TSU, MIE PREFECTURE – Ise Jingu Shrine, fresh off its Sengyo-no-gi in October, the main event in the “shikinen sengu” ritual of transferring the deity to a new shrine building every two decades, is drawing record crowds.
The number of worshippers flocking to the shrine in Ise, Mie Prefecture, passed the 10 million mark this year for the first time since tallies were first kept in 1896.
According to Noboru Okada, a professor at Kogakkan University who specializes in the history of Shinto shrines, the boom is reminiscent of the Edo Period, when the shrine saw mass pilgrimages from all over the country.
Local merchants were quick to capitalize on the millions of visitors, establishing all sorts of facilities around the shrine to offer food and accommodations, Okada said.
Today’s officials at Ise Jingu say the shrine has always attracted more visitors in years when the shikinen sengu comes around. The last round, in 1993, saw 8.4 million visitors.
“Amidst all the gloom caused by the economic crisis and the Great East Japan Earthquake, people might be searching for something to believe in,” remarked Akihito Tsutani, senior researcher at the Tsu branch of the Mie-based Hyakugo Economic Research Institute. “Many of them probably come here because the shrine is considered a source of mystical energy.”
It is also likely that the shrine’s popularity was boosted by national media coverage of the ceremonial relocation of the shrine structure, with stories appearing in newspapers, on TV and in other media.
“I’ve learned about the (shikinen) sengu ritual from a TV program,” said visitor Yuko Uchida, 38, of Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture. “I talked about it with my colleagues and many of them said they would like to visit the shrine.”
Another contributing factor are the shrine tours guided by Shinto priests offered by Club Tourism International Inc., a leading travel agency based in Tokyo.
A staff member at the agency said that “many people visit the shrine to learn about the historical background of the ritual.”
The spirit of renewal at the shrine has spread to local officials and merchants.
The city of Ise has invested in creating a barrier-free environment on its streets. New elevators have been put installed near the shrine entrance, while railway stations and public restrooms have been made more accessible for people using wheelchairs.
Many eateries and other facilities have adopted new brochures and menus that include information in English.
According to the Hyakugo Economic Research Institute, promotion of the Shinto ritual and the resulting popularity of the shrine has boosted local economy by an estimated ¥300 billion.
“Ise is a city that changes along with the celebration of the shikinen sengu,” said Hiroshi Nakamura, assistant manager of the city’s tourism planning division. “I hope that this spirit of hospitality, which is in line with the trends of the times, will help us attract more tourists.”