Photos by Mary King

The mother of all Shinto temples, Ise Grand Shrine is the spiritual home of the Japanese nation. Mary King takes a pilgrimage.

Down the ages various rumors and tales have circulated about the sacred mirror of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. It was once said that whoever laid eyes on the mirror would immediately be struck blind, a possible deterrent for would-be thieves. Others have claimed to have seen the mirror and reported that it is inscribed with ancient Hebrew lettering, reading “eheyeh asher eheyeh,” the name of the Judaic-Christian God written in Exodus 3:14 and meaning “I AM THAT I AM.”

Heavenly abode
Japan’s sacred mirror, one of three items of the Imperial Regalia, is kept in the Inner Shrine (Naiku) at Ise Grand Shrine, a sanctuary that many visitors to the Mie Prefecture city of Ise are astonished to discover they are not allowed to enter or even see. Ise Jingu, popularly known as “O-Ise-san,” or officially “Jingu,” holds the most honored position among the more than 100,000 Shinto shrines that are scattered throughout the breadth of Japan.

The site of the nation’s most Holy of Holies, and boasting some of the world’s greatest architectural monuments, Jingu is also home to some of the simplest and most mysterious structures. Described as the “starting point for all journeys in Japan,” Ise is regarded as the spiritual home of the Japanese, a place to which most wish to make at least one pilgrimage to in their lives. In fact, more than six million pilgrims and worshipers come to Jingu each year, crossing the Uji Bridge spanning the sacred Isuzu River to symbolically leave behind the temporal world and enter a “pure world” of kami (gods and spirits) and the ancient mythology of the land.

Passing through the second huge torii at the end of Uji Bridge, a long gravel approach leads you through a natural cathedral of towering cryptomeria. Pilgrim and tourist alike are taken on a divine journey toward the Naiku and Geku, where Amaterasu and Toyouke (God of Abundant Food) are respectively worshipped. It is an unforgettable odyssey, one that spirits you back to the country’s earliest recorded “history” that tells of the “Age of Kami,” the creation of Japan and the origins of its people right through to the Imperial line and succeeding generations of emperors and empresses.

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The auxiliary shrines resemble ancient granaries

The Geku (Outer Shrine) was dedicated to the grain deity Toyouke, possibly in a bid to bolster the new imperial cult that started, according to the myth, when Amaterasu sent her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, down to earth to rule. The Sun Goddess handed her grandson the mirror that had lured her out of her cave, along with Susano’s sword, and a curved jewel. The mirror (yata no kagami), along with the jewel and sword, remain the Three Imperial Regalia, symbols of divine authority, and to this day the emperor conducts rites to ensure a bountiful harvest as well as secret rituals in which he symbolically mates with the Sun Goddess. The high priestess of Ise, meanwhile, has traditionally been an Imperial princess, reflecting the nation’s early history of shamanesses, priestesses and ruling empresses.

Having passed through large open grounds and crossed over a small bridge (hiyokebashi), you gradually move towards the more sacred area of the Naiku. To the right of the main pilgrimage path is located a font for the ablutions made by pilgrims prior to proceeding toward the main sanctuary grounds. Beyond the daiichi torii (first sacred gateway) are steps that lead to the Isuzu River, where since ancient times pilgrims have purified their body and mind by washing their hands in, and rinsing their mouths with, the waters of this sacred river. According to Shinto thought, one’s pure mind and body given by the kami must be ritually cleansed so as to return to a state of purity.

Amaterasu Omikami is enshrined in the main sanctuary building, the Goshoden, of the inner sanctum of Naiku, in which the august mirror, her symbol or goshintai, is kept and worshipped. As they are considered most sacred, pilgrims or other visitors may see neither the mirror nor the main sanctuary. In fact, the only people allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, according to my guide, are members of the Imperial Family, although on one occasion, it is rumored, Queen Elizabeth was invited in.

Except for the exalted mirror, all of Jingu’s other sacred shrines and objects must be reconstructed in synch with each 20-year Shikinen Sengyo cycle. The elaborate transference procession and ceremony involves the remaking of some 491 holy treasures, 1600 accessories and 125 kinds of sacred apparel that are then put in their proscribed places by the priests. Formerly used objects are kept in the nearby Jingu History Museum, which is open to the public.

It is possible to find two absolutely identical Naiku and Geku standing side by side-one old, one new. In time the older one will be deconstructed and its wooden parts, now forever consecrated, recycled as repair pieces for other shrines around Japan. The newer one-once the transference of holy objects has been consummated-hence replaces the old as a locus of veneration.

The shrines themselves are thought to resemble ancient granaries or storehouses and are built from Japanese cypress (hinoki) from the Kiso forestry preserves extending between the Gifu and Nagano Prefectures. Befitting the reverence accorded to these sanctified building blocks, death, loss of a limb, or imprisonment have, over the centuries, been the penalties for felling these jewels. A visit to the majestic Ise shrine allows one to understand why.

Where to stay:
Oaken, tel: 059-622-2589; Hinodekan, Tel: 059-628-2954; Saekikan, tel: 059-628-2017; Okubun, tel: 059-628-2231.
Ise City Tourist Information, tel: 059-623-9655.

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