ISE SHRINE: ITS HISTORY, ARCHITECTURE AND RITUALS

ISE CITY

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Ise (about an hour, hour and half by train from Osaka and Kyoto) is a city located on the eastern tip of Kii Peninsula. Formerly called Ujiyamada, it faces Ise Bay and is home to Ise Grand Shrine, the most sacred Shintō shrine in Japan, and is thus a very popular destination for tourists. The city has a long-standing title that roughly means "the Holy City", and literally translates to "the Capital of the Kami". Most of the city is within the geographic limits of Ise-Shima National Park. It has a population of about 130,000 people.

From Ise-shi Station, it's only a short walk to one of the many shrine halls that make up the most famous and revered shrine in all of Japan, Isejingu Shrine. Geku (outer shrine) is mystical in the early morning mist, standing quietly among the age-old trees of the surrounding deep green forest. As pilgrims have done for centuries, you head down to Naiku (inner shrine) through Oharai-machi.

You can wander through the old streets taking a rest at one of the many traditional tea shops that line the narrow streets before choosing a local souvenir from the tiny shops selling wooden toys and simple lacquer ware. Stroll into the Okage-yokocho area and you stumble back over 100 years. The area ambitiously replicated as a town from the Edo through Meiji Eras would be quite convincing were it not for the many tourists crowding the tiny shop fronts. Continue and cross the Ujibashi Bridge over the Isuzu River to enter the holy precincts of Naiku where you lose the crowds for a moment as you enter the deep forest before arriving at the main hall. On the way back to the station, stop off at one of the many restaurants offering the famous local cuisine of lobsters, oysters and delicious fresh fish from the Pacific. [Source: JNTO]

Tourist Information 14-6, Hommachi, Ise City, Mie Pref., Tel. 0596-23-3323, Hours: 8:30-5:00pm; ise-kanko.jp/english ;Ise City Tourist Information Center (Iseshi Station) Iseshi Station, 1-1-4 Fukiage, Ise City, Mie Pref., Tel. 0596-65-6091. Hours: 9:00am-6:30pm Websites: Ise town Website: ise-kanko.jp; Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Ise is accessible by train from Nagoya and Osaka and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet ;Ise Jingu isejingu.or.jp

Amaterasu, Ise and Japan’s Emperor

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Amaterasu
Amaterasu Omikami is the supreme being of Ise Temple, Japan's most important religious facility. She is credited with creating the Three Treasures (mirror, sword and jewel)’symbols of the Emperor's power and authority. The Regalia of the Emperor (The Three Treasures) includes the sacred mirror (kept at Ise Shrine), the curved jewel and the sacred grass cutting sword (kept at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya). According to legend they were given to the Imperial family by the sun goddess Amaterasu. They are symbols of the Emperor's power and authority.

Amaterasu Omikami ("Great Heaven-Illuminating Diety") ruled the High Plain of Heaven but descended to a cave plunging he world into darkness, after quarreling with Susano, who played a number of dirty tricks on her including placing some excrement on her throne in her new palace. She remained in the cave until she was lured out by the obscene dancing of the kagura dancer and the god Ame-ono-Uzume and light was restored. Later Japan was given to Susano-o's son Okuninushi who passed it on to Ninigi, Amaterasu Omikami's grandchild.

Amaterasu Omikami is most important Japanese deity. The rising sun on the Japanese flag symbolizes the special relationship between the sun (Amaterasu) and Japan. Because the rest of the world is reliant on the sun, Japan theoretically has power over it. The creation of the Japanese people began when Ninigi descended to the lower realms of the heavens. He took with him what became the three imperial regalia’a curved jewel (magatama), a mirror, and a "sword of gathered clouds"---and ruled over the island of Kyushu. His great grandson Jimmu Tenno was the first emperor of Japan. He set out to conquer Yamato. On the main island of Honshu, according to tradition he established the unbroken line of imperial descent from the Sun Goddess and founded the Land of the Rising Sun in 660 B.C. Members of the House of Yamato, the imperial family that unified the islands of Japan and are still around today, are purportedly Jimmu's decedents. [Source: Library of Congress]

Imperial family wedding feature a Shinto ceremony presided over by Ise Shrine's Daiguji chief priest in which the couple exchange nuptial cups and branches of trees regarded as sacred in the Shinto faith. The bridegroom reads the marriage vows and the couple bows before an altar of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami and offer their thanks to the Emperor and Empress.

Ise Shrine

Ise Shrine (in Ise-Shima National Park) is the most sacred place in the Shinto religion. Founded in A.D. 690 and known as Jingu in Japan, it is considered to be the spiritual home of Japanese people, and traditionally been the Shinto equivalent of Mecca, a place all Japanese felt they should go. These days about six million people visit the Ise Shrine every year.

The Shrine of the Shinto Goddess Ise is comprised of the Inner Shrine at Ise, dedicated to Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun; the Outer Shrine, dedicated to Toyouke, the Goddess of Arms, Crops, Food and Agriculture; 14 auxiliary sanctuaries; and 109 lesser sanctuaries, including special facilities for the preparation of sacred food and textile offerings.

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sacred forest around Ise
According to legend the mirror that symbolizes that power of Amaterasu was brought to Ise in 4 B.C. when Imperial Princes Yamatohime chose the present site on the upper Isuzu as the place where Amaraterasu should reside for eternity.

Unfortunately for tourists the main shrines are so sacred that only a few people are allowed to enter them and visitors are kept at considerable distance from them, only capturing glimpses of the roof of the main sanctuary structure from above walls and behind trees.

Ise is very understated, Many of the tori fates are unpainted; the temples feature simple materials and lack decorations. Simple gravel paths weave through the towering Cryptomeria trees. The atmosphere is timeless and many Japanese visitors say that visiting Ise is like going back into ancient times. The sacred mirror said to have been used by the goddess Amaterasu at the dawn of Japanese times is housed in the main shrine. Only a few select people, such as members of the Japanese royal family, are allowed to see it. Ise has a strong bond with the goddess Amaterasu. In the Edo Period (1607-1867), it said million descended on Ise when rumors circulated that amulets were falling from the sky. Today Ise draws about 6 million visitors, most of them Japanese but few who regard themselves as religious.

The people allowed in the main shrines are high-ranking priests. There are approximately 100 priests who work at the shrine. They are headed by the saishu (Master of Ceremonies) and assisted by Superintendent of Sanctuaries. On Oharaimachi Street near the shrine area are old shops selling souvenirs and local specialities such as fried fish balls, skewered oysters, roasted chestnuts, sweet potato croquettes and, some say, some of the softest and tastiest mochi in Japan

In recent years the number of people going to Ise Shrine has rises as reports of special power spot there---with restorative and energizing powers---have been widely circulated in lifestyle magazines and on its website. In 2009, more than 8 million people visited the shrine. Many of the visitors seeking the energy spot are women. A 39-year-old Tokyo woman told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Those stories I read in fashion magazines about power spots were really fascinating. This I my first time here, in about 20 years; I came to absorb he shrine’s power."

Websites: Ise Shrine website: Isejingu isejingu.or.jp ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Wikitravel Wikitravel Maps: Ise Jingu maps isejingu.or.jp and Ise city area ise-kanko.jp; Ise Jingu isejingu.or.jp ;

Ise Architecture

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Daily ritual
The main sanctuaries of Shrine of the Shinto Goddess Ise are beautiful austere structures made of new hinoke (cyprus beams) in what is said to be the purest and simplest style of Shinto architecture.

"Here, better than anywhere else," writes historian Daniel Boorstin, "we witness the distinctive Japanese conquest of time by the arts of renewal. Here, too, we can see how Japanese architecture has been shaped by the special qualities of wood, and how wood has carried the creations of Japanese architects on their own kind of voyage through time."

The architecture is base don the architecture of the traditional Japanese rice storehouse. The supporting columns pass through a raised floor and inserted directly into the ground. Responding more to natural principals than architectural ones, these columns are much thicker than is necessary to hold up the structure. They are the shape and thickness of a live tree and are placed in the ground and suck up moisture like a live tree.

No nails are used, only dowels and interlocking joints. The roof is thatched with miscanthus grass. The wood is unvarnished and unpainted, displaying the wild beauty of the cypress's natural texture. There are crossbeams at either end of the roof and large rounded logs on the ridge of the roof. Protruding from the upper part of the gable at either end of the building are metal-tipped poles that add structural symmetry.

Ise Renewal Ceremony

Every sanctuary consists of two identifiable adjoining sites. Since the 7th century A.D., with only a few exceptions, the main sanctuaries are rebuilt every 20 years and the symbols of their kami are taken from the old sanctuary to the newly constructed sanctuary. By performing this ritual the Japanese people receive renewed blessing from their kami and pray for world peace.

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omike ceremony
The shrines were rebuilt for the 61st time in 1993 at cost of $60 million. The next time they will be rebuilt is in 2013. The reason for the periodic rebuilding is not clear. Some have suggested it is away of keeping traditional carpentry techniques alive. Others believe it might have more to do with ancient tradition of rebuilding and relocated the palaces of a new emperor after the old emperor died.

The sacred treasures and apparel which are offered to the kami are also remade. There are 125 kind of sacred apparel, 1085 objects, 491 treasures and 1,600 accessories. They are all remade by skilled craftsmen in accordance with exact traditional specifications.

After the new sanctuary is completed an elaborate nighttime ceremony, called the Offering of the First Fruit, takes place in which the symbols of the kami are placed in a series of special container and carried with in a long silk shroud, along with sacred treasures, apparel and accessories, from the old sanctuary to the newly constructed sanctuary. The wood from the old shrine is used to construct the tori gate at the entrance of the shrine or given to shrines elsewhere in Japan.

Annual Ise Ceremonies

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sacred fire
Each year more than 1,500 ceremonies are performed at the main and auxiliary sanctuaries. Among these 20 are considered major ceremonies.

The annual rituals and ceremonies of the temple are intimately bound with nature and the seasons. In February prayers are offered for a plentiful harvest. In June men and women in traditional white and red costumes transplant rice seedlings to the music of sacred flutes and drums and dance and pray for a good harvest at the shrine honoring the deity of the rice paddy.

The most important ceremony, the Kannamesai, takes place in mid-October. The first grains of the rice harvest are offered to Amaterasu, first at 10:00pm and 2:00am at the Outer Shrine on October 15th and 16th and then at 10:00pm and 2:00am at the Inner Shrine on October 16th and 17th. The offering are made with a silk cloth by a representative of the Imperial Household.

According to myth, rice was given to the Japanese people as their staple food by Amaterasu. The rice for the sake and cakes used in the renewal celebration and other rituals comes from the same seven-acre paddies which has been used for thousands of year. The field is irrigated with water from Isuzu River and the soil is fertilized with dried sardines and soy bean patties. In April trees are cut down to make rows for planting the seeds.

Outer Shrine at Ise

Outer Shrine at Ise (about 4 miles from the Inner Shrine) is smaller, older, less visited and less sacred that the Inner Shrine. Established in A.D. 477, it is dedicated to Toyouke, the Goddess of Arms, Crops, Food and Agriculture. The remains of tree called the heartpost from the original 5th century shrine lies beneath the shrine.

Known as Geku, the Outer Shrine is essentially the same as the Inner Shrine and the annual ceremonies of the two shrine follows a similar pattern. One of the main difference is that only at Geku are food offering made every morning and afternoon. These offerings are made by Amaterasu.

The main shrine is hidden from view by four fences. Most pilgrims pray outside the four fences. Those who want to get a little closer pay about ¥5,000 to pass through the outermost fence, to be ritually purified by a priest and express their thanks numerous bows and prayers

The main sanctuary is called Toyoukedaijingu Shogu. Goshoden is the main sanctuary building .Kodnechi is alternative sanctuary site where the main sanctuary building was from 1973 to 1993 and will be again from 2013 to 2033. Also on the main sanctuary ground is the Hall for Daily Offerings of Sacred Foods.

Before reaching the main sanctuary one passes over the Hiyoke Bridge, the Font of Ablutions, the First Sacred Gateway, Purification Hall. There are auxiliary sanctuaries for Takanomiya, Tsuchinomiya, Kazenomiya, as well as a Hall of Pure Fire, and Stall for the Sacred Horse (a living white horse can often be seen here).

Inner Shrine at Ise

Inner Shrine at Ise (reached by bus from the Outer Shrine) is large, more spread out, more crowded and more sacred that the Outer Shrine. It is dedicated to Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun, and the deity from which the Japanese Imperial family purportedly traces its origins.

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The entrance of the Inner Shrine at Ise begins with the Uji bridge, which crosses over the sacred Isuzu River. The walkway and railing are made of cypress and the pillars are made of water-resistant zelkhoba. Parallel to the bridge are large pillars intended to protect the bridge from heavy debris coming down the river during a flood. The bridge is rebuilt every 20 years and has an architectural style that is uniquely Japanese.

After crossing the bridge you enter an area with a teahouse, administrative center, after turning right you come to a rest area. Near the river is Font for Ablutions. Beyond that is the First Sacred Gateway, which leads to the river where pilgrims ritually wash themselves and clean out their mouth before worshiping at the main sanctuary.

On the path to the main sanctuary you pass the Purification Hall, where priests take ritual baths and spend one or two nights to purify themselves before leading ceremonies; the Second sacred Gateway, with a pure style of torii gate architecture unique to Ise.

The building to the right of Purification Hall is for the exclusive use for the Emperor and Empresses for their occasional pilgrimages to the shrine. For most important ceremonies the Emperor sends a representative form the Imperial Household rather than shows up himself.

Approach to the Main Sanctuary of Inner Shrine at Ise: The large structure of the left of that main path to the main sanctuary is the Hall of Sacred Music and Dance. The dances and music performed her are expressions of gratitude aimed at pleasing or protecting the resident kami. The Yamatomai and Ninchomai, performed to ancient court music, are the most frequently performed dances. Talesmen, amulets and votive offerings can be purchased at a counter here.

Further on to the left are the Gojoden, used occasionally for food and purification ceremonies; the Misakkadono, dedicated to the god of sake; and the Yukinomikura, a sacred storehouse. After these is the Hall of Pure Fire, where food offerings for kami are prepared on a pure fire made by a priest with a drilling device; and the Sacred Foods Ceremonial Preparation Hall, where special offerings of abalone are made.

Main Sanctuary of Inner Shrine at Ise

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Four rows of fences and hedges enclose the main sanctuary with the first fence closest to the sanctuary and the forth farthest away. Photography is prohibited beginning at the stone steps that lead to the sanctuary. The best glimpses of the building are from the western side and the approach to the Aramatsurinomia shrine.

Most ceremonies in the main sanctuary take place in the courtyard situated between the second and third gates. To the left the center are seats, surrounded by stones, for officiating priests. To the right are seats for Imperial envoy and his assistant. To the left, between the second and third outermost gates, in a building in which at least one priest remains at all times as guard of the mirror.

The architecture of the main sanctuaries at the Inner Shrine and Outer Shrine are essentially the same but a number of small details are different such as the number of rounded logs on the roof and the placement of the treasuries. The empty space next to the main sanctuary is the alternate site for the new sanctuary scheduled to be built in 2013.

Pilgrims who come to worship at the main sanctuary usually do so before the gate of the second outer fence. Sometimes special group of pilgrims are allowed in the courtyard with the second outer fence. No daily food offerings are made as is the case at the Outer Shrine.

The hills around the Inner Shrine cover an area of 5,500 hectares. Until the Middle Ages all timber used in the reconstruction of the sanctuaries was obtained from this forest. Over the last few centuries timber has also been taken from the Kiso mountain range, which extends between Gifu and Nagano prefectures. A reforestation project launched in 1926 has produced enough trees

Auxiliary Sanctuary of Kazahinominomiya is dedicated to the kami of wind. It is reached by crossing a bridge over a branch of the Isuzu River. There are nine other auxiliary shrines at the Inner Shrine. The most important of which is Aramatsurinomiya, dedicated to the spirit of Amatesasu.

Image Sources: 1) Japan National Parks 2) 4) 5) 8) 9) Ise jingu site 3) 6) 7) Yamasa 10) Wikipedia 11) 12) 13) Mikimoto Pearl Museum

Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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