Visit Ise Jingu and learn about a 1,300-year-old ritual at one of Japan’s most sacred spots.

Visit Ise Jingu and learn about a 1,300-year-old ritual at one of Japan’s most sacred spots.

Ise Jingu is a sacred space in Japan with 125 shrines and boasts an area roughly half the same size as Paris. For most Japanese people, a visit to Ise Jingu is something they must do at least once in their lifetime. Approximately 2,000 years ago, the Emperor’s daughter had a divine revelation that Ise was the appropriate place to permanently enshrine and worship Amaterasu-Omikami, the goddess of the sun who is considered to be the guardian of Japan. Each year, over 1,500 rituals are conducted at the various shrines to pray for prosperity, peace and a bountiful harvest. The rituals are based on the idea of “Tokowaka”, which means everlasting youth. As the world faces environmental challenges and sets Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the future, I can see how the history and tradition of Ise Jingu connects with our present world.

Written by Nathan Raymond
About the Author:
I live in Gifu with my family and I had never visited Ise Jingu before. Learning about the ancient rituals of this sacred place gave me a deeper appreciation for Japanese tradition and its importance in the operation of the country. 

Caption: The ancient trees at Ise Jingu tower over the visitors.

Over 10,000,000 people visit Ise Jingu every year. For most Japanese people, it is a pilgrimage that they feel must be made at least once in their life. The sacred grounds and shirnes hold a special place in Japanese culture and history. For foreign tourists, a visit is an opportunity to experience the deep respect for history and tradition that makes this country so unique.

I was curious know why is Ise Jingu considered special among the shrines in Japan.One of the most important rituals at Ise Jingu is the Shikinen-Sengu, which is the construction of a new divine palace every 20 years adjacent to the current location. For over 1,300 years, the 30 rituals and ceremonies involved with Shikinen-Sengu are performed, beginning with the ritual cutting of the first trees to be used in the construction.

I also wonder why do they rebuild shrines that they have already built every 20 years and what is the reason this tradition has continued for 1,300 years.All of the sacred clothing, furniture and divine treasures that are kept in the divine palace are also remade during the ritual. It takes about eight years to conduct all of the rituals and ceremonies for Shikinen-Sengu and, once everything is prepared, the Jingu priests move the Holy Mirror to the new sanctuary.According to one theory, it is in order to pass the techniques used in shrine building and the manufacturing of clothing, furniture, and sacred objects that they go to the trouble of rebuilding them every 20 years.

The Shikinen-Sengu ritual is part of a fixed schedule and it was most recently completed in 2013. This ritual is connected to the traditional concept of “Tokowaka”, which means everlasting youth. This idea encourages people to think about eternal sustainability from a religious perspective. The shrine buildings are made out of wood and to rebuild them every 20 years keeps them in a constant state of renewal and youth. The old Torii gate that gets rebuilt is not thrown away, but shaved down and recycled within Mie, in Kuwana City and Sekijuku. They use trees strategically planted 100 years ago for construction materials. They have planted trees and maintained a forest in the shrine in anticipation of the relocation of the shrine 100 years from now. Earthquakes are common in Japan, meaning rock buildings are dangerous due to the risk of collapse, which may be why this culture of the cyclic rebirth with trees was created. I was surprised by how this sustainable way of life was carried out long before the creation of SGDs.

Ise Jingu is broadly divided into two areas, which are called Geku and Naiku . I had heard that when visiting Ise Jingu, the custom was to visit Geku first, so I decided to observe tradition and did just that.

Caption: I knew I was entering a special place as I walked through the huge wooden torii gate.

Caption: The natural splendor of Ise Jingu is captivating.

Caption: The sun shining through the treetops creates a serene atmosphere.

Caption: It was interesting to see the traditional design of structures like this bridge.

The ancient trees of Ise Jingu are amazing and the entire complex is well designed for large numbers of people to walk between the various areas. Everything on the grounds is maintained perfectly and I was impressed by the great care taken to preserve this national treasure in its original style. Almost everything was built from wood and this created a smooth connection with the natural world around the structures.

The Japanese people have been traveling to Ise Jingu for well over 1,000 years and there is a lot to see and experience during a visit. In the past, visitors learned about the history and significance of the location from religious leaders, traditional books and shared stories. Modern visitors have the luxury of using technology to learn about the history and traditions in real time while they explore the grounds and many shrines.

Caption: Kameishi is a famous rock at Ise Jingu that looks like a turtle. 

One point of interest I found on the pathways is “Kameishi, which means Turtle Rock. The stones look like a large turtle and many visitors stop and take a photo when they find it. I was also happy when I found a set of three rocks that were used for purification long ago. Finding these unique features of Ise Jingu made me think of all the people who had looked at the same formations over the past millennium. 

Caption: We found a set of three rocks that were used in purification.

Caption: The torii gates are impressive examples of traditional building skills.

Seeing all of the shrines, bridges and gates made of wood at Ise Jingu gave me an appreciation for Japanese carpentry. The clean, perfect lines of the various structures are understated and elegant in their design. Every part of the shrine complex seems to naturally belong there and you can feel a true sense of harmony.

Caption: The large ancient trees were awe-inspiring.

I was amazed at the size of Ise Jingu once I started to move around and see all of the different shrines. My first stop was Geku and then I moved on to see Naiku. To get to the second area, I took a bus and it was about a 20-minute ride. It is a huge place and it is worth it to spend a full day there.

Caption: The gateway to Naiku takes you over the Ujibashi Bridge.

When I arrived at the gateway to Naiku, it felt like I was crossing into another world. All of the Japanese visitors treated the area with deep reverence and there was a solemn atmosphere. The beautiful wooden torii and bridge were expertly crafted and they looked incredible in the forested surroundings of Ise Jingu.

Caption: I washed my hands as part of the purification ritual.
Usually there would be a dipper, but it seems they are using the current style due to the coronavirus.

The hand washing area was well designed to handle the constant flow of visitors. Everyone stopped to perform the purification ritual before moving on to say his or her prayers and the atmosphere was respectful and calm.

Caption: The final walk to Naiku was relaxing.

I really enjoyed the last part of the walk to Naiku as the wide path led visitors between the trees to the shrine. The ancient and majestic trees seemed to almost touch the sky. As the sun shone through the tops of the trees, a lovely pattern of light and shadow appeared on the gravel path.

Caption: The last steps take you up a stone stairway to Naiku. 

The rules don’t allow visitors to take photos too close to the shrine itself, so I stopped and had my photo taken at the base of the final stairway. Many visitors stopped to get a shot of the sacred shrine before climbing the steps to pray. The scene was spectacular and I could understand why this place was a must visit spot for most Japanese people.

Caption: The design of the Ujihashi Bridge is strong and attractive.

Caption: It was an honor to visit sacred Ise Jingu.

It had been a wonderful day at Ise Jingu and I was touched by the importance that this special place has in Japanese culture. Even though I am not Japanese, it had been a spiritual experience for me and my appreciation for my adopted home had been expanded. Anyone who visits Japan should definitely visit Ise Jingu and have their own unique experience at this sacred area.

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