Mie Prefecture Ise Jingu

A vehicle for interacting with powerful forces

Ise’s Jingu shrine is a place where we feel pure, and sense holiness. It is not a sanctuary regulated by scriptures and taboos, but possesses a rare perfection as a mechanism that allows people to freely and directly face powerful forces, like life and the universe. In ancient Japan, instead of building grand idols or monuments, people created shrines--yashiro--that embrace the emptiness within. People are inspired by the holiness of the universe, of life, within a pure space erected as a yorishiro for the kami, a physical space or abode that has been cleansed to celebrate the Deity, rather than a solemn Buddhist statue or dazzling architecture boasting of its appearance.

In ancient times, Japanese people surmised that wisdom is found within nature. The kami, heavenly deities or gods, are symbols of that wisdom. So there may be gods dancing in the sky, or squatting near a village, or seven gods dwelling on a grain of rice. The phrase Yao yorozu no kami (literally, eight million, i.e.: countless, deities) expresses the omnipresence of the sacred in this world. Simply put, the core of a jinja (Shinto shrine) is “emptiness”, in which people sense the existence of gods. Because emptiness is the very potential to be fulfilled, the omnipresent gods never fail to notice it.

The jinja is composed of yashiro, placed in the center, to represent emptiness, kaki that surround the yashiro, and torii, indicating a gateway at the entrance to the shrine. Worshippers cross a bridge to enter the sanctuary, pass through several torii and arrive at the shogu (main shrine), which is surrounded by kaki. They pause there, and interact with gods by offering prayers of their own toward the unseen space behind the Mitobari white curtain. There are multiple ways of offering prayers and the deities are imagined in many forms. However, the Jingu embraces all of them transcendentally.

The preeminent deity of the eight million is Amaterasu Omikami, the goddess likened to the sun. While the Jingu is centered on two main shrines, the Naiku (inner shrine) where Amaterasu Omikami is enshrined, and the Geku (outer shrine), which is dedicated to Toyoukeno Omikami, the goddess who looks after the Amaterasu Omikami, there are an additional 14 annex shrines.

The Jingu is a vehicle, and at the same time, an activity. People have continually offered to the deities the best things we humans can offer, a practice that has been handed down since ancient times, for more than one thousand and several hundred years. This activity is representative of Ise’s Jingu; in terms of food or of festivals or of kagura and gagaku (traditional performance of music and dance), all of these activities are related to the process of driving out evil spirits and seeking inner purity, while bringing forth pure and immaculate things, moment by moment, day after day, in continual dedication to the gods.

Take the example of the ceremony known as Higoto Asayu Omikesai, a twice daily service of meals (mike) to the deities, performed every morning and afternoon. Each morning, priests make kibi fire, draw water from a special well in the sanctuary, prepare--especially for this ceremony--rice and vegetables grown in the Jingu’s fields, salt from the Jingu’s salt field, red sea beam, bonito and kelp, and so forth; all of these, after use, are collected in an unglazed container to be returned to the earth, then placed in an oribitsu (bowl), which is in turn placed in a karahitsu (chest) and carried to the Mikeden, the outer shrine’s sacred dining hall. We are not allowed to watch these proceedings, but the method of this practice is thoroughly disciplined.

Ise Shrine is reconstructed every 20 years; all the shrines’ architectural plans are redrawn, new shrines are built, and the old ones are dismantled. The tradition, the legacy, is not preserving the shrine, but creating it anew. The resulting inevitable infinitesimal differences relate to the modus operandi of constantly evolving living entities. The raised-floor architecture style in the Yayoi period (1000 BC - 300 AD) might not have come from Eurasia but from far, far away from the Pacific Ocean, but thanks to the nearly unbroken 1,300-year history of the Shikinen Sengu ceremony, in which the shrine is rebuilt every two decades, it has evolved into a pure Japanese entity.

*Ise Jingu is considered Japan’s most sacred shrine and the Shinto religion’s spiritual home.