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Ise Grand Shrine

Updated: May 8

I drove to the city of Ise from Magome, after finishing my tour of the Nakasendo trail. It was a fairly long drive, through open stretches of country as well as through more traffic-heavy toll roads around the city of Nagoya. When I finally escaped the toll roads I was quite grateful to be back in the open country. Furthermore, passing from the Nakasendo trail area into the part of Japan south of Nagoya I noticed a palpable shift in the air, the nature, and the atmosphere. It was like I'd suddenly come to a different part of the country, someplace slightly more lush but also somehow with a heavier atmosphere.

Initially, I planned two stops that didn't pan out for different reasons. One, to a famous flower garden just south of Nagoya, which I abandoned when I realized the entry fee was an expensive 2,500 Yen. Second, there was a shrine along the way to Ise which claimed to date back to 3 BCE - surely making it one of the oldest religious structures in the world. Unfortunately, I couldn't find an exit off the toll roads at the relevant turnoff which would accept cash (Japan relies largely on an electronic toll-road system called ETC, which automatically deducts payments). Thus, I was forced to abandon this stop as well.

A simple, if precious, stop was however achieved when we successfully located an owl cafe along our route. The cafe was owned by a funeral parlor next door - a somewhat ironic and scary thought, when you consider owl's stand for death in many cultures - and was full of real live owls. Most of these (and the bigger ones) were locked in a glass room seperate from the main drinking area. There was, however, one tiny and extremely friendly barn owl which perched in the cafe sitting area. We were allowed to pet the owl, and all thoroughly enjoyed doing so (the barn owl sort of shook and danced as we pet it, which I'd like to think means it enjoyed the attention as well).

By the time we made it to Ise we were beyond exhausted. The heaviness we felt upon entering Mie prefecture, the area south of Nagoya, seemed to only increase as we continued. The city of Ise was impressive in many ways, however, with an almost bohemian vibe to it. There was a cobblestone street along the downtown with many nice cafes and restaurants, and our hostel for that night was designed like a large, circular treehouse (complete with fake parrots on the rafters). It was definitely an unsual visitation.

We stayed one night and one morning in Ise. The purpose of our visit was to visit the Grand shrine of Ise, which is the number one most important and holy site of the Shinto faith in Japan. The shrine at Ise housed the mirror of Amaterasu, a relic said to contain a direct link to the sun goddess herself. This made it, in essence, the shrine of that goddess - the founding diety of Japan, and the deity from whom it was said the emperor descended and inherited his own divine status.

As it turned out, Ise was more than just the home of a single Grand shrine, however. It seemed more appropriate to describe the entire city as something of a shrine complex dedicated to a number of important shrines and Kami (somewhere, I read that there were 25 main shrines and at least 100 altogether). Even regarding the purpose of our visit, the Grand Shrine dedicated to the Kami Amaterasu, it turned out this shrine was split into an inner and an outer shrine, and it was customary to begin with a visit to the outer first. So, that night we walked from our hostel to the outer shrine and explored the complex.

Cobblestone path from downtown to outer shrine

Entrance to the outer shrine

To describe it as beautiful or majestic falls short of exactly the feeling of the shrines we saw there. Perhaps in part due to the overcast and lightly rainy weather, there was something at the same time oppressive, anxious, mystical, and soothing about the experience. All of these feelings were, perhaps, natural to feel at a shrine complex of such grand and grave import to the national religion and heritage. As usual, we purified ourselves at the purification basin at the entry to the shrine, then walked in through the front Tori (stone arch) gates into the foresty shrine complex.

Purification Basin

Bamboo cups for purification

Tori stone archway into the complex

The complex seemed to sort of branch into a number of different buildings, each dedicated to different Kami. In truth I don't know what each building stood for. However, there were many Japanese visitors weaving in and out of the different shrines, lining up for their turn to give the customary two claps and two bows. I recount at least four shrines, including one at the back of the complex, two to the left, and one up a hill above the former two.

Initial temple, manned by priests and priestesses.

One of the two shrines to the left-side of the complex, after the initial temple.

The second of the two shrines to the left-side

The shrine that struck me the most, however, was the one at the back. This one stood behind a wooden wall. Once you crossed the wall into the shrine precincts, you immediately noticed the Shinto priest seated to the left of the main altar, as well as the many posters saying that photographs were not allowed. In respect of the posters, I didn't take any photos.

Outer wooden wall of the final shrine

I wish I could, however, for what stood behind the wooden wall was truly a sight to behold. Whereas most shrines simply contained a small altar, and maybe a wooden box meant for money offerings, this one possesed a massive gateway. Furthermore, droped over the gateway was a long, silken white veil which fluttered and danced in the wind, as if possessed by spirits itself. Never has a religious symbolism been more clear to me - the white veil represented a divide, a barrier between the world of man and the world of Kami and spirits beyond. It was a sight that took my breath away, caused the hairs on my arms to stand, and left me feeling cold with fear and awe.

Inside, there is a shrinto priest (back) and main alter (right), where the white-veil hangs

Directly to the left of this is the white veil. Out of respect, I left it outside the photo.

On exiting the complex, I almost felt relieved. At the same time, however, I felt profoundly influenced by the experienced. I made sure to stop at the shrine manned by temple priests and priestesses near the entrance to get my Gashuin stamp (every temple as its own version, and they are hand made on the spot). Then, I took sometime to observe the rain gently falling before leaving the outer shrine.

The next day, I woke up early to see the inner, main shrine. This experience was quite different from the first, and if I may say, a bit less austere and intense. I am not sure if it is because the weather improved or if the inner shrine simply has a warmer, more inviting feeling to it. But, my visit to the inner shrine was far gentler and more festive than to the outer.

I took a bus to the inner shrine, which took about 40 minutes from my hostel. Once I arrived, I realized that there was actually a large edo-style village built just outside the shrine complex as well, in much the same style as we'd seen at the Nakasendo trail. This village was even larger, in fact, than the others we'd seen.

Some of photos of the village (morning)

Not so crowded at 8 am, yet

Everyone is traveling down this road, towards the inner shrine

At the early hour we arrived almost nothing was open (except Starbucks, ironically, established almost sacriligiously in one of the preserved edo-era buildings). We grabbed a quick breakfast at the Starbucks, enjoying the sight of a sleeping cat outside. Then, we enjoyed a pleasant stroll through the town before making our way to the long bridge which led into the inner sanctum of the Grand Ise Shrine.

Starbucks of Grand Ise

Lazy cats of the shrine

I read that both the bridge and the entire shrine complex was ritually rebuilt every twenty years. Perhaps for that reason, it seemed in quite a good and new condition. The bridge crossed over a large river, and even at this early hour there were thick crowds of worshippers coming to pay their respects.

Crossing the bridge

Lots of people wanted to touch these little metal columns on the bridge. I wonder why

The crowds led us down this way, to the right

To make things easy, we simply followed the crowd, which led us to the right, past an area where people could walk down to the river to purify themselves directly in the water, past a temple building manned by priests and priestesses (and selling temple charms and stamps), to a large building which was clearly the main shrine. At the base of the shrine were a number of trees with bamboo wrappings around the base (I later learned these were reserved for trees thought to have ascended to Kami-states). Then, there were a few short stairs to climb before one arrived at the main temple of Amaterasu.

The first temple, a place to buy charms and stamps

Priests and Priestesses hard at work making sacred charms and stamps

Some worshippers at the first temple - not sure what this temple is dedicated to

Entrance to the "Priest's" main temple

Pathway from first temple towards the shrine of Amaterasu

Steps leading up to the shrine of Amaterasu

Sacred trees at the base of the shrine

The first shrine to Amaterasu, as seen from below

Once again, there stood a white veil over the front altar (a large arch). This time, however, I found the veil almost familiar and calming. I stood for a while and watched as the worshippers paid their respect to this, the holiest of all places in Shinto.

What can I say about this shrine? It was a simple place, not like elaborate cathedrals in Europe or mosques in the Middle-East. The temple was more the forest itself, than any one building or architectural feat. But the end result was that you felt the sacredness of the temple all around you, in the trees, in the air, in the river, and of course, ultimately flowing into yourself too. It was very peaceful. It was, I think, a very sacred place.

Was Amaterasu really there, hidden behind the wooden walls of the temple, hidden away in her eternal, divine mirror? Who can say. Some secrets, only a few are ever privelaged to know the answer to.

I stayed and watched for a while as a family were led direclty into the off-limits area within the shrine (and beyond the altar), which was simply an open field of grass and moss set before a second shrine at the back of the structure. The man was older, slightly balding, and dressed like a successful Japanese salary man - dark business suit, tall posture with shoulders erect, arms barely moving as he walked, a serious, unsmiling expression. Next to him was a woman dressed in a formal black dress-suit with a long skirt, with her hair in a ponytail and red lipstick. She seemed older, maybe late middle-age, and it was hard to tell if she was the man's wife or his mother (I assumed his mother, from her wrinkled face). And completing the trio was a young girl dressed in a pink shirt and skirt, no more than six years old if I had to guess. Together, they were led by the priest into the shrine at the back of the sanctum, where all of them - even the little girl - gave a long, deep bow before their founding Kami, clapped, prayed, and then were led slowly and quietly out of the sanctum once more.

I couldn't photograph this family at the time. But saw them on the way to the next shrine.

I left then as well, and continued to follow the crowd. The crowd led me to another shrine behind the first, a short ways back. Reading the signs around the shrine, I learned that the shrine I was at now was the compliment of the first shrine - Amaterasu, as a Kami, was said to have two sides to her: a gentle and a fierce side. The first shrine was to the gentle and passive face of the Kami. This second shrine was to her severe, active side. Nonetheless, I found the shrine a pleasant experience, and stood a long time in line for the opportunity to bow and clap at the main altar (I'm sure it must have seemed funny to the Japanese people around us, seeing some Westerners from outside their faith and culture perform their rituals). I stood in the prayer pose, but, decided not to pray for anything. I didn't really believe in prayer anymore, anyways. So, I just took the praying as an opportunity to feel at peace with the shrine, and to enjoy its presence.

The second shrine was...crowded.

After that, I followed the crowds back out again. There was a final shrine they led us past briefly, over a smaller bridge to the alter of some water Kami it seemed. I didn't feel the need to clap at this point. I simply observed the crowds passing and going for a few moments (including a couple who, I believe, had hired a professional wedding photographer to photgraph them at different points in the complex). Then, I made my way for the exit, stopping only briefly to get my Gashuin stamp.

Entrance to the shrine of the water Kami

A young couple in Kimono, walking to the shrine

Here, we see the couple pay their respects to the shrine together

The large river surrounding the inner sanctum

Many people stopped here to touch the water in the river.

I crossed over the long bridge again, feeling complete with my visit to Ise. There were many other shrines, to be sure - the shrine to Tsukiyome, the moon Kami, was particularly tempting for example. But, I felt I had seen what I needed to. Perhaps, as much as I could handle to even. I walked back into the town which was now alive with street vendors, restaurants, artistans, and the like, until I found a very pleasant little cafe right overlooking the river.

The town full of life, around 11 am

One of the many food vendors in the town

Seemed to be a lot of people there with their dogs, for some reason

There, I had a cup of coffee, enjoyed the special place that was the Grand Ise Shrine for a few minutes longer, then prepared for my departure from the city. An hour later and I was in my car again with my travel companions, on our way to pay a visit to our final destination - the great Buddhist temple complex at Koyasan.


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