New Years is a big deal wherever you are in the world. It marks the beginning of a fresh start and the chance to put the old year behind you, and it’s an opportunity to look forward instead of back. In Japan, this holiday is not only a break from work and a chance to reconnect with loved ones, but it also has a deeply spiritual connotation as well.
The Ise Grand Shrine, sometimes called Ise Jingu, is actually two sites (Naiku and Geku) located in the Mie Prefecture and is itself composed of around 125 other small shrines, all dedicated to various gods and kami. In the Shinto religion, there is a strong emphasis on animism, the idea that everything has a spirit or presence, and this coincides with the natural settings that make up the shrine`s location. Surrounded by tall sugi cedars and hinoki cypress trees, it feels as if you are walking into a mystical forest as you follow the well laid out paths that wander between the many different shrines – many of them elegantly housed in wooden structures – and it’s quite common to see droves of people clapping their hands twice and offering a prayer to the deities that inhabit the grove.
Traditionally, the Ise Grand Shrine was designed to be a devotional site to the sun goddess Amaterasu who features prominently in Japanese mythology. There was also a strong emphasis on harvest celebrations, and as the sun was seen as a friend to farmers, much of the piety was related to appeasing her so that the subsequent year would have good crops. Today the same rites and initiations are still observed, and the shrine is maintained by a head priestess, although it is common to see other priests and shrine maidens, easily identifiable by their white and red attire.
The importance of the shrine is highlighted by the fact that it is said to house one of Japan’s most precious and culturally significant ceremonial artifacts: the Sacred Mirror, or Yata No Kagami. It is part of the Imperial Regalia, along with jewel Yasakani No Magatama and the sword Kusanagi. However, because public access is prohibited to the inner sanctum of the shrine, it’s hard to say whether or not this mystical object is actually housed there. Additionally, the double-shrine of Naiku and Geku also houses the Azusa Yumi, a collection of 59 ceremonial bows that are symbolic of the feminine and masculine energy that makes up the universe (identified by being either vermilion or black, respectively).
What is unique about the Ise Grand Shrine, however, is that in the Shinto tradition the concept of ‘impermanence’ takes precedence. Everything is seen as living its time and eventually ending, and this cycle of death and rebirth is at the core of the belief system – in order to emulate this, every twenty years the main shrine is torn down and built anew. There is a very specific style of architecture called shinmei zukuri which is both a sort of a blueprint and an aesthetic that is followed, and can only be utilized in the design of the Ise Grand Shrine itself. Following the same pattern and style that was used during the Kofun period, no nails are used; instead, very carefully selected and cut Japanese cypress is used in interlocking structures, again mimicking an attention to simplicity and austerity that is mean to reflect nature.
During New Years, faithful cross the Uji Bridge, another structure that follows the same twenty year cycle of reconstruction, and walk between the different shrines, offering prayers and money in the form of coins or paper cash. Initially, many people wander around the nearby streets where food stalls are set up to serve Japanese delicacies like skewered meat and mochi treats, as well as takoyaki (grilled octopus balls).
At the Okage Yokocho, a confectionery on the way to the main shrine, you can also try the meibetsu which is a regional specialty – unlike traditional mochi which is often filled with sweet read bean paste, this version has the red bean on the outside to make it look like the Isuzu River. Speaking of which, it’s also a good idea to head down to sandy banks to wash your hands and face and purify yourself. Around 10 o’clock the crowd begin to gather for the ‘race’ to the main shrine when everyone hustles under the torii gates for a chance to offer a prayer at the main shrine.
For those who’ve never experienced a Japanese New Year celebration, the Ise Grand Shrine is by far one of the most recognized (and busiest, next to Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto) and is a fantastic way to explore some of the more interesting cultural facets of Japan. The best part about participating in the celebrations is that you don’t have to be religious or a follower of Shinto yourself, as long as you respect the customs, and many locals are often very happy to see foreigners taking an interest.
[map lat=”34.45501″ lng=”136.725793″][/map]
Ise Grand Shrine
Address: 1 Ujitachichō, Ise City, Mie Prefecture
Access: 15 minutes by car from Isuzugawa Station
Hours: 24 Hours
Website: Ise Grand Shrine