Scenery inside the shrine

Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

Sensing the unseen: encountering the mystery of Ise Jingu

The Ise City Artists-in-Residence programme brought UK-based artists to spend around two weeks in Ise City, Mie Prefecture to come into contact with local culture including the Ise Jingu. Seven artists, including one team of two, were selected from over 600 applicants. Through visiting various sites, including Ise Jingu, and participating in exchange activities with local artists, they gained in-depth knowledge of Ise, which they each related to their own projects. The following is a report of their experiences of Ise Jingu.

Sensing traces of the unseen

Ise Jingu covers a quarter of Ise City and is roughly equivalent in size to Manhattan or half the area of Paris. This sacred Japanese site is in the midst of deep forest, and comprises two main sanctuaries, Naiku (inner shrine) and Geku (outer shrine). The first part of the residency began with a visit to Ise Jingu and study of the philosophy of nature worship found there. The participants were able to gain many experiences in a short time through lessons in shrine-visiting etiquette and lectures on the origins and structure of Ise Jingu, as well as on aspects of dietary culture such as salt and rice.

Shinto, which is said to have eight million kami, has seen deities in various manifestations of nature including the sun, trees, forests, wind, and rocks since ancient times. Japanese people have an instinctive, if vague, understanding of this, but it seemed very hard for the British artists to apprehend these “traces” of the deities. They each approached the experience of using their five senses to “feel and understand” from their own standpoint.  

Grace Boyle, an artist and storyteller working at the intersection of art and science who uses a multisensory, immersive medium to develop story content, focused on the scents wafting around the Jingu. Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) wood, which has sedative properties, is used for the shrine buildings. Boyle collected samples of a variety of scents from Geku and Naiku, aiming to explore the sensory changes which occur during visits to the shrine.

Sounds, on the other hand, were what caught the attention of sound artist Duncan Speakman. During the kagura ritual dance ceremony in Naiku, he heard a live performance of gagaku, traditional court music, for the first time and was interested by the sensory effects of Japanese music, which uses tonal registers and various bamboo flutes not found in Western music. 

A philosophy of sustainability visible in the architecture

At Ise Jingu, a ritual called “Shikinen Sengu” takes place every twenty years. In this ritual, the entire structure of the main sanctuary, including the palace buildings, the fourfold fences which surround them, and the treasures contained inside are remade from scratch. The new sanctuary is built on land adjacent to the current sanctuary. The neighbouring sites are exactly the same size, and everything in the new sanctuary is built to be completely identical to the existing one. Once everything is prepared, the enshrined deity moves into the new palace, in a system with no parallel anywhere in the world. No one knows the reason behind this ritual for sure, but a favoured theory is that it is a system to ensure the passing on of artisans’ skills through the generations. Perhaps it is an approach to eternity, a way to ensure that something which will endure forever by way of constant rebirth through repeated regeneration. This is very different from the approach to permanency of the stone architecture found in the West. 

Matthew Rosier, who has a background in architecture and works on many installations in public spaces, was interested in the philosophy behind the Jingu architecture. He was surprised that an awareness of sustainability was apparent in architecture dating back more than a thousand years, and felt that this system, incorporating the continuous cycle of rebirth and an equilibrium with the natural world, could provide significant clues as to how to tackle the shared issues now confronting the world, such as climate change and environmental problems.

A future in which the Jingu’s philosophy continues to thrive

1,500 different rituals take place at Ise Jingu each year, all of them connected to rice-growing. Legend tells that ears of rice were a gift from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-Omikami, showing that the relationship between Japanese people and rice is far stronger than that with a mere food. The Kanname-sai  that starts on 15 October, is the most important of all the rituals held at the Jingu: the first sheaves of rice harvested that year are offered to the kami. Of the numerous ceremonies for the Kanname-sai, the ones that are held in the evening are ones which very few people witness, but the artists had special permission to attend on this occasion. The physical experience of being in this solemn space of prayer, lit only by torch fire, appeared to leave an impression deeper than words on the artists. 

The festival in which the residents of Ise offer the first rice to the kami is called Hatsuhobiki. The artists took part in the Okabiki procession, pulling a large wheeled cart decorated with the first rice sheaves and piled high with bales of rice, joining in the labourers’ chant of “En-yaa!” which filled the air as they took this year’s first rice to be offered to the kami at the Jingu. Hatsuhobiki is said to have begun with the aim of passing down the ritual of hauling timber to the main sanctuaries of both Geku and Naiku for their ceremonial rebuilding. It was a powerful and grand festival, reflecting the spirit of the city’s residents, who live alongside the Jingu.

The artists’ residency in Ise, including the fury of Typhoon Hagibis which they encountered while there, was an intense and profound encounter with the spirituality of nature and of humans. They were interested not merely in encounters with traditional culture, but in how these ideas are being passed down today and can continue to play an active role in the future.  

In the sessions with creative practitioners based in Ise which took place during the latter half of the residency, the artists engaged in active exchange of opinion about the future from their individual standpoints. 

“Overwhelming!” was the unanimous response of the artists to their experiences in Ise. They each intend to continue to explore these experiences with their respective methodologies after returning home, using them to inform the creation of their future works.

Water vapor rising from the Jingu forest
“Looking at the moisture rising from the Jingu forest, as if it were breathing, we can glimpse a trace of the presence of the forest kami”, a Shinto priest told the participants. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

People gather around the shrine's Tesuisha
A Shinto priest teaches participants the correct etiquette when visiting a shrine. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

People wash their hands on the banks of the river
Participants wash their hands on the banks of the Isuzu river, which runs through Naiku, just as people did in times past. As very few people enter the Jingu forest upstream of this point, the waters of the Isuzu river are very clear. The salt which is offered at the Jingu is made downstream, where the river meets the sea. ©

 Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

 People taking landscape photos

Ise City, British Council

People dressed in white clothing and pulling the rope
The artists joined 842 people dressed in matching white clothing to pull the offerings of the first rice of the year into Geku. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

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