Amidst the cacophony of strumming string instruments and whistling pipes, 5 girls in Shinto robes are staging a prayer-dance in slow, circular movements, paying respects to all the 4 directions while holding the fans and bells in their hands (torimono). This is Miko Kagura, one of the oldest type of kagura danced by women in Shinto shrines. Originally, miko kagura was a shamanic trance dance, performed by the miko who were shamanesses but it later evolved into a prayer-dance led by the priestesses in the service of the Shinto Shrines.
I am kneeling with my back straight, sitting seiza-style at my Bro’s Shinto Blessing ceremony in Kaguraden (Hall of Sacred Music and Dance) at Ise Grand Shrine.
Trying hard I am to concentrate on the religious rites being performed on the wooden stage in front of the sparsely decorated timber hall, but I am in too much of an agony to absorb any of the religious renditions – least of all, understanding the utterances! All I know albeit selfishly is that my legs are burning and stinging with pain after only kneeling on the tatami floor for 5 minutes (!!) *what a whimp, but kneeling is not for the un-initiated!*
Finally, after what seemed an eternity – 40 minutes – the priest read out his last verse in humming sing-song chants. He invited everyone to join in by bowing twice, then clapping our hands twice and following our final bow – the drum is beaten. We are now allowed to step out of our seiza.
To complete the ceremony, my Bro and the other worshippers receiving blessings were invited to receive a sip of sacred sake and a piece of blessed wood to take home.
For me, I am only too happy to find my feet again!
A ‘Lil Intro on Ise Grand Shrine
Ise Jingu or Ise Grand Shrine is the holiest and most important shrine in Japan with over two thousand years history. This is where the Japanese prime minister comes to, to make his new year’s prayer every year.
There are two shrines to the Ise Jingu Complex: Naiku (inner shrine) which is dedicated to the sun goddess called Amaterasu – the mythological ancestor of Japanese Emperor – and Geku (outer shrine) which enshrines the deity of food. Each site has the central building for worship which is not open to public and a number of sub buildings in a forest. Most people visit Geku first, then Naiku, but if you don’t have time, my advise is to visit the larger grounds at Naiku.
This year, 2013 marks a significant year of renewal for Ise, known as ‘Sengu‘ – whereby the shrine buildings at Naiku and Geku, as well as the Uji Bridge, are rebuilt every 20 years in accordance with the Shinto belief of the death and renewal of nature and the impermanence of all things – and also a practical way of passing building techniques from one generation to the next.
“The new shrines built identically with the old ones, are not considered a replica of Ise, but are “Ise re-created”, meaning the recreation process reveals Shinto’s understanding of nature which does not make monuments, but “lives and dies, always renewed and reborn.” (William Alex, Japanese Architecture.)
Parked car. Walked into a busy pedestrian-only street and had lunch at one of the many noodles shops around.
Stopped by the famous dessert shop for Akafuku mochi (here). This is another variation of mochi with red bean paste with 3-finger indentations encasing a glutinous rice center. The mochi is very delicious and I do suggest buying a couple of boxes as souvenirs, although you can also buy them at convenience stores and service stations around the area.
A fair walk later, we came to Uji Bridge -the entrance to Naiku – we gave a customary bow then walked onto the bridge across the Isuzu River.
In Japan, the mysterious forces of nature, called ke, were believed to permeate palpable matter and formless space (collectively called mono in Japanese) to create mononoke. Mononoke was seen to coalesce in trees and stones. Thus, the beautiful trees to look at and lots of walking on gravelly stones!
Ise Jingu is built amid a dense forest of giant cryptomeria trees which are sacred, covering an area of 5,500 hectares (13,600 acres). Abut 90 hectares of the area around the shrines are untouched since they were founded 16 centuries ago. The rest has been used to provide construction materials for shrine construction.
Naiku Shrine is enclosed in sacred enclosures.
The strong pure lines in the structure is said to hold mystical powers.
After visiting the shrine, the worshipper has walk the path to the west of the sanctuary, to see the rice storehouse, treasury and also to get a view of the Naiku Shrine, however, we retraced our footsteps instead and found oursleves to be walking against the crowds. Since it is regarded bad-luck to walk against the flow, we decided to return to our original path. So here’s a file picture from the internet to show you what the Naiku Shrine looks like, although obscured by the high wall.
My architectural profession insists on…
Brief notes on the architecture of Ise Jingu:
The building material from roof to floors for both structures and finishing comes entirely from Japanese white cypress, Hinoki. The wood is unvarnished and unpainted, displaying the wild beauty of the cypress’s natural texture. No nails are used, only dowels and interlocking joints. The roof is thatched with miscanthus grass.There are crossbeams at either end of the roof and large rounded logs on the ridge of the roof. Protruding from the upper part of the gable at either end of the building are metal-tipped poles to add structural symmetry. The main building of the Naiku is designed in a special form of architectural style, called shimmei-zukuri. This style is prohibited for other shrines. It’s simple rectangular design is said to derive from the granaries and treasure storehouses of prehistoric Japan.
In the middle of Uji Bridge and the Naiku Shrine is the Kaguraden. There is a building next to it where the worshippers can buy omamori or Japanese amulets (charms, talismans) for luck or protection against adversity which costs about USD5. The luck lasts for one year but after that the charm needs to be returned to a Shinto shrine for disposal. According to legend, there’s a God inside so they should never be opened or disposed of improperly. The worshipper can also request a blessing ceremony to offer their thanks and wishes to Amaterasu Omikami. This is a special prayer to the kami accompanied by ceremonial music and dance which has been performed from ancient times.
Going into the waiting area inside the Kaguraden for the ceremony
Garden within the shrine grounds
Residential houses in the neighbourhood with perfectly landscaped gardens.
Check out what I saw on the ground! And I believe this to be on my bucket-list! Answer to guess here.