This Japanese Shrine Has Been Torn Down And Rebuilt Every 20 Years for the Past Millennium

In addition to reinvigorating spiritual and community bonds, the tradition keeps Japanese artisan skills alive

N Yotarou

Every 20 years, locals tear down the Ise Jingu grand shrine in Mie Prefecture, Japan, only to rebuild it anew. They have been doing this for around 1,300 years. Some records indicate the Shinto shrine is up to 2,000-years old. The process of rebuilding the wooden structure every couple decades helped to preserve the original architect’s design against the otherwise eroding effects of time. “It’s secret isn’t heroic engineering or structural overkill, but rather cultural continuity,” writes the Long Now Foundation.  

2013 is one of the reconstruction years, and people in Ise are busy preparing for a ceremony to mark this event, called Shikinen Sengo. Japan for Sustainability’s Junko Edahiro describes the history of the ceremony at length and reports on the upcoming festivities:

This is an important national event. Its underlying concept — that repeated rebuilding renders sanctuaries eternal — is unique in the world.

The Sengu is such a large event that preparations take over eight years, four years alone just to prepare the timber.

Locals take part in a parade to transport the prepared wood along with white stones—two per person—which they place in sacred spots around the shrine. In addition to reinvigorating spiritual and community bonds, the tradition keeps Japanese artisan skills alive. The shrine’s visitor site describes this aspect of the Shikinen Sengo ceremony:

It also involves the wish that Japanese traditional culture should be transmitted to the next generation. The renewal of the buildings and of the treasures has been conducted in the same traditional way ever since the first Shikinen Sengu had been performed 1300 years ago. Scientific developments make manual technology obsolete in some fields. However, by performing the Shikinen Sengu, traditional technologies are preserved.

As Edahiro describes, oftentimes local people will take part in the ceremony several times throughout the course of their lives. “I saw one elderly person who probably has experienced these events three or four times saying to young people who perhaps participated in the event as children last time, ‘I will leave these duties to you next time,’” she recalls. “ I realized that the Sengu ceremony also plays a role as a “device” to preserve the foundations of traditions that contribute to happiness in people’s lives.”

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