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A Year in the Life of Ise Shrine (Photos)

Nakano Haruo (Photographer)[Profile]

The year 2013 was a special one in Ise, as Japan’s most important Shinto shrine was rebuilt from scratch—the latest iteration of a ceremony carried out every 20 years since the seventh century. This selection of photographs by a man who grew up close to the shrine shows the beauty of the four seasons in one of Japan’s most important sacred spaces.

A New Shrine for the New Year

Every 20 years, the main shrine buildings at Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture, the most important of all of Japan’s tens of thousands of Shinto shrines, are rebuilt entirely. The ceremony, known as the shikinen sengū in Japanese, has been taking place every 20 years since the seventh century. The most recent rebuilding was completed in October 2013, when the two residing deities (kami) were ceremonially moved into their new quarters in the Inner and Outer Shrine buildings at the heart of the shrine precincts. This regular rebuilding has earned Ise Shrine a reputation as the shrine of eternal youth—symbolic of the ever-present, unchanging nature of the divinity. The shrine never looks more vibrant than after a renewal.

In Japan, it is traditional to begin the New Year by visiting a shrine to pray for good fortune in the 12 months to come. Ise Shrine will be a particularly popular choice this year. What better way to mark the New Year than by walking along the gravel paths leading to the ancient-but-always-new shrine at Ise?

I grew up in Ise, where my family ran a small business providing fish for the ceremonial offerings at the shrine. Growing up near the shrine, I got to know at close hand the many faces of the sacred precincts throughout the year. In spring, I used to follow the mejiro (Japanese white-eye) birds that played in the branches of the cherry trees; in summer, I could sense the trees and plants luxuriating in a sudden evening downpour; in autumn, I would enjoy the light streaming through the foliage; and in winter, I would occasionally wake to the wonderful surprise of a rare covering of snow. The sacred grounds of the shrine were home to more pleasures than I could count.

One I loved in particular was the Isuzugawa River—a constant presence through everything, its pure and gentle waters flowing throughout the changing seasons.

The river always reminds me of the awe-inspiring age of this timeless place, the waters flowing unchangingly for more than a thousand years through the sacred precincts of the shrine. The river flows into the sea at Shima, bringing its riches to the ocean, then rises into the heavens to bestow its blessings as rain to the home of the kami.

This is the beautiful natural landscape of Ise, so precious to the Japanese people.

(Photographs and original Japanese text by Nakano Haruo.)

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Photographer. Born in 1952, in Ise, Mie Prefecture. Has spent many years photographing the changing seasons and timeless beauty of the Ise Shrine and Izumo Taisha, two of the oldest and most important Shinto shrines. His work has appeared in numerous books and magazines.


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