Monday, September 22, 2014

My Pilgrimage to Ise-jingu. Part 2 - Naiku, the Inner Shrine

After spending the early morning hours at Ise Jingu's outer shrine Geku, it was time to head on to the inner shrine,  the Kotaijingu or Naiku -- and thus complete my pilgrimage.  

Naiku is 3.5 kilometres away from Geku.  I suppose as a henro or pilgrim, one can walk all the way. But for most of us, the bus stop is conveniently located right across the road.

While I enjoyed the peace and tranquility, not to mention the early morning cool air at Geku, it was nearly mid morning when I arrived in Naiku.  There was quite a crowd at the entrance and the air had turned hot and humid.

Naiku is separated by a river, the Isuzugawa which runs clear and clean -- as with most waterways in Japan.  I felt the river acted like a moat, protecting the shrine from the outside world.

This is the Ujibashi bridge that spans the Isuzugawa and leads one to the torii that marks the entrance to the Inner Shrine.  It is a very traditional wooden Japanese bridge and is over 100 meters long.  Something interesting to note about Ise Jingu -- this bridge and ALL the structures inside both shrines are  rebuilt every 20 years.  This is because of a tradition which entails the periodic transfer of the divine symbol to a new divine palace each time.
My Japanese colleague told me that there is also a  practical reason for this constant and continuous rebuilding -- that is so that the tradition and knowledge of constructing the shrine is handed down to each generation and therefore not lost through the ages.

 Naiku, being the more important shrine as it is where the chief deity Amaterasu is,  is more expansive and bigger than Geku.  The gravel path to the inner portions are wide and lined with meticulously maintained lawns and trees.

These Japanese pine trees are gorgeous and I can only surmise how old these are.  Their fresh pine scent wafts through the air.

As in Geku, there are many giant unpainted torii that you pass through as you go from the entrance to deeper into the shrine.  In a pure Shinto shrine, the torii are never painted and are left in their natural state.

This is Mitarashi, a site for ablution in the shallow waters of the Isuzugawa.  Wide stone steps lead down to the river and many pilgrims perform their ritual acts of cleansing.

More giant torii line the way to the main sanctuary where Amaterasu Omikami is enshrined.  Of course this is completely hidden from view and you can only peek through wooden fences that hide the sanctuary within.

This peaceful and lovely bridge and torii leads to Kazahinomi-no-miya, a jinja dedicated to the kami of wind and rain, which is necessary for the growth of grains and other crops.

This is the Kaguraden where pilgrims can enter and pray.  If one has a personal petition or favour to ask for, one can dedicate a kagura, a ceremonial music or dance to the kami.  Beside this is the obligatory gift shop which had a long queue of pilgrims buying amulets, books, etc.

Despite the thick crowds of pilgrims, there are pockets of seclusion within the shrine.  I chanced upon this pond of koi where there was no one to interrupt my solitude.

On my way out, I stopped by the Sanshuden or the rest house for pilgrims.  There is free cold and hot tea on the counter and for those wishing more commercial types of refreshment, several vending machines selling all sorts of non alcoholic beverages are also on hand.
And yes, the rest rooms were  very clean and well maintained.

I saw my favourite bottled cherry drink -- tart and cold, it was the perfect way to rehydrate before I continued on my way.

It was lunchtime and more and more people were just arriving at Naiku.  It is a tradition for the Japanese to visit Ise Jingu at least once in their lives. Most of them come via tour groups so there were dozens of tour buses which were parked across the entrance.

I caught the Japanese flag waving in the breeze as I crossed the Ujibashi bridge.  Ise Jingu, as the most important shrine,  is considered as the spiritual home of Shinto and therefore of Japan and the Japanese people.

These bronze ornaments are found on the bridge at both ends.  As pilgrims passed, they stopped and touched these ornaments as part of their ritual of farewell.

And here to commemorate my pilgrimage is the stamp of Naiku on my shuincho.  
Coming to Ise Jingu was a  gratifying and fulfilling experience.  
I found the two shrines to be different but complementary to each other.  I felt the raw and primitive power of the kami in the Outer Shrine, Geku.  
And in Naiku, I saw the high degree of reverence and esteem the Japanese people had for their beliefs. 
Ise Jingu is the heart of their way of life.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Pilgrimage to Ise-jingu. Part 1 - Geku, the Outer Shrine

On this last business trip to Osaka, I scratched another item off my "religious sites to see in Japan" bucket list.  
I had been to Hieizan's Enryakuji and the Vatican of Shingon Buddhism, Koyasan. 
Now Ise-jingu, most important and most revered Shinto shrine in Japan was my target for the day.  
Shinto means "way of the gods" and it is Japan's largest and oldest religion.   
Unlike other religions, Shinto does not have teachings nor does it have a holy book.  
It is rooted in life forces such as trees, wind, rain, mountains.  It is different from Buddhism, Japan's other major religion.
It seems that most Japanese practice both.  My Japanese colleagues and friends tell me that they go to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines depending on the occasion.

Ise-jingu is in Ise City in Kansai and is a convenient and easy two hour train ride from Osaka's Namba station.  Japanese trains are efficient, punctual to the minute and very comfortable, specially if you're riding on an all reserved seat train like the Kintetsu Limited Express.  This is the fastest and easiest way to get to Ise-jingu from Osaka.

I love the drain hole covers in Japan.  Instead of being boring and plain, they are works of art -- all you have to do is look down and you see the story or the main feature of the town.  In Ise City, site of the Ise-jingu Shrine, the colourful drain hole cover depicts henro or Japanese pilgrims, on their way to the shrine.
I was happy to be here, as a gaijin henro.

Ise-jingu is composed of two shrines.  Geku or the Outer Shrine is a mere 500 meter walk from Iseshi Station where I got off from the train.  It was quite early in the morning, not even 8 o'clock and I was happy to find the entrance nearly empty of visitors.

There is no one at the Tezimusha or the place where pilgrims need to ritually cleanse themselves before they enter the shrine.  I knew the drill -- dip the bamboo dippers in the cold clear running water and pour water over your left hand then your right.  Then, with the remaining water, pour some in your hand to rinse your mouth.
These ablutions are necessary for pilgrims to any shrine or temple.

This is the very large unpainted torii that marks the entrance to Geku.  The Outer Shrine is dedicated to Toyo'uke-no-Omikami.  A kami is a Shinto god.  Toyo'uke-no-Omikami is the "handmaid" of Amaterasu-Omikami, the Sun Goddess and top among all kami in Shinto.
As handmaid, Toyo'uke-no-omikami is the companion to Amaterasu and provides her with sacred food.  
Pilgrims to this shrine are blessed with abundant harvests and daily provisions such as food, clothing and shelter.
Before I pass through the torii, I follow my fellow pilgrims and bow and clasp my hands together to honour the kami in Geku.

It is a quiet and cool early morning inside Geku.  Past the  entrance, more torii line the gravel path.
I am glad I left Osaka very early, on the first train to Ise.  There are few people about and I enjoy the tranquil and reverent atmosphere.

Very tall, very old trees are found inside Geku.  Ise-jingu as a shrine has been around for around 1,500 years so I wonder how many centuries old these trees are.

I have been told by my Japanese colleagues that Ise-jingu is the number one spiritual "power spot" in Japan.  A power spot is a place flowing with strong vitality and energy, and of course spiritual power. It is where you can recharge your "qi" or life force.
In both Geku and Naiku, many spots have these white banners symbolising lightning bolts -- these are "power spots" within the entire powerful area where you can stand and allow the power and energy to flow through you.
There are many of these banners all throughout the shrine -- some are on walls of structures, on tree trunks, on torii, on wooden posts, etc.

The main sanctuary in Geku is not accessible to pilgrims but is hidden deep behind wooden walls.  Only the high priests and certain members of the Japanese royal family may enter the main shrine buildings.  For the rest of us, there are areas where we can see priests offering daily prayers.

This is the outer portion before the hidden main sanctuary.  Here, we are allowed to enter through the torii, to pay our respects and say our petitions and prayers.

There are many jinja or Shinto Shrines inside Ise-jingu, both in Geku and in Naiku.  This is
Tsuchi-no-miya, a jinja dedicated to the kami who protects the entire shrine of Geku.    According to my map, this kami was enshrined in this place even before Geku was established.

Across Tsuchi-no-miya are about one hundred stone steps leading up to another ninja.
I fear for my left knee which after an accident a couple of months ago, is still not in 100% condition to climb or descend.  The stone steps are moss covered in some areas and seem damp with dew.
But, I am here as a henro and I know I must climb.
I am sure the kami will protect me (not to mention Buddha, who I can feel is also with me on this trip).

I make the climb very carefully, watching out for uneven and wet stones.  To make sure my clumsy self does not rise (and fall)  to the occasion, I keep a firm grip on the wooden balustrade.

After more steps to climb, I finally reach the top, where the jinja is dedicated to Taka-no-miya, another vigorous spirit of Toyo'uke-no-Omikami.  It is indeed a vigorous spirit as I survive the climb and the descent without a fumble or fall.

It is time to leave Geku and move on to the more important, and some Japanese say, impressive Inner Shrine, Naiku.  On the way out, I pass by the Kaguraden, a hall where pilgrims can say their personal prayers and where ceremonial dance and music are played.
Part of the the Kaguraden has been transformed into the ubiquitous gift shop.

The  Shinto priest at the gift shop stamped the shrine seal on my shuincho along with the date of  my visit.  The seal on the right page is the seal for Geku.

As I exited Geku, I stopped for a while to check out the Sengukan or the Shrine Museum.
I never made it inside as I preferred to sit in quiet contemplation from my vantage bench looking over Magatamaike Pond.
It was a morning very well spent at Geku.  I loved the simplicity of the shrine and felt the raw and primitive force that seemed to flow through the place.
Despite the fact that I had not been able to eat breakfast, I did not feel hungry nor did I feel tired from the thick humidity and heat that had now taken over  the early morning breeze.
In fact, I felt reenergised and revitalised --  ready to continue my pilgrimage to Naiku, the Inner Shrine of Ise-jingu.

Friday, September 12, 2014

How to get from Osaka to Ise-jingu on the Kintetsu Ltd Express

Travelling solo on a train in a land where I hardly speak the language -- that's exactly the kind of travel that I love.
On this last business trip to Osaka, I stayed an extra day so I could do just that,  meander off on my own, on a short day trip, out of the comfort zone of the city.
Thanks to Hyperdia, that fount of information on the Japanese train system, I was armed with all the details on trains, stations and timetables that I needed for this day trip to Ise-jingu, the most important Shinto shrine in Japan and just a two hour train ride away from Osaka.

My journey started very early.  I wasn't sure how easy it would be to navigate my way around Namba station -- a vast underground maze where it would be so easy to get lost in.
I took a cab from the hotel and asked the driver to take me to the Kintetsu Station in Namba and was  surprised that he dropped me off in this building, a block away from the main station.

But it was a pleasant surprise!  The Kintetsu and Hanshin train lines share this easy to get to entrance.  No need to enter busy Namba station at all!

Because Ise-jingu is a major destination for tourists, directions and instructions were well marked, in both Japanese and English.

There are quite a number of ways from Osaka to Ise-jingu but the fastest way is via the Kintetsu Limited Express which will zip you to Ise City in just under two hours.
Because it is a Limited Express train,  it is reserved seating all throughout and costs 3,120 yen for a one way ticket.
In my excitement, I got to the station way too early for my planned 7:05 a.m train and thus, ended up making it in time for the first trip at 6:05.

The platform is just below the ticket station.  I had barely gotten down when the train pulled in, making me miss out on one of my favourite train rituals in Japan -- buying the eki-ben or the special bento box sold chiefly in train stations.  I would have no breakfast on the train.
Zannen desu ne!

From my window seat,  I looked out on bucolic and tranquil scenes of rural Japan -- a far cry from skyscrapers and concrete roads.  This is why I always try to squeeze in an out-of-town day trip every time I am in Osaka or Tokyo.  And thanks to the fast and efficient Japanese train system, I am able to see some of the beautiful countryside whenever I can.

 Before long, the train had stopped and dislodged us at Iseshi, the station closest to Geku, the outer shrine of Ise-jingu.  This grand Shinto shrine is composed of two shrines -- Geku is the Outer Shrine and the more important shrine is Naiku, or the Inner Shrine.

From the station platform, signs point travellers in the direction of the exit towards Ise-jingu or Geku.

The Kintetsu Limited Express stops at the platform designated for Kintetsu trains but the exit for Geku is closest to the JR trains exit.

It was not even 8:00 a.m. when I exited Iseshi Station.  Again, I was glad to note that there were prominent signs pointing to Ise-jingu.  Dear reader ... trust me.  It is impossible to get lost  if you travel by train to Ise-jingu.

The outer shrine or Geku is a mere 500 meters from Iseshi Station. This huge signboard is hard to miss.

There is also a large map of Ise City, showing where you are in relation to Geku, Naiku and other places of interest.

A large unpainted torii marks the exit to the station and leads you to the street that will take you to Geku.  The torii is made of cedar and I actually got a whiff of the fragrant wood as I passed by.

Since it was early, the souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes on the street leading to Ise-jingu were still closed.

It was a short walk to get to this wide avenue -- the crosswalk led me to the entrance of Geku, the Outer Shrine of Ise-jingu.

There were just a few of us at this hour at the shrine.  The small bridge you see on the left side marks the entrance to Geku.  There is no payment or entrance fee to the shrine.   I even got a free map in english when I stopped at the small guardhouse.

After my visit to Geku, it was time to head to Naiku.  The Inner Shrine is 3.5 kilometres away and there is a  bus that you can take from right across Geku.  Again, the destination is clearly marked. There were quite a few people waiting in line for the bus.

 To Naiku, the fare is 420 yen.  Pay as you exit by dropping the exact number of coins in the little box beside the driver's seat.

After a 20 minute ride through Ise City, the bus made its final stop at Naiku, right across the entrance to the shrine.  Since this was much later in the morning, more tourists and pilgrims had arrived.  The temperature had also shifted from an early morning cool to a blistering and humid mid-day heat.

After my visit to Naiku and lunch (more about that in a later post), it was time to head back to Iseshi station where I planned to catch the 12:52 train back to Osaka.  To take the bus back to the station, I bought my tickets first from the shop directly across the bus stop.

 Buses going around Ise City come around every 15 or 20 minutes so I didn't have to wait long before my bus bound for the train station arrived.

I took my seat right by the exit and  dropped my ticket in the payment slot.

I got back to Iseshi Station with plenty of time to spare.  However, instead of being able to buy a straight ticket to Osaka Namba station where I had gotten on earlier this day, I had to make a transfer at Osaka Uehommachi and take the regular Kintetsu tram to Namba.

From Osaka Uehommachi, it was one level down to the platform for the Kintetsu Nara Line which dropped me off at Namba.  I was back in my hotel before 3 p.m.
Thanks to the efficient train system and the many directional signs in English along the way ...
going solo to Ise-jingu was easy and worry free!