Journey to the Soul of Japan

Two thousand years ago, the emperor of Japan sent his daughter on a mission.

She was to find a new home for a sacred mirror, one of three items that had been passed down from their ancestor, Amaterasu, the sun goddess and the creator of ancient Japan. The mirror was worshipped as though it was the goddess herself, and its new resting place would become the centre of Shinto festivals, ceremonies and rituals.

Ise Jingu
A glimpse of the sacred Geku shrine

The princess spent many years roaming the country in search of a suitable location.

One day, she was passing by a river when she was overcome with a feeling that she’d found the right place. The spirit of Amaterasu had lead her to Ise.

It was decided that a shrine would be built in that exact spot by the river. And thus, Ise Grand Shrine was born.

Though the story is a legend, it’s believed that the first Emperor of Japan born in 660 BC was the great-great-great grandson of the sun goddess, and that the sacred mirror is still housed at Ise Shrine, kept somewhere very secret and very safe. It is only for the eyes of the ruling Emperor and shrine’s chief priest, so the rest of us will never know…

Ise Jingu
Uji-bashi, entrance to Naiku

Ise Shrine is known in Japanese as Ise Jingu – officially as just ‘Jingu’ which means ‘the shrine’ i.e. the shrine of all shrines. It is Japan’s most sacred shrine and considered the soul of the country.

Within Ise Jingu, there are two separate sanctuaries: Naiku and Geku, as well as over a hundred smaller shrines. Naiku was established in 4 BC and is the original shrine dedicated to Amaterasu. Geku was founded 500 years later, in honour of the goddess of food and prosperity. The history here is mind boggling, and you can almost feel the spirits of shrine swirling around you as you walk through the beautiful forest and by the crystal clear river.

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Shrine visitors washing their hands in the Isuzu River
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Water basin for purifying hands and mouth

Ise Jingu has many unique customs, such as purifying your hands in the Isuzu River, an alternative to the usual water basin.

Perhaps the most famous and amazing feature is a ritual that began in the 7th century. Every 20 years, the shrine is rebuilt from scratch. That would explain why the buildings still look fairly new… the current ones are only 4 years old!

Within the shrine grounds, two lots are designated to specific buildings. While one lot is occupied, the other lays vacant, marked only by a small ‘house’ in the very centre in which the spirit lives. After 20 years, trees from the surrounding sacred forest are cut down and used to create the exact same shrine – using the original building techniques – on the adjacent lot. The reconstruction process takes 8 years, and concludes with transferring the sacred mirror.

The wood from the old buildings are not wasted. Parts are sent to be used at shrines around the country, while the pillars that supported the main shrine’s roof are used for the torii gate at the Uji Bridge entrance, which separates the real world and Shinto world.

With the exception of wartimes, this ritual has not changed for the past 1,300 years. It brings the local people together and is a way to pass down traditions on to the next generation. And so long as future generations continue, the shrine will literally last forever.

Ise Jingu
Two lots side by side
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The vacant lot that awaits the Geku main shrine
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The hidden buildings of the Geku
Ise Jingu
Smaller shrines in typical Yayoi architecture

Ise Jingu has remained popular over it’s 2000-year history, but possibly never so much as during the Edo Period. In the 17th and 18th centuries, 1 in 5 Japanese made the pilgrimage to the shrine, and it was something everyone longed to do at least once in their lives.

After offering their prayers at Naiku, the pilgrims would go into the town to mingle with locals and other visitors and relax before heading off on their long journey home. A replica of the town at that time was constructed outside Naiku. The path leading to Uji Bridge is lined with old style shops – some of which are original buildings relocated to this street. The atmosphere here is fun and lively, in complete contrast to the serene grounds across the river. It is worth visiting this area as much as the shrines themselves!

Ise

Ise udon
Ise Udon – thick noodles with thick soy sauce

Ise

The most popular treat for the pilgrims was a sweet called Akafuku mochi. This specially made anko and rice cake sweet originated here in Ise in 1707. Aside from it’s smooth texture and delicious taste, its shape makes it unlike any other of its kind. The white mochi underneath represents the white stones on the Isuzugawa river bed, and the anko paste, formed by running three fingers over the top, represents the water flowing in the river. Aka means red and Fuku means happiness; so eating this red treat was supposed to make the person very happy!

These days, another popular treat is Akafuku-gori, shaved ice topped with matcha sauce with scoops of anko and mochi inside. A perfect treat during the hotter months!

In my blissful state, with a mouth full of akafuku-gori, I marvelled at the history of Ise and its ancient shrine. How amazing is it for traditions to last for so long and still be so highly valued? My journey to discover Japan’s soul had left me admiring this country even more.

 

Amafuku
Akafuku mochi

Ise

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9 thoughts on “Journey to the Soul of Japan

    1. Glad you enjoyed this one!
      It’s incredible isn’t it. The next renewal will be in 2033. I wonder where we’ll be and what will be happening in the world then…

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    1. Thanks John! I was lucky to be travelling with a couple – a friend who used to work as a miko (shrine maiden) and her husband who is actually from Ise. Their knowledge combined made the visit even more incredible!

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  1. 神道神社の最高峰(さいこうほ)、伊勢神宮に参ることができてよかったですね。宇治橋を渡って、内宮に入ると神聖な心地がしましたか。杉やケヤキの森は神秘的ですね。古代の米倉のような神社建築物はその環境に調和していて、すばらしいです。日本人の心のやすらぎの場のようです。英恵さんにとって、富士山最高峰に立ったことと、伊勢神宮を参拝したことが、日本滞在のハイライトですか。

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