According to Shinto beliefs and detailed within the Kojiki and Nihongi, land was created when Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto thrust the Jewel Spear of Heaven into the sea spray. The island born of this act was Ono-Goro-Jima, and it stood as the center of the land. When the two divine kami descended onto the land, they designed to become husband and wife. Passing left and right around the center of the land, they met each other. The female kami spoke first, a displeasing act to Izanagi who chastised her for speaking before himself. Passing around the island again, it was Izanagi who spoke first to greet the lovely maiden. Their union created a host of other islands and many other kami. Of the kami born to Izanagi and Izanami, one stood out with such radiant splendor that she was almost immediately relegated to manage the affairs of heaven. From there, she looked upon the world and spread her brilliance down to light the earth. Her name was Amaterasu no Mikoto, sometimes Amaterasu Omikami, O-hiru-me no muchi (Great Noon Female of Possessor), or often known in English as the Sun Goddess.
Perhaps best known is the story of her isolation. While Amaterasu was in her hall sowing heavenly garments, her violent brother Susanoo no Mikoto hurled a flayed horse through the roof tiles and into her presence. Injured in her surprise, Amaterasu furiously retreated from her home and into the Rock Cave of Heaven. There she remained as the world was plunged into complete darkness. Shortly thereafter, countless kami gathered across the River of Heaven to decide on a way to supplicate the Sun Goddess. Gathering the long-singing birds, possibly roosters who crow at the sun, and coaxing his fellow kami to dance, Omoi-Kane (“Thought Combining”) coaxed Amaterasu to peek through a crack in her cave. When she did, Ta-jikara-o no Kami pulled her from her solitude and back into the heavens.
Standing beneath the entrance torii at Ise shrine, I was struck by its grandeur. Smelling of cedar and smooth to the touch, the gate proudly marks the divine territory of Amaterasu Omikami beyond its pale composition. The Sun Goddess was enshrined within Ise around 260 CE at the behest of Emperor Suinin. According to the Nihongi, the princess Yamato-hime was told by Amaterasu that she would reside within the land of divine wind, or ise. Since then, Ise has been maintained as a Grand Shrine and an important location for tourists and pilgrims alike. Rebuilt every two decades, Ise combines both the historically relevant architecture of its past with fresh wood tying it to the present. Stepping past the torii and over the Isuzu River, which runs beside the shrine grounds, one can wander down a wide avenue flanked on either side by lush gardens. Among the stranger sights in Ise, the presence of wild roosters is a sign of respect to the Sun Goddess. As the rooster will crow at sunrise, so is it a creature naturally voicing praise to Amaterasu. Also one might notice the colossal trees arcing over the paths of Ise. On my travel to the Grand Shrine I viewed several men and women laying heads and hands against the old trees. Upon querying a priest, his suggestion was that they were showing respect for the age of the tree itself and aligning themselves with the nature around them. (Admittedly, though, the priest said that this was not a practice with which he was very familiar.) Consisting of both an inner and outer shrine, Ise presents a variety of other kami to be venerated in the sacred grounds. Toyouke Omikami is the main kami in the outer shrine and is the kami of agriculture and food. Her role is to provide sacred food to Amaterasu who resides within the inner shrine and is treated with utmost respect. While public access is limited to viewing a few of the outside structures of the ancient shrine, I did not come away disappointed with the experience. Watching the sun glitter through the gaps of centuries-old branches, I found it hard to ignore the sense of spiritual awe Ise emanates.
Written by: Collin LaMothe
Bibliography: Tsunoda, Ryusaku. De Bary, Theodore. Keene, Donald. (1958). Sources of Japanese Tradition De Bary, T, (Ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.