When it comes to Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion, Ise Jingu is the most revered shrine complex of them all.
Established in the 5th century in Japan's Mie prefecture, it was built in honor of Amaterasu-omikami, the sun goddess from whom the Japanese imperial family is said to be descended.
About 120 shrines make up the site, but the main ones are Naiku (inner shrine) and Geku (outer), Naiku being the most revered.
Though the grounds are ancient the actual shrines are never more than a couple of decades old. That's because all the shrines are rebuilt from scratch every 20 years -- a process called "shikinen sengu" -- using all new materials and fittings.
Construction of an identical new shrine is now under way on a site next to Naiku, which enshrines the famed sun goddess, and will be completed this year -- for the 62nd time.
Here's a closer look at the sacred Ise Jingu complex.
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The reconstruction of the shrines is said to represent renewal. Once the resident god has been moved into the new shrine, the old one is demolished and all trappings burned. Only descendants of the imperial family can serve at Naiku.
The Ise shrine is surrounded by a sacred forest covering an area of 5,500 hectares (13,600 acres).
About 90 hectares of the area around the shrines has remained untouched since they were founded 16 centuries ago. The rest is used to provide materials for shrine construction. The trees need to grow for hundreds of years before they're big enough to be used as building materials.
Ise Jingu is the most sacred site in Japan, and many Japanese come here to pray. They are not allowed to enter the shrines, which are obscured behind high walls, but can pray at the entrance. This is Geku shrine, the second most sacred at the site. Photography is only allowed from a respectful distance.
Some of the smaller shrines are built in a style dating back to the 2nd century. The building techniques have been handed down by families traditionally associated with the shrines.
The entrance to all Shinto shrines is marked by a gate called a tori, which marks the transition into a sacred area. This gate, rebuilt this year, is made of only four pieces of cypress wood. The trees used in its construction were about 400 years old.
Before entering the shrine you have to purify yourself at the temizusha (water house) by washing your hands and rinsing your mouth. First pour some water over your right hand, then your left. Then pour water into the cupped palm of your right hand and take a sip.
To make a prayer, visitors toss a coin into the offering box, clap their hands twice, bow twice and then pray.
There are many gods enshrined at Ise Jingu. Even these stones are believed to be home to a deity. It is said that the sacred rocks give off heat -- many visitors hold out their hands to see if it's true.
Most visitors buy a Omamori charm to bring luck and protect themselves against adversity. 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 charms cost about US$5.
Outside of Naiku, the main shrine, is a street where visitors can buy souvenirs and grab something to eat. It has been restored to look like a town from the pre-modern age.
The Geku portion of Ise Jingu has a museum chronicling the traditions and craftsmanship of the shrines.
Regular trains depart from Osaka to make the 1.5-hour trip to Ise. At Osaka station travelers can buy a pass that includes train fare, access to the museums, free transport on certain busses around Ise and coupons for various shops and restaurants.
There are hotels in Ise to suite every budget. For more info visit the official Ise Jingu website.
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