Ise Shinto Shrine

Ise Grand Shrine, Mie Prefecture, Honshu, Japan

Recently I was making my way through Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and on page 140 he mentions the Ise shinto shrine. The shrine is rebuilt every 20 years to the exact same architectural plan on a site adjacent to the one before it. The Ise shrine resides in a dense forest of giant cryptomeria trees next to the Isuzu River. The cryptomeria carry unique qualities for preserving mononoke in construction materials.

Caretakers work dutifully to create and preserve a site for the next rendering of the shrine, a rectangular space that is marked with a blanket of white pebbles, even visible from the air. The first incarnation of the shrine took place in 692 by Empress Jito. Shirky remarks that the Ise shrine is a fine example of “perseverance of process over material.”

The rebuilding of the shrine is surely a nod to the impermanence of life, death and rebirth. The visual representation of a shrine in the past (pebbles), the present (wooden shrine), and the future (pebbles) preserves an atemporality of this place. A time-less representation that transmits culture through a network of community practice of preparation and construction. And that practice communicates cultural traditions back to the people. And it strengthens relationships to that space and the nature around it.

Surely, the shrine could be rebuilt without representing its past-future space through form and material. However, rendering time in this way also creates a more embodied connection with “what was” and “what will be” in that place, even if that time didn’t include us.