Japan’s Living Past: A Brief History of Ise Grand Shrine

Ise Grand Shrine, or Ise Jingu [伊勢神宮] as it is better known by Japanese people, is one of the most frequented shrines in Japan. For centuries, hundreds of thousands of people have come to pay homage to the sun goddess Amaterasu, and pray for the safety of the nation. The shrine is so popular that is even got a special NHK TV exclusive on New Year’s Day of 2018! Ise Grand Shrine is deeply rooted in the hearts of the Japanese people, and as you might expect, it has a long rich history. But fear not! Today we are going to briefly cover the history of Ise Grand Shrine, highlighting some of the shrines most important and culturally significant aspects.


A History of Ise Grand Shrine

As mentioned in our previous article though Ise Grand Shrine refers to a total of 125 shrines throughout the Ise region, but when most people say “Ise Jingu” they are referring to the main outer and inner shrines, the Geku and the Naiku. However, these iconic parts of Ise Grand Shrine were at one time not even in Ise City! They weren’t even in proximity of each other!

*For simplicity’s sake, from here on out we will use Ise Jingu when referring to Ise Grand Shrine.

Mirror of the Soul

Ise Jingu’s Naiku enshrines the soul of the goddess Amaterasu, which is housed in a sacred mirror. According to the Kojiki, this mirror is the same mirror that lured Amaterasu out of her cave in the Tale of Ama no Iwato. Later, the mirror was given to Ninigi when he came down from the High Plane to earth, as a symbol of his divine heritage.

Because this mirror is one of the three Imperial Regalia, for a number of centuries it resided in the Imperial Palace. Then during the reign of Emperor Sunin, a terrible plague took hold of Japan. Emperor Sunin perceived this plague as a curse for keeping the mirror locked up in the palace and not properly enshrined. He ordered the mirror to be placed in Hibara Shrine in Nara, which is next to Omiwa Shrine.

triple torii of Hibara Shine in Nara and green pine trees
Hibara Shrine. Nara, Japan.

Though Hibara Shrine was the mirror’s first home outside the palace, it was not its last. The mirror moved to a number of different locations in West Japan until finally in 4 B.C. Yamato-hime, daughter of Emperor Sunin, heard the voice Amaterasu telling her to move the mirror to Ise near the shores or the Isuzu River. It has remained there since.

Shinto shrine in a forested area gravel path and white marker that lists name of shrine
Shrine to Yamato-hime. Ise, Japan

*The mirror the Imperial family currently possess as part of their Imperial Regalia is a replica of the one at Ise Jingu.

The Geku, shrine of the Goddess of the Harvest Toyouke no Oomikami, once stood in north Kyoto. 500 years after the Naiku came to Ise, Emperor Yuruyaku had a vision of Amaterasu commanding him to move Toyouke no Oomikami close to Ise Jingu.

Ever since 478 C.E. The Geku and the Naiku have been near each other.

Ise Jingu’s Onshi

Originally, only Japan’s emperors regularly visited Ise Jingu. While commoners were not exactly excluded from the shrine, many of them simply didn’t know it existed.

Then, during the Kamakura and Warring States Period, special priests of Ise, called Onshi [御師], began going to villages throughout Japan. The Onshi would hear commoners’ prayers and pray for crops. They would also give commoners charms or other souvenirs from Ise Jingu.

Busy shopping street near Ise Jingu's Naiku with many tourists walking
Oharai Machi. Many Onshi used to live along this street near the Naiku. They are now shops and restaurants.

Not only did the Onshi ultimately bring more followers to Ise Jingu, but also they educated people about the shrine and gave pilgrims shelter and guides of the shrine grounds. Thanks to the Onshi, visiting Ise Jingu became very popular among Japan’s commoners.

Travel During the Edo Period

During the Edo Period, shoguns and their samurai had to commute to Edo every other year, known as the Sankin Kotai [参勤交代]. The main objective of this commute was to drain the wealth of these feudal lords and warriors, ergo preventing uprisings against the government. (Basically, the commute to Tokyo has been a pain since day one.) Ultimately, the Sankin Kotai led to the creation and improvement of many of Japan’s roads. However, more roads that didn’t mean that travel became easier. Instead, travel became restricted, and permits were necessary when someone wanted to go far from where they lived.

detailed Japanese storm drain cover
Ise drain cover showing Ise pilgrims.

Despite needing the proper paper work and having to apply in advance, travel to Ise was relatively easy. Not only were permits to Ise Jingu were easy to obtain, pilgrims could travel freely on any roads they wanted. This freedom made it common for people to incorporate a trip to relatively nearby Kyoto or Osaka.

The biggest problem potential pilgrims faced was money. Practically all commoners in the Edo Period were very poor and unable to finance their own trip to Ise Jingu. Trying to figure out how to finance the pilgrimage as individuals was simply too hard. Instead, commoners would form groups and pool together their money. When they had enough they would randomly select one person to go to on behalf of the group. This system allowed almost everyone to visit Ise Jingu at least once in their lives. Easily, this trip was one of a commoners greatest joys.

Okage Mairi

In 1705 a mysterious thing happened. Very suddenly, scores of people flocked to Ise Jingu. Without a word, people would leave their homes without telling their families or their masters where they went. No one knows that exact reason for this mass pilgrimage, but by the end of the year 3,500,000 people visited Ise Jingu. This number is especially impressive because the totally population of Japan at the time was 27,000,000.

pilgrims traveling to Ise Grand Shrine during Okage Mairi
Mural of Okage Mari. By Kadowaki Shun-ichi. Charms (fuda) falling from the sky to potential pilgrims.

As you might expect, many people did not have the money to support themselves on this long journey. Luckily for the pilgrims, it was a common belief that helping someone get to Ise Jingu would bring good fortune. Residence along major roads happily provided lodging and warm meals to very grateful pilgrims. Today this mass pilgrimage is known as Okage Mairi [お蔭詣り]coming from the Japanese okage meaning to be thankful.


Ise Jingu Today

After WWII the Onshi and the groups that had formed to help people get to Ise were dissolved. However, many Japanese people still think of Ise Jingu as one of the most sacred places in Japan and feel compelled to visit. Even to outsiders, the connection between the people of Japan is apparent. This living connection to Japan’s ancient past is remarkable and if you are ever able, you too should start your own pilgrimage to Ise Jingu.

And for even more on Ise Jingu, check out their official website.

Coming next time,

Exploring Ise Jingu’s Geku!

The adventure continues…

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