Last winter, I visited possibly the most revered ancient shrine in all of Japan: Ise Jingu, or the Ise Grand Shrine, in Ise, Mie Prefecture.
The complex is centered on the inner shrine, Naiku (officially known as Kotai Jingu), and the outer shrine, Geku (officially called Toyouke Daijingu).
Amaterasu Omikami -- the legendary ancestral deity of the Imperial Family, and guardian deity for the Japanese people -- is enshrined in Naiku, while Geku is dedicated to Toyoukeno Omikami, the goddess of the necessities of life and industry who provides sacred food to Amaterasu Omikami.
The Ise Grand Shrine encompasses a total of 125 shrines in Mie, and is an important spiritual place for many Japanese.
At Ise Grand Shrine, people generally proceed from the outer shrine to the inner, so on my first day, I paid my respects at Geku. After going through the torii gate and stepping onto the premises, I found myself surrounded by great ancient cedar and camphor trees. My back straightened naturally in this solemn atmosphere, and the crunch of pilgrims' footsteps on the pebbles accentuated the sacred calmness. At the main sanctuary, where Toyo-ukeno Omikami is enshrined, I expressed my appreciation to the deity for the peace and quiet in my day-to-day life.
The following day, I visited Naiku. The 102-meter Uji Bridge bringing visitors along the path to Naiku is said to connect this world to the sanctuary. Gazing at the gentle flow of the Isuzu River that passes under this bridge, I felt like my heart had been washed clean.
After purifying my hands in these gentle waters, where Shinto priests are said to cleanse themselves daily, I headed into the inner shrine.
It was during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) that common people started coming to worship at Ise Shrine.
During the Edo Period (1603-1868), many people aspired to visit the shrine. This was symbolized by the saying "Head to Ise once in your life," with 2 million to 4 million people visiting each year. (Japan's population at the time was around 30 million.)
Some people who were unable to make the trip are said to have had their dogs visit the shrine in their place. Sacred straw ropes would be placed around the dogs' necks to identify them as pilgrimage dogs, who were looked after by other people along the route. At the time, visits to Ise were called "okage mairi," so the dogs came to be called "okage inu."
After my visit to the shrine ended, I ventured into Oharai-machi, the shrine town. Souvenir shops and restaurants line an 800-meter-long street that features an old-fashioned atmosphere replicating structures that stood along the route to Ise Shrine in the Edo and Meiji periods -- some of which were originals that had been moved from other areas.
Gazing at people feasting on the local fare and choosing souvenirs, I felt like I was looking back upon the lively scenes that must have existed during the Edo Period. (By Miho Kamei, Staff Writer)
--Strolling along Ise's Oharai-machi street
After paying a visit to Ise Jingu, one should not miss a stroll along nearby Oharai-machi street. Stretching 800 meters along the Isuzu River, the road is lined with historic structures with gabled roofs. Stores sell numerous kinds of auspicious souvenirs, including ceramic "okage inu," which have paper fortunes inside. Walking along the street, you can also enjoy grilled or raw seafood, snacks and sweets. Famous rice cakes here have sated the hunger of pilgrims on their way to Ise Jingu since Edo era.