Arts and Culture

Japan’s holiest shrine is pulled down and rebuilt every 20 years – on purpose

Sakaori [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

The shrine has been rebuilt 62 times. Image: Sakaori (Creative Commons License)

Sean Fleming
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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Japan

Shinto is Japan’s indigenous religion, blending formal, elaborate ceremonial practices from the imperial tradition with local, community-based beliefs.

Followers of Shintoism worship their ancestors and regard them as the guardians of the family. They also pay their respects to the numerous kami – spirits that inhabit the natural world; there is no overarching doctrine or dogma in Shintoism, instead it focuses on the relationship between plants, animals, people, the elements and the yearly cycles of growth, death and rebirth.

Image: Ise-Jingu Shinto shrine

Shinto shares many outlooks with Buddhism, and many Japanese people would say they adhere to both faiths. One of the central tenets of Buddhism is the impermanence of everything. The Ise-Jingu Shinto shrine can trace its history back around 2,000 years and occupies a site that is approximately the same size as the centre of Paris. But to mark the importance of the circle of life, every 20 years the Shikinen Sengu divine palace within the shrine precinct is demolished.

It is then rebuilt, to the same dimensions but on an alternate site within the precinct. The process involves around 30 different rituals and ceremonies, the first being felling the trees that will form the new structure. The rebuild takes around eight years and includes recreating the interior fixtures, furnishings and sacred artefacts.

To date, it has been rebuilt 62 times, most recently in 2013.

People walk through a wooden torii gate to pay their respects at Ise Grand Shrine also known as Ise Jingu shrine, Japan's oldest and most important Shinto shrine which enshrines Amaterasu Omikami, sun goddess and the ancestral goddess of the Imperial family, in Ise, Mie prefecture, Japan
People walk through a wooden torii gate to pay their respects at Ise Grand Shrine also known as Ise Jingu shrine, Japan's oldest and most important Shinto shrine which enshrines Amaterasu Omikami, sun goddess and the ancestral goddess of the Imperial family, in Ise, Mie prefecture, Japan Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato

Ise-Jingu is regarded as the country’s holiest Shinto shrine. It is said that the spirits of the Japanese imperial family’s ancestors are enshrined there. The tradition of regarding the Emperor as a god came to an abrupt end in 1945, when Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War. At the behest of the USA, Emperor Hirohito issued a statement on 1 January 1946 publicly renouncing the idea of his divinity.

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