The Shinto shrines at Ise, nestled in the forests of Japan's Mie prefecture some 60 miles southeast of Kyoto, can strike a first-time visitor as startlingly understated. Many of the traditional Shinto gates, or torii, are unpainted. Simple gravel pathways wind through towering forests of cryptomeria. Even the shrine structures themselves, built in an ancient and austere style unique to Ise, flout the notion that a sacred space must be richly or intricately decorated.
However, it's the very simplicity, the fact that its unspoiled forest envelops the shrine, that makes the shrines at Ise—called jingu by the Japanese—sublime. "When I go there, I feel like I'm back in an ancient world," says Nobuyo Otagaki, a Shinto priestess who visits Ise twice each year. At Ise, she says, she can best connect to the kami, the spirits, gods, and goddesses of Shinto beliefs.
That world, according to myths, goes back to the very dawn of time when the sun goddess, Amaterasu, quarreled with her brother, the god of the ocean and storms. A particularly fearsome exchange had left her hiding in a cave; it wasn't until the other kami coaxed her out with an entertaining dance and a large mirror that she returned the sun's light from its temporary eclipse. That crucial mirror, called yata-no-kagami, became sacred and, the myth goes, eventually made its way to humanity and the shrine at Ise. There it remains to this day and, it's said, Amaterasu continues to reside.
Although only a few select people, such as members of the imperial family, are permitted to see what is said to be the sacred mirror, the belief that it is there helps Ise maintain its place as Japan's most sacred shrine.
And the natural splendor of the setting, said to have been selected by Amaterasu herself, in between oceans and mountains, has served to strengthen that status. During the Edo period (1600-1868), millions would descend upon Ise when rumors circulated that amulets were falling from the sky.
The shrine's pull remains powerful, drawing some6 million visitors a year. Only a sliver of them, though, consider themselves "religious," and most simply buy an amulet and snap a few pictures before departing on tour buses, according to John Nelson, a cultural anthropologist at the University of San Francisco and author of A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine. "Still, in Japan, there's a certain cachet to saying you've been to Ise," he adds.
Part of the appeal is that the shrine is the site of an extraordinary ritual. Every 20 years, all of the wooden shrine structures and many of the artifacts are meticulously disassembled and precisely rebuilt on adjacent lots. The massive undertaking requires funds from shrines across Japan, but the result is remarkable: an ancient shrine that's perpetually renewed. Says Otagaki: "The shrine is very simple. It's silent and there is a sadness in it, but I would say it is gorgeous."