Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
May 26, 2016
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Ise Jingu is a location of special importance in Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. It is also one of the country’s oldest shrines, with a history thought to stretch back around 2,000 years. Yet visitors to Ise, in Mie Prefecture, will find that none of the key structures that occupy the two main sanctuaries set amid thick woodland are more than a few years old.
This is because 2013 saw the observance of a ritual known as Shikinen Sengu. Every 20 years the numerous shrines of the Geku (outer shrine) and Naiku (inner shrine) are rebuilt to maintain a network of structures that are at once unfathomably old yet visibly new. Many of the structures that are dismantled and built at the time of Shikinen Sengu house kami: spirits of nature, such as wind and water.
Crossing the Isuzu river via the Uji bridge takes visitors into the Naiku, a sacred realm separate from the everyday world.
During Shikinen Sengu, attention focuses in particular on the transfer to a new home of Toyouke no Omikami, the deity of clothing, food and shelter, and of Amaterasu Omikami, sun deity and legendary ancestor of Japan’s imperial family.
Preparations for the ritual begin well in advance as the buildings themselves are replicated to exact specifications on pairs of adjacent lots. The process uses the timber of more than 10,000 specially selected hinoki (cypress) trees from Kiso, Nagano Prefecture. The older structures are dismantled, and most of the materials are either re-used on site, or sent to various shrines around Japan. In some cases an entire building may be made available if a shrine has been damaged in a natural disaster.
Many of the structures scattered around the sacred precinct are built in an ancient style, with thatched roofs and elevated floors.
The outer sanctuary, or Geku, is home to Toyouke no Omikami, the deity of clothing, food and shelter.
Each structure, though made using ancient methods that date back to prehistoric times, is far from primitive. These masterpieces of traditional carpentry, fashioned largely without nails, feature a built-in leeway for parts to move somewhat over the structure’s two-decade lifespan.
As around 1,500 ornaments and other items are also made anew, the 20-year cycle encourages those engaged in highly specialized forms of carpentry and craftsmanship to keep educating younger artisans, so that these traditions can be maintained indefinitely.
In the Edo period, pilgrims would use ladles such as this to gather alms with which to support their journey to Ise.
As the centuries have passed, various activities have emerged and evolved through association with Ise Jingu. Japan’s vibrant domestic tourism trade, for example, can be traced to Ise. In the Edo period (1603–1868), priests were dispatched from the shrine to promote it around the country. Villages would club together to fund trips by selected representatives to pray at the shrine, and the pilgrims, feeling indebted to their friends and neighbors, would return with omiyage (souvenirs) from their journey.
This tradition lives on in Japan, where it is very much the done thing for individuals who have been away on holiday to bring colleagues and family members sweets, crackers and other gifts that bring to mind the destination visited. In this edition of Begin Japanology, host Peter Barakan introduces viewers to a somewhat surprising souvenir that was popular in Edo times, and can still be purchased in Ise today.
Although official pilgrimages no longer operate on the scale seen in the Edo period, Ise Jingu retains its appeal, and these days it is valued as a form of “power spot.”
Many Japanese try to visit Ise Jingu at least once in their lifetime. One facet of its appeal, according to guest expert Professor Haruo Sakurai, is that “you get the sense that everyone is equal as a human being. You can really relax, let go and be yourself, and gain a new sense of inner purpose.”
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