Written & Photographed August 31, 2015
Some might say it’s the rose-tinted glasses of a fresh foreigner, but Japanese shrines have a special aura about them. A quiet atmosphere of ancient reverence—whether they’re in the open-air emptiness of a countryside field, the shaded confinements of a forest, or the paved labyrinth of a city.
They hold a special place in my heart. Not a religious one. But something (perhaps) approaching ‘spiritual.’
For this reason, I was pleased to find that the day’s excursion would be to Ise Grand Shrine—one of the oldest and most reputable shrines in the country. Though, in truth, I don’t think I’d ever heard of it before. Still, it sounded great—even if the magic of a hallowed, forest-dwelling place of worship tends to lose some of its charm when overrun with chattering, camera-happy folk. And I must also admit I harbour some small sense of shame to grudgingly count myself among them. But, as the Japanese say, ‘shouganai.’
After a hearty breakfast, my host and I set out from her place in small-town Aichi on a two-hour drive to the neighbouring prefecture of Mie. On the way, she was kind enough to pull over at my request so I could examine the fourteen-metre, ochre-coloured Great Buddha of Nishio at Jofukuju Temple. We then drove through rural towns and forest-flanked roads under muggy, overcast skies, chatting until I nodded off. A moment later, we were pulling into a parking lot nearby a massive tree with mossy appendages hovering over the ground. Behind it loomed a large, blonde wood torii gate, then beyond that, a sea of trees.
As a whole, Ise Jingu is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. However, its vast grounds actually comprise a great number of Shinto shrines, the two most prominent being Naiku and Geku. We passed under the Ujibashi Torii, crossed the pale bridge, and were then met with gorgeously manicured lawns and lush greenery flanking either side of a wide gravel path. The compound was immensely spacious, in stark contrast to most shrines scattered around Tokyo, even compared to Meiji Grand Shrine. The structures blended well with their green surroundings. Each pillar, fence and roof seemed at harmony with the surrounding greenery.
Once the shrine had been sufficiently explored and photographed, we returned to the entrance. Next was Oharai-machi, a long, winding historically-themed and beautifully-decorated shopping street. As corny as it may sound, for me, it was like stepping back in time. It didn't exactly feel timeworn. But it wasn’t corny like a theme park either.
Rather, it felt like a beautiful tribute to the country’s past. Slate-grey and walnut structures built using the traditional tsumairi method of construction lined the street. Even the convenience store Family Mart fit right in, abandoning its somewhat garish green, white and blue for a more suitable brown.
The wide brick road was swarming with domestic tourists and each shop we passed was buzzing with business. There were various trinkets, toys, crafts and dishes on display. A latticework wall strewn with gorgeous, delicate wind chimes (called furin) caught my eye and there was plenty of jewelry crafted with the pearls for which Mie Prefecture is famous. And of course, here and there, the standard tourist shop filled with Hokusai scrolls and Maneki-neko.
Before long, the overcast sky darkened. We had examined the shrine, said our prayers, strolled through Oharaimachi and it was time to call it a day.