On this last business trip to Osaka, I scratched another item off my "religious sites to see in Japan" bucket list.
I had been to Hieizan's Enryakuji and the Vatican of Shingon Buddhism, Koyasan.
Now Ise-jingu, most important and most revered Shinto shrine in Japan was my target for the day.
Shinto means "way of the gods" and it is Japan's largest and oldest religion.
Unlike other religions, Shinto does not have teachings nor does it have a holy book.
It is rooted in life forces such as trees, wind, rain, mountains. It is different from Buddhism, Japan's other major religion.
It seems that most Japanese practice both. My Japanese colleagues and friends tell me that they go to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines depending on the occasion.
Ise-jingu is in Ise City in Kansai and is a convenient and easy two hour train ride from Osaka's Namba station. Japanese trains are efficient, punctual to the minute and very comfortable, specially if you're riding on an all reserved seat train like the Kintetsu Limited Express. This is the fastest and easiest way to get to Ise-jingu from Osaka.
I love the drain hole covers in Japan. Instead of being boring and plain, they are works of art -- all you have to do is look down and you see the story or the main feature of the town. In Ise City, site of the Ise-jingu Shrine, the colourful drain hole cover depicts henro or Japanese pilgrims, on their way to the shrine.
I was happy to be here, as a gaijin henro.
There is no one at the Tezimusha or the place where pilgrims need to ritually cleanse themselves before they enter the shrine. I knew the drill -- dip the bamboo dippers in the cold clear running water and pour water over your left hand then your right. Then, with the remaining water, pour some in your hand to rinse your mouth.
These ablutions are necessary for pilgrims to any shrine or temple.
This is the very large unpainted torii that marks the entrance to Geku. The Outer Shrine is dedicated to Toyo'uke-no-Omikami. A kami is a Shinto god. Toyo'uke-no-Omikami is the "handmaid" of Amaterasu-Omikami, the Sun Goddess and top among all kami in Shinto.
As handmaid, Toyo'uke-no-omikami is the companion to Amaterasu and provides her with sacred food.
Pilgrims to this shrine are blessed with abundant harvests and daily provisions such as food, clothing and shelter.
Before I pass through the torii, I follow my fellow pilgrims and bow and clasp my hands together to honour the kami in Geku.
It is a quiet and cool early morning inside Geku. Past the entrance, more torii line the gravel path.
I am glad I left Osaka very early, on the first train to Ise. There are few people about and I enjoy the tranquil and reverent atmosphere.
Very tall, very old trees are found inside Geku. Ise-jingu as a shrine has been around for around 1,500 years so I wonder how many centuries old these trees are.
I have been told by my Japanese colleagues that Ise-jingu is the number one spiritual "power spot" in Japan. A power spot is a place flowing with strong vitality and energy, and of course spiritual power. It is where you can recharge your "qi" or life force.
In both Geku and Naiku, many spots have these white banners symbolising lightning bolts -- these are "power spots" within the entire powerful area where you can stand and allow the power and energy to flow through you.
There are many of these banners all throughout the shrine -- some are on walls of structures, on tree trunks, on torii, on wooden posts, etc.
The main sanctuary in Geku is not accessible to pilgrims but is hidden deep behind wooden walls. Only the high priests and certain members of the Japanese royal family may enter the main shrine buildings. For the rest of us, there are areas where we can see priests offering daily prayers.
There are many jinja or Shinto Shrines inside Ise-jingu, both in Geku and in Naiku. This is
Tsuchi-no-miya, a jinja dedicated to the kami who protects the entire shrine of Geku. According to my map, this kami was enshrined in this place even before Geku was established.
Across Tsuchi-no-miya are about one hundred stone steps leading up to another ninja.
I fear for my left knee which after an accident a couple of months ago, is still not in 100% condition to climb or descend. The stone steps are moss covered in some areas and seem damp with dew.
But, I am here as a henro and I know I must climb.
I am sure the kami will protect me (not to mention Buddha, who I can feel is also with me on this trip).
I make the climb very carefully, watching out for uneven and wet stones. To make sure my clumsy self does not rise (and fall) to the occasion, I keep a firm grip on the wooden balustrade.
After more steps to climb, I finally reach the top, where the jinja is dedicated to Taka-no-miya, another vigorous spirit of Toyo'uke-no-Omikami. It is indeed a vigorous spirit as I survive the climb and the descent without a fumble or fall.
It is time to leave Geku and move on to the more important, and some Japanese say, impressive Inner Shrine, Naiku. On the way out, I pass by the Kaguraden, a hall where pilgrims can say their personal prayers and where ceremonial dance and music are played.
Part of the the Kaguraden has been transformed into the ubiquitous gift shop.
The Shinto priest at the gift shop stamped the shrine seal on my shuincho along with the date of my visit. The seal on the right page is the seal for Geku.
As I exited Geku, I stopped for a while to check out the Sengukan or the Shrine Museum.
I never made it inside as I preferred to sit in quiet contemplation from my vantage bench looking over Magatamaike Pond.
It was a morning very well spent at Geku. I loved the simplicity of the shrine and felt the raw and primitive force that seemed to flow through the place.
Despite the fact that I had not been able to eat breakfast, I did not feel hungry nor did I feel tired from the thick humidity and heat that had now taken over the early morning breeze.
In fact, I felt reenergised and revitalised -- ready to continue my pilgrimage to Naiku, the Inner Shrine of Ise-jingu.