Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010
On November 23rd of every year, Japan has been celebrating a fall harvest with an ancient Shinto ceremony called Niinamesai, which literally means “the festival of new taste.” Niinamesai is one of the most important rituals of the country in which the Emperor on behalf of the people makes the season’s first offering to the gods, gives thanks for the harvest to kami (spirits), and tastes the rice for the first time. Niinamesai was once celebrated in every farming and fishing village where people dedicate the year’s harvest to the shrines in each region. In other words, it was a major national event for both the Emperor and people to share the joy of harvest bestowed by the gods.
Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingu) is Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine and dates back to the 3rd Century. Dedicated to the goddess Amaterasu, it is considered to be the spiritual home of the Japanese and its national religion Shinto, and as such receives over six million pilgrims and tourists every year. The Inner Shrine, Naiku, is located in the town of Uji-tachi, south of central Ise, and is dedicated to the worship of Amaterasu. The Outer Shrine, Geku, is located about six kilometers from Naiku and dedicated to the deity of agriculture and industry.
Since Ise is not too far from Nagoya, just a couple of hour drive, Yasuko decided that it was going to be the perfect opportunity to visit the two shrines and, at the same time, experience this very traditional festival. We left the city of Nagoya around 4AM, greatly helped by the fact that we were still both jet-lagged, and drove south-west towards the Shima Peninsula. When we arrived, we were literally the first car in the main parking area by the Geku shrine. It was just a few minutes past 6AM, and the sky was no longer completely dark, just a few minutes before dawn.
When we walked inside, it was just us. Around us just the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves, and of our footsteps in the gravel of the path towards the shrine. Here and there we found a few people cleaning the paths from the fallen leaves, and some monks walking briskly to get ready for the ceremony.
Few minutes later a few visitors started to arrive, and a whole bunch of photographers, together with a group of NHK cameramen, who immediately begun setting up their tripods, getting ready for the first ceremony, which is held at 7AM.
At 7AM the photographers were ready and no one was talking. In a surreal atmosphere a line of monks arrived, only the sound of their footsteps on the gravel breaking the silence. The monks passed in front of us and entered the inner temple, where only they are allowed to enter. Everything happened pretty quickly and just a few minutes later everybody had left, to go to the other shrine.
Just like everyone else, we also left the grounds of the temple, went back to the car and drove a few miles to reach the other, bigger, temple. The goal was to arrive just before sunrise, at the Uji bridge, to view the magical moment when the first rays inundate the majestic bridge with a delicate golden light.
The Uji Bridge over the Isuzu River, is located at the entrance to the Naiku shrine, in Ise Jingu, and leads people from the everyday to the sacred world. It is majestic in its pure Japanese style. It is about 100 meters long and is reconstructed every 20 years at the occasion of Shikinen Sengu ceremony.
Meanwhile, the parking lot started to get pretty full. November 23rd is Labor Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday in Japan, which celebrates the year's hard work, therefore many people were coming to the shrine to thank the gods for the past year and pray for the next one.
On the other side of the Uji bridge a large garden follows the river leading to the main area.
In Japan, sake has always been a way of bringing gods and people together. In some old texts the word used for sake is miki, written with the characters for ‘god’ and ‘wine.’ People would go a shrine festival and be given rice wine to drink, and they would feel happy and closer to the gods. Shinto shrines and sake manufacturers maintain a symbiotic relationship, in which the shrines conduct rites to ask the gods for the prosperity of the brewers, and the brewers donate the sake that shrines need for ceremonies and festivals. Smaller shrines usually get their o-miki from local sake companies, but two shrines, Meiji Jingu in Tokyo and Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture, look after the entire national product by accepting donations from every rice-wine brewer in the country.
Generally, a brewer provides just one bottle, or an empty barrel for display. It’s the kimochi (gesture) that’s important, because asking for or giving more sake than is actually needed would be wasteful. And so, along the garden, opposite to the river bank, we found a very large wooden frame where all the barrels of sake that had been donated were being put on display.
At the end of the entrance garden a small bridge leads into a more wooden area which eventually allows the visitor to reach the main buildings. Here there is the hall for special prayer, open to the public for the offering of individual prayers to the kami and the giving of donations. Here you can also purchase special talismans of protection, amulets and hanging scrolls of Amaterasu Omikami.
Right opposite to the main buildings another smaller bridge brings to Kazahinomi-no-miya, my favorite sanctuary at Naigu. This shrine is dedicated to Shinatsuhiko-no-kami and Shinatobe-no-kami. These two gods are said to be in charge of the wind and the rain crucial for agriculture.
We continued our walk around the main buildings towards the main shrine, enjoying the gorgeous trees, the light filtering through the leaves creating a magical atmosphere. As you can see in some of the pictures, some trees are protected with bamboo because, since these trees are considered sacred, over the years people have touched them so much that their bark is literally shiny and worn smooth .
Across from the visitor’s center we found a small koi pond with big colorful fish inside and, just as we were sitting down on a bench next to the pond to relax, a lady came out of a small building to feed them.
At the visitor’s center they offered tea and so we took a break for a few minutes. Then we walked in the northern area of the gardens, were we found a lot of beautiful momiji (Japanese maple trees).
A bit hidden from the main path, we found this beautiful rock, carved in the shape of a sakura flower, partly covered with moss, filled with fresh water and with two traditional bamboo ladles for purification.