Ise Jingu & Meoto-iwa

Three Trips to Ise Shrine and an Unexpected Surprise! 伊勢志摩

Naiku, Ise Shrine, Mie Prefecture.

Joanne G. Yoshida

The Ise Shrine, located in Ise City of Mie Prefecture, known as Ise Jingu in Japan, is considered to be the spiritual home of the Japanese people.

Ise Shrine reflects all the ideas of the Shinto religion, the indigenous religion of Japan, where gods or kami are said to reside in rocks, trees, and special sanctuaries in which the gods are enshrined. The deep connection that the Japanese people have traditionally held for nature is reflected in the setting and buildings of the Ise Shrine. Many Japanese people make a visit to Ise Shrine at least once in their lives, and more than six million pilgrims and worshippers visit there every year.

I just came back from my third visit to Ise Shrine over a period of 23 years.  I hope sharing my experience might spark your interest to visit Ise, or relate to some interest you have in Japan, nature, or your own journeys.

I first encountered the Ise Shrine in graduate school in Philadelphia when I was doing research for my graduate thesis about Japanese architecture. I was intrigued by the idea that the buildings of the shrine are taken apart and re-built a-new every 20 years since 1300 years ago.

The old structures are taken down and new buildings are constructed in exactly the same style on an adjacent site. They remain for the next 20 years where the process would begin again.  The adjacent site remains 'empty' and open so there are always the two side by side (the 'empty' and the 'full').

This representation of continuity and change on a national and spiritual level appealed greatly to me, and I was drawn to the country where such values were cherished. I was also attracted to the wood construction and simplicity of the immaculate structures that were created from the most natural materials in this building process passed down by specialized artisans from generation to generation.

It turned out that a few years after I graduated architecture school I met my Japanese husband in New York.  One of the spots I asked that we could visit on our honeymoon was Ise Shrine. I sometimes feel that attraction to Ise Shrine was one of the catalysts that drew my heart to Japan, where I have lived for the past 14 years.

Naiku Shrine, Ise Jingu, Mie Prefecture.
Temizuya (手水舎) or chozuya water purification drinking fountain at Naiku Shrine at Ise, Mie Prefecture, Japan
Priests at Geku Shrine, Ise Jingu, Mie Prefecture.
Priests at Geku Shrine, Ise Jingu, Mie Prefecture

The second time I visited Ise Shrine was ten years after our wedding trip. I returned there with my husband and our daughter who was one year old at the time. I decided that I wanted to visit Ise Shrine every ten years. Why ten, I am not sure even now, but I wished to return when the buildings would have been changed and re-built and 10 seemed like an even and do-able number and enough years that I too would have changed and perhaps be ready for a renewal of spirit!

Both times we walked over the Uji Bridge, which spans over the sacred Isuzu River. Uji Bridge is also rebuilt along with the main and the auxiliary sanctuaries in a twenty year cycle.  The entrance is a beautiful passage into the sacred site, and it is said that our hearts and minds are purified as we cross the river and enter the sacred grounds.

There is a small path to the right towards the Inner Shrine where we can go like pilgrims did centuries ago to purify body and mind in a shallow part of the sacred river. If you visit I recommend to take the path down to this area of the river where you can  do the same  (wash your hands and rinse your mouth with the pure water) and feel the sense of purification before entering the space of the Naiku (Inner Shrine).  The giant trees once you get closer to the Naiku are wonderous in their size and pure energy that permeates the site.

I recently made my third pilgrimage to Ise this November 2013, thirteen years after my last visit. This time I visited by myself, a time of personal re-newal .  I took advantage of having a few days free while my daughter was on on her own journey (I timed my journey with her Junior. High School trip to Kyoto, Nara and Universal Studios) and my husband was away at sea for his work.  It was a time for me to greet Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess and honor my promise to myself of returning each decade.

Though it was three years after my intended return, it was perfect timing as this visit was just after the 62nd re-building of Ise Shrine, which took place just one month ago in October 2013 (actually some construction was still taking place when I visited).  It was thrilling and quite a different experience to see the new wood and clean crisp lines of the roofs and pale golden sheen of the newly constructed structures. At the same time  I could see the weathered buildings which have stood 20 years on the adjacent site, that were in 'mid-life' the last time I visited.

In each twenty year period there are only a few months where it is possible to see the old and new at the same time.  Although we can only view a peek at the tops of the old buildings which are behind tall walls there is enough opportunity to get feel for the way the roofs have weathered and the color and texture of the wood has changed when seen in contrast to the new buildings on the adjacent site.  The old buildings will remain until December of this year (2013) so there is still one month left if you are reading this and wish to take advantage of this unique timing!  The next time the shrines will be rebuilt will be in the year 2033.

Geku Shrine, Ise Jingu, Mie Prefecture.
Geku Shrine Grounds, Ise Jingu, Mie Prefecture
Geku Shrine, Ise Jingu, Mie Prefecture.
Geku Shrine, Ise Jingu, Mie Prefecture

I entered once more over the Uji Bridge and took the path down to the river, washed my hands in the clear glistening water and looked up to a clear sky through the delicate leaves of the momiji trees that are one of Japan's famous and characteristic foliage, so perfect to see here in this center of Japan's spirit and heart.

On this visit I felt again how amazing it is to be in these sacred sites where the supreme deity Amaterasu Omikami and the great deity Toyouke Omikami are worshipped.  In addition to the sanctuaries for each of these deities, known as Naiku and Geku (Inner and Outer Shrines respectively), there are fourteen auxilliary sanctuaries (bekku) and one hundred and nine lesser sanctuaries which include facilities for the preparation of sacred food and textile offerings.  Of course I couldn't possibly see all of them and in fact would only see a few!

There is a proper way of greeting the gods by the shinto ritual which starts with offering a coin or coins ( I noticed 1000 yen bills too, but understand that any amount that you feel from your heart as a token is fine, and if you have no money at all that is fine too, as long as you make your offerings from the heart!) into the wooden offerings box.  Next, take two deep bows, then clap your hands twice, make a prayer and then follow it up with one more bow in reverence.

I truly felt reverence this time, not for some far and distant gods and goddesses, but for deities that seem to be a real part of our lives---those of the Sun, the Moon, the Wind, the Rice. Although sometimes we can get bogged down with ceremony, this time I felt a kind of child-like joy to pray to the Goddess of the Sun, and to follow signs to greet and pray to a God of the Wind. It seems like something out of a children's story and yet here at Ise there are such places of worship.

There is also a gorgeous Kagura Theater where the public is able to watch the sacred Kagura dances.  I felt gratitude and content just to listen a little to the sound of taiko drums from the outside. The price of a ticket is said to be about 20,000 yen. I am sure it must be an amazing opportunity to enter the Kagura and see the sacred dance! Perhaps on my fourth visit?!

Meotoiwa Husband and Wife Rocks, Mie Prefecture.
Meotoiwa Husband and Wife Rocks, Futami-cho, Ise, Mie Prefecture

An unexpected surprise in Futami-cho

On my first and third trips to the Ise Shrine I made a stopover in Futami-cho for a one night stay before visiting the shrine to see the famous wedded rocks, Meotoiwa.

The first time with my husband, and this third time by myself. You may have seen photos of this famous site, where a 'husband' and 'wife' rock are tied together by a sacred shinto style rope called a shimenawa.

The wedded rocks are often pictured at sunrise with the sun coming up in the space between them.  The two rocks are said to be inhabited by Izanagi (the male deity) and Izanami (female) who are extremely important to the Shinto religion as their offspring was Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, who is enshrined at Ise Jingu.

The hotel where I stayed is called the Hotel Resort Inn Futami.  I recommend this stopover (which is just one local train stop from Ise City) if you like the seaside and the idea of meeting the famous wedded rocks.

The reasonably-priced hotel has a whole floor of kashi-kiri private baths (if you are with friends or family you can all take the bath together), that you can enter any time during your stay. Check-in is at 4pm and the baths are open continuously until 10.00am the next morning.  It also has a friendly and homey style Washoku (Japanese-style) restaurant where dinner and breakfast are served (indicate when you reserve if you would like to include breakfast with your stay). The hotel is located a ten minute walk from Futaminoura Station and a 10 minute walk along the sea to the wedded rocks.

After a sunset walk to see the rocks and a hot kashi-kiri bath I felt refreshed and went to the restaurant for dinner. I took a book from the book shelf with photos of the wedded rocks to look through while waiting for dinner to be served.  While looking through the book,  the restaurant's master came to my table and pointed to a photo of the wedded rocks that I had never seen before.

Meotoiwa Husband and Wife Rocks, Mie Prefecture.
Meotoiwa Husband and Wife Rocks joined by a sacred shimenawa rope, Ise, Mie Prefecture

Fuji-san

'Fuji-yama' he said as he pointed to the shape of Mt. Fuji perfectly centered between the two rocks. I became very excited about this as I love Mt. Fuji and never imagined it was possible to see it from here.  It seemed that it is a rare occurance, however, but it made me happy just to feel that I could sense Mt. Fuji's presence from this location.

In winter there is a chance Fuji will appear if the morning is very clear and of course depending on Mt. Fuji himself, who as anyone knows is a bit of a trickster and plays with us all the time in how much and when he reveals himself to us!

Still, the book advised viewers to bring their dreams and fantasy to each encounter with the wedded rocks, so I decided to dream of meeting Mt. Fuji the next morning. My room looked out over the rocks, a wonderful and dramatic view and sounds of the crashing waves from the ninth floor.  I went to sleep with visions of Fuji floating in my head and set the alarm for 5am.

I went out when the stars were still out, the Big Dipper was so low it practically dipped into the Ise Bay. I was elated in the morning air and had a feeling that Mt. Fuji would be there. I started running while it was still dark, and a little orange glow was starting to come up from the horizon. When I got to the approach to the two rocks, a mysterious man with a big camera who seemed to read my mind, told me to stand on a tiny square tile and to look through the rocks, there he said you can see Mt. Fuji!! 'Mita-ne' he kept repeating, emphasizing how it was unusual to be able to see this view with Mt. Fuji between the rocks.

I spent the morning until a little past sunrise there, then danced in joy along the beach and back for another bath to warm my chill from the November morning.  But my heart remained warm as I entered into the day's visit to Ise Shrine!

Meotoiwa Husband and Wife Rocks, Mie Prefecture.
Meotoiwa Husband and Wife Rocks, Ise, Mie Prefecture

by Joanne G. Yoshida


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