|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.”
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.
|The auxiliary shrines resemble
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
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.