Sustainable Design: Ise Shrine (Video)

ABC Foreign Correspondent Postcard (5:18)

The New Years holiday is a time to visit a shinto shrine in Japan. When I went to Ise Shrine, I made a real fool of myself when I talked to a guard and compared the structure to the pyramids of Egypt. He immediately replied: "No, no, no. This is not a grave. This is a living shrine."

Ise and its wooden structures are well hidden in the forests of Mie prefecture, Japan. Building material from roof to floors for both structures and finishing comes entirely from Japanese white cypress, hinoki. The main building of the Inner Shrine is designed in a special form of architectural style, called shimmei-zukuri. Here, celebrating the new year by going to an ancient shrine, is one of the ways traditions are maintained and passed on from generation to generation. The rebuilding takes 8 years, as buildings are torn down and rebuilt every 20 years...

ise shrine japan photo

(Photo: Eco Japan)

Unique to this shrine, situated in a solemn sacred forest, is the ceremony that takes place every 20 years to rebuild the wooden sanctum in a new location. Historically, the ritual began in the sacred woods with the cutting of trees to be used as lumber for the new shrine.

Grand Shrine at Ise: Reborn every 20 years in the sacred wood

This is what I call sustainability: for over a thousand years, every twenty years the buildings at Ise are torn down and new ones are built. One way to look at it is to say that the site is purified. Building materials are renewed and the carpenters are able to preserve the original, intricate design, using 10,000 trees. Some say this has been an ongoing process for 1500 years or much more.

ise shrine japan forest image

Why 20 years? I was told that it suits both nature and humans. The forest grows back in cycles of about 20 years, and in special ceremonies, trees are selected that may be suitable to become part of the wooden structure.

ise shrine drawing image

As for humans, the 20 years cycle means you will have expert carpenters who are, say, 60 years old, and younger ones who are 40 (who have gone through the process once) and then a third generation of young ones who are 20 and can help with the manual labour... Skills are passed on from father to son.

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