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.
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 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.
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 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!
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.