Ise — An Ancient Travel Destination

This morning (Tuesday, February 25) we had a lesson on Ise and its administration, with a focus on tourism. With approximately 132,000 inhabitants, Ise is about one fifth the size of my hometown Dortmund, and one tenth the size of Sendai, where most of my experience with life in Japan comes from. It’s not surprising that in comparison, Ise feels quite a bit like countryside to me.

About one fourth of land area in Ise city belongs to Ise Jingu, one of the most sacred places of Shinto faith, which contains 125 individual shrines over multiple sites. Drawing from the history lesson yesterday, Ise city developed mainly around the shrines, supported by visitors and the business they brought. While the exact founding date of Ise Jingu is not known (likely in the 3rd century A.D.), the existence of the two major shrines, 内宮 (Naiku, “inner shrine”) and 外宮 (geku, “outer shrine”) can be dated rather precisely thanks to a special tradition: Their core buildings are rebuilt every 20 years, each alternating between two adjacent sites. The currently standing ones, built in 2013, are the 62th iteration, thus pointing to an origin of their current form in the late 8th century.

Huge Torii spanning a road between hillsides
This Torii spans the road I use to get to Kogakkan University.

The rebuilding ceremonies and the newly rebuilt shrines attract particularly high numbers of visitors. Over the last two decades, Ise city has been working to increase attractiveness by giving the areas around the main shrines a more traditional look. The before and after pictures we were shown give a good impression, but I haven’t seen the area yet. It’s on the schedule for tomorrow, though.

Museum display with lacquer food boxes, swords, signs and a small drum

Talking about tourism brought to mind a remark the professor guiding us through the Shinto history museum made yesterday about the display above and some related objects: The artifacts are not directly related to Shinto rites, but rather to entertainment visitors to the shines enjoyed during their stay in Ise, including food, dance, music, and theater performances. In the old days, most visitors would stay for at least one night after visiting the shrines, giving them time for these things. Nowadays however, most visitors leave in the afternoon, and because of this most tourism related shops close in the early evening — which, by the way, is common among sightseeing spots all over Japan. I guess modern means of travel have their disadvantages… 😉

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