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COVER STORY: In Praise of Forests

Caption: Ise Jingu is not the name of one shrine but rather a collective term for the 125 shrines in an area of the city of Ise in Mie Prefecture. Pictured, Naiku (inner shrine).

In Praise of Forests


Those who visit Ise Jingu shrine in Mie Prefecture will notice that the air changes once they pass the torii gate and step foot into its premises. Rich forestry that covers the area is what creates the calm atmosphere.

Working with this rich forestry, Ise Jingu has hosted many different kinds of ceremonies over the past 2,000 years. One of the most important of these numerous events is the Shikinen sengu (reconstruction ceremony), which is held once every twenty years. The Shrine rebuilds all the wooden architecture, from the main hall that enshrines the kami (deity) to the torii, fences and warehouses, as well as the treasures stored therein, in exactly the same form, and moves the deity into the new hall. The first Shikinen sengu was held approximately 1,300 years ago. While civil wars had halted or delayed the event on some occasions, the ritual has continued almost unabated. The sixty-second Shikinen sengu will take place in 2013.

Uji-bashi bridge forms the entrance to Naiku at Ise Jingu. Like the buildings of Naiku, the wooden bridge is rebuilt every twenty years.
"The purpose of the Shikinen sengu is to wish for the deity to rest in a fresh, new hall and for the deity and our world to remain young and powerful," says Shinnyo Kawai, who serves as the deputy manager of the Public Relations Department of the Jingu Administra­tion Office. "Instead of building strong architecture with stone or brick, we build using wood and grass, which quickly rot, but we keep rebuilding. The process of repeating, we believe, leads to the everlasting."

The Japanese have traditionally been an agricultural people who mainly grow rice. Farmers cast seed in spring and harvest the crop in fall. This cycle is closely linked to the cycle of nature. People secure food by repeating the same work in the same season every year. To maintain this rhythm of life, the forest cannot be ignored.

Kawai says, "The forests in the mountains produce clean rivers which provide the fields with water. The rivers then flow into the ocean. The ocean water evaporates under the heat of the sun and rainfall returns the water to the forests. Ancient people seemed to understand this cycle of nature instinctively. In some ways, the Japanese religion of Shinto is more like a lifestyle than it is a religion."

Ise Jingu has a Forestry Department that uses the surrounding mountains to carefully cultivate the hinoki cypress trees that future Shikinen sengu occasions require. Wood recycled from dismantling the old hall or other architecture is reused for other torii gates within Ise Jingu or is distributed to shrines nationwide for use as holy construction material.

Next year, 2011, is the International Year of the Forests. This month's Cover Story features the knowledge in regenerating and reusing forests that Japanese have inherited from the past and will pass on to the future.