Grand Shrine at Ise

Grand Shrine at Ise

Learn more about one of Japan's greatest Shinto shrines

In Japanese culture, one of the holiest sites in Japan is the Grand Shrine at Ise, located in Mie Prefecture (located east of Kyoto). There is some debate about how old the shrine actually is. Some believe it was first constructed by Japan’s first Emperor, Temmu, in 692 A.D, who took an already sacred Shinto site and turned it into the official cult shrine of Imperial Japan. Others believe that the shrine was built in stages at an earlier time, perhaps from the 3rd and 5th centuries A.D.

The shrine is composed of  two similar complexes. The Inner Shrine complex (also known as the Imperial Shrine) is the earliest complex and is dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami, who is still a powerful symbol in the Imperial family. The Outer Shrine complex is about 3.5 miles away and was built for Toyouke no Okami, the Grain Goddess. Japanese white cypress (hinoki) is used for all the building materials, including the roof, floors, and finishing.

The main building of the Inner Shrine is designed in a special form of architectural style, called shimmei-zukuri. This style is prohibited for other shrines. It’s simple rectangular design is said to derive from the granaries and treasure storehouses of prehistoric Japan.

One of the most notable features of the Ise Shrine is that it actually consists of two sites, only one of which holds the shrine complexes. Every 20 years, both shrines are completely torn down and rebuilt on the adjacent site. This purifies and renews the site, as well as preserves the architectural knowledge from the original design. The 62nd rebuilding is due to take place in 2013. The newly erected shrine is called “Ise-recreated,” following the Shinto idea that life is a process of life and death, rebirth and renewal, rather than simple building of monuments.

The empty site of the previous shrine is covered with small white pebbles, and the only structure there is a small wooden shed, called the oi-ya. Inside the oi-ya is a post about 7 feet tall, called the shin-no-mihashira, which will serve as the central post for the next time the shrine is rebuilt on this site. This wooden post is considered one of the most sacred and mysterious objects at Ise and is hidden from sight at all times.

The Ise Shrine is said to contain the sacred mirror Yata-no-kagami, one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan, also known as the Imperial Regalia of Japan. The mirror represents wisdom, and its residence at Ise makes this shrine an important symbol of the Imperial house.

(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 3/3/06. Author retains all copyrights.)


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