When I was studying abroad in 2008, I was lucky enough to take my first trip to Ise shrine. It was unreal to be surrounded by quiet and pristine nature not far from the hustle and bustle of Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo. Ise shrine, located in Mie prefrecture, is considered to be one of the most sacred places in Japan and is absolutely a place you should consider visiting. Before we learn more about the shrine itself, let’s look into what the Shinto religion is.
Shinto Religion Basics
Shinto is considered to be the only native religion to Japan. Worship of Shinto dates as far back as the Yayoi period (300 BC to 300 AD). In Shinto, there is no single entity, but rather multiple spirits called kami who inhabit the natural world (they can inhabit anything and everything). Nature is the link between the kami and its believers.
Shrines are where the kami are worshiped and can be small or large (note that temple is typically used for a Buddhist place of worship). A torii (pronounced tor-rhee) gate serves as the entry way to the larger shrines and is one of the most recognizable symbols of Shinto. Passing under a torii gate is considered a cleansing ritual. It is thought that once you pass through the gate you are entering the home of the kami. Cleanliness is one of the most important hallmarks of Shinto.
In fact, as you will read about later on, Shinto shrines can be destroyed and rebuilt in a similar area multiple times to ensure the shrine does not become polluted and the kami appeased. The practice was more common in the Edo period than it is now.
Close to a torii gate, you may notice a pairs of lions or dogs. Both of these animals are intended to scare away any malicious spirits. One will have its mouth open and the other will have its mouth closed.
Amaterasu and the 3 Treasures
According to Japanese mythology, Amaterasu, the sun goddess is the top kami. She is the rising sun, patron deity of Japan and has been worshiped for over 2,000 years. She is the daughter of Izanagi and Izanami (the two founding gods of Japan who dipped their spear into the ocean to create the Japanese home islands). I’ll cover the entire Japanese creation story in a future post.
There are 3 sacred treasure of Japan that also serve as the 3 symbols of Shinto are: the mirror, the sword and the jewel. The treasures represent the values of wisdom, valor and generosity and can all be connected to Amaterasu in one way or another. These 3 treasures, known as the Imperial Regalia, give the Japanese Emperor the right to rule and only appear together when a new Emperor takes the throne. It is important that the 3 treasures are all kept in separate places. Ise Shrine is said to house the mirror.
Visiting Ise‘s Inner and Outer Shrines
Ise is considered to be on of the sacred sites in the Shinto religion. The shrine itself is dedicated to Amaterasu and has been in continuous use for over 2000 years. As I mentioned earlier, purity and nature are very important in Shinto. The shrines of Ise are built from wood and natural materials. In order to ensure the shrine does not become polluted, it is rebuilt from scratch every 20 years! The last rebuilding was in 2013.
The wood is reused each time the shrine is rebuilt and does not go to waste. Should there be any materials left over, it is sent to other Shinto shrines to use around Japan. The architecture of the shrine is very distinct and pre-dates Buddhism. You can tell just by walking around Ise how Japan may have been in ancient times. The Ise shrine is surrounded by a lovely forest; decorations are simple in surrounding shrines compared to gold and more lavish decorations that typically adorn Buddhist temples.
The two main buildings in Ise are broken up into the inner (naiku) and outer (shoku) shrines. The inner and outer shrines are about 6 km apart and will take a bit of walking to reach. Before I go on, I want to mention that photography is not permitted within either of the two main buildings. The outer shrine is only about a 10 minute walk from the closest JR train stations (Ise-shi or Ujimada Stations) and will most likely be your first point of interest. You can take a bus from the outer to the inner shrine that will get you between the two locations in 10-15 minutes.
The outer shrine is technically dedicated to the deity of housing, food and clothing, Toyouke, and provides food to Amaterasu and is supposed to be visited before you visit the inner shrine. The entrance to everything at Ise is free except the Sengukan museum (entrance is 300 Yen). The Sengukan Museum is worth a visit if you would like an overview on the grounds and rebuilding process.
The outer shrine is slightly more accessible than the inner shrine and is surrounded by fences. Visitors can only go past the outer most gate and try to peek over the top of the fence to see what the outer shrine looks like. It has been in use for over 1500 years and is about 500 years younger than the inner shrine. If you do not speak Japanese, you may be disappointed to find that all of the boards are in Japanese. You will see a fountain to purify your hands and a board of wishes and blessings.
In my opinion, if you do not have time, skip the outer shrine and head for the inner shrine. The majority of tourists to Ise will only visit the inner shrine area. You will have a similar experience if you wish to visit both locations, but both the inner and outer shrine will put a unique perspective on ancient Japan to your visit.
In order to reach the inner shrine, you will have to cross over the Uji bridge, which is a wooden bridge built across the Isuzu river. Like the shrine, this is also rebuilt every 20 years. The crossing over the bridge and under the torii gates at either end “purify” you. You may see visitors going down to the river to cleanse themselves or even take some of the water home with them.
The inner shrine is not open to the public and is only open to select individuals of the Imperial family or high Shinto priests. You will still be able to see the fence that surrounds it, however. There are some excellent photos of the shrines on the official Ise website here. The inner shrine is where the sacred mirror is kept. It is never out on display; even at the Emperor’s coronation, the 3 treasures were wrapped up carefully not to be seen.
Should you need a little bit of a break, there is a small shopping street near the inner shrine entrance with some food booths and souvenirs catered to tourists called Oharaimachi. The buildings are styled after the Edo period and are a nice change from Tokyo and other modern Japanese cities. The station of Isuzugawa is about a 15 minute walk or 5 minute bus ride. On an especially busy day, it’s a nice escape to grab an ice cream, udon noodles or nice cold milk tea from. If you are planning to return to your hotel or base camp area after visiting the shrine, I would save the shopping until last so you don’t have to carry anything around.
The Ise grounds open as early as 5:00 AM and are generally open until 17:00 18:00 depending on the time of year. If you visit in summer or near any major holiday, be prepared for large crowds and heat. Japan is extremely humid in the summer. In winter, you can except snow and cold, wet weather. No matter when you choose to visit, you will not be disappointed.
I remember my 2008 visit to Ise as been peaceful and calming. I hope if you choose to spend time in Ise you have the same feeling. There is a lot of history at Ise shrine and it should be on your list of places to visit when you are in Japan. Ise can be done in a few hours; you may want to consider exploring other areas of Mie prefecture while you are in the area. Until next time, I hope you are staying safe out there!