The Tradition Connecting Ise and Izumo Grand Shrines.

by Austin Smith

The word sengu refers to the act of moving a deity from one shrine to another, usually to allow for construction work to be carried out. Human interference with shrine buildings is considered to be disruptive and disrespectful towards the deities housed there, because of this they are moved to a temporary home. Once the work is finished a ceremony is held to mark the return of the deity to the shrine building. These new structures represent renewal and the impermanence of life.

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Adjacent shrines at Ise, old and new.

The most notable examples of this tradition can be found at Ise Grand Shrine, in Mie, and at Izumo Grand Shrine, in Shimane. Unlike most other Shinto shrines, Ise and Izumo have a regular schedule for the restoration of shrine buildings. At Ise this event is held every twenty years and at Izumo the intervals are approximately sixty years. It is, therefore, exceptional for these events to occur in the same calendar year – as they have done in 2013.

Ise

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The renewed Mishine-no-mikura.

Ise Shrine refers to one hundred and twenty five shrine buildings spread over a large area. The two main shrines – Naiku (内宮) and Geku (外宮) – are six kilometers apart. These shrines are dedicated to the sun goddess, Amaterasu, a major deity in Shintoism. The foundation of Naiku was reputedly recorded two thousand years ago in the Nihon Shoki – Amaterasu describes Ise as “a secluded and pleasant land” and states  that “In this land I wish to dwell”.

Kotaijingu, the heart of Naiku, is said to house a sacred mirror, part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan, and access to this area is restricted to the general public. The imperial connections do not end there – the High Priest of Ise must be a descendent of the imperial family and the Meiji, Taisho and Showa emperors were designated High Priests of Ise  during the period of ‘State Shinto’ (from 1868 until 1945).

At Ise, all of the shrine buildings are completely rebuilt on adjacent plots to exact specifications, this event occurs every twenty years. By reconstructing these important shrine buildings regularly, architectural styles and construction techniques are preserved and passed on. The Uji Bridge over the Isuzu River, which provides access to Naiku, is also rebuilt every twenty years. Rebuilding each and every building is both time consuming and expensive, neverthess, 2013 is the 62nd occasion that the enitre complex has been renewed.

One of the most intriguing aspects of a visit to Ise during the sengu year is the opportunity to see various shrines being built alongside the former structures throughout the complex.  This allows the visitor to view shrines at different stages of completion from the early framework to the finished article.

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Karugaden

Izumo

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The main honden of Izumo Shrine.

Unlike Ise, at Izumo only the thatched roof of the main shrine building, or honden, which stands at twenty eight metres tall, is replaced, rather than the whole structure. This is because there are no longer trees growing in Japan that are big enough to completely rebuild a wooden structure of this scale.  Any other essential maintenance work is also carried out at this time and the rooves of smaller buildings appeared to have been re-thatched. This process has been carried out on the current shrine since its construction in 1744. Previous sengu were held in 1953, 1881 and 1809, although the practice dates back long before that. The current renewal process began in 2008 and is finally complete.

Izumo Shrine was reportedly once the largest wooden building in Japan (at forty-eight metres), even larger than Todai-ji in Nara. The height of the building was thought to bring worshippers closer to the gods, thought to reside in the sky.

The shrine is dedicated to the god Okuninushi, one of Japan’s founding deities – associated with marriage, happiness and good relationships. For this reason, it is common for those seeking a partner to visit the shrine. Conversely, Ise Shrine is thought to bring bad luck to any couples who visit because the female god is jealous of them.

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The wishes of visitors hoping to find a loving relationship.

The deities enshrined at Ise and Izumo are also connected through Japanese mythology. In Kuniyuzuri, which describes why Izumo Shrine was built, Amaterasu sends messengers to tell Okuninushi to hand over control of the land to her.

These connected histories and the coincidence of the sengu being aligned makes 2013 a special year to visit these sacred sites. Furthermore, when I visited Izumo in early November 2013, the gods had supposedly descended on the shrine for Kannazuki – a time were all the deities in Japan congregate at Izumo.

The significance of these events has not been lost on the Japanese population and both sites were incredibly busy when I visited, despite a comparably low number of foreign tourists. Perhaps, to appreciate the serenity of the shrines, it would be wise to go again at a quieter time.

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Kannazuki, a time when all gods descend on Izumo, brings many visitors to the shrine.
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