shikinen sengu: continuity and renewal


Ise shrine is two thousand years old. Yet, the smell of the cypress logs used for its construction  still lingers in the moist air, as I walk along its perimeter. The sanctuary was actually erected three years ago, in 2013. 

For the past 1,500 years, Ise Jingu -- Japan's holiest shrine --  has been reconstructed 62 times. 

The ritual is called Shikinen Sengu and takes place every twenty years.

The ritual forms a cornerstone of Japanese identity and not only for religious reasons. Maintaining continuity through renewal is deeply engrained in the Japanese spirituality and culture. It complies with the natural order. 


Each time, a new shrine with the same dimensions is constructed at a site adjacent to the current one, and when it's ready the existing sanctuary is dismantled.The bridge leading to the shrine, its furnishings, and 1600 holy objects are meticulously reproduced as well.

The massive undertaking begins 8 years beforehand with a special ceremony when priests and carpenters enter the forest under the cover of the night to cut down the trees that will be used for "heart pillars."

 Twelve thousand cypress logs are required -- most of them need to be around two hundred years old (at least 23 inches in diameter). The original forms and techniques are preserved with all the details, but no used material can be utilized. 

Only highly qualified and certified carpenters (miyadaiku) are allowed to participate in the project. While working, they have to wear certain type of garments.

No nails are used, and no machines can be employed inside the sanctuary (the use of power tools is limited; large trees out of which certain pillars are built can only be logged with the use of axes).   


Donald Richie: 


" Cut wood, sedge, air – that is all they are made of. The spatial simplicity extends temporally as well. The shrines have been destroyed and identically rebuilt every twenty years since antiquity. This cycle is an alternative to the Pyramids – a simpler answer to the claims of immortality. Rebuilt precisely and time is obliterated. Ise embodies the recipe for infinity: 100 cubits and two decades. That is all. Such simplicity, such economy suggest the metaphysical."