Ise Jingū (伊勢神宮), located in the city of Ise (formerly Uji-Yamada) in Mie Prefecture, is one of the most sacred Shintō shrines and consists of an extensive complex of buildings. It has two main shrines, the Inner Shrine, the Naikū (内宮) or Kōtai Jingū (皇大神宮), and the Outer Shrine, the Gekū (外宮) or Touyouke Daijingū (豊受大神宮), along with 125 other affiliated shrines, 91 of which belong to Naikū and 32 to Gekū.


Ise Jingū also has three affiliated museums, a library, and several facilities to produce the utensils required in its ceremonies. Some six million people undertake pilgrimages to the shrine each year, called Oise-Mairi (お伊勢まいり). According to tradition, pilgrims visit Gekū first and then Naikū or only Naikū if they are pressed for time. A particularly famous pilgrimage was that of Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō (東郷平八郎, 1848-1934), who entered the Bay of Ise with his entire fleet after the victorious Russo-Japanese War to show his gratitude.


Kaguraden (神楽殿)

As Ise Jingū enshrined the imperial family's ancestral gods, it was initially not open to the public. However, as the influence of the emperor declined after the outbreak of the Ōnin War in 1467, it became more difficult to maintain the shrines, and the shrine precincts were opened to the public. The sacred buildings of the main shrines are still closed to the public, but they can be viewed from a distance beyond the tall fences.


Kagura Festival

Inner Shrine (Naikū)

The Inner Shrine dates back to the 3rd century C.E. It enshrines Amaterasu-ōmikami (天照大御神), the ancestral deity of the imperial family represented by the sacred mirror (八咫鏡 Yata no kagami), one of the three imperial regalia. According to the Nihon Shoki (720), the mirror was transferred from the imperial palace to Kasanuinomura (笠縫邑) in Yamato (present-day Nara Prefecture) during the reign of the legendary emperor Sujin (崇神天皇, r. 1st century B.C.E.). Later, Yamatohime, the daughter of his successor, Emperor Suinin (垂仁天皇), became the first priestess of the shrine. Legend has it that Yamatohime travelled around the country to find an eternal resting place for the mirror. When she reached Ise, the voice of Amaterasu told her that here was a good place and that she would like to stay in Ise. Yamatohime built a shrine on the banks of Isuzugawa River and enshrined the goddess. It is said that from this time on the head priestess of the shrine was always selected from among imperial princesses. Historically, this practise continued until the reign of Emperor Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇, 1318-1339).


The Inner Shrine's main building is constructed with unpainted Japanese cypress wood and follows the archaic and simplistic shinmei-zukuri (神明造) style typical for Mie Prefecture. Ise-jingū uses a specific style called yuitsu shinmei-zukuri (唯一 神明 造), which, as the name suggests, is unique (唯一 yuitsu) to the shrine.

The shrine is levelled and rebuilt at regular intervals in a ritual called shikinen sengū (式年遷宮), a practice that started during the reign of Empress Jitō (持統天皇, 645-703), taking place every twenty years. Since the reign of Emperor Go-Mizunoo (後水尾天皇, 1596-1680) it has taken place every 21 years, except for times of civil strife during the Sengoku Period when it was not carried out regularly. The Inner and Outer Shrine, as well as Uji Bridge, was last reconstructed in 2013. The reconstruction was financed through private donations and amounted to some 57 billion JPY.

The most important rite at the shrine is the Kannamesai Festival (神嘗祭) in October when the new rice crop is dedicated. Other rites include the Toshigoi no matsuri (祈年祭 Kinnensai) to pray for a rich harvest and Tsukinamisai Festival (月次祭) which takes place every month. The rites, as well as the preparation of food at the Ise Grand Shrine, follow ancient rituals: fire for cooking is made by rubbing wooden sticks; rice is cultivated in a dedicated paddy; sake is made following ancient methods; salt, vegetables, fruits are produced at dedicated locations, and abalone, an essential offering, are prepared in Toba (鳥羽). Earthen-ware utensils are made at a special shrine kiln and disposed of after being used once. Fabrics for the sacred garments are woven at two shrines in the city of Matsusaka (松阪): silk at Kanhatori-hatadono-jinja (神服織機殿神社) and hemp at Kan'omi-hatadono-jinja (神麻続機殿神社).

Both Naikū and Gekū have several structures that appear in both shrines. This includes the saikan (斎館), a hall for ritual purification for the more than one hundred priests, in which they have to stay for a night or two to free their minds from worldly things. There are special baths for purification and meals prepared over a sacred fire in the saikan. Adjacent to the saikan are anzaisho (行在所), special buildings for visiting members of the imperial family.

Uji Bridge

Uji Bridge (宇治橋) is a 100-metre-long wooden bridge in a traditional Japanese style, stretching across the Isuzu River at the entrance of Naikū. Like the shrine buildings of Naikū, the bridge is rebuilt every 20 years as a part of the shikinen sengū ceremony. Carpenters typically build the bridges with less experience to gain more skills before moving on to take on working on the main shrine. Upon crossing the bridge, the path turns to the Isuzu river banks' right and passes through large landscaped gardens.

Outer Shrine (Gekū)

About six kilometres from the Naikū, the Outer Shrine was built in the late 5th century and enshrined Toyouke-Ōmikami, the goddess of food, clothing, and housing. She was said to have been in charge of Amaterasu's food supply. According to the Kojiki, the shrine was first located within the imperial grounds, later transferred to Tamba Province (nowadays part of Kyōto and Hyōgo prefectures) and then moved to its present site during the reign of Emperor Yūryaku (雄略天皇, r. 456-479).


From an architectural point of view, the Outer and the Inner Shrine are quite similar. There are minuscule differences, however, such as the finials of the rafters on the thatched roof (千木 chigi) and the number of cross-pieces on the ridgepole (堅魚木 katsuogi). It is also razed and reconstructed at regular intervals.



Ise Jingū has long had a special significance in Japanese culture. A poem in the 8th-century anthology Man'yōshū (万葉集) mentions the shrine, as did the monk and poet Saigyō Hōshi (西行法師, 1118-1190) in emotional verses when visiting Ise. The German architect Bruno Taut (1880-1938) praised its perfection of form and described it as an eastern equivalent of the Parthenon.

During the 15th century, veneration of Ise Jingū became particularly strong, largely due to the activities of oshi (御師), low-ranking Shintō priests who travelled the provinces to proselytise and collect alms. They preached the benefits of visiting Ise and claimed that seven pilgrimages ensured salvation. Even Oda Nobunaga, ruthless in his confrontation with the monks of Hieisan, felt obliged to donate a fortune to revive the custom of reconstructing the shrine, as did the Tokugawa shōgun.

The importance of Ise can be seen in the historic numbers of pilgrims to the shrine: as many as 2,500 pilgrims are said to have visited the shrine daily from March to May 1650; from April to May 1705, 3,620,000 visited the shrine; from April to August 1771 the total was 2,700,000; and from the end of March to August 1830 the figure reached 4,579,000. Those numbers were, of course, higher than average months, as they represent visits during okagedoshi (御蔭年), the year after a sengū, considered particularly auspicious. During the militaristic period of the 1930s, the cult of Shintō was used for nationalistic purposes. Every household was required to have an ofuda (御札, talisman) issued by the shrine. While still a place of worship, nowadays, Ise Grand Shrine is more significant as a tourist destination that attracted 6-7 million visitors a year before the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.

Access: Gekū is a 5-minute walk from JR Iseshi Station on the JR Sangu Line and the Kintetsu Yamada Line or a 10-minute walk from Ujiyamada Station on the Kintetsu Yamada and Toba lines. Naikū is a 30-minute walk from Isuzugawa Station on the Kintetsu Toba Line. Buses #51 or #55 leave from Gekū or central Ise for Naikū.

Address: Naikū: 1 Ujitachicho, Ise, Mie 516-0023 / 〒516-0023 三重県伊勢市宇治館町; phone: 059-624-1111; Geku: 279 Toyokawacho, Ise, Mie 516-0042 / 〒516-0042 三重県伊勢市豊川町279.

Admission: open daily 05:00-17:00 (October-December), 05:00-18:00 (January-April, September), 05:00-19:00 (May-August); admission free.



  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2002
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