Ise Grand shrine is the most important Shintō shrine of Japan. It is located in the city of Ise, in Mie prefecture. It is a complex of shrines, of which the main ones are Naikū (内宮) and Gekū (外宮), respectively the Inner shrine and the Outer shrine. Since it’s the home of the Sacred Mirror, one of the three Sacred Treasure of Japan, it is considered to be one of Shintō holiest sites. But what is Shintō? Shintō (神道) is the main religion of Japan, and the only one that was not imported from other countries, such as Buddhism and Christianity. Let’s see what Shintō is about!

Shintō religion: the Country of Kami

Shintō is based on the belief that there are some spirits, or gods, called Kami ( 神), that can take many forms. They are animals, forces of nature, as well as spirits of the deceased. Shintō is deeply connected to rituals: a lot of Japanese festivals find their origins in Shintō rituals, such as the ones for the harvest, or ceremonies marking rites of passage. One of the most important Kami is Amaterasu-ōmikami, the sun goddess, and according to Japanese mythology the Emperor of Japan is her direct descendant. The greatest manifestation of Amaterasu’s cult can be found in the Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū), one of the most important shrines of Japan.

Painting of Amaterasu-ōmikami

Ise Grand Shrine

As we said, Ise Grand shrine was built to honor Amaterasu. The first shrine building at Naikū was erected by Emperor Temmu in the 7th century. The main structure can’t be reached by tourists, who can only see the top of the roof of the structure, which is protected by a tall wood fence. But even if the main structure is off limits, that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth visiting! The location itself is beautiful: the shrine is built in the middle of a forest of giant cryptomeria trees next to the Isuzu River.

 Isuzu River and the bridge

Isuzu River and the bridge. From Wikipedia

Entrance of Ise Shrine

Entrance of Ise Shrine. From Flickr

The entrance to the shrine area is marked by a large torii, and from there a long path leads to the main shrine. Walking in the silence of the forest can be a very spiritual experience, and being surrounded by the trees, with the sound of the river not too far away can really help understanding the Japanese feeling of harmony with nature.
The peculiarity of Shintō shrines, and the one in Ise in particular, is that they are periodically tear down and rebuilt. In Ise this happens every 20 years. The shrine is rebuilt in a close site, and the area where the shrine used to stand before is covered in white pebbles. So in a way Ise shrine can be considered the oldest shrine in Japan, while from a different point of view it’s always new. The shrine is rebuilt exactly the same way as it used to be, so the architecture and the techniques haven’t changed since it was first erected, more than a thousand year ago.
The architectural style of the shrine is called Shinmei-zukuri (神明造).

Shinmei-zukuri structure of Ise Shrine

Shinmei-zukuri structure of Ise Shrine. From Wikipedia

The wood used to build the shrine is Japanese cypress. The structure is set on pillars planted directly in the ground, and it includes a staircase that leads to central doorway, a raised floor, and verandas around all the building. The roof is made of reed with ten billets (katsuogi) on the ridge of the roof, the bargeboards of which form forked finials (chigi) at the ends of the ridge. Two columns, called the munamochi-bashira, support the roof ridge.
The shrine has been rebuilt in 2013, and the next rebuilding is scheduled for 2033. 

Ise Grand Shrine

Address:
1 Ujitachi-cho, Ise-shi, Mie Prefecture 516-0023

Telephone:
+81-596-24-111

Admission Fee:
Entry to the shrine precincts is free

Hours:
January – April, September: 5:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
May – August: 5:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
October – December: 5:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Website:
http://www.isejingu.or.jp/english/

Please refer to the official website for the latest information.