Culture

5 Cool Things I Learned About Japan at Ise Shrine

Not only is Ise Grand Shrine Japan's most important Shinto site—but it's also a great deep dive into Japanese culture and history.

By 5 min read

Ise Grand Shrine (called Ise-jingu or often just Jingu in Japanese) is Japan’s most important Shinto shrine. It’s the main location of worship for the top deity in the Japanese pantheon, the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami.

It also directly connects to the Imperial Family, with the emperor of Japan said to be a descendent of the goddess. You can learn a lot about Japanese culture by visiting it in Mie Prefecture, as I recently did.

Here are five things that I learned about Japanese culture while there.

1. A Love Of Nature

Photo:
The view from Ise’s outer shrine (Geku).

Ise Shrine is a Shinto shrine. Shinto is the native religion of Japan. It’s animistic, meaning everything has a spirit: rocks, trees, rivers, mountains. For this reason, it’s also referred to as nature worship.

This can be seen at Ise Shrine. The shrine is actually split into two main sites, Geku (outer shrine) and Naiku (inner shrine). Naiku houses Amaterasu, while Geku is the place of worship for Toyouke Omikami. In addition to the Toyouke Daijingu, Toyouke’s main shrine, Ise’s Geku has smaller shrines for the gods of wind and earth where you can literally worship nature.

Both shrines are heavily wooded, with large and old trees reaching to the sky. The outer shrine is particularly lovely. On the day I visited, I could hear the choruses of birds and frogs coming from shaded areas off the path. Despite being in downtown Ise City, it felt like I was out in nature.

2. Praying Practically

Lifetime lucky bags.

Many people who come to Japan are surprised to learn that most Japanese people don’t identify themselves as religious despite regularly visiting Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.

For many people, Shinto and Buddhism are background elements of everyday life and are more of a cultural thing rather than a lifestyle in Japan. This is reflected in the role Shinto plays in life. While every person is different, in general, Shinto is practical, with people praying not regularly but when they need something. You can see this in omamori, the good luck charms that shrines sell.

Looking over the omamori at Ise Shrine, I noticed ones for simple everyday things like passing tests, road safety and avoiding illness. While Ise offers many of the same omamori as other shrines, the difference is that they never expire. An omamori needs to be renewed every year but at Ise, they are good for a lifetime. Talk about practical.

3. The Eternal Shrine

Photo:
Ise Grand Shrine, 2018

Living in or visiting Japan, you may have noticed how relatively new everything is. Unlike Europe, there’s very little architecture older than 100 years, even though Japan is such an old country.

While the destruction of World War II played a part in that, there’s also a cultural predilection for new things. This is evident at Ise Shrine, where all wooden shrine buildings are rebuilt the same every 20 years. This way, the shrine is always both old and brand new at the same time and so eternal.

Photo:
Ise Grand Shrine, 1910

In the same way that sakura cherry blossoms bloom again every year, Ise Shrine is recreated every generation. Although this used to be common at shrines around Japan, the tradition now is primarily restricted to Ise alone, likely because of the massive expense required.

If you’re interested in how this is done, I recommend visiting the Sengukan Museum at Geku, which explains the rebuilding process. Wandering through the exhibits, I was amazed by the skill and dedication to the rebuilding process.

4. Letting Loose

Photo:
Ise’s traditional shopping streets.

When looking at Japan from the outside, you might think that it was a country that didn’t know how to have fun. Sure, it can be very formal at times, but it can also be very informal, as anyone who’s been to a nomikai (drinking party) has probably discovered.

People need to let loose sometimes, especially when the constraints of society are especially tight. This was true in the Edo era (1603-1867) when the Tokugawa Shogun organized society into a strict caste system. As a result, those in the merchant class who could afford it made okagemairi (blessing pilgrimages) periodic trips to Ise Shrine.

Every 60 or so years, though, there was mass and illegal commoner pilgrimages to Ise called nukemairi. Millions of people ran away from their masters and parents to make the journey.

Utagawa Hiroshige’s depiction of the “blessing pilgrimages.”

These were like moving parties, drinking and dancing on the roads to the shrine. Although travelers were supposed to have passes to move from area to area, most commoners didn’t, but the authorities usually just waved them through as there were so many doing it. Oddly enough, the journey was more important than the destination. After all, once you’ve arrived, the party’s over.

While walking down the main shopping street in front of Naiku, Okage Yokocho, I realized people still need to have fun and escape the pressures of life, just like the pilgrimages. Whether by taking trips or getting smashed with co-workers.

5. Pilgrim Dogs

Photo:
Ise-bound.

You may have heard of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality. Visitors to Japan often return home with stories of how excellent the customer service was. I discovered that this aspect of Japanese culture is not restricted to modern days.

A large network of inns and restaurants sprung up on the roads to Ise to take care of pilgrims in the Edo era, but one aspect of this really surprised me. Many people wanted to visit Ise Shrine at least once, but for those who couldn’t physically make the long trip, they sometimes sent their pet dogs instead.

Called okage inu, these dogs made the journey on their master’s behalf, going with other pilgrims or sometimes entirely on their own, relying on the kindness of the people along the way to help them. They were dressed in a specific way, so they were easily identifiable. They even had a string of coins tied around their necks to help pay their way.

Have you been to Ise Shrine? What did you think of it? What did you learn about Japanese culture there? Let us know in the comments!

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