Updated: June 22, 2014 07:34 PM GMT
Trees for rebuilding the shrine are ceremonially felled and floated downstream. (Pictures: The Independent)
Under the double-barred gateposts, by the entrance to the bow-backed bridge, a solitary figure was waiting. He was white-robed and bare-headed. He was about to make history.
The Shinto priest bowed deeply to the group of men and women who approached the most venerated shrine in Japan. They, too, were enrobed – in the rich gold-embroidered red and blue of Chinese Taoism, in glorious Hindu saris, in simple white Islamic tunics and shifts, in bright yellow Sikh scarves and turbans, in the austere cassocks of Scandinavian Lutherans, the cream vestments of African Catholics and the black and red academic robes of American Baptists.
At any time in the past 2,000 years, the job of the Shinto guardian of the Hiyokebashi bridge would have been to prevent such aliens from entering this holiest of Japan’s sacred places. But now he bowed deeply, twice, and welcomed them to enter.
History was made at Ise Jingu in many ways this month. The ancient shrine has been completely rebuilt from new wood, as it has been every 20 years since the seventh century. The rebuilding has attracted a record 14 million visitors. Yet that is only part of a remarkable resurgence of Japan’s ancient religion of Shintoism, which, in the decades after the Second World War, had reached a low point unprecedented in its 3,000-year history.
That revival has produced a new Japanese openness to the wider world. It has welcomed in representatives of the faiths of foreigners including even the Confucians and Taoists of the two great religious traditions of Japan’s historical enemy, China. Shintoism this month also hosted the first international conference in its entire history. And it has developed a new attitude to a world threatened by climate change and environmental degradation.
So much so that the United Nations chose the conference as a forum to invite the world’s religions to help to shape the global debate on the social, political and economic yardsticks that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they run out next year. The conference was named “Tradition for the Future” and its brief was to discover “culture, faith and values for a sustainable planet”.
The rebuilding of the Ise shrine is a potent symbol of that – for a paradox lies at its heart. Every 20 years, the shrine buildings are totally demolished and replaced with entirely new ones. It is thus a symbol of both change and continuity. The 20-year cycle allows ancient traditions in forestry and carpentry, thatching and weaving, metalwork and leather skills to be passed on from one generation to the next in an unbroken line. This is not a mere ritual. It is a practical necessity. Over two decades, 100 million people will cross the bridge, wearing it away to half its 6in thickness in the course of its lifespan. Those rebuilding the bridge have inherited the skills of boat carpenters practised in fitting together the floor of the bridge so that it is resistant to rain.
Shintoism is an unusual religion. It has no creeds or dogmas, no doctrines or scriptures. It is rooted in an animist belief that spirits or deities, kami, reside in objects throughout the natural world – rocks, rivers, waterfalls, mountains – as well as in animals and people, and that the spirits of the ancestors live on in the places in which they once dwelt. There are 80,000 shrines to such spirits throughout Japan.
But Ise Jingu is special. This is the shrine in which it is believed the spirits of the Japanese imperial family’s ancestors are enshrined, dating back, legend has it, to the sun goddess Amaterasu, from whom the emperors claimed descent. After each rebuilding, these imperial deities are transferred to a new dwelling – in a ceremony which takes place at night so that profane eyes may not view the sacred objects in which the spirits reside. In this relocation, it is believed, the deities renew their power in a way that rejuvenates the strength of the whole nation.
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