Japan’s original, pre-historic religion was a form of nature worship that centered around a number of gods associated with certain natural elements and processes. Chief among them was Amaterasu, the sun god. Unlike most other sun gods around the world, Amaterasu was a female deity. She is the most important Shinto god, and the Japanese imperial family claims its descent from her.
One of the first places where the worship of Amaterasu was enshrined was on the central Japanese island of Honshu, in the area today known as Mie Prefecture, east of Kyoto and Osaka, near what is today the town of Ise. It is here that the Ise Jingu, or the Grand Shrine of Ise, is located.
Ise Jingu is utterly unique among religious structures worldwide, for it is completely torn down and rebuilt every 20 years, as it has been for more than a thousand years. Beyond that, the shrine’s simple architecture is unique, even by law: No other Shinto shrine is allowed to imitate its simple, ancient style. Thus, Ise Jingu, built in an ancient style but torn down and replaced every two decades, is both ancient and new, and an expression of the impermanence of all material things – as well as the enduring nature of the spiritual.
The Ise Jingu is said by legend to have been founded at the very beginning of the Common Era, in 4 C.E., more than 2000 years ago, by Princess Yamatohime-no-mikoto, the daughter of the legendary Emperor Suinin. Yamatohime-no-mikoto left Nara and wandered for 20 years before hearing Amaterasu’s voice, which told her that this spot, in a forest on the slopes of the mountains Kamiji and Shimaji, was where she wanted to be permanently honored.
The original Shrine is estimated by contemporary historians to have been built sometime in the fifth century C.E., but as with many aspects of Japanese history, the era before the seventh century is mostly the stuff of legend. But we do know that the current buildings – or their architectural ancestors – were first erected by the Empress Jito, in 692 C.E. They have been torn down and reconstructed 62 times since, with a long gap during the “Warring States” period of the 15th and 16th centuries. The most recent reconstruction was in 2013. The next will be in 2033.
Before the “permanent” shrines were built, Amaterasu had been worshipped in the form of the sacred tree hinoki, known outside Japan as the Japanese cypress, or by the botanical name Chamaecyparis obtusa. The tree’s wood, even when cut down and milled, is thought by Shinto’s believers to contain its spiritual essence, and when the old shrine is torn down and rebuilt on an adjacent plot, a simple pole made of hinoki is erected in its place, for the next 20 years, and enclosed in a simple hut – an acknowledgement of the shrine’s humble origin. The Grand Shrine is, of course, made entirely of hinoki, joined without nails.
Like many Shinto shrines, Ise Jingu is actually a collection of buildings that constitute the shrine – 125 to be exact. The two main buildings are the original, “Inner” shrine, or Kōtai Jingū, and a secondary shrine, the Outer Shrine, or Toyouke-daijingū, which was built some 500 years later. In keeping with the female origins of the site, as well as the female deities, the shrine is run by the saishu, a Shinto priestess.
The Outer Shrine is somewhat more open to the public, though restrictions still keep visitors at a distance. But the grounds, with the 123 other structures and the surrounding forest, still draw many thousands of visitors every month, and the festivities around the reconstruction of the site are among the most important events on the Japanese calendar. There are also a host of other dates through the year that draw visitors. The Shrine is arguably the most important structure in Japan.
The Ise Grand Shrine is conveniently located for day trips from Osaka and even Kyoto, and a healthy tourist industry has sprung up around the shrine buildings. Beyond the shrine itself, the grounds and the surrounding forested mountains, along with the Isuzu River that runs through it, are considered to be among the prettiest, as well as the most important, destinations in all of Japan.