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No. 876:
A Moving Shrine

Today, an eerie lesson on the place of technology in our lives. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've often said that pleasure gives rise to every worthwhile thing we make. Function may be one reason our technologies bring that pleasure into our lives. But function isn't why we make things. To see what I mean, come with me to Ise on the south coast of the main Japanese Island of Honshu.

Ise is the greatest Shinto shrine. It's an array of 65 buildings made from unpainted cypress in the style of ancient rice storehouses. The Shrine is, in one sense, 1200 years old. In another sense, however, it's brand new.

For over a millenium the Japanese have carried out an astonishing ritual every 20 years. This is a shrine to the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Its buildings contain remarkable art treasures.

Every 20 years they recreate the shrine and everything in it. They rebuild it one time on the east side of the compound, the next on the west. Only one item survives the passing centuries. It is the mirror that embodies the spirit of Amaterasu. Everything else is completely remade. This year the cost is a staggering $300,000,000.

So we ask, "Why do they do it!" The oddest thing is that nobody claims to know why they pour out resources in this great Kwakiutl gesture. Nobody knows. And yet I know!

I look at photos of this graceful symphony of clean wood, straw, and rope -- sitting on a field of clean loose white stones. I look at the delicacy of design -- the understated architectural drama of it all. And I know why they do it.

The 20-year cycle gives us a clue. Craftsmen enter the cycle of building twice. The first time they're novices -- learning the ancient skills that could so easily perish in a steam-driven, electric-powered, and electronically informed world.

The second time, they're the experts, training a new cadre and sustaining old beauty. The shrine of Ise keeps a whole set of fragile arts intact -- century in and century out.

Now the renewed shrine opens. Three thousand guests cleanse themselves in the sacred Isuzu River and join the ceremony of moving Amaterasu's mirror. And I know why they do this every 20 years. It's one thing merely to see such beauty. But to have the joy of recreating your own artistic heritage twice in a lifetime -- that's treasure beyond even the cost of this gesture.

These Japanese have done more than just preserve the Mona Lisa or Chartres Cathedral. They've taken a piece of the artist's soul into their own lives as well. And that is reason enough to do this strange, extravagant thing every 20 years.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Sanger, D.E., A Sojourn for a Shinto Sun Goddess. The New York Times INTERNATIONAL, Thursday, October 7, 1993, p. A4.

Watanabe, Y., Shinto Art: Ise and Izumo Shrines (tr. R. Ricketts). New York: Weatherhill/Heibonsha, 1974.

Tange, K., Kawazoe, N., and Watanabe, Y., Ise: Prototype of Japanese Architecture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1965.

I am grateful to Professor James Casey, Mechanical Engineering Department, University of California at Berkeley, for suggesting the topic and for calling my attention to the Times article.

For more on the Ise Shrine, see: