Today, I visited one of the places that I had personally asked the travel company to put in the itinerary, and one of the places I have been the most excited about visiting, the Ise Grand Shrine. The Ise Grand Shrine is the most sacred shrine in all of Shintoism and is embedded deep within a large Japanese cedar forest. To get to Ise from Takayama took quite a bit of travel. First I boarded a train to Nagoya, which lasted about two hours, then I took a train to Ise which was another hour and a half. After the long journey, I got off the train and walked to my hotel. Once I was checked in and had dropped off my luggage in my room, I learned that the Grand Shrine was divided into two different shrines, Geku and Naiku. The woman at the hotel desk informed me that while Naiku is the most famous of the shrines, it is traditional to go to Geku first and then make your way to Naiku. So I made the short walk from the hotel to Geku. Across the street from Geku, there was a Ise tourist information booth and I found an English guide to the shrines which was very interesting. The Geku shrine is dedicated to Tokyouke, the goddess of agriculture and industry. Geku is said to have been built in 478 A.D. There are multiple shrines within Geku to various kami that assist in the harvest, such as the wind and rain kami, but the main shrine is in the center. The main shrine is the most impressive I had seen yet in Japan. While I was only able to take a picture from a distance, the shrine behind the altar is beautiful.
Behind the main altar is a path way marked with white stones in a courtyard of black stones. The pathway leads back to the inner shrine which is accessible only by the Shinto priests who attend to Geku. The doorway which marks the entrance to the inner shrine is adorned with a large cross beam cut from a single Japanese cedar tree and it is covered in bronze which shimmered brightly in the sun. It was incredible to look at.
I left Geku and took the bus to Naiku. Naiku is the absolute most important shrine in Shintoism and is dedicated to the sun goddess, Amaterasu. Just inside the entrance to Naiku is a large wooden bridge over the Isuzugawa River. On the other side of the bridge is a large courtyard which is neatly decorated with Japanese gardens on either side. The Kamijiyama mountains in the background make for quite a breathtaking view.
I decided that I wanted to pray at Naiku as it is the most holy shrine, so I went to the washing station and physically purified myself. Through the next torii gate was a hall kalled the Kaguraden, which is translated to ‘place where the gods play.’ Here the Shinto priests and honored guests play traditional Japanese music after every formal ceremony to entertain the kami. Further in, were the steps which led to the main shrine. Like Geku, photography was forbidden within the main shrine, but I took a picture from down the steps.
Once I reached the top of the steps, I pulled out a 5 yen coin which is traditionally what is offered, and began the praying ritual. First you throw the coin into the offering on the alter. Next you bow twice, after which you clap twice. Since the kami cannot be everywhere at once, the clapping is said to alert the kami and bring it to that shrine. It is after these claps that you make your prayers. Finally, you bow again and walk back from the altar. After I prayed, I peaked over the wooden fence into the courtyard behind the altar. Again, there was a path made of white stone which contrasted starkly with the black stones in the rest of the courtyard. The path led to the gate to the inner shrine which only the priests and the Japanese royal family are allowed to enter. According to legend, the Japanese emperor’s bloodline is said to be descended from Ameterasu, and therefore, the Emperor and his wife play an important role in the shrine.
At both Geku and Naiku, there was a tremendous amout of construction going on. I eventually found an English speaking Shinto official who patrolled the shrine of Naiku. He told me that Ise Jingu has an important rite called Shikinen-Sengu, which is a rite of renewal. The concept of rebirth is an important pillar of Shintoism, and therefore, in accordance with this rite, the shrines of Ise Jingu are destroyed and rebuilt every 20 years. The new shrines are rebuilt in a location directly next to the old location. Since this rite takes about eight years in total to complete, there is a long period of construction in which the new shrine is being built. Next year will be the 62nd Shikinen-Sengu and thus, the 62nd time the shrine has been rebuilt.
On the way out of the shrine I purchased a charm to aide me in my future academic pursuits. I will need this help through the future actuarial exams! I made it to the bus stop and took the bus back to the hotel to end my day. But it was a very interesting day and I prayed at Ise Jinju which not many people, not even Japanese, get to do as the shrine and the city of Ise are somewhat isolated.
Tomorrow I get to see another of the items I personally requested be included in my itinerary, the wedded rocks, and then I move on to Kyoto to stay with a family for a few days. Until next time!