The Grand Shrine

It’s about time I had a little slap in the face regarding Japanese culture. Coming to Japan, I knew things would be different. The culture, the food, the lifestyle, and oh, how can I forget the language! But these were differences I expected, and for the most part have not been surprised as related issues popped up. This last trip to the city of Ise in the Mie Prefecture, was different.

I was invited by some of my new Japanese friends to head down with them to a festival taking place around the Saiku in Ise. This is the name of the former residence of the Saio, the Imperial princess who served the god of Ise Jingu (shrine). The shrine is also known as “The Shrine” or “Grand Shrine,” as it is the largest and oldest in the nation. Ancient myths suggest that the first time the Saio was sent to Ise was in the Suinin dynasty and the Saio system was established in the latter half of the seventh century.

As Ise is about two hours south of where I live, it required a pretty early start to get down there in time to visit the Saiku Historical Museum before attending the 1pm parade so I could understand what was going on. The visit to the museum was a good idea as it gave me a better grasp on the history, tradition and significance of the event.

The Museum had beautiful displays of the clothing worn by the people who served the Saio, the ancient scrolls and documents, replicas of some of the more impressive rooms in the Saiku. There were also a few computer kiosks, which would tell the story of the Saiku and play some of the traditional music from that time. Right in the entrance of the exhibit hall there was a replica display (actually, most things on display were labeled ‘replica’) of the palanquin, or hand carried carriage of the Saio. An impressive piece of art on it’s own, even to build as a replica.

Outside around the museum, the festival was in full swing. But it was more of a modern style festival. With cotton candy stands and ice cream vendors, I suspect it was something put together to draw people to the museum and encourage locals and visitors alike to continue their education on the significance of the local history. The warm sunny day made it perfect.

By now, lunch time was upon us and the mental and physical exhaustion that comes with visiting museums had started to indicate it was time for a break. We headed back to my friends parents house, our base of operations for this visit to Ise.

Although it was a fairly new home, it was still built in the traditional Japanese style. It was beautiful. As you walk in, you of course take your shoes off and are given slippers to walk around the narrow hallways, and in my case, to get to the TV room where a big comfy chair accommodated me to relax. Some cool tea was brought in to us, but we were promptly called to the dining room for lunch.

As I rounded the corner to enter this room, it took me a moment to adjust to the intricate beauty of my new surroundings. The Tatami style matt floor meant we took off our slippers and proceeded sock footed into the room which was decorated with ornate fixtures, paper sliding doors, hand carved relief wood work, and of course the ankle high table with a delicately hand woven lace table cloth, was surrounded with pillows and garnished with our lunch, a feast of Sushi. Each item just mentioned has it’s own individual beauty and most likely attributed to the detailed hand craftsmanship of the item. The paper doors were our way in, and they faced the hallway we came down which was all windows on the opposite side, so plenty of light was pouring into the room, although cleverly arranged to avoid the harsh direct sunlight.

Large bowls sat at each setting, about half a dozen pieces of different types of sushi were neatly arranged on the flat bottom of the bowls. Some wrapped in seaweed, some in egg, and others sitting on their own. Hot steaming rice was brought out along with a smaller bowl of bean based soup with seaweed and tofu. Hot tea was served, and of course a warm moist towlette for each of us to wipe our hands with and freshen up before the meal. Chopsticks were of course the only way to manipulate the meal and a small dish for soy sauce sat patiently near by for the meal to begin. It was an amazing feast.

Afterwards, ice tea was served and we sat around the table chatting. We ended up getting some photo albums out of Chikako’s wedding which was done in a western style. There were however portraits of her and her husband (Kazunori) in traditional Japanese wedding attire. We also checked out the wedding photos of Chikako’s parents! Most of them in black and white, they showed a more traditional Japanese style wedding.

We were however soon packing up and back in the car as our host drove us to the site of the procession reenactment of the Siao making her tri-annual pilgrimage to the Grand Shrine of Ise. This was all symbolic of course, the procession didn’t really go to the shirne, but it was a beautiful display of color and costumes warn by a whole fleet of reenactment participants as they marched through the small streets of Ise.

The swarm of photographers was quite amazing. I must admit, I got caught up in the excitement of trying to get “The Shot” by snapping of a few rounds, then running ahead to where I could get in position to try again. It was actually quite fun, and made me consider working more on my photojournalism skills.

There was an interesting occurrence of the clashing of ancient and modern, though. The procession was pretty long, and had to cross the train tracks in town. Well, the tail end of the procession had to put a little wiggle on to get across the tracks before the next train came along! It extracted a few laughs and stirred some thought, at least in my mind, about the interesting dichotomy of ancient and modern times, specifically transportation.

We finally branched off from the procession as we passed another museum, The Itukinomiya Hall for Historical Experience, which was where we could climb into a palanquin of our own. I picked up some post cards and we made our way back home. The actual shrine is in a different part of town, so we bade farewell to our hosts, the parents of my friends, and headed for the Grand Shrine of Ise.

As we’re driving towards the shrine (or Jingu) my friends were telling me about how this is the biggest and grandest shrine in all of Japan. When we got there, a massive Japanese style gate, signifying the entrance of the shrine property stood before us. We crossed a large wooden bridge and passed some pilgrims dressed in all white leaving the shrine.

The bridge led us into a beautiful garden. The landscape architecture was simple and elegant. A large gravel walkway took us along the grass lawns, uniquely shaped trees, and the intricate light boxes (street lamps). We crossed over another smaller bridge, just over a little stream where we came to a large basin of water with bamboo ladles used to scoop up the water and wash our hands before passing through another large gate, yet closer to the shrine it self.

The tall cedar trees towered over us as we continued along the gravel path. The sun was partially fuzzed out by a thin layer of clouds and we finally came to a large stone stair way. My friend told me this was the last place where I could take a photo from before entering the shrine at the top of the stairs.

Another large Japanese style gate sat just beyond the top step and with our hands together in a prayerful manner, a moment of silence and a small bow in reverence to the god of the shrine. Once we entered, there was only a small area under a shelter lined with a white sheet designed for offerings, and many coins sat there each representing someone’s prayer. On our left, there was a man in a small structure writing away at what may have been some ancient text, or just doing official shrine administration paperwork. And that was it. That was where my western values had led me astray and I was firmly back handed by the simplicity of Japanese culture.

The mere name “The Grand Shrine of Ise” had conjured in my mind a very elaborate and impressive building. The private shrines I had seen in Japanese homes were quite ornate heavily laden with gold and intricate sculptings. Almost gaudy. After seeing the massive Hindi and Buddhist shrines in Nepal, that was what my mind had expected to find here. Obviously not the case.

As we were walking out, my mind was racing to put the pieces of the puzzle together. A little dialogue with my friends on how they could define this as Japan’s biggest shrine helped me to discover that it was the biggest piece of land devoted to the shrine, not the building its self. The simplicity started to settle in my mind, and I began to feel more at ease. Enlightened even. What a juxtaposition of perspectives that has snapped me around.

My mind continued to settle as it milled over the events of the day while roaming around the small market streets just past the big bridge and outside of the first gate. The ride home was pleasant as we listened to Disney soundtracks (actually, Hiroko and I sang along to quite a few of them), and we discussed plans for our next adventure, Universal Studios Japan in Osaka.

About the author

Adventure Correspondent Cameron L. Martindell is a freelance adventure travel and expedition writer, photographer and filmmaker who founded in 2000. He has contributed to Elevation Outdoors Magazine, The Gear Junkie, National Geographic, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Outside, Backpacker, Wired, Australian Geographic, and others. He has been to all seven continents and lived on five of them, including a four-month stint at the South Pole. Cameron has more than 10 years of mountain search and rescue experience, is an Eagle Scout, has been an Australian bush firefighter, competes in sailing regattas, plans national and international youth programs, guides Oregon rafting trips and Australian bush backpacking trips.

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