After spending the early morning hours at Ise Jingu's outer shrine Geku, it was time to head on to the inner shrine, the Kotaijingu or Naiku -- and thus complete my pilgrimage.
Naiku is 3.5 kilometres away from Geku. I suppose as a henro or pilgrim, one can walk all the way. But for most of us, the bus stop is conveniently located right across the road.
While I enjoyed the peace and tranquility, not to mention the early morning cool air at Geku, it was nearly mid morning when I arrived in Naiku. There was quite a crowd at the entrance and the air had turned hot and humid.
Naiku is separated by a river, the Isuzugawa which runs clear and clean -- as with most waterways in Japan. I felt the river acted like a moat, protecting the shrine from the outside world.
This is the Ujibashi bridge that spans the Isuzugawa and leads one to the torii that marks the entrance to the Inner Shrine. It is a very traditional wooden Japanese bridge and is over 100 meters long. Something interesting to note about Ise Jingu -- this bridge and ALL the structures inside both shrines are rebuilt every 20 years. This is because of a tradition which entails the periodic transfer of the divine symbol to a new divine palace each time.
My Japanese colleague told me that there is also a practical reason for this constant and continuous rebuilding -- that is so that the tradition and knowledge of constructing the shrine is handed down to each generation and therefore not lost through the ages.
Naiku, being the more important shrine as it is where the chief deity Amaterasu is, is more expansive and bigger than Geku. The gravel path to the inner portions are wide and lined with meticulously maintained lawns and trees.
These Japanese pine trees are gorgeous and I can only surmise how old these are. Their fresh pine scent wafts through the air.
As in Geku, there are many giant unpainted torii that you pass through as you go from the entrance to deeper into the shrine. In a pure Shinto shrine, the torii are never painted and are left in their natural state.
This is Mitarashi, a site for ablution in the shallow waters of the Isuzugawa. Wide stone steps lead down to the river and many pilgrims perform their ritual acts of cleansing.
More giant torii line the way to the main sanctuary where Amaterasu Omikami is enshrined. Of course this is completely hidden from view and you can only peek through wooden fences that hide the sanctuary within.
This peaceful and lovely bridge and torii leads to Kazahinomi-no-miya, a jinja dedicated to the kami of wind and rain, which is necessary for the growth of grains and other crops.
Despite the thick crowds of pilgrims, there are pockets of seclusion within the shrine. I chanced upon this pond of koi where there was no one to interrupt my solitude.
On my way out, I stopped by the Sanshuden or the rest house for pilgrims. There is free cold and hot tea on the counter and for those wishing more commercial types of refreshment, several vending machines selling all sorts of non alcoholic beverages are also on hand.
And yes, the rest rooms were very clean and well maintained.
I saw my favourite bottled cherry drink -- tart and cold, it was the perfect way to rehydrate before I continued on my way.
It was lunchtime and more and more people were just arriving at Naiku. It is a tradition for the Japanese to visit Ise Jingu at least once in their lives. Most of them come via tour groups so there were dozens of tour buses which were parked across the entrance.
I caught the Japanese flag waving in the breeze as I crossed the Ujibashi bridge. Ise Jingu, as the most important shrine, is considered as the spiritual home of Shinto and therefore of Japan and the Japanese people.
These bronze ornaments are found on the bridge at both ends. As pilgrims passed, they stopped and touched these ornaments as part of their ritual of farewell.
And here to commemorate my pilgrimage is the stamp of Naiku on my shuincho.
Coming to Ise Jingu was a gratifying and fulfilling experience.
I found the two shrines to be different but complementary to each other. I felt the raw and primitive power of the kami in the Outer Shrine, Geku.
And in Naiku, I saw the high degree of reverence and esteem the Japanese people had for their beliefs.
Ise Jingu is the heart of their way of life.