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The Grand Renewal of Kasuga Taisha

The Grand Renewal of Jingū at Isë, where the jinja buildings are completely reconstructed and the treasures replaced every twenty years, is famous, and a major focus of the activities of the Shinto world. It started in 690, and has only been interrupted for a century or so, during a period of civil war; there have been 62 in total. It is not the only Grand Renewal, however.

The latest textbook for the Jinja Kentei, the Shinto examination for lay people backed by Jinja Honchō, talks about Grand Renewals at a number of other jinja. One that stands out is Kasuga Taisha in Nara, the capital of Japan before Kyoto. Kasuga Taisha was founded in 768, and enshrines Takamikazuchi no Mikoto, Futsunushi no Mikoto, Amënokoyanë no Mikoto, and Himëgami, in four separate main sanctuaries. The first Grand Renewal was carried out in 770, and the 60th was completed in 2016. There have been delays, but there has never been a prolonged interruption. What is more, the fundamental form of the Renewal was preserved from the 13th to 19th centuries, and since the war, the rituals have been returned to a state as close as possible to the traditional form.

One reason why Kasuga Taisha stands out is probably due to this continuous history. A lot of the other jinja have ceremonies that resemble parts of the ceremonies at Isë, leading me to suspect that the Grand Renewals fell into abeyance, and then were reconstructed based on practices at Isë, in some cases in the late nineteenth century. Kasuga Taisha, with its continuous history, never needed to reconstruct, however, and so it still has its own rituals.

These rituals are very interesting, including, for example, purification with incense, something that is very rare in Shinto, and secret records that the highest priests alone are allowed to read, and then only on the day before the main ceremonies.

So why do these ceremonies get relatively little press? I suspect that the main reason is that Kasuga Taisha broke virtually all the rules for the Meiji Government. The jinja was founded after the Kojiki and Nihonshoki were written, so it is not mentioned in there. The kami are the ancestors and guardians of the Fujiwara clan, not the Imperial house, and the Fujiwara are famous for have ruled Japan as (nominally) the regents of various Tennō for several centuries. Furthermore, the jinja was very closely associated with Kōfukuji, the ancestral Buddhist temple of the Fujiwara, making it a strong example of Shinto-Buddhist syncretism. These were all reasons for the Meiji government to de-emphasise the jinja, which was one of the most popular in the Edo period.

As touched on above, the Meiji government changed the rituals for the Grand Renewal at Kasuga Taisha. They also declared the main sanctuaries, which had been built a mere twenty or so years earlier (naturally) to be national treasures, thus making it illegal for the jinja to continue to perform the traditional rites of rebuilding. This also happened at several other old jinja with traditions of rebuilding their main sanctuaries, and in many cases it is hard to escape the impression that this was done, at least in part, to stop the tradition.

This is yet another reason why I do not view the Meiji period changes to Shinto as positive, over all.

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