Welcome to Extreme Shrine Makeover 2013! Ise Jingu, come on down!
Sure, I might be channeling (pun totally intended) reality TV a bit too much, but this is a big year for Japan’s beloved Ise Shrine. Every two decades, the 1500 year old Ise Shrine gets torn down and completely rebuilt in its entirety. And 2013 is the start/end of a cycle.
The Ise Shrine plays a vital role in Japanese history and culture. Arguably Japan’s most important god(dess) is enshrined here – Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. The shrine is also strongly linked to the royal family and houses one of Japan’s three sacred treasures, a gilded mirror given to the first Emperor of Japan by the gods themselves.
Ise Jingu is divided into two shrines – an outer (Geku) and an inner (Naiku) shrine. Both are worth seeing but they are nowhere near each other. I suggest you start at the outer shrine (a ten minute walk from the train station) and then catch the bus to the Inner Shrine. Buses leave from just outside the Geku entrance and take about 15-20 minutes to reach the Naiku.
The Geku is beautiful all on its own, and worth a visit just to wander amongst its forested grounds. The god enshrined here is actually Toyouke, patron of agriculture and industry. Originally called to Ise over a millenium ago to offer sacred food to Amaterasu, Toyouke is now worshipped as a general guardian of well-being and provider of food, clothing and shelter.
The Naiku is much, much busier than the Geku, but then Amaterasu is a Grade A goddess. Cross the Uji Bridge into the cedar forest and you’ll pass by buildings ranging from the stable for the Imperial representative’s horse to the Hall for Special Prayer to various smaller shrines housing the gods of wind and rain and night. Shinto may not be my religion, but the Naiku is undeniably a sacred place. There’s a feeling of peace just walking in the breezy woods, treading over ground that has seen visitors for nearly two thousand years.
When I visited Ise last spring, the building of the new shrines had already begun. Instead of first tearing down the old buildings and constructing the new ones in their place, each shrine has a brand new twin erected right next to it. After the ceremonies, the previous shrine buildings will be demolished and the next cycle’s will be built in their place. This ensures that Ise Shrine is both forever ancient and forever new.
There always seems to be a festival or event at Ise Jingu so there is no bad time to visit. The shrine actually has a very comprehensive English website so definitely consult it for directions and historical background information.