Ise Grand Shrine in the city of Ise in Mie Prefecture, Japan, is one of the most sacred shrines in Japan. Located (by train) about 2 hours south of Nagoya, it also has a close relationship with the Japanese imperial family.
The shrine complex has two main shrines, the Inner Shrine (Naiku) and the Outer Shrine (Geku). Additionally, there are several smaller shrines and auxiliary facilities. The Inner Shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu-ōmikami and is considered the most important of the two main shrines. It is also the oldest, having been built in the 3rd century AD. The Outer Shrine is dedicated to Toyouke-no-ōmikami, the goddess of agriculture, industry and prosperity.
The Inner Shrine is located in the city of Ise; the Outer Shrine is located in nearby Toba. The two shrines are connected by a sacred road called the Uji-bashi. It is lined with beautiful trees and traditional stone lanterns. Visitors can walk or take a bus along the road to visit both shrines.
Why is Ise Grand Shrine significant?
The significance of the Grand Ise Shrine lies in its historical and cultural importance to the Japanese people. It has been a sacred site for over a thousand years as the spiritual heart of Shintoism. It is also dedicated to the two gods from whom the Japanese imperial family is said to descend from.
The architecture of the Ise Grand Shrine is also unique in that it is built in the traditional “shinmei-zukuri” style. This style emphasises simple and elegant design. The main buildings are constructed entirely of Japanese cypress wood and are rebuilt every 20 years in a ceremony known as “shikinen sengu.” This ceremony, which has been taking place for over 1,300 years, is a way to maintain the purity and sanctity of the shrine – one of the most important events in Japanese Shintoism.
One of the most interesting features of the Ise Grand Shrine is its use of “yui.” Yui are wooden beams that support the roof of the main buildings. These beams are specially treated with a secret mixture of oil and other materials to make them resistant to rot. As a result, they only need replacing every 60 years. This tradition is said to have been started by the legendary emperor Sujin, a descendant of the sun goddess to whom the shrine is dedicated.
Another interesting feature of the Ise Grand Shrine is its use of “shimenawa”. These are large ropes made of rice straw or hemp that mark the boundaries of sacred areas. “Shide”, paper zigzag-shaped cutouts, adorn the shimenawa. It is believed to have the power to ward off evil spirits.
The Ise Grand Shrine is also home to several smaller shrines, such as the “Meoto-Iwa” or “Wedded Rocks”. These two large rocks represent the union of Amaterasu-ōmikami and Toyouke-no-ōmikami.
Nearly 2000 years and still going strong
Like other shrines, visitors to the Ise Grand Shrine can participate in traditional Shinto rituals. An example is “harae,” involving washing one’s hands and mouth with water from the shrine’s purification font. This purifies a worshipper before entering. At Ise Grand Shrine, the nearby river fulfils this purpose. The river is thought to be blessed by the shrine as well. Visitors can also purchase “omamori,” small talismans that bring good luck and protection.
In addition to the items mentioned above, it has also had an impact on many daily aspects of Japanese life. For example, the tradition of “omiyage” (gift giving during/after a journey) started due to the Ise Grand Shrine. Historically, it was a necessity for villages to go and pray at the Grand Shrine for the prosperity of their village. Since not everyone could go, a representative made the journey on the village’s behalf. Along the way, they would stay in other villages. As a thank you, they would give a gift that represented their village of origin. Once they reached the temple and prayed, the representative would return home with omamori. These served not only as good luck and protection talismans but also as proof that they had visited the shrine, fulfilling their duty as representatives.
Nowadays, at temples that have a staff tending to them, you can buy omamori as well as collect stamps in a booklet. Also when you go on trips, it is customary to bring home omiyage to give to friends and (especially) co-workers. Nowadays, omiyage are typically food.
Getting to Ise Grand Shrine
If you are coming from Nagoya, go to the Kintetsu Nagoya Station. From there, take either the Kintetsu Limited Express train to Ujiyamada Station or the Rapid Mie to Iseshi Station. For both of these, you will have to purchase a special ticket at a kiosk on the platform before entering the train. You can pay with cash or an IC card but you have to get the ticket. An IC card by itself will not be valid as you will be travelling into a new IC card region.
At either destination in Ise, you can get on the “Ise surrounding city A line” bus and get off at the “Naiku-mae” stop. This is just in front of the bridge that marks the entrance of the shrine.
Okage Yokocho Ancient Street
After visiting Ise Grand Shrine, you will probably want to visit the old town in front of the entrance. This area is Okage Yokocho Ancient Street. The name “Okage Yokocho” means “Thanks Alley”. The street evokes a sense of gratitude for the blessings of the shrine and the town.
The street hosts traditional shops, restaurants, and buildings that give visitors a sense of what life was like in old Japan during the Edo period (think Samurai). Some of the shops sell local handicrafts, souvenirs, and snacks, while others offer traditional Japanese foods like soba noodles, rice cakes, and grilled eel.
One of the highlights of Okage Yokocho is its atmosphere, which is lively and bustling with activity. Visitors can watch craftsmen at work, try their hand at traditional Japanese crafts like calligraphy and paper-cutting, or simply wander the street and enjoy the sights and sounds of old Japan.
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