Why Is the Japanese Shrine Ise Jingu Torn Down and Rebuilt Every 20 Years?

Torri gate at Ise Jingu shrine in Japan.

As you step foot on the sacred ground of a Japanese shrine, you leave behind the mundane world. (Image: Cowardlion via Dreamstime)

Shrines play a crucial role in shaping and defining the cultural and spiritual landscape of Japan. As you step foot on the sacred ground of a shrine, you leave behind the mundane world. Shrines hold a significant role since they are believed to provide homes for sacred presences that interact with people in the secular realm. Japan boasts a wealth of shrines where you can go to express gratitude to the kami or seek blessings for prosperity.

But did you know that in Japan, there is a shrine called Ise Jingu, or the Ise Grand Shrine, that is torn down and rebuilt every 20 years? This interesting fact has intrigued many, and in this article, we will delve into why the Japanese follow this tradition and the significance it holds.

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An intro to Ise Jingu

Ise Jingu, also known as the Ise Grand Shrine, is the oldest and most prestigious shrine in Japan, dating back nearly 2,000 years. It is regarded as the spiritual center of the Japanese people and is a must-visit destination for those interested in Japan’s religious history and architectural grandeur. The shrine houses the Sacred Mirror of the Emperor and is dedicated to the worship of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Illustration of Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess.
The shrine is dedicated to the worship of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu. (Image: Matias Del Carmine via Dreamstime)

One of the most fascinating aspects of Ise Jingu Shrine is that it follows the Shinto principles of rebirth and renewal, with the inner and outer shrines as well as the Uji Bridge being destroyed and rebuilt every 20 years. As one of Japan’s most sacred sites, this cultural treasure is not only a testament to the country’s religious history but also one of the world’s most stunning religious buildings.

How Ise Jingu was established

Over two millennia ago, Japan’s 11th emperor, Suinin, tasked his daughter and future empress with finding a temple to permanently honor the sun goddess Amaterasu and the sacred mirror she had given to Japan’s first emperor.

Princess Yama Hime-no-Mikoto, to whom the task was assigned, spent over 20 years traveling around Japan in search of the ideal site. Finally, she received a vision from Amaterasu that led her to Ise City in Mie Prefecture.

Overhearing Amaterasu’s voice, Princess Yama Hime-no-Mikoto realized that “Ise is a lonely and beautiful land” where the goddess hoped to settle down someday. To announce that the place had been dedicated to Amaterasu, the princess rang 50 bells, and the river Isuzu is still commonly referred to as “fifty bells.”

The first shrine to be built in Ise was the Inner Shrine known as Naiku, and about 500 years later, the Outer Shrine called Geku was built six kilometers away. Together, Naiku and Geku make up the Ise Grand Shrine, or Ise Jingu. 

Since its declaration as a holy site, the number of annual visitors to Ise Jingu has risen significantly, from tens of thousands in the early Edi period to hundreds of thousands by the 1830s. Today, the 125-shrine complex of the Ise Grand Shrine in Ise City is widely respected, with the Inner and Outer Shrines being considered the holiest of them all. Naiku, in particular, is highly revered as it houses the Yata no Kagami, or sacred mirror.

The significance of rebuilding Ise Jingu every 20 years

One of the most fascinating and unique aspects of Ise Jingu is the practice of rebuilding the inner and outer shrines, as well as the Uji Bridge across the Isuzu river, every 20 years. This tradition serves two purposes: preserving traditional building methods and knowledge from generation to generation and symbolizing the Shinto belief in the cyclical nature of life and death.

Uji Bridge at the Ise Jingu shrine in Japan.
The Uji Bridge across the Isuzu river is also rebuilt every 20 years. (Image: Sean Pavone via Dreamstime)

Each shrine follows a unique interpretation of the ancient and simple “Yuitsu-shinmei-zukuri” architectural style reserved for shrines of this type. Although the current buildings at the Ise Great Shrine were completed in 2013, they will be demolished and rebuilt in 2033, adhering to the same tradition.

The spiritual retreat of Ise Jingu

As mentioned earlier, there is no shrine in Japan that is more revered than Ise Jingu, where the great kami and progenitor of the Imperial family, Amaterasu-Omikami, is permanently enshrined among ancient, towering trees. It is safe to say that almost every Japanese citizen knows about Ise Jingu, and for good reason.

Not only is Ise Jingu a significant shrine due to its historical and cultural importance, but it also provides visitors with a spiritual retreat that leaves them feeling renewed and at peace. As Japan’s holiest Jingu, it serves as the spiritual heart of the country, embodying the essence of the ancient Shinto religion, which centers on the belief that kami (spirits) reside within all things.

The spiritual retreat at Ise Jingu is a unique and unparalleled experience that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It is a place of peace, tranquility, and spiritual connection, where visitors can find solace and comfort. The shrine is held in high reverence and respect, making it a must-visit destination for anyone interested in experiencing the heart of Japan’s spiritual traditions.

Why people visit Ise Jingu

In Japanese culture and tradition, visiting Ise Jingu holds great significance. It is a place where people can pay their respects to the gods and goddesses and find peace and solace in the tranquil surroundings. The shrine is revered and respected, providing visitors with an opportunity to connect with the divine.

Paying a visit to Ise Jingu is an expression of respect and gratitude toward the gods and goddesses, as well as an appreciation of the blessings bestowed upon us. The serene atmosphere of the shrine provides a peaceful retreat, where visitors can find solace and comfort along their spiritual journeys.

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