ISE, Japan – Lanterns and flaming torches emerge from the darkness as a robed priestess walks below centuries-old pine trees. Rows of solemn priests follow her up a long stone staircase, carrying a cedar-wood box of purified offerings – fish, rice, vegetables.
Beyond the wooden gate at the starlit summit lies Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine, the inner sanctum of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, who legend says founded the world’s oldest surviving imperial line thousands of years ago.
In a few months, the stewards of the Grand Shrine of Ise, or Jingu, will begin constructing replicas of these buildings, then transfer the deities to the new sites and commit what seems unthinkable: tear down the old ones.
Destroying some of the country’s most cherished religious monuments sounds like madness, but the removal and rebuilding of Jingu – performed every two decades – is a ritual of purification and renewal that stretches back 1,300 years and forms the heart of Shinto.
“Through the rebuilding, ancient Japanese tradition is being preserved for eternity. You can call Jingu a time-capsule we have inherited,” said Yoshihisa Ishigaki, a priest showing visitors the plot where one of the new shrines will be built.
“If you look at this shrine, you’ll see what Japan is, who the Japanese are,” he said.
That’s a bold claim – and one often made by Shinto proponents.
Lacking dogma or overarching principles, Shinto is based on ancient rites associated with beseeching the gods – some 8,000 of them – for bountiful harvests, prosperity and good health. The creed sees natural objects such as trees or mountains as spiritual beings, and its flexibility has allowed generations of Japanese to claim both Shintoism and Buddhism as their religions.
Shinto, however, also has its dark side. It is closely identified with the emperor as its head priest, and modernizers in the 1800s seeking to unify spiritual and political power made Shinto the state religion, setting the stage for the emperor-worship, jingoism and concepts of racial purity that fueled Japanese militarism in the first half of the 20th century.
Shinto was split from the state after World War II and the emperor renounced his divinity, though the Shinto elite, struggling to maintain its relevance in a modern, secular state, still loudly declares itself the legitimate guardian of Japanese native identity, pointing to the millions who crowd shrines on New Year and other auspicious days.
If any Shinto shrine can lay claim to this guardianship role, it’s Jingu. The complex, about 200 miles southwest of Tokyo, has been the pre-eminent seat of Shintoism for centuries and contains the holiest of Japanese relics: a mirror that legend says lured the sun goddess from her cave, bringing light to the heavens. While Jingu priests say the shrine was founded 2,000 years ago, it was established in the historical record sometime in the 7th century.
As far as Shinto rites go, “Jingu Shikinen Sengu” – shrine removal – is the ultimate.
“The ritual system at its core and its symbolism have remained fundamentally the same” since the 600s, said Rosemary Bernard, an anthropologist and Grand Shrine specialist who teaches at Waseda University in Tokyo.
It works in 20-year cycles. The monuments stand for 12 years, then eight years of rebuilding begins. Over the centuries the cycle has often been disrupted, by civil war in the previous millennium, for instance, and for four years by World War II. In recent decades, the shrines were rebuilt in 1953, 1973 and 1993. In May a fresh eight-year process will begin with the cutting of the timber for the new buildings, followed by myriad ceremonies culminating in the removal of the old shrines in October 2013 – the 62nd time it has been performed.
It’s a massive undertaking, centering on the rebuilding of the two top shrines at Ise, the “inner shrine” for Amaterasu and the “outer shrine” housing the spirit of Toyouke Omikami, the god of clothing, food and shelter, and 14 other ancillary shrines.
The process is more than just a huge construction project.
The new shrines are rebuilt in land next to the shrines being replaced. The new grounds are ritually purified and the deities – along with the sacred mirror – are moved to the new abodes. The old buildings are then dismantled and recycled in other structures on the grounds.
Legions of artisans re-carve the cypress wood shrines, which are fitted together without nails, safeguarding millennia-old techniques.
Besides the buildings themselves, tradesmen also remake thousands of sacred objects housed in the shrines, from swords and lacquerware to musical instruments and saddles – all constructed with original materials and ancient methods.
That practice makes the Jingu into a repository of 1st millennium Japanese culture.
“These artistic traditions are very much part of the process of rebuilding,” said Bernard.
The Grand Shrine operates in many ways as an isolated time capsule. The complex has its own rice and vegetable fields for growing foods to offer the deities; purified fire for cooking is produced with wood rather than matches or stoves. The 13,600-acre grounds even sport their own salt field.
With so much cultural wealth at stake, the priests at Ise bristle at constitutional divisions of religion and state that prevent the government from contributing money to the shrines. The upcoming rebuilding project is expected to cost a whopping $530 million, coming from private donations, including from the emperor.
“It started as a national festival by the government, but because of the defeat in World War II, we are in this situation,” said Kazuhiro Watanabe, a shrine official. “It is very natural for the government to finance this, but because of legal circumstances, it’s difficult to revive what it should be.”
Legal questions aside, Shinto rituals at Ise can be stirring experiences.
At a recent ceremony at Ise called “Tsukinami-sai,” Emperor Akihito’s older sister, Atsuko Ikeda, led white-robed priests on a nighttime procession through the stately grounds into the inner shrine to make special offerings from the emperor to the sun goddess.
In a ritual held twice a year, the priests, wearing black miter-like headdresses and heavy lacquered clogs, bore a crate of offerings in silence onto the shrine grounds.
The group streamed through the gate and disappeared into the inner courtyards of the shrine. About 100 spectators who braved the cold and the midnight hour stood outside, peering as two priests just beyond the first gate sat behind flaming torches. The sharp whine of a Japanese flute coiled into the night wind.
Whether people here still believe in gods, the stunning beauty of the shrines still tugs at the Japanese soul.
“I come here every New Year – it makes me feel peaceful,” said Taka Tamura, 63, at Ise with her husband on their 40th wedding anniversary. “No matter how many times I come here, I’m always impressed.”