Ise Jingu: The Japanese Shrine That’s Torn Down And Rebuilt Every 20 Years
- 11 months ago
The Ise Grand Shrine, also known as Ise Jingu, located in the city of Ise, in Japan, is one of Shinto's holiest and most important sites. The shrine complex contains over a hundred shrines distributed over an immense area, but its two most important shrines are Naiku—the inner shrine, and Geku—the outer shrine. The inner shrine is believed to date from the 3rd century and is held in higher reverence than the outer shrine, due to it being the purported home of the Sacred Mirror of the Emperor.
What’s interesting about these shrine buildings is that the Naiku and Geku shrines, as well as the Uji Bridge, are rebuilt every twenty years—a tradition that has been going on for the past 1,300 years. The tradition is part of the Shinto belief of the death and renewal of nature and the impermanence of all things. It is also a way of passing down the skills and technique of building shrines from one generation to the next.
The general public is not allowed to access the shrines beyond sight of the thatched roofs of the central structures, hidden behind four tall wooden fences.
The rebuilding of the main shrine takes place on a site adjacent to the old, and each rebuilding alternates between the two sites. The old shrines are first dismantled and new ones built on the adjacent plot of land to exacting specifications so that the buildings remain forever new, yet original. The last rebuilding, which took place in 2013, was the 62nd iteration to date. The next rebuilding is scheduled for 2033.
In the lead-up to the rebuilding of the shrines, a number of festivals are held to mark special events. In the Okihiki Festival that is held in the spring over two consecutive years people from surrounding towns drag huge wooden logs through the streets of the city. The logs are prepared from Japanese cypress trees cut from a sacred forest surrounding the two shrines. These are eventually used in construction of the new shrine. As many as 10,000 cypress trees are cut down for the new building. Some of these trees cut are over 200 years old.
The cost of rebuilding is also enormous. Each rebuilding costs half a billion US dollars. The fund comes from tax payers and from private donations, including from business leaders and members of the royal family. The entire rebuilding ritual spans at least eight years.
The tradition of rebuilding the shrines every twenty years has its root in antiquity when old grain houses were demolished and reconstructed every 20 to 30 years. These grain houses had raised floors on wooden stilts and a thatched roof. The raised floor kept insects and water away while the thatched roof weighted down by rainwater pressed heavily down on the walls effectively sealing the inside and keeping moisture away. Eventually the roof and the pillars would start to show signs of decay, at which they would be torn down and a new granary constructed. This periodic reconstruction of these structures probably became customary, leading eventually to the rebuilding ceremonies of the Shrines in Ise.
Aerial View of the Ise Layout. The vacant enclosure seen on the right is where the old shrine stood. Circa 1960s.
The two treasure houses in the grand shrine enclosure. The architecture is identical. The roof of the main shrine can be seen to the left. The row of stylized crown beams replicate what were timber weights holding down the archaic straw roof. Circa 1960s.
One of the major shrine buildings. Notice the fresh appearance of the cedar timbers—the buildings had just been constructed. Circa 1960s.
All details of this structure are symbolic, stylized, and consciously archaic. Circa 1960s.