The spring sea water dash against
The shrine torii gate.
Cleanliness. Discipline. Respect. Tolerance. Allegiance. The familiar traits that allure outsiders to Japan and its refined culture resonate beyond the sophistication of Japanese cuisine, futuristic gadgetry, exemplary craftsmanship, and the relentless obsession for propriety. To decipher Japan’s DNA is to understand the roots of its religion, which may appear invisible on the surface, but breathes subconsciously through every filament of the people’s language, behavior, and outlook in life.
Latest statistics claim the Japanese population to be 70.5% Shintoists and 67.27% Buddhists. Yet, this religious preeminence conjures up unnoticeably in their daily life. Being born and raised in a country comprised of roughly 80% Catholics, I have drawn the stark difference between Japan’s religious propensity and that of my native country, where practitioners substantially adhere to Catholic doctrines, perhaps, more piously than any other Christian nation in the world. Unlike the structural representation of the Catholic church that devotees frequent (in a more obligatory sense) every Sunday, every first Friday of the month, and all other holy days designated to God, Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and patron saints, Japanese temples and shrines stand predominantly as historical edifices tied to religious ancestry, and are normally visited only in the New Year, during funerals and weddings, or in times of seeking petition for passing examinations and job interviews, blessing newborn babies, healing illnesses, and averting evil spirits. However, how “religious” should one exactly be called without routinary dependence on tangible guides, such as prayer books, rosaries, daily prayers and chants, superstitious charms, and rigid dogma?
Although not a Shintoist myself, I have reflected on these thoughts during an esoteric experience at Japan’s most consecrated shrine, the Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture. The enormous shrine, dated as far back as 2,000 years ago around 4 B.C., remains closest to the Japanese soul due to its venerable association with Amaterasu-Omikami (“great god who lights the heaven”), the most revered ancestral god of the Japanese Emperor. She is symbolized by a hallowed mirror, preciously guarded in the main sanctuary and hidden from the public. In Shintoism, this god is honored as a descendant of Izanagi-no-kami and Izanami-no-kami who are alleged to have given birth to the Japanese islands and other kami (god) when heaven and earth were separated. Amaterasu-Omikami granted her descendants rice crops to feed the people, and for this reason, has been worshipped as the provider of abundant harvest, and guardian of the people’s welfare, food, and shelter. Reverence to Amaterasu-Omikami and her heirs are manifested in annual rituals conducted in the shrine, based on the cycle of rice fertilization.
In conjunction with rice as Japan’s staple food, Ise Jingu pays homage to water as an invaluable element in Japanese livelihood. It is sourced from the Isuzu River, encircling the shrine. Essentially, the entrance to the shrine is marked by a tori shrine gate at the foot of Uji Bridge, which crosses over this river, and itself signifies the cleansing of oneself upon entering the shrine complex. The same custom of washing hands before paying respects to the temple or shrine is prevalent across Japan.
Wood is another auspicious component of Japanese culture. As it is generated from trees which abound profusely throughout the shrine grounds and are believed to inhabit spirits (kodama), wood is exalted as the sacred symbol of life. In contrast with Buddhism which is steered by the teachings of Buddha towards the path to enlightenment, Shintoism humbly dwells in constituents of nature—river, mountain, sea, flower, tree, animal—each endowed with spiritual potency.
Entering the Naiku (Inner Shrine), I instantly felt nature’s ethereal power, simply being immersed in the quiet, verdant woodland, covering roughly 13,000 square meters. Crossing the Uji Bridge, made of cypress and zelkova and spanning a hundred meters, I could feel the depth of the wood grains that have respired the antiquity of the land. The bridge also defines the fine line between the celestial realm and the earthly world. To fully protect the premises, the bridge is rebuilt every twenty years, as well as the main sanctuary. The periodic reconstruction also denotes the transfer of a divine symbol to a new enshrined setting—a credence parallel to the Shinto ideology of transformation into nature after death. I gradually absorbed the ubiquitous presence of the rustic wood and unornamental architecture highlighted by all the 125 shrines around the sanctuary. The basic construction materials used are miscanthus grass for the thatched roof and unvarnished hinoke (cypress) wood, grown in the surrounding forest. The design of the shrines is based on the traditional Japanese rice storehouse, and built without mechanical fasteners, but dowels and interlocking joints. The trabeated technique employs horizontal beams and lintels rather than arches, a tradition that has existed for thousands of years. The wooden columns are immensely thick, inserted directly in the ground, and suck up moisture like a live tree, which is necessary to hold up the structure. Trabeation is regarded as an efficient system to resist natural forces, such as earthquakes, floods, and storms. As no other color exists on the premises except for the natural color of wood, the brown and green of trees, and the white of Shinto priests’ gowns and shide zigzag cut paper, (hung on many trees as boundary marks of the beginning of a sanctified space), the overall atmosphere around Ise Jingu is one of purity, peace, and humility.
The Geku (Outer Shrine), reachable in fifty minutes on foot or twenty minutes by bus from the Naiku, is dedicated to Toyo’uke-no-Omikami, Shinto god of agriculture and industry, who was said to have been summoned by Ametarasu-Omikami to Ise Jingu. I explored this shrine for two days as it is closer to Iseshi station than the Naiku. On both occasions, I couldn’t help being swayed by the mystical magnetism of the vast land. I have witnessed Japanese bowing gracefully before and after passing through each shrine gate, as they reflect solemnly with no hint of upheaval whatsoever around them.
The promenade through the shrines and gigantic trees is perfect for bathing in absolute solace, repose, self-contemplation, and a profound connection with nature’s gifts. Over seven million people (including the Emperor and Prime Minister) reportedly travel to Ise Jingu on a yearly pilgrimage. Without the need for scripted prayers, psalms or an imposed creed, it was as though I had been enveloped and protected by the living spirit of nature and its pure omnipotence.
Ise Jingu can be reached in approximately three hours and twenty minutes by Tokaido Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station to Nagoya Station, then changing to Mie Rapid train or Kintetsu line to Iseshi station.