Imagine taking 8 years to build not just 1, but 2 stunning shrines made of Japanese cypress, then 12 years later to take them down and start again? That’s exactly what happens at Jingu Shrine in Isu City, Mie Prefecture in a 20 year cycle that’s part of the ‘Shikinen Shengu‘ ceremony. The last one took place in 2013 and the next is scheduled for 2033!
Read our overview of one of Japan’s oldest traditions to get a feel for the reverence of wood as a building material in Japanese culture.
History And Purpose
Shikinen Sengu (or simply “Sengu”) dates back centuries with the first taking place in 690 AD and the most recent in 2013. It’s an event with huge national and cultural importance in Japan.
At the core of the ceremony is the ritual of re-building two parts of the Jingu Shrine, Naiku (the inner shrine) and Geku (the outer shrine) which are both constructed almost exclusively from Japanese cypress.
On the surface it might seem odd to take down a perfectly good structure and build it again, but the purpose of this re-building is two-fold. Firstly, over time it renders the shrines eternal and everlasting. Secondly, it enables the skills and knowledge of the shrine carpenters and craftsmen to be passed on from generation to generation. Given that the ceremony has been taking place for over 1000 years it’s testament to the power of tradition.
Adjacent to each existing building at Naiku and Geku lies an empty site where the next rebuilding takes place. These two sites are then used alternately in each Sengu ceremonial cycle.
The two parts of the shrine are constructed in a traditional style of architecture known as “yuitsu shinmei-zukuri“. Matching the design of traditional grain warehouses, each building has a raised floor and thatched roof, with supporting pillars buried in the ground.
JWA NOTE: For more information on this architecture style visit JAANUS site here
The ‘Sengu’ ritual lasts 8 years, 4 of which are needed to cure and prepare the timber alone! The ceremony starts with the ritual cutting of the first cypress trees – as many as 10,000 are needed each time the shrines are re-built.
Forests from around the region and from one owned by Ise Jingu itself contribute the wood stock. Logs are cut in the mountains and floated down the rivers. The timber is then soaked in a pond for 2 years to extract oil from the wood. After that, the logs are stacked outside for 1 year to acclimatize and in the final year they are sawn and prepared.
Bringing The Community Together
The ceremony involves the whole community working together. One of the most visual spectacles is when carts pulling the logs for the rebuilding are transported to the site. Hundreds of locals take hold of the ropes attached to the carts and pull them forward.
Junko Edahiro, a Japanese journalist, witnessed these events in 2013. She gives a great overview of the spectacle:
“The timber are loaded onto beautifully decorated two-wheel carts, to which two long ropes are attached. Hundreds of local participants take hold of these ropes and pull the carts forward. Almost all residents of nearby towns, including children, youths and the elderly, join these holy events.Junka Edahiro | Witness To The Most Recent Shikinen Sengu In 2013
Between the two ropes of the cart walk youngsters sharply dressed in Happi, the traditional Japanese cotton coat worn at festivals, singing Kiyari-uta, a work song sung during cooperative tasks such as transporting heavy timber, as a way of helping direct the cart-pullers. They are full of laughter and as inefficient as can be.”