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Grand Shrine at Ise

Cultural Quintessence

Japan In-depth

Kateigaho International Edition

Grand Shrine at Ise

On the east side of the Kii Penninsula, near the forests of Kumano, lies Ise Jingu, known popularly by the honorific O-Ise-san. Unique to this shrine, situated in a solemn sacred forest, is the ceremony that takes place every 20 years to rebuild the wooden sanctum in a new location. Historically, the ritual began in the sacred woods with the cutting of trees to be used as lumber for the new shrine.

Above the main sanctuary of Ise's Inner Shrine, chigi—the crossed beams soaring skyward from the roof gables—glitter in the morning sun. The night moisture on the thatched roof and surrounding trees shrouds the buildings in mist.

Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the start of tree planting. Many people took part in the annual ceremony, including the supreme priestess Atsuko Ikeda and the supreme priest Michihisa Kitashirakawa. First, the site was purified with amulets and salt. Then they planted saplings and prayed that the trees will grow to be the principal lumber for reconstruction in 200 years.

ISE Jingu
The largest and most revered shrine in Japan, Ise consists of the Naiku, or Inner Shrine, sheltering Amaterasu Omikami as its main deity; the Geku, or Outer Shrine, dedicated to the deity Toyouke Omikami; and 125 subordinate shrines. The spiritual center of the Shinto faith, Ise conducts more than 1,700 ceremonies each year, including monthly rituals, offerings of prayer for the nation's peace and prosperity, supplications for good harvest, and so on. According to legend, the shrine was founded about 2,000 years ago in the 26th year of the reign of Emperor Suinin. The shikinen sengu (reconstruction ceremony) has been conducted every 20 years for 1,300 years. During the ritual, all the divine properties—sacred vestments, treasures, tools, and accessories—are transferred to the new shrine in accordance with ancient custom.

Oharae, or Great Purification Ceremony, is performed for the removal of all sin, pollution, and misfortune. At Ise Jingu the ceremony is conducted on the eastern bank of the Isuzu River to purify the bodies and minds of the priests and gagaku (ceremonial court) musicians before the advent of a major festival. The full-scale Oharae ceremony involving the entire shrine staff is performed twice a year, on the last day of June and December. This Oharae ceremony was performed in the Gojo-den belvedere because of the rain. The white gowns of the priests and yellow Japanese umbrellas stand out beautifully in the midst of the verdure of the sacred forest.

photography by Yasunobu Kobayashi, Kazuhiko Suzuki, Haruo Nakano
text by Kumi Nanri


Kumi Nanri
Journalist and editor

After serving as an editor for the Japanese edition of Kateigaho, Nanri became a freelance journalist. She has interviewed and reported on such leading figures as Mother Teresa, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and Yoko Ono. Her published works include Vatican and Ise-no-Jingu.

The buildings of Ise Jingu are constructed in a style called yui-itsu shinmei zukuri with a central pillar, thatched roof, and plain cedar walls. It developed about 1,300 years ago during the reign of Emperor Temmu and Empress Jito. Since then, with the exception of the Warring States period in the 15th and 16th centuries, the shrine has been rebuilt every 20 years in the ceremony of shikinen sengu. Shikinen means "a set number of years" and sengu means "transferring the shrine."

The shrine is built in exactly the same design and proportions on a plot next to the old one, and the yatakagami (eight-sided) mirror of Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess, is transferred from the old shrine to the new. The shrine moves alternately to the east and back to the west.

The first sengu took place in 690 AD. The shrine forest, known as misomayama, was established as the source of lumber for the rebuilding. Until the end of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) these woods provided all the cedar needed for the shrine transference ceremony. After that, the source of lumber changed to another area famous for its cedar: Kiso in Gifu and Aichi prefectures.

"One sengu cycle requires a massive amount of cedar, from 8,500 to 10,000 cubic meters—about 10,000 logs. Moreover, 90 percent of these need to be more than 200 years old and at least 60 centimeters in diameter. The columns on either side of the shrine, known as munemochi-bashira, are cut from trees roughly 400 years old. Lumber for the doors must be 1.2 meters wide—unblemished, with no joints. Builders cannot reuse old wood; they must cut all new timber and prepare it within the shrine precincts," says Masayuki Murase. For the past 26 years Murase, a forestry engineer, has devoted his life to Ise's trees.

The forest around the Inner and Outer Shrines has an area of about 5,500 hectares. This is divided into 'divine precincts' and 'shrine precincts.' Divine precincts are devoted to the integrity of the shrine woods and it is forbidden to cut trees there, except if needed for the health of other trees. Shrine precincts are divided into two categories. The first is basically the same as the divine precincts—the purpose of the trees is to improve the scenery, so nothing is cut.

The intent of the second category of shrine precinct is to protect the headwaters of the Isuzu River as well as the scenery. In this area there are man-made plantations of cedar to be used for shrine building. This is because in 1923 the Shrine Precincts Preservation Committee did a study on the condition of the forests and noticed a striking decline. As a result, they started planting cedars around the headwaters and set up a 200-year plan so cedar can once again be obtained from the shrine's own forests. Those trees are now 80 years old.

The last time any lumber was taken from the shine precincts was in 1391. It is the dream of those looking after the forest that once again it will be the source of lumber for rebuilding the shrine. Foresters have laid the groundwork for an environment conducive to cedar, a sensitive species. Their efforts are paying off: in 2014 about 20 percent of the lumber for the 62nd sengu will come from these woods. That will be the first time in 700 years, and the thought makes Murase's eyes sparkle.

"Inside the shrine precincts," he says, "there are cedars marked 'candidates for great trees.' They've been set aside for lumber to be used 200 years from now. We will nurture them to grow until they reach a diameter of more than 1 meter."

In rebuilding the shrine there's a ceremony called misoma-hajimesai for cutting the most auspicious tree—the wood that will enshrine the goshintai (object of worship where the deity's spirit dwells). The 1,300-year-old tradition requires that three persons wield their axes from three different directions. Murase says, "This is the quintessential way to cut a tree. Unless it is done right, the tree will not be cut properly—even if we use a chain saw."

Young forestry staff train for the ceremony, practicing proper axe handling and traditional wood-cutting methods. Before they begin, they must obtain permission to fell the trees from the gods of the forest. We observed a practice session. Removing their helmets, the young men politely bowed to the trees, deliberately lifted their axes, and started cutting. Shouting words of encouragement, they finally felled one tree after about an hour. Then they placed the treetop in the center of the stump and performed kabu-matsuri (tree-felling ceremony).

"In this way," Murase explains, "we present the gods of the forest with the root and top of the tree. It expresses our intention of taking only the middle and returning the rest to the gods."

In accordance, Murase and his young staff inserted the treetop into the stump. It would take less than 5 minutes to cut a 200- or 300-year-old tree with a chain saw. However, a reverent mindset and proper etiquette are necessary to cut a tree that has been living for so long.

This mindset and the accompanying skills have been handed down at Ise Shrine through the shikinen sengu ceremony. By rebuilding once every 20 years and transferring the deity to a new dwelling, the deity gains renewed power and spirit, rejuvenating the strength of the nation. The grand ceremony, unparalleled anywhere in the world, has extended respect and skills across generations, preserving the cycle of nature and nurturing both the forest and the hearts of the Japanese people.

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