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Ise Jingu

Japan In-depth

Among the countless sacred places all over Japan, Ise Jingu is special. This is where the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, the supreme deity in the Shinto pantheon and the mythological ancestor of the Imperial Family, is enshrined. Consequently, Ise Jingu (or simply Jingu, as the official name is) is the holiest site in the whole country. Recently, it has also come to attention as a “power spot,” a source of mystical energy. However, pilgrimages to Ise Jingu were popular already in the Edo Period, in the 18th-19th century. For people at that time, a long journey was a once-in-a-lifetime event from which they may never return, so before their departure, they exchanged cups of water with family and friends as a ritual of farewell and purification. A pilgrimage to Ise was also a way to cleanse oneself of the accumulated grime of life.
 

From ancient times, wherever Japanese people lived, there would be a kami (deity) dwelling there as well. As the country coalesced into a nation state, all these many local kami were organized around the most powerful ones. At the top of the list was Amaterasu, who is worshipped in the inner shrine (Naiku) at Ise Jingu. The kami enshrined in the outer shrine (Geku) is called Toyoke Omikami, the goddess of agriculture and industry. The inner and outer shrines are located about 6 kilometers apart in Ise City, which lies south of Nagoya, southeast of Kyoto and east of the Kii Peninsula.
 

To visit Naiku, you must first pass through the great torii gate and over the wooden Uji Bridge. Then the path follows the beautiful, clear stream of the Isuzu river and into a dense grove of giant cedar trees. This path is meticulously swept every morning, and you won’t see a single piece of litter anywhere. On both sides of the path is virgin forest, untouched by human hands. In the middle of this primeval nature, a space has been cleared. This is where the kami appears. First-time visitors are always struck by the contrast here between the natural and the man-made. As you turn right on the path and follow the slight slope downhill through the forest, you come to a place to wash your hands and rinse your mouth with water from the Isuzu river. In Japan, it is essential to be clean in both mind and body when you call on the gods. They all loathe impurity. For that reason, every shrine in Japan, no matter how large or small, always has a place to wash your hands and rinse your mouth. When you have finished with your ablutions and continue along the path, a flight of stone steps appear to the left. At the top of those steps is the main hall, where the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami is enshrined.
 
Amazingly, this main hall, which was first constructed in the 7th century, has been rebuilt every 20 years for the past 1300 years. This ceremony is called Shikinen Sengu, and the next one is scheduled for 2013. The architecture of the hall is reminiscent of ancient rice granaries, and rebuilding the shrine every 20 years is a way of passing this time-honored style and the technique down through the generations. Maybe this tradition of regularly replacing a building with an exact copy is a peculiar feature of Japanese culture. This is true when Japanese cities are rebuilt as well. Few, if any, old buildings are left standing. Everything is built anew. Perhaps constant renewal is the real Japanese style.
 
In Japanese mythology, Amaterasu was the ruler of Takamagahara, the High Plain of Heaven, while her younger brother Susanoo was the god of storms and the sea. He, however, was a rather rowdy character and went on a rampage in Takamagahara. This so saddened his sister Amaterasu that she shut herself into a cave called Ama-no-Iwato and the whole world went dark. Now, the eight million remaining kami in Takamagahara were in a pinch, and decided to hold a festival outside the cave. Amaterasu became curious what was going on, and as she took a peek, the kami who had gathered outside managed to lure her out of her cave and back into the world. Susanoo was banished from Takamagahara, and eventually settled in Izumo. One of his descendants was a kami named Okuninushi. Let’s move on to our next sacred spot, Izumo Taisha, where it is Okuninushi who is enshrined.
 
Access
From Tokyo:
Take the Shinkansen to Nagoya, and change to the Kintetsu Super Express to Ujiyamada Station (approx. 3 hours).
From Osaka:
From Osaka Uehonmachi Station, take the Kintetsu Super Express to Ujiyamada Station (1 hour 30 minutes).
From Kyoto:
Take the Kintetsu Super Express to Ujiyamada Station (2 hours 10 minutes).
 

Area Map



 
Information about attractions in the vicinity
Iseshima Convention & Visitors Organization
http://www.iseshima-kanko.jp/en/index.html

Toba City Tourist Council
http://www.toba.or.jp/english/index.html
 

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