Gardens of Ise

Gardens of Ise

“If nature offends your ego, transcend your ego to become one with nature”

-Matsuo Basho, haiku poet, 17th century 

It is 6.30 in the morning and I see that the sky is still dark when I pull up the zipper. I slept in a backyard tent listed on AirBnB. Ise may not be a top destination for tourists from abroad but it is very popular with the Japanese. This was the cheapest place still available so close to the Grand Shrine. For a few hundred yen extra, the rest of the guests sleep inside the house—a traditional house with tatami mat floors and sliding shoji partitions. Fortunately, it has a modern bathroom with hot water to wake me up. I cross the garden, take off my shoes, slip into the slippers at the door and take a good shower. Then I’m off to see the Ise Shrine, finally. 


Everyone advised me to arrive early—at sunrise, if possible. During the day, the path through the holy grounds gets very crowded. It might spoil the spiritual aura of the simple yet refined wooden shrines, scattered under these ominous forest treetops. Ise is considered the holiest of Shinto shrines, and is devoted to Amaterasu, the central divinity of Japan’s indigenous religion. It is here that, by spending a night enshrined with this sun goddess, Japanese emperors used to become gods themselves. 

Actually, the Ise shrine complex is split into two main sites. Naikū, the Inner Shrine, is located about six kilometres south of the Outer Shrine, Gekū. To enter Naikū, you have to cross a wooden bridge over the Isuzu river said to separate the realm of mortals from the realm of gods. A visit to this holy site, no matter how far you’ve come, is considered a pilgrimage among shintoists. But for a long time now, Ise has been attracting a different kind of pilgrim who, like me, comes from all over the world just to admire its astonishing architecture. 


It was Bruno Taut, a renowned modernist architect, who in the 1930s first declared that Ise ought to become an international architectural pilgrimage site on a par with Rome or Athens. Taut was Jewish and came to Japan seeking refuge from the rise of Nazism in Germany. Here, he took the time to write several books about the historical buildings he visited. In his writings, he praises the Ise Shrines like no other. He argues that, just like the Parthenon in Greece is the ne plus ultra of stone architecture, Ise embodies the apex of wooden architecture—visible here in its purest refinement. But he was careful to add that Ise is even more impressive for being very much intact, as opposed to the Parthenon which is now in ruin. 

When I visited Rome as an architectural ‘pilgrim’ a couple of years ago, I had an amusing nocturnal discussion with my host while we gazed over the ruins of the empty Roman Forum. We wondered if, as Roman construction workers, we could have imagined that future civilisations would be this interested in keeping our work intact. I thought about being there, telling someone why we had to maintain vital infrastructure like bridges, roads, houses. But why would people living in a completely different culture keep the temples we built for gods they no longer believe in? Still, these temples are the best preserved traces of antiquity. I suppose that, ironically, they were left as they are just because of their obsolescence, rather than in spite of it. The vital infrastructure has been transformed, upgraded and replaced.


In Ise, the situation is different. Shinto ritual thrives in contemporary society as it did ten or fifteen centuries ago. And ever since their establishment in the third and fifth century, the Ise shrines are consistently being rebuilt out of fresh wood every twenty years. As old temples are dismantled, a fresh one is assembled right next to it. There have been a few exceptions and interruptions to this tradition, but all in all, systemic rebuilding has given this shrine eternal youth. The fact that this peculiar cloning ritual withstood the test of time is particularly impressive minding that the socio-cultural and political systems in Japan have undergone a series of thorough changes throughout the existence of the complex. 

People today still believe that the spirits of nature enshrined here hold secrets about our place in the world— even the modern world. The architecture itself embodies timeless spiritual messages. The cyclical dismantling and reconstruction of the shrine reminds us that we too must surrender to the natural cycle of life and death. And the humble appearance of these plain structures assembled out of bare planks are a display of human modesty against the looming, century-old cedar forest framing the path through the holy precinct. The shrine owes its monumental effect to these trees. Their awesome stems must be considered as architectural elements in their own right. 


What you visit in Ise is in fact not a building but a garden. A garden, not in the common sense of ‘the private piece of land next to my house’, but in the ancient sense of the term: a Utopian microcosm, arranged to show a social conception of the relationships binding the human, the natural, and the heavenly realm. Utopian indeed. As soon as I cross Ujibashi, the holy bridge leading back to the realm of mortals, the noise of car traffic and souvenir shoppers drowns out the humble surrender experienced in the garden of Ise. As I follow the water down to Gekū for the second part of my visit, I come across a very different ‘garden’. 

As in many places in Japan, the stream next to the road is now straitjacketed in concrete embankments to temper torrential floods. As you know, with its earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, nature is not always kind in Japan. So here, instead of surrendering to its magnitude, man has decided that nature needs to be imprisoned. In this garden, man is God. This modern, technocratic way of managing nature has been considered the most rational one for a long time — but it has limits. Concrete pipes, sewers and canals like these are being removed in many places because they disrupt ecosystems and, unlike natural riverbeds, their size can not adapt to the increasing flood risk in our changing climate. 


It is tempting to conclude that we are inhabiting ruins already. That we better start afresh, learning from the Ise garden, an ancient model which may very well outlive our current society. But we should not forget that for better or worse, we do not live in a Utopia. We live in a never-ending paradox called reality. The fact that both these gardens exist, and are maintained right next to each other, is in itself reassuring. Complexity and contradiction shows a culture armed with diverse resources. The idea that, to save the world, we will have to rebuild a new one from scratch is in itself a modern reflex—indeed, one that landed us in this mess in the first place. If anything, Ise wisely points to the fact that to be sustainable, we must learn the art of inheriting the works of our fathers.