Japanese folklore has it that Yata no kagami, or the “eight hand mirror,” was brought to earth by Ninigi-no-Mikoto; legendary ancestor of the Japanese imperial line. The mirror is one of the Three Imperial Regalia or Three Sacred Treasures of Japan, and possession is passed from emperor to emperor to confirm the divine right of succession.
The Imperial Regalia of Japan consists of a sword “Kusanagi no Tsurugi,” the mirror”Yata no kagami,” and a jewel “Yasakani no Magatama.” The Three Imperial Regalia represent the three primary virtues: valor (sword), wisdom (mirror), and benevolence (jewel). All these treasures are shrouded in mystery, and none has been seen by any living soul, save the emperor and a few select priests in a long, long time.
Not being able to see the sacred mirror, however, is no reason skip the shrine in which it is held; Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingu) in Ise city, Mie prefecture.
Ise Grand Shrine is officially titled Jingu. It lies a mere 90 minute train journey from Nagoya, and is one of the three most important shrines in Japan; the others being Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya (which holds the sword “Kusanagi no Tsurugi”), and Meiji shrine in Tokyo. Visiting Jingu is a a pilgrimage that all Japanese are encouraged to make at least once in their lifetime, and it is undertaken by some 7.5 million people annually. Set on a 13,600 acre forest, the two main shrines of Jingu are comprised of a fully 123 shrines, in addition to the main Geku and Naiku Shrines.
Tradition dictated that pilgrams were to visit 1500-year-old Geku Shrine first, and this is a custom still followed to this day by everyone from the casual daytripper to the Imperial family itself. With an associated 32 Shinto sanctuaries, there are plenty of places of worship, including Kaguraden, a hall for special prayer. However, the focal point of Geku is its main sanctuary Totoukedaijingu, the place where Toyouke Omikami, the kami of industry and architecture is worshipped.
Established some 2000 years ago, Naiku is the most important of the two major shrines, and visitors with time constrictions are advised to make it their first port of call. The main entrance to Naiku is the Uji bridge, a 100 metre long wooden bridge that marks the entrance from our world to that of the sacred. The causeway through the shrine shadows the flow of Isuzu river which, at a point called Mitatrashi, is used to perform the cleansing ritual of ablution; the washing of the left hand, then the right followed by rinsing the mouth so as to enter the shrine clean. Eventually the path takes you to the main sanctuary, Kotaijingu, where Amaterasu Omikami, the ancestral kami of the imperial family, is enshrined. General worshipers may only approach the outer of four gates.
The various structures themselves are built of wood, and are of reserved designs; classic examples of pure Japanese architecture, showing almost no evidence of outside influence from mainland Asian culture. The sanctuaries of Kotaijingu and Totoukedaijingu, as well as the Uji Bridge, are moved and rebuilt afresh every twenty years. This reflects the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, the impermanence of all things beautiful.
This practice, last occurring in 2013 ensures that the buildings have retained their original 2,000 year old form, as well as keeping alive the traditional carpentry techniques that are passed down from generation to generation. The main shrine is rebuilt on a cleared site adjacent to the old one, and alternates between the two sites. The next scheduled rebuild is of Naiku in 2033.
Oharai dori and Okage Yokocho perhaps keep with another Japanese tradition of sorts, that being one of commerce amongst tourism. Found at the foot of the Uji bridge, Oharai dori is a street lined with restaurants and eateries as well as shops peddling various souvenirs, handcrafts and sake. It was traditionally the passage by which those making the pilgrimage to Naiku followed, perhaps pausing for sustenance and shelter along the way.
Okage Yokocho is a recreated Japanese market, giving the visitor a glimpse into how the area may have seemed in ancient times, with further restaurants and stalls as well as holding festival events throughout the year. Visitors to this area are advised to try the Matsusaka beef croquettes as, not only are they delicious, should you fail to do so, you may seriously shock your Japanese friends and coworkers. Seafood fans can enjoy oysters or awabi (abalone) intriguingly grilled by blowtorch.
Both shrines can be accessed from Nagoya by either Iseshi station – 90 minutes on JR or Kintetsu lines – or Ujiyamada station – 100 minutes by Kintetsu. Busses run regularly from outside both stations and take approximately twenty minutes to get to Naiku, while Iseshi station is a short five-minute walk to Gaku shrine.
Naiku and Geku are several kilometers from each other and there is a bus service that can be picked up outside the Geku shrine, and is sign posted in English.
By Mark Guthrie
Image - By N yotarou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons- Modified