It’s been a while since I did a travel blog, and one place in Japan that I’ve always wanted to go to and blog about is the Ise Jingu. Located on the Shima Peninsula in the Mie Prefecture, the Ise Jingu, or Ise Shrines, are the most sacred Shinto shrines in Japan. There are 125 shrines in total and over 1,500 rituals are conducted here year-round to pray for the prosperity of the Imperial family, peace and successful harvests.
There are two main shrines, which the other shrines are clustered around. The Outer Shrine (Geku) enshrines Toyouke Omikami, the Shinto deity of food, housing and clothing, and the Inner Shrine (Naiku) enshrines Shinto’s most venerated deity, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami.
One well-known myth about Amaterasu is her emergence from the Ama-no-Iwato (the heavenly rock cave). A long-standing rivalry with her older brother Susanoo, which escalated when he surprised her with a flayed horse and killed one of her attendants, caused her to hide away in a cave, hiding the sun with her. The desperate gods eventually tricked her to leave the cave using a sacred mirror – the world was bathed in light again and Susanoo was banished from Heaven as punishment.
The Naiku houses the sacred mirror, the Yata no Kagami, one of the three Imperial Regalia which symbolise the legitimacy of the Imperial line and are the most sacred items in Shinto religion. Only a few people have ever laid eyes on it, and the chief priest or priestess of the shrine must be a member of the Imperial Family, so this isn’t something you’ll be able to see if you visit the Naiku Shrine.
Visitors can reach the Naiku by crossing the long, wooden Uji Bridge over the sacred Isuzagawa River. It has two large torii gates made from the former shrine builder’s main pillars. The shrine itself is believed to have been established more than 2000 years ago and, impressively, is rebuilt from scratch every 20 years following an ancient Shinto tradition. It also shares very little in common with the other architecture of Asian mainland as it predates the introduction of Buddhism in Japan. The main hall, at the top of a stone staircase, enshrines Amaterasu and is surrounded by four rows of fences, and visitors are not allowed to go beyond the first fence or take photographs. There are also some smaller shrines surrounding the main hall, a riverside purification site using the Isuzugawa River waters, and the Kaguraden building complex where you can buy omamori charms.
The Outer Shrine (Geku) is about 500 years younger than the Inner Shrine but is also built every 20 years and shares its architectural style. Its grounds are smaller and explored on a simplistic gravel path surrounded by tall trees. Similar to the Naiku, its main building features distinctive forked roof finishings (chigi) and decorative wooden beams (katsuogi), and visitors can only go beyond the outermost fence and not allowed to use their cameras. In 2012, a museum was also added to the grounds which explains how the shrines are rebuilt every 20 years. English audio guides and pamphlets are available should you wish to visit.
The entire Ise Jingu grounds is roughly the same size of Paris, so you could easily spend a full day here. The Shima Peninsula itself is also worth a visit as it’s home to other attractions such as Mikimoto Pearl Island, Ago Bay and Meoto Iwa, two sacred rocks standing in the ocean. Ise City (Iseshi) can be reached by rail from Nagoya station. You can plan your exact route via the Japan Guide website.
Ise Jingu is a must-visit if you appreciate Japanese Shinto architecture and want to experience something more serene than the hustle and bustle of the big cities. I hope that I’ll be able to make it there one day…