ISE, MIE PREFECTURE – The Japanese people are world famous for their love of sakura, the symbol of spring. Spread out your blankets, open up the picnic baskets and pop the corks: the cherry blossoms are a feast for the senses. As with any beauty, the petals cannot sustain their head-turning quotient for more than a few weeks, after which we watch them dance in the wind and carpet our walkways.
It is this fleeting season of hanami that is perhaps the most recognized symbol of Japan and its reverence and respect for nature. Another tradition deserves its place in Japan’s storytelling to the world: Ise Jingu (officially known as “Jingu”) and its 20-year ritual known as Shikinen Sengu (shrine reconstruction ceremony), passed down across generations for over 1,300 years. The first Sengu was performed in 690 and the 62nd was conducted in 2013.
This year’s Group of Seven summit (Ise-Shima summit) is taking place on Kashikojima island in Mie Prefecture. Central Japan was chosen to allow the world’s top leaders to have firsthand experience with Japan’s nature, core culture and traditions. Ise Jingu has much to share about sustainability and continuity that could help shape the conversation of the global influentials. But to begin to know it, you must visit. Picture books cannot tell the full story, for all the senses must be fully engaged. It is why Shinto and Ise Jingu are called the “soul of Japan.”
During my initial visit to Ise Jingu, a Shinto priest beckoned me to walk around this sacred space, no small feat for the feet. The land area of Jingu is comparable to the size of Paris. Shinto is a practice without scriptures, a founder, or a doctrine, although it is informed by Japanese myths recorded in “Kojiki” and “Nihon-Shoki” ancient history books. The priest did not want to explain the meaning of Shinto or the shrine as much as encourage me to just be present in the moment. I began to think of Jimi Hendrix. Ah, the experience. In feeling this moment, you begin to know Shinto philosophy, to see everything in the world as sacred as expressed through deities called kami.
“Just go out and feel it,” he said. And so I did.
I walked. I listened to the crunch of my feet on the stone path and the song of birds. I noted the forest green shimmering moss and the artistry of fern patterns on rocks. I marveled at the crowds of people of all ages crossing the Ujibashi Bridge, giving an exit bow at the Torii main gate that separates the material world, Ise City, from the spirit world of Jingu. When I performed a kami prayer, a gust of wind lifted up the white curtain (Mitobari) like a giant hand and gave a fleeting but full glimpse of the Kotaijingu (Naiku), the main sanctuary dedicated to the female guardian of Japan and the Imperial family, the vigorous spirit known as Amaterasu-Omikami.
In the scent of the Japanese cypress and the flowing current of the Isuzugawa river, you couldn’t help but feel a sense of rejuvenation and the chains of life that unite us. Yes, life is short, but there is comfort at knowing that some part of you lives on in your legacy, how you have lived, who you have influenced, and who has influenced you, including family and ancestors.
The Japanese love and respect for nature — its bounty, its delicacy, its furor — is throughout Jingu. Nature is a great teacher and the ultimate influencer. The divine is all of life and its treasures: rocks, trees, stones, wind, sun, moon, mountains, persons, those that inspire, educate, provide, and guide. The kami give us a sense of ceaseless wonder. It brings to mind the expansive mentoring system here with senpai and sensei in present and ancestors from past, who provide instruction for our actions, attitude, and decision making.
The spiritual essence of Japan, as shown through my visit to Ise Jingu, is its agriculturally-rich history where people had to rely on the natural resources of pollinating wind and ample water to sustain its rice culture.
Rice meant life. If everyone worked together, the nation would survive and thrive. For shelter, there was wood from this heavily forested country, before the industrial period brought in the steel and concrete.
Wood, like life, does not last forever. It cannot endure. It falls into deterioration and decay. It must be regrown and rebuilt. Each time a rebuild occurs, traditions are maintained and the artisan spirit thrives. In the impermanence of wood and the fragility of rice cultivation, we rely on our generational knowledge to sustain us.
Is there a Shinto and Ise Jingu message for the global leaders who will come together in Mie Prefecture this spring? Yes, indeed. Yukichi Fukuzawa said, “The world is large.” Global problems are large and looming, but the resolutions are small if we all learn to like and respect each other enough to work together to resolve them.
Fundamentally we all want more happiness than sorrow. We seek protective shelter, a good harvest, and a hope for the future that life will go on long after our lives end here on earth.
At Ise Jingu, the 20-year ritual of Shikinen Sengu is a ritual of the past thousand years to inform the present. There is no time like the present to show gratitude to nature’s bounty and direct our human powers of ingenuity to recycle, reuse, and repair to mutual dependence, the essential spirit of Japan.
Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi Distinguished Professor at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. Reach her at www.nancysnow.com.