Naiku — The Inner Shrine

A wide staircase between trees, leading up to a torii gate in a tall wooden fence

This afternoon (Wednesday, February 26) it was time for our first field trip, and we started out big with visiting 内宮 (“Naiku”), the “Inner Shrine”. Dedicated to Amaterasu-omikami, the sun goddess, the Inner Shrine is the most important part of the Ise Jingu and the holiest place of Shinto faith. Historically, however, there was some rivalry over that title between Naiku and 外宮 (“Geku”), the second major shrine of Ise Jingu, which we’re scheduled to visit next week.

Large wooden torii in front of a bridge

As it is usual for Shinto shrines, one enters the Shrine area through a torii gate, and in case of this big and important shrine there are actually multiple torii along the way to the core sanctuary. Directly after passing the first torii, one has to cross a bridge called 宇治橋 (“Ujibashi”). As you can see on the left in the next picture, we were accompanied by a small team from a local TV station.

Many people (including a partially visible cameraman on the left) walking across a bridge towards a torii

Yesterday I wrote that the main buildings of the big shrines in Ise Jingu are rebuilt every 20 years. Today I learned that this is not limited to the main building but rather a general practice, although some parts are reused for other purposes, like pillars from former Geku building to make the torii in front of Ujibashi. The exact reason for the rebuilding tradition is not known, a leaflet we received lists theories ranging from practical (replacing decaying materials, preserving knowledge of traditional crafts) to mythical (refreshing the structures serves as refreshment for the goddess).

Pebble square with lantern in front, lawn, bushes and trees in the middle, and mountains in the background

If I had turned my camera a little left while taking the picture above, you’d mainly see crowds making their way to and from the shrine. Enjoy the landscape! 😉

People passing through a torii, buildings in the background, forest at the sides

The shrine is embedded in a beautiful forest with huge trees. Judging from their size, many must be multiple centuries old.

Many people walking along a pebble road between huge trees

A wide staircase provides access to the core shrine area. Taking photos (or video) is only allowed from below the staircase, so I cannot show you what lies behind the gate. However, the area accessible to the public is fairly small. A low fence separates this area from another small square, with a gate that people can approach (but not cross) to pray. The inner sanctuary is hidden behind another tall wooden fence, and only the Emperor and Empress of Japan and the shrine priests are allowed to go inside.

A wide staircase between trees, leading up to a torii gate in a tall wooden fence

Despite the secrecy, Ise has a museum which supposedly shows replicas and items that have been exchanged in the rebuilding cycle. We’re scheduled to visit that next week.

A wooden store house, standing on pillars

This store house shows a special trait of the architecture used in this shrine: To support the heavy roof, an additional pillar is added on each side, independently of the other building parts.

Foreground: Stone staircase, people; middleground: wooden shrine building; background: forest

This is a smaller shrine inside the Naiku grounds. It shares another property with both the core buildings and the storehouse: The entrance is on the roof side. According to this morning’s lecture, reserving this style for the shrines is why houses in Ise with a gable roof usually have their entrance on a gable wall.

A white chicken sitting on a piece of wood

Finally, shortly before leaving the Naiku grounds, I saw one of the chickens living there. They are allowed to roam the shrine grounds freely, because old myths mention them as messengers of Amaterasu-okami.

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