For the last 1,300 years, Japan’s foremost Shinto shrine has been dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up every 20 years. Everything from the apparel to the religious treasures in Ise Jingu (Grand Shrine) is carefully remade according to ancient blueprints, and the shrines shift base to adjacent plots. And so, the dwellings of the deities are at once eternal and new.
Ise Jingu originated 2,000 years ago, on the banks of the Isuzu River in Mie Prefecture. Pilgrims ritually rinse their hands and mouths in the river before entering the densely wooded complex of 125 affiliated shrines. The two main sanctuaries are 6km apart, and surrounded by 300-year-old cedar and cypress trees.
The sanctuary is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, worshipped as the ancestor of the Imperial family. Preparations begin eight years prior to the shikinen sengu (sanctuary transfer) of the Naiku (inner shrine) of Amaterasu Omikami, and the Geku (outer shrine) of the goddess of food and agriculture, Toyouke Omikami. On the appointed date, the Sacred Mirror in which Amaterasu Omikami is believed to reside, is wrapped in white silk and escorted by priests at night to its new home.
Shikinen sengu is observed as an elaborate version of Kannamesai, the annual rice harvest festival. The practice also reaffirms the Shinto belief in the impermanence of life, and renewal after death.
The shrines are constructed in the likeness of the rice granaries of the Yayoi period, when rice became part of Japan’s staple diet. As the thatched roofs, posts and raised floors are made of unpainted wood, the tradition ensures a maintenance check. What’s more, it has allowed for traditional Japanese techniques from architecture to cuisine to pass on with each generation for over a 1,000 years.
Forests were assigned for the renewal of Ise Jingu centuries ago and, in a historic example of recycling, the dismantled material is dispatched to shrines across Japan, including those in earthquake-hit areas.
Over the centuries, Ise Jingu has transformed from strictly royal patronage, to turning into a sanctuary for the ruling samurai in the 13th century and, in the 17th century, becoming the locus for mass pilgrimages during Japan’s first tourism boom.
In the last few years, Ise Jingu has enjoyed popularity from crowds seeking rejuvenating “power spots” in Japan. The sanctuary transfer has been interrupted at times, such as at the end of the Second World War in 1949. The most recent shikinen sengu took place in 2013 at a cost of ¥57 billion (₹29.6 billion), in a year that drew over 10 million visitors. The next ceremony will take place in 2033.
Geku shrine is a short walk from Ise-shi station, a 4-hour train ride from Tokyo and an approximately 2-hour ride from Kyoto. Naiku shrine is connected to Geku shrine and Ise-shi station by bus. Entry to Ise Jingu is free. Sengukan Museum near Geku shrine exhibits a replica of the shrines, which are inaccessible except for special ceremonies. The museum is closed on the fourth Tuesday of every month or the day after a national holiday that falls on a Tuesday; entry is ¥300 (₹156).