SYNOPSIS:  It may not be the most impressive shrine for tourists, but it is the most important Shinto shrine for Japan and one of the most austere and authentic ones, so I had to go:  About Ise, the imperial shrine.  About the question what it takes to justify unbearable costs.  And about the discipline of school children.  For some reason this is a very long blog.  I am sorry…  It’s just another shrine if you boil it right down.


Even the mighty Egyptians had to give up building pyramids at one point, most likely because the costs of creating one extravagant tomb per emperor whose construction would take decades — tying up most of the labor force of Egypt annually for four months (during flood season), and about 10% of the labor force for the rest of the year — was unsustainable.  We may associate Egypt foremost with pyramids, but in its 3000 years of existence, pyramids were only built for about 400 years.  The tomb construction at the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens that followed was sumptuous enough but could be accomplished at a fraction of the cost.  Who ultimately convinced the Egyptians of the new ways?  Were they even asked?  Was there resistance among the pharaohs?  What religious and doctrinal hoops did the priesthood have to jump through to accomplish this shift?   I don’t know any of these answers, but I realize that I will have to look that up when I am back and have some time.

Ise, according to tradition, is being rebuilt every twenty years to provide the gods with a shiny new home.  Since 673 AD, with one exception of a 100-year period during war in the middle ages, this shrine has been rebuilt.  2013 marked the 62nd time!  More and more I get the idea that shiny and new is more highly valued in Japan than old and rugged; in Shintoism it certainly seems to be so.  The rebuilding finished in 1973 for which I have data at hand, was done at a whopping $55 million.  That was in 1973.  That in turn means that this shrine, just in construction cost, will have to bring in about $2.5 million per year to pay for itself. That is not counting inflation of the last 40 years, and it is also not counting the upkeep of the large priesthood on payroll.  At festivals, dozens of them march out and they live and eat here…  I read somewhere that 1500 rituals are performed annually which somehow seems to bring some income and some justification for the large number of priests.  The rituals range from harvest festivals, to dedication ceremonies, to daily prayers and offerings to the gods.  Ultimately, is is likely the tax payers who will have to reach into their pockets, after all, this is the imperial shrine of Japan. Even though Japan looks like a modern democracy, one should not forget that there is still an emperor in the background.  Or is it possible, that this rebuilding still is done through private donations only as is recorded for the 1973 renewal?

20 years in the course of history is nothing.  I remember in 1993 when I was in graduate school, professor Kane lamented the impossibility to find large and mature enough trees in the forests to rebuild Ise.  The most mature trees needed to be 600-800 years old!  1973, 1993, that seems like yesterday!  Trees don’t grow that fast.  It could not have been any easier to find trees in 2013.  The forests of Japan are impressive but the appetite for wood is insatiable, given all the large beams needed for castle and shrine reconstruction.  In 1993 there was still equity from the legendary economic upswing Japan had experienced after World War II.  Even though the economic bubble was about to burst in Japan as well, Japan was still in great shape.   But now?  On the surface, Japan looks immaculate.  Hardly any homeless people, no outward poverty, no visible despair.  But one of the travelers I met who works here, mentioned that Japan has the highest suicide rate among middle aged, so-called “salary men”…  That is an alarming statistic.  And the stock market crashed in Japan as everywhere else…  Yet, Ise was rebuilt.  OK, as always, I am just thinking out loud raising more questions than I can provide answers.  That’s just what went through my mind when I approached Ise.

Ise is a small town and the Jingu as it is known, is split into two parts, the outer shrine called by its full name Kotai-Jingu Naiku.  You need to ride a bus for about 20 minutes to get there but of the two it is the more impressive one.  And then there is the inner shrine known as Toyoukedai-Jingu Geku.  You could reach it from the Ise station in about 5 minutes by foot.   Ise is the largest Shinto shrine I have seen so far.  It takes at least an hour to get around on foot at Naiku and a little less at Geku.  In my case, since I waited everywhere for people to get out of the way for pictures, you have to double or triple that time.

Ise is also the most austere and authentic shrine I have seen so far.  No red lacquer anywhere here.  And no mixing in with Buddhist practices either.  Straw, wood and gilded gables, clapping and bowing.  Nothing else.  It is very, very beautiful.  But once in a while I had to think to myself: everything looks like it came from Ikea…  😉

All the typical features of a Shinto shrine are present and a few extra ones: the famous Ujibashi Bridge quite literally divides the mundane from the sacred realm.  In addition to the ablution tank, a special area is used for ablution directly at the Isuzugawa River, whose waters are considered sacred.  And in addition to the main shrine there are several subsidiary shrines which are often more interesting as they are less hidden and closed off, revealing construction materials and building methods very nicely.  Some examples would be the Takimatsuri, a shrine dedicated to the river kami, the Kazahinominomiya, a very important shrine dedicated to the wind kami which is believed to have driven the Mongolians away in the late 13th century, or the Mishinenomikura, the kami affiliated with rice.

There are more walls and enclosures than at any other shrine I have seen — the main sanctuary is surrounded by four consecutive walls!  In addition to the priests whom you rarely see, other than during rituals or festivals, here there are a number of imperial guards.  Usually, worshippers at Shinto shrines are left to their own devices.  Here, these guards make sure that people like me behave and don’t take pictures of the inner courtyard or think of jumping the fence.  Just kidding!  It is way too high and of course, there are closed-circuit observation cameras, too.  After all this is the 21st century and this is the imperial shrine!

At Izumo-Taisha the creator god was worshipped.  Even though he is the most powerful of all the Shinto gods (you have to clap four times for him) he is not worshipped anywhere else unless you count his mythical marriage rocks, the Meotoiwa.  The most central goddess for Japan is his daughter Amaterasu, associated with one of the imperial jewels, the mirror, and the imperial lineage per se.  It is her grandson Ninigino Mikoto who is believed to have come down to earth to function as the first emperor of Japan.  This makes her the patron goddess of the imperial line.  It is at Ise that in her emanation as Amaterasu Omikami, she has her major shrine.  As anywhere, one does not get close to the god.  An entrance gate has a cloth obscuring the door, in front of which worshippers stand, pay homage and some money, clap their hands twice and make a wish.  At Ise you can not even walk around the compound to catch a glimpse of the back side of the shrine.  Ropes are preventing access everywhere and these imperial guards really guard…

What is unique to Ise is the fact that the 20 year rebuilding tradition requires two compounds per shrine.  After all, you can’t make the goddess or her symbol “homeless”!  While the new shrine is built, the old one functions up to the moment of transfer.  The actual transfer is a major affair known as Shikinen SenguWith pomp and ceremony the head priest and the full entourage of priests and dignitaries transfer the symbol of the god, the mirror, from the inner shrine of the old compound to the new home.  For a brief span of time therefore the two shrines will stand side by side.  Immediately the careful dismantling of the old shrine starts once it is no longer in use, but from start to finish months, if not years pass.  Usable parts of wood are actually shipped to other shrines in the country for needed repair work.   When the deconstruction is completed, nothing but a tiny gabled wooden structure of about 3×3 feet remains which marks the spot of the former sanctuary, the spot of the future shrine.

I was lucky enough, as it is just 2014, to see both phenomena.  I observed the side-by-side still in the remaining entrance and a couple of the the structures of the main shrine. And I saw the little marker structure in one of the subsidiary shrines where I actually could photograph it.  The Ujibashi bridge — as it is considered part of the holy shrine —  is rebuilt as well.  Here a row of the original bridge poles remains to indicate the location of the alternative bridge.  It was all quite fascinating even though it felt rather exclusive to be left out of so much.

If you pay the shrine a certain fee you may obtain the privilege to be led around by a priest between the first and the second fence and into the first court yard. There you can see a couple of the outer storage structures and yet another locked gate (looking just like the first one).  In fact, you can see that from where all the visitors can go.  That’s where the guards make sure you won’t take pictures (I got one before I was told.)  But if you pay, you are that much closer physically to the goddess.  It seems to be worth it to a few select.

Even though it was a weekday, throngs of people and school groups were out there.

Should we, the teachers of the world, be envious or scared?  There was a group of about 200 middle-school students attending the shrine.  Escorted by about half a dozen teachers, they marched in orderly and silently.  At certain points in the shrine they were gathered, instructed, divided into four groups and sent into various areas of the shrine to listen (and they did) to an explanation by their teacher.  Then they collectively worshipped, gathered back at the central point until all four units had congregated again.  Then they would proceed to the remaining three viewing points, intermittently gathering at the center.  There was no unruly conduct, no loud talking, no laughing, there was no running and no disturbance of the other hundreds of visitors.  There was utter discipline and cooperation…

I will have to ponder that.

Good night.