Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Ise Shrine, Japan

Ise Shrine Outer Grounds

Japanese temples don’t enclose congregations, they mark sacred space. Space to which pilgrims must undertake a journey.

Ise Shrine Grounds of Buddhist Temple The journey is part of the ritual. It conditions the soul for the destination.

Ise Shrine Steps These plain, craftsman buildings elevated above the ground on simple structures have been marking these same sacred space for centuries; unadorned, unchanged--yet they are destroyed and rebuilt anew identically every twenty years.  (Unadorned, but not undecorated—the “decoration” derives quite naturally from their construction.) At the turn of the century poet Locfadio Hearn visited Ise and wrote,

_Quote There is nothing imposing but the space, the silence and the suggestion of the past.

Ise_1746 And few people gain admission to the inner shrine, where we find one of the main Ise “treasure houses,” The architecture recapitulates the ancient end-post-and-roof beam style of prehistoric Japanese rice storehouses and shrines.ijinja0001p1

Ise pre-dates Zen.  It represents a kind of nature worship that venerates the spaces that  gods might inhabit, and the nature-given materials used to frame it.  No wonder so many architects find inspiration here.

Granted permission to visit these temples  a few years ago, architect Kenzo Tange—designer of the dramatic 1964 Tokyo Olympic Stadium--said,

_QuoteThe buildings, their placement, and their form and space moved me deeply. Plain to the point of artlessness, they nevertheless possessed a highly refined style.  Their origin in remote times has stamped on them an elementary vigor; they combine this with a timeless aesthetic discipline.  Seldom is an architecture created in which the vital and the aesthetic are as well balanced as here.

Tange wasn’t alone in finding inspiration here. Architects from Greene & Greene to Walter Gropius to Bruno Taut to Frank Lloyd Wright discovered architecture afresh from the shrines at Ise and from other lesser temples.  taut reckoned that, along with the Parthenon, Ise represents “the peak of world architecture.”

But as Gropius and Wright observed, where the Parthenon seeks “to breast and conquer nature,” this is architecture that seeks to adapt and absorb it.  Honor, said Wright, represents truth to nature and  to materials. This is part of the “be clean” ethic celebrated here. Japanese architecture like this, he said, is “a supreme study in elimination—not only of dirt, but of the insignificant.” There is “very little added in the way of ornament because all ornament as we call it, they get out of the way the necessary things are done or by bringing out and polishing the beauty of the simple materials used in making the building.  Again, you see, and kind of cleanliness.”


In Japan, he declared, “I had found one country on earth where simplicity, as natural, is supreme.”


  1. Ise Shrine is probably the only structure true to the Shinto heritage - set beside a river in the middle of the forest with the only man-made structures being a bridge, the shrine, and the stone ground covering...interesting how the arrival of buddism (and Chinese literature) permitted getter decoration with the synthesis of both in Zen concepts.


  2. Thanks for that link, Bevan, It's a good one.

    Have you you been to Ise?

  3. Yes, I have. It didn't really appreciate the main building when I visited - there are many other buildings throughout Japan with similar aspects, which defined construction methods of the time.

    My personal favourite is Kiyomizu temple (pure water temple) in Kyoto. This was built by a zen buddist sect and it is said that no nails were used during construction. Perched against a mountain and overlooking the city, it manages to create a sense of 'one-ness' with nature, with the porch enveloped by trees and the open sheltered areas.


  4. the old town of Takayama is one of the best preserved traditional towns in Japan. Moreover they have great Ryokans and Sake.


    in terms of temples its hard to beat the overall feel of GinKakuJi in Kyoto.



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