Despite its being a highly industrialized and urbanized nation of more than 126 million people, in Japan one is never far from intimate glimpses of nature. Moreover, the natural world is subtly integrated into daily life, to a large extent as a result of the influence of Shinto. This ancient, nature-based religion which is indigenous to Japan, embraces a unique world view that reinforces the natural order of all things. According to Shinto, the universe is essentially benign and nature is to be venerated.
This concept is an underlying theme in many Japanese customs and rituals as well as in the panoply of gardens and parks — both cultivated and free-form — awaiting the visitor to Japan. It is not surprising therefore that the nature-garden continuum is a fundamental aspect of the many Shinto shrines found throughout the country.
And a visit to the Grand Shrines of Ise in central Japan gives ample proof of the harmonization of nature, history, art, and religion manifest in Japanese culture.
On the verge of the “outer shrine” of Geku at Ise, the placid Magatama Ike pond creates a delicate mood of calm, reverence, and harmony. Its mirrored surface reflects the surrounding ancestral forests in varying hues of green; a tableau embellished by its celebrated purple, mauve, and white irises.
As is the case at all Shinto shrines, it is a place where people and nature commune. At the beginning of our visit, a group of young mothers, each accompanied by a small child sporting a pink peaked cap, are lunching on the grass in a grove of trees near a dais where poets recite haiku and tanka poetry during the annual moon viewing festival. The scene implies purity, fertility, and renewal, prominent themes in Shinto.
Next to the pond is the entrance to the sacred Ise forest. An enormous grey-brown torii marks the passageway into what in Shinto is the infinite world of the spirits or kami. This particular torii is an exquisite example of the post and beam, two-pillared gateways seen throughout Japan. We pass beneath its enormous crossbeam and enter a wooded sanctuary of majestic, centuries-old Japanese cedars and cypresses. The pathway is wide and made of gravel, a simple and practical surface used in many Japanese gardens. Under the canopy of the enormous trees the hyperactivity of the outside world is suddenly far away.
In the lull, song birds and gentle breezes augment the natural sanctity of the woods; underneath our feet, we feel the soft crunch of gravel. We pass numerous simple structures including what appears to be a kind of music hall from which flute-like sounds emanate; a roped-off space containing three stones in which the guardian deity of the area is said to reside; a pavilion where the faithful obtain amulets and talismans; a small lodge in which Shinto priests prepare the daily offerings of food to the principal deities of Ise; and an open-sided hut in which an immaculately groomed ceremonial horse is stabled. We stroll along secondary pathways admiring the abundant ferns and climb a wide mossy stone stairway that leads to a discreetly situated sub-shrine overlooking dense vegetation and a meandering brook. In due course, the subtly designed paths lead us to the central shrine of Geku.
Dating from 478 AD, this is the home to the kami of Agriculture and Industry, two principal and traditional industries of Japan. To one side is the ablution pavilion, a small, rustic structure into which clear water flows. Here, before approaching the shrine, worshippers use long-handled bamboo ladles to obtain a cupful of water with which they cleanse first one hand, then the other. They then sip the water and gargle softly, cleansing their mouths as well.
Above the entrance rises the thatched roof of the shrine. In the purest and most ancient of Japanese styles, its wooden infrastructure has elegant, simple lines and conveys the solidity of heavy wood but at the same time an airiness. The whole is triangular in shape with a 45-degree incline, and distinguished by its extended ridgepole, jutting crossbeams, and chigi beams thrusting upwards on the diagonal.
Somewhat distracted by the blend of woods and wooden buildings, it takes us a moment to realize that the roof is all we see of the shrine, most of which remains hidden behind a high wooden fence. Even a veil-like cloth swaying in the breeze at the entrance obscures our view of the passageway to the interior. At the Grand Shrines of Ise — the most venerated in Japan — only the Emperor and Empress and their representatives are permitted access to the innermost sanctuaries. This sense of hiddenness and mystery is the essence of Ise, similar to the feeling one gets in old-growth forests anywhere. And it occurs to me that in our three weeks in Japan, we have observed something similar in the quintessential Japanese politeness and discretion; a cultural behaviourism that assures a core of privacy for the Japanese as well as for outsiders.
The kami that are venerated at over 100 000 Shinto shrines throughout Japan are unlike the gods of monotheistic religions; they are related to natural objects such as rocks and trees, are in themselves abstract creative forces, and are even the spirits of highly revered ancestors. The kami are creative and harmonizing forces in nature, and humanity is “Kami’s child.” Having no formal scriptures, dogmas, or creeds, Shinto is practised through rituals handed down from generation to generation; thus confirming the importance of family and continuity in Shinto.
Fundamental principles, such as an appreciation of virtue and honesty as goals in themselves, a love of purity in all things — hence the Japanese high standards of hygiene and cleanliness — and a striving for a simple aesthetic, can be seen in everyday life in Japan. Japanese cuisine emphasizes pure ingredients, simplicity, and the subtle engagement of the senses. The typical Japanese garden, a microcosm of nature, is a place apart but not separate from the larger natural world. Humans are seen not as owners of nature but as participants and observers.
The supreme deity of Shinto is Amaterasu, the sun goddess. By tradition the Emperor — the symbol of the Japanese people — is believed to be her direct descendant, and was himself considered a god until the end of the Second World War. Thus Naiku, the “inner shrine” of Ise and the shrine that houses the sacred objects and spirit of Amaterasu, is the most revered in Japan.
And just a few kilometres from Geku through the 5500 hectares of forest, we find this treasure, entering its outer reaches by crossing the exquisite Ujibashi bridge. The simple but elegant toriis at either end of the bridge are a double reminder that we will be entering and returning from a very special place.
This graceful 100-metre long wooden bridge spans the clear waters of the sacred Isuzugawa River, and exemplifies the balance, harmony, and pragmatism of nature. Crossing the bridge we follow the pristine paths to wide stone steps leading down to the river. Here worshippers repeat the act of cleansing, a purification of the heart and of the body, before proceeding to the actual shrine. There seems to be a natural flow of people throughout the entire shrine area; we feel a comforting sense of privacy. Passing a smaller secondary bridge, we see a young Japanese woman alone at one end. She is leaning contemplatively on the wooden railing gazing into the water. Her white umbrella shades her from the rays of sunlight that slip through the branches of the towering cedars.
And then we are at the foot of the rough stone stairway leading to the shrine of Amaterasu. The steps, buttressed by lofty cedars, have been built slightly off the axis, an architectural gesture of humility before the goddess. This is not unlike the Japanese habit of avoiding prolonged, direct eye contact. The simple beauty of the shrine appeals to the eye but the viewer does not feel overwhelmed by it. And like all the Japanese sites we have visited — both classic and modern — there is inherent in Naiku a liberated sense of space and form. The viewer feels part of the site. However, once again not all is revealed; the innermost part of Naiku remains hidden behind four fences.
Worshippers approach the shrine, bow deeply, present their offerings, clap their hands twice to summon the kami and then bow again. The gesture is repeated rhythmically and with humility by others. Having paid homage to the spirit of Naiku a pilgrimage that every believer hopes to make in his or her lifetime — they withdraw, regroup in twos and threes and retrace their steps to the river, chatting quietly.
Regeneration is fundamental to Shinto and essential to the prodigious forests that are both theme and context in Japan. The inner shrine of Naiku was first constructed in 2BCE and except for a relatively brief hiatus both Geku and Naiku have been reconstructed every 20 years since the seventh century AD.
The reasons why this rite of renewal, known as Shikinen Seng, is performed at regular intervals is unknown. In practical terms, these large wooden structures, many with thatched roofs, would naturally decay like trees in a forest. Symbolically, the rebuilding ensures the continuity of the sacred shrines, and Ise is renewed and refreshed at cyclic intervals, like a garden.
During the ritualized renewal of the Ise shrines, an elaborate rebuilding of Geku and Naiku occurs at the cost of billions of yen. The entire process takes eight years from the time that the first cypresses are felled and made into timber for the new shrine. Beside each shrine there is always a separate, adjacent gravelled site on which the shrine is rebuilt. The climatic event of the ritual occurs during a nightime procession by torchlight during which the kami, in the form of sacred objects, is borne from the old site to the new one.
A tiny hut on the alternate site always shelters a heart-pillar, the core wooden support that is buried in the ground, a constant physical element in the renewal process. I am reminded of the strict adherence to traditions in Japanese culture, many of which have remained constant for centuries.
Making our way back to the Ujibashi bridge, we pass a display of award-winning ikebana flower arrangements and bonzai trees. Each harmoniously proportioned work of art is a natural world in miniature, the product of an ancient art form, and representative of a larger natural context. Each also embodies the same aesthetic and spiritual values inherent in the Ise shrines.
For more information on Ise and region, visit japan-guide.com
For more information on Japan, visit the Japan National Tourism Organization.