Ise Grand Shrine: Japan’s Most Sacred Shinto Shrine

Christopher Gearhardt

Ise Grand Shrine is Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine. Located in Mie Prefecture about an hour from Nagoya and two hours from Osaka, the shrine is the home of Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess), who is the supreme deity in Japan’s pantheon of gods. The imperial family is said to have descended from Amaterasu, and the shrine is purported to house the Sacred Mirror, which is one of three objects that make up the imperial regalia. The shrine is approximately 2,000 years old, and as such boasts an architectural style that cannot be seen anywhere else in the country. The shrine’s mix of history, cultural significance, and its picturesque surroundings make it a must see for anyone visiting Nagoya or the surrounding areas.

ise shrine entrance
Photo by Shibuya246 used under CC

Cultural and Historical Significance

To fully understand Ise Grand Shrine’s importance, a brief departure into how Shinto shrines are named is required. There are three basic levels of Shinto shrine in Japan: jinja (神社), taisha (大社), and jingu (神宮). Jinja is a term that can encompass any location in which a god (kami / 神) is enshrined and this level of shrine can be found in nearly every neighborhood in Japan. Taisha is a classification of major shrines such as Fushimi ­Inari Taisha in Kyoto. Jingu is the highest classification of shrines, and these must have historical ties to or enshrine a member of the imperial family. Meiji Jingu in Tokyo is an example of this class of shrine. Ise Grand Shrine stands atop this highest order of shrine as its official name in Japanese is just Jingu, which sets it apart from the thousands of regular, major, and imperial shrines in the country which must have names attached to them.

ise shrine
Photo by yasa_ used under CC

Ise Grand Shrine’s history stretches back approximately 2,000 years to Japan’s semi-mythological age, and its founding is recorded in the Nihon­shoki, one of Japan’s oldest written documents. Before the shrine’s consecration, Amaterasu was worshipped in the imperial palace. It was decided, however, that a permanent place of worship was needed, and Princess Yamatohime accepted the task of finding a location. She wandered the country for nearly twenty years before receiving a message from the Sun Goddess that the beautiful country of Ise would make a fitting home. This shrine became known as the Inner Shrine (Naiku), and about 500 years later an Outer Shrine (Geku) was added. Both the Outer Shrine and Inner Shrine combined make up Ise Grand Shrine. Given this long history, the shrine is home to an ancient style of architecture that is barred by law from being used at any other shrine in the country.

Inner and Outer Shrine: Access and Info

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Photo by Shibuya246 used under CC

While the buildings of the Inner Shrine are considered too sacred for average eyes, and thus hidden behind fences, the Outer Shrine contains examples of this architecture that can be more readily seen. The buildings are constructed of wood, and regular reconstruction of the structures takes place every twenty years, with the 62nd reconstruction taking place in 2013. Ise Grand Shrine is located in a bucolic and easily accessed region of Mie prefecture. The Outer Shrine is situated near  Ise-shi Station (which is shared by both the Kintetsu and JR lines), and a broad avenue connects the station to the shrine in a short ten-minute walk. This shrine is set against a mountain and contains wide gravel paths, untouched forest, and a pleasant pond that can be hiked around. About 7 kilometers away sits the Inner Shrine, which is the main attraction. The distance is such that a pilgrimage between the two is possible, but regular buses are also available. It lies nestled between a mountain and the Isuzugawa River, and a traditional Japanese bridge spans the water between Ise and the sacred shrine grounds.

The Inner Shrine contains broad gravel paths and untouched forest, but a lucky visitor may also catch sight of the chickens that roam the area as well as a horse, though the latter is a rarer sight. Back across the bridge on the Ise side of the river are Oharaimachi and Okageyokocho, which are streets that contain Japanese-style buildings that house stores that sell traditional foods and goods. On the weekends, an impressive taiko (Japanese drum) performance can be seen under the tower in Okageyokocho several times a day. Ise Grand Shrine, the surrounding streets, and the drum show are all free of charge, which helps to limit costs to food and souvenir purchases. It should be noted, however, that while the Inner Shrine remains open, most of the surrounding restaurants and shops close at 6 pm. Ise Grand Shrine, while slightly removed from the more famous locations of Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka, makes for one of the most pleasant and rewarding day trips available in the region for adventurous travelers.

ise grand shrine
Photo by Christopher Gearhardt
Name: Ise Grand Shrine
Address: 1 Ujitachicho, Ise, Mie Prefecture 516-0023, Japan
Location(s): Mie,
Access: Ise-shi Station
Web: http://www.isejingu.or.jp/english/
Phone: 81 596-24-1111 81 596-24-1111
Business hours: 5:00 am to 6:00 pm
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