Ise Shinto Temple, Geku Outer Shrine, Shinto priests at entrance to shrine
Ise Shinto Temple, Geku Outer Shrine, Shinto priests at entrance to shrine (Enlarge)

Since ancient times, the Japanese people have lived in accordance with nature. All over Japan, there are consecrated rocks and evergreen trees in which Kami (supernatural beings) reside, as well as sanctuaries, generally called jinja, in which Kami are enshrined and which usually consist of a building surrounded by a grove of trees. According to Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, Kami are worshipped in matsuri, which include solemn ceremonial occasions as well as festivals at the local level.

There are more than 100,000 Shinto sanctuaries in Japan, which are at the center of spiritual life of the country. Historically, Jingu, the Grand Shrine of Ise, has held the most honored place among all the Shinto temples. It is considered to be the spiritual home of the Japanese people, most of whom wish to make a pilgrimage to Jingu at least once during their lifetime. In fact, more than six million pilgrims and worshippers come to Jingu every year.

Ise, Geku Outer Shrine
Ise, Geku Outer Shrine (Enlarge)

Popularly known as “O-Ise-san” or officially as Jingu, Ise Jingu is principally composed of the Naiku and Geku shrines, where the supreme deity Amaterasu Omikami and the great deity Toyouke Omikami are worshiped, respectively. Both the Naiku and Geku shrines are set amidst ancient forest groves with hundreds of towering Cryptomeria trees. In addition, Jingu also includes fourteen auxiliary sanctuaries, as well as one hundred and nine lesser sanctuaries.

Access to both the Naiku and Geku shrines is strictly limited to certain high ranking priests and priestesses and members of the royal family, with the common public allowed to see little more than the thatched roofs of the central structures, hidden behind four tall wooden fences. The High Priest or Priestess of Jingu shrine complex must come from the Japanese Imperial Family, and is responsible for watching over the Shrines.

Ise, Naiku Inner Shrine, pilgrims at Kotaijinge main shrine
Ise, Naiku Inner Shrine, pilgrims at Kotaijinge main shrine (Enlarge)

It is believed that the Jingu shrines of Naiku and Geku were first constructed in the fifth century A.D. Since the seventh century A.D., the Naiku, Geku, and their respective auxiliary sanctuaries have been rebuilt every twenty years and the symbols of the Kami they enshrine have been ceremoniously transferred in solemn nocturnal ceremonies from the old sanctuary buildings to newly reconstructed buildings in their adjoining sanctuaries. This ceremonial system, referred to as Shikinen Sengu, is thought of as an elaborate Kannamesai (Offering of the First Fruits) ceremony. It involves the reconstruction of the sanctuary buildings as well as the renewal of the sacred apparel and treasures, which are carried to the new sanctuary buildings along with the symbol of the Kami on the occasion of the Sengyo (Transfer) ceremony. By performing the Shikinen Sengu every twenty years, the Japanese people receive renewed blessings from their Kami and pray for peace in the world.

The hills beyond Jingu are part of the sacred grounds of Naiku and until the Middle Ages, all of the timber used in the reconstruction of the sanctuaries of Jingu, on the occasion of the Shikinen Sengu, was obtained from these forests. Since that time, however, the 13,500 trees necessary for the Shikinen Sengu have been obtained from forests in other regions of the country. During the Shikinen Sengu, the former sanctuary buildings are deconstructed. Their materials, which are considered sacred, are distributed to other sanctuaries in the Ise region and elsewhere in Japan to be used in construction and reconstruction of other temple buildings.

Ise, Naiku Inner Shrine, pilgrims at Kotaijinge main shrine
Ise, Naiku Inner Shrine, pilgrims at Kotaijinge main shrine (Enlarge)

In the lead-up to the rebuilding of the shrines, a number of festivals are held to mark special events. The Okihiki Festival is held in the spring over two consecutive years and involves people from surrounding towns dragging huge wooden logs through the streets of Ise to Naikū and Gekū. The present buildings, dating from 1993, are the 61st iteration to date and are scheduled for rebuilding in 2013.

The most important annual festival held at Ise Shrine is the Kannamesai Festival. Held in October each year, this ritual makes offerings of the first harvest of crops for the season to Amaterasu. An imperial envoy carries the offering of rice harvested by the Emperor himself to Ise, as well as five-colored silk cloth and other materials, called heihaku.

Approximately fifteen kilometers east of the city of Ise, and directly on the seacoast, is the small shrine of Futami Okitama. Two rocks rising from the sea about one-hundred meters from the shrine are known as Meotoiwa. The Meotoiwa, which comprises the 9 meter-high Male Rock and the 4 meter-high Female Rock connected together with an enormous rope, has been a famous symbol of matchmaking as well as a place of worship since ancient times. The site is considered auspicious for married or courting couples.

Meotoiwa, Okitama Shrine, painting of sacred rocks at entrance of shrine
Meotoiwa, Okitama Shrine, painting of sacred rocks at entrance of shrine (Enlarge)

Meotoiwa, Okitama Shrine
Meotoiwa, Okitama Shrine (Enlarge)

Meotoiwa-iwa rocks, Okitama Shrine
Meotoiwa-iwa rocks, Okitama Shrine (Enlarge)
Martin Gray is a cultural anthropologist, writer and photographer specializing in the study of pilgrimage traditions and sacred sites around the world. During a 40 year period he has visited more than 2000 pilgrimage places in 165 countries. The World Pilgrimage Guide at is the most comprehensive source of information on this subject.

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