We had a couple of hours to kill this afternoon so we decided to visit the famous Ise temple complex, the most famous in all of Japan and the spiritual home for those Japanese who follow the way of Shinto.

The native and most ancient religion of Japan, Shinto is a polytheistic practice that believes in spirits residing in the natural world. Because of this basic tenet, the Shinto shrines are very, very beautiful in their construction and landscaping. Entering the grounds immediately imparts a sense of inner peace, which is the intention of the creators of the sites. Kami, the powerful spirits, are enshrined all across the island in consecrated rocks and evergreens, and in sanctuaries called jinja. The word Shinto literally translates as “the way of the kami.”

There are more than 100,000 sanctuaries across Japan and Jingu is the most sacred of all. Like Mecca for those who follow Islam, all Shinto are expected to make a pilgrimage to Jingu and to that end it hosts almost a million visitors each year.

Ise Jingu is composed of two main sanctuaries – Kotaijingu (Naiku) and Toyoukedaijungu (Geku), the Inner and Outer Shrines. Naiku is dedicated to the supreme deity Amaterasu and Geku is dedicated to the great deity Toyouke Omikami. There are additionally 14 auxiliary sanctuaries and 109 lesser sanctuaries in the area.

The area has been considered sacred for approximately the last 2500 years, but the first incarnation of the shrine was built around 4 BC by Princess Yamatohime no Mikoto, Geku was built later, in 477 AD. The interesting thing about Shinto sanctuaries is that they are completely disassembled and rebuilt every 20 years. So even though the site has been used for many centuries, there are no old buildings or ruins. Each rebuilding recycles all the old materials and the buildings are duplicated precisely.

We borrowed the cab that brought us back to the hotel from work and asked him to wait while we gathered out gear. Naiku is only about 5 kilometers from where we were staying, but we figured given the heat and the humidity it would be better to ride up and walk down as this site is up in the hills on the far side of a tall ridge. We arrived and stopped at the visitor’s center for a map, of which they happened to have an English version.

You enter the site by walking across a gracefully arched wooden bridge that spans the Isuzu River. The walks were broad and composed of gray pea gravel which made for easy walking. This portion of the site sits in a valley surrounded by densely forested hills draped in a broad mix of evergreens and deciduous trees.

Before you enter the actual complex, you stop and purify at a large tank of ice cold spring water. Two spans of bamboo poles hold a few dozen ladles to splash the water over your arms and hands. It was a welcome feeling as we were really beginning to roast at this point.

A second purification spot was down on the banks of the river just before the trail turned up into the forest. The water was shallow, crystal clear and surprisingly warm. The rocky stream bed formed rapids, and trees dipped their branches down to the surface. The feeling of serenity was quite strong here despite the people and the activity. I can only imagine how wonderful it must have been 1000 years ago on an afternoon like this.

Moving up into the woods we were surrounded by incredibly tall trees, some sort of relative of our Coastal Redwood. I thought them to be Japanese Cypress, but they don’t fit the bill. Like our trees in California, these were huge and reminded me that around the whole Pacific Rim the natural world is very similar, point to point.

It was very, steamy in the woods due to all the water and plant life. The shrine buildings all fit very well within the natural space. They are both ornate and simple at the same time. In front of one of the smaller shrines an old man stood raking the gravel on the path, removing the foot prints and restoring the harmony. We walked along the path down to one of the bigger auxiliary shrines. It was surrounded by two aprons of shiny agate rock – one dense black and one peppered white. No rocks of either ilk were present in the field of the other.

A couple came up to the shrine and paid their respect – a nod with hands held up in prayer and 3 quick claps.

Moving along we passed other buildings and small clearings with a single massive evergreen in the center – homes to the kami. We reached the central shrine after climbing a broad staircase made of blocks of green-gray stones covered with sea fossils. In a small building to the left a Shinto priest sat in full regalia performing a ritual.

We wound our way around the complex stopping here and there at different buildings. A group of 20 or so priests passed us walking apace in their gleaming white robes.

We found our way out and wandered down an associated tourist lane that offered souvenir shops, tea houses and restaurants. We had an ice cream at one of the stands that was prepared in the most unusual way. You made your choice and the girl pulled what look like a big ink cartridge out of a freezer and placed it in a dispensing machine. She pushed a button and the machine squeezed the ice cream out of the ink cartridge and into a cone. Quite a tasty treat on a day like this.

Our next planned stop was Geku, the outer temple located about 3 kilometers down the hill. So off we went, from the sublime, peaceful beauty of the shrine to the city streets.

It was just as hot out on the street as it was in the woods. We passed through neighborhoods made up of modern homes built in traditional Japanese style with shake wood sides and rolling screens for windows. Along the way we found ourselves in a Persimmon forest, neatly trimmed trees rolling off into the distance on ridges on both sides of the road.

I’ve included a couple of signs we passed along the way. The Panda is the analogue to the Irish “Look Left Look Right” sign you see at cross walks. One thing I did not know before coming here is that Japan drives on the wrong side of the road also, so you have to remember which way to look when crossing. The Dog Police sign is self-explanatory.

After an hour or so of trekking, we reached our destination and entered the woods surrounding the shrine complex through an old, battered gate.

Geku is not nearly as majestic as Naiku but was interesting in its own way. At one end of a small lake, senior citizens in waders and conical hats were working with the aquatic plants along small canals. Elderly men sat in a pavilion overlooking the water visiting and drinking sodas. We walked along the lake, trailed by big black carp whose backs just broke the surface of the water.

On the far side of the park, we found our way into a small shrine complex that was at the end of a tunnel formed by pillars and beams intricately decorated with Kanji characters. At the end in a dark grove of trees were two small shrines, one decorated with tiny pieces of wood each with a fox painting on it and the other framed by two stone foxes on pedestals that were covered with tiny white ceramic fox figurines. The fox holds a special place in the Shinto pantheon being the messenger of Inari, the deity of rice. The depiction of Inari himself has largely disappeared from regular worship, replaced by the fox. And because of the importance of rice, the harvest and fertility, it is important that the fox is kept happy through worship and offerings. Fox is also a strong ally in warding off evil spirits and so plays a double role in Japanese thought.

The air was damp and the atmosphere a bit spooky, as though we had stumbled on some strangely ancient pagan practices out in the jungle, but it was not sinister, just odd, and so we lingered a bit enjoying the nature of the place.

The final section of today’s blog is dedicated to Granny Jean. Among the interesting things about Naiku shrine were the chickens, roaming freely around the smaller shrines, pecking away at scratch left our for their enjoyment. The chickens at Ise are famous, being a live offering called ikenie which given to the kami of the Grand Shrine. They were clearly aware of their exalted status, strutting and posing and looking for a handout. Here are a couple of shots, including one of the very special whites.