Grand Shrine at Ise


Photographs by Watanabe Yoshio



The Inner Shrine (Naikū)

The Grand Shrine at Ise, in the Mie Prefecture of Japan is a sacred shrine complex of the Shinto religion. It houses along with many smaller buildings two primary shrines, called Naikū (inner shrine) and Gekū (outer shrine). The location of the complex was consecrated first in 3rd or 4th century CE when Yamatohime-no-mikoto was asked by her father, the Emperor Suinin to worship the goddess Amaterasu Ōmikami outside the palace (an order believed to be motivated by fear of the increasing power of the goddess over the Emperor). After wandering for decades, Yamatohime-no-mikoto settled upon the banks of Isuzu, with the agreement of Amaterasu herself and established the place over which the Inner shrine stands today.  


Bruno Taut- Das Japanische Haus und sein

"The shrines of Ise are Japan's greatest and completely original creation in general world architecture. We encounter here something entirely different from the most beautiful cathedrals, mosques, the Indian and Siamese temples or pagodas, and even from the temples of China... [Parthenon] is the greatest and most aesthetically sublime building in stone as are the Ise shrines in wood.... The fresh green of the high cedars, in the midst of which the shrine stands, frames this dwelling house of the Japanese national spirit which ever renews itself like eternal living nature"  

Bruno Taut

This site on the Japanese bay of its namesake is surrounded by dense cypress trees (cryptomeria japonica) which were used for the first construction of the shrines ordered by Emperor Tenmu around 678 - 686 CE. Later in 690, the first ritual reconstruction was performed by Empress Jitō, Tenmu's wife, using lumber from the same cryptomeria forest. Since then the shrine has been dismantled and rebuilt 62 times, with the most recent reconstruction in 2013. 

The Inner and Outer shrines have identical adjacent pieces of land where they get rebuilt every 20 years whilst the previous shrine is still intact and for a brief period before its dismantling both the old and new shrines stand simultaneously. The reconstruction happens before the dismantling of the previous shrine, so that dimensions can be verified. Although Shinto canonical texts have the exact dimensions codified, there is a lot of room considering wood joineries and details that are only passed on verbally. This rebuilding is not in response to damage, pillage or some natural disaster that somehow happens every 20 years but is because of a multitude of religious, spiritual, political and practical purposes: one of them being to ensure the survival of the architectural and construction legacy.



Aerial photograph of the brief period where the old and new inner shrines co-exist

The architecture of Ise shrines has its origins in the agrarian grain storehouses. This fact becomes evident with the two axial columns (Munamochi-bashira) alone supporting the roof and the clearance afforded by the posts beneath the building (which would have been for the safeguarding of grains from the elements), the chigi (scissor like protrusions in the roof, forked roof finials) and the katsuogi (10 cylinders on the roof ridge of, Naikū billets)


After the reconstruction is complete, the Ise shrine most precious object, one of the three Imperial treasures, the mirror is transferred from the old shrine to the new in a ceremony called Sengyo, shrouded in secrecy, privy only to the highest priests and done during the night in darkness. The mirror is the only thing that is not renewed in the entire Shikinen Sengu (ritual rebuilding of the shrines). This mirror is believed to be to the shintai (body) of the sun-deity Amaterasu whose descendant Jimmu was the first emperor of Japan (Japan has the oldest extant hereditary monarchy).



Ukiyo-e painting of the reconstruction ritual (circa 1849)

Screenshot (44).png

Isuzu river passing through the cryptomeria foests, land owned by the Ise Shrine



  1. Taut, B. (1958). Houses and people of Japan. Sanseido Company. pg.139

  2. Reynolds, J. M. (2001). Ise Shrine and a modernist construction of Japanese tradition. The Art Bulletin, 83(2), 316-341.

  3. Adams, C. (1998). Japan's Ise Shrine and Its Thirteen‐Hundred‐Year‐Old Reconstruction Tradition. Journal of Architectural Education, 52(1), 49-60.





  2. Ise Daijingu sengyo no zu 伊勢太神宮遷御之図 (Depiction of the Relocation of the Grand Shrine of Ise) - Woodblock print, oban yoko-e - Utagawa Kuniyoshi - 1847-1852 (Possibly 1849) at the British Museum