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Sacred Places


Our final example of an important sacred place is the Ise-Jingu, the most sacred shrine in Shinto, the indigenous belief system of Japan. Located in the city of Ise in Mie prefecture, about an hour's train ride south of Nagoya, it is dedicated to the Sun-Goddess Amaterasu Omikami, from whom the imperial family is traditionally believed to descend through her grandson, Honinigi, who, according to the Kojiki (712 C.E.), the most ancient Japanese mythological text, descended to Earth and extended his grandmother's sovereignty to the "Reed Plain," that is, the mortal realm. Actually, there are two major shrines at Ise. The Outer Shine is dedicated to Toyouke, the kami, or god, of harvests and goods. But it is the Inner Shrine, or Naiku, that is most important to the Japanese people, as it is there that Amaterasu is enshrined.

Traditionally, the Naiku is said to date from the third century C.E., and the extremely simple architecture reflects the wooden thatched-roof storehouses of the late prehistoric period. However, what sets the Ise complex apart not only from all other Shinto shrines, but from sacred places elsewhere in the world, is that all of the shrine buildings are torn down and rebuilt exactly as they were every twenty years (the most recent rebuilding was in 1993). Thus, the Ise shrines are at once extremely old—the rebuilding cycle began in the eighth century—and very new. And the same holds for Amaterasu and Toyouke, who are ritually rejuvenated with each rebuilding.

Each year, the emperor is expected to make a pilgrimage to Ise to honor his ancestor and report to her about what has happened to him and the realm since his last visit. But he is not the only pilgrim. A great many Japanese from all walks of life visit Ise annually to worship at its shrines and do honor to the Sun Goddess. Indeed, in the mid-nineteenth century, as Japan began to open up to the outside world, several Ise-related cults swept across the country and impelled thousands of Japanese peasants to leave their villages and head for the Ise-Jingu. While the current Ise pilgrimages are far less frenzied, the shrine remains central not only to Shinto, but to Japanese culture per se.

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