.
The Geku main hall may seem drab and plain at fist glance. but the beauty is in the simplicity. Smooth, natural wood and a thatched roof with a distinctive chigi and katsuogi on the eaves at both ends, it’s a relic of a simpler time and a prime example of shinmei zukuri architecture style. Moss grows along the edge of the thatching and adds a touch of color to the weather worn cedar. You may not be able to take pictures, but you can roam about in the main hall area and peek through the fence at the inner sanctuary, or if you’re lucky you may spot a priest or ritual in progress.
Fun fact, the enshrined goddess of the Outer Shrine, Toyouke Ōmikami, is associated with agriculture and food, and so all foods made and offered to the goddess Amaterasu in the Inner Shrine are prepared here, in a sacred fire and dining hall behind the main hall.
When I went to Ise Shrine this time, they were preparing for the big move. Moving the gods to the new houses they get every twenty years- that move. In a ritual that is thought to be a homage to the cycle of death and rebirth, as well as doubling as practice to make sure that successful generations of architects are properly trained in ancient tradition, Ise Shrine is totally rebuilt and the previous one torn down at the end of each cycle. Therefore, each shrine on the grounds is allocated two plots of land, and each cycle switches between them, much like crop rotation.
When a shrine is torn down to make way for the next one, everything is dismantled with the exception of a single center foundation post, literally called in Japanese as the “heart post”. When a plot is not in use the only thing in it besides white gravel is a small wooden “house” that protects the “heart post” until the next cycle rolls around and it’s rebuilt. I went to Ise two weeks before the gods moved house, so many of the shrines were completed, giving me the opportunity to see both the old and the new one side by side in some cases. Chance!
Once you finish at the main hall you can continue on past a small lake and towards the three subsidiary shrines in the Geku purview, the Kaze-no-Miya on your left, the Tsuchi-no-Miya on your right, and the Taka-no-Miya up the stairs in front of you. These three sanctuaries are named for the wind, the earth, and tall heights, respectively. The Kaze-no-Miya enshrines the gods Shinatsuhiko no mikoto and Shinatobe no mikoto, Taka-no-Miya enshrines the ara-mitama of Toyouke Ōmikami, and the Tsuchi-no-Miya enshrines the kami of the earth. Some people make the rounds to each one with the same wish, or tailor where they will go depending on what they ask for- its up to you!
After the three sanctuaries you have seen the majority of the Outer Shrine’s main precints, unless you’d like to go out the back way. In that case you can pass the sacred fire area and stable for the gifted Imperial horse. But if you’ve seen everything in the Geku now, it’s time to head back the way you came and head on to the Naiku!
Access: Ise-shi Station, (Kintetsu Yamada line, JR Central’s Sangu line)
Date of Founding: traditionally dated by the Nihon Shoki at 4 BCE, more realistically proposed to be 5th century
Current Building Date: 2013
Enshrined God(s): Toyouke Ōmikami, the ara-mitama of Toyouke Ōmikami, Shinatobe no Mikoto, Shinatsuhiko no Mikoto, Sarutahiko Ōmikami
Shrine Office: Y
Festival Dates: check here for a comprehensive list of festivals and dates in English
English Pamphlet: Y
Website: official English website, walk through website