Paper thunderbolts attached to rope are used to purify a sacred tree

A City to Worship Nature

What Japan’s Holy City, Ise, can tell us about how to create environmentally sustainable cities

Last year I spent two weeks in Ise, meeting religious practitioners specialising in forest management, politicians pursuing policies of natural harmony and architects whose clients ceremonially borrow their land from nature; encountering sentient trees, mountains that breathe, buildings and entire urban areas designed in symbiosis with nature. This is my account of that experience; exploring how this environmental culture came to be, and what it can tell us about “how to create environmentally sustainable cities?”

If you’d visited Ise 150 years ago you’d have found two villages, 6km apart. Each hosting pilgrims to two ancient Shinto shrines: Naiku and Geku, known together as the Ise Jingu. As the popularity of the shrines grew, the two villages were eventually connected, and in 1904 Ise officially became a City — currently home to some 130,000 people.

Today, Ise is Japan’s Holy City — Shinto’s equivalent to the Vatican. Shinto itself, commonly regarded as the indigenous faith of Japan, is an animist religion, meaning it worships spirits within nature. While animism is still present throughout the world today, predominantly within indigenous societies, it has been largely eradicated in “developed” nations. Imagine if the Druids had prevailed across Britain; picture a City of London broker paying their respects to the Sun Goddess before heading into the office. This happens everyday in Japan.

A floodplain in a suburb of Ise, the day after Typhoon Hagibis

Wood Rots Like We Do

“1,300 years ago Emperor Jito started the Sengu system, however the reason for that system is not clear… You need to pass on and maintain skills, including knowledge of natural materials. Communication and community is important for this system. So maybe they were aware of sustainability at that time, even if the word didn’t exist.” — Mayor Kenichi Suzuki, 2019

The particular potency of animistic beliefs within Ise can be traced back to a single ritual: Shikinen Sengu — the longest running building project in human history. Every 20 years, for over a thousand years, every single shrine and object within the Ise Jingu has been remade, in total: 65 buildings, and 1,500 sacred objects. It’s a project that requires years of planning, dozens of carpenters, craftspeople, arboriculturalists, and mass public participation through rituals. In 2013 the Ise Jingu was entirely rebuilt for the 62nd time. Of the deconstructed shrines, one third of the wood is recycled around Japan, one third used for repairs, and one third wasted.

The empty shrine site at Gaiku, adjacent to the currently occupied shrine site; the sites swapping back and forth every 20 years

Shikinen Sengu created a system to sustain culture. As Mayor Suzuki surmised, to sustain the system the community must pass on skills and knowledge of natural materials (and by extension ecology), from one generation to the next. The rebuilding, and its associated public rituals, is how this knowledge is communicated across time.

This system casts wood and trees in a spiritual, and very practical role. This unending demand for Hinoki Cypress wood creates a circular cycle. A cycle that necessitates perpetual forest management, and consideration and innovation regarding the whole life cycle of the wood used.

19th century warehouses made from earth with timber cladding, with removable fixings that allow the timber panels to be removed in case of fire

Following a period of forest mismanagement in the Edo period (1603–1868), Shikinen Sengu has relied on imports of wood from around Japan. So, in 1920, a plan was made. The balding mountains would be entirely reforested, so that by the 2400s, the forests of Ise would once again be the sole, indefinite, source of wood for Shikinen Sengu. Counterintuitively, a cultural practice that demands periodic mass tree felling, has generated the necessary will for reforestation and long term forest management — tree-term planning.

At the urban scale, the cultural significance of local wood has cultivated industry, craft and architecture. As local architects Yutani explained to me, this desire to use local wood and specialist skills keeps material and labour costs competitive, sustaining the associated industries of forestry, timber and carpentry. The circular system of Shikinen Sengu is translated into circular economies.

It was, however, at the individual level that the cultural role of wood was most striking. Wood requires maintenance, it’s a natural material that breathes and ages. This maintenance is seen as hindrance to the uptake of wood in countries such as England, yet in Ise, such maintenance was ubiquitous. I asked Takeshi Nakatani, why he and his wife Kayoko were so dedicated to maintaining their two small wooden properties, he told me that

“wood ages and rots just like we do, and just as with the shrines which we rebuild every 20 years, it’s through this constant process of renewal that something lasts forever.” — Takeshi Nakatani, 2019

Takeshi Nakatani

Wood represents the only viable route to decarbonising the built environmentapproximately 40% of CO2 emissions. When wood is used in a building, the sequestered carbon is “stored” in that building for as long as it stands, while at the same time drastically cutting the use of the current carbon intensive materials of steel, concrete and aluminium. As seen in Ise, mass demand for sustainable timber supply — driven by culture — demands mass reforestation and proper forest management, which in turn sustains local industry and skills, constituting forms of circular economy.

The last Shikinen Sengu required 14,000 mature trees to be felled, which, by any cost/benefit analysis, is a high environmental price. Shikinen Sengu, however, does demonstrate how culture can sustain environmentally sustainable behaviour at multiple scales — creating a form of symbiosis between nature and city.

A Shikinen Sengu ritual from the distant past

Public Rituals

As I wandered his Japanese equivalent of Aladdin’s cave, the elderly shopkeeper excitedly ushered me over to an old photo album. He pointed to various photos of logs floating in the river, being carried on ornamental carts, and processions of people all dressed in white. Through broken English (and exceptionally broken Japanese) he pointed out his grandfather in the photos, taking part in various Shikinen Sengu rituals. The same rituals his grandson, standing beside me, would take part in almost a hundred years later. Shikinen Sengu involves 30 such mass public rituals over its 20 year cycle; tracing the construction process, from paying respect to the first tree to be felled, through to the delivery of logs to site.

The Shinto Gods (Kami) that occupy the two grand shrines are Aramatasu, the Sun Goddess, and Toyouke-Ōmikami, the God of Agriculture, Rice Harvest and Industry. They make their presence felt through multiple annual rituals of their own. To celebrate the rice harvest, thousands of residents dressed in white pull a cart of rice over a kilometer through the city to Naiku shrine; a week later, an amphibious craft carrying rice is pulled through the river, accompanied by dozens of colourfully dressed, partially submerged, members of the public. Ritual is also found in construction; where land is ceremonially borrowed in a Land Claiming Ceremony prior to construction commencing, carried out by a Shinto priest at the request of the client.

These mass participation rituals — celebrating land, wood, forest, agriculture — express and sustain a respect for the local environment; a respect that permeates policy and individual behaviour. Ise was the first Japanese city to introduce a plastic bag tax. It’s a pioneer of electric vehicle infrastructure. Homes are small. Cars are all very small (which is not always the case in a city like Tokyo). Land conservation is particularly potent; coastal hotel developers and polluting industries kept out on the grounds of land and sea conservation — with the latter movement cultivating oyster farms to create a cultural blockade to new construction. In a city dedicated to the worship of the sun, their commitment to solar energy and history of solar subsidies, feels almost compulsory.

It’s harder to determine the relationship between cultural activities and environmental policy or behaviour, there is no supply and demand calculation. What there is, is a correlation between the pervasiveness of this environmental culture — comprising art, craft, design, architecture, food, music, and participatory ritual — and a reverence for the environment present in my conversations with residents. A reverence that has translated into environmentally sustainable action.

Community Shrines

At the neighbourhood scale, sits the most ancient form of this environmental culture: the community shrine. These small plots of land, tucked between houses and shops, play a role similar to that of a park, yet with a very distinct purpose: to “worship” nature. In fact, as botanist Akira Miyawaki found, these sites are some of the last traces of indigenous forest in Japan — glimpses into the biodiversity rich habitats of a street’s ancestors.

Ise has 130 of these smaller shrines (one per thousand residents). Each responds to its particular ecological context; through the placement of architectural elements such as torii gates, or the casting of trees or rocks as sacred, or the labelling of tree species, as well as the overall layout. There are examples of such shrines becoming community solar farms and environmental education centres. The community shrine is an inverse of our relationship with parks in Western cities; where nature is in servitude to human need. A relationship representative of the catastrophie we’ve found ourselves in; and one that must urgently be re-thought.

Miyawaki took his findings and developed the Miyawaki Method for creating biodiverse, native, micro forests within cities around the world — some as small as a tennis court. These micro forests not only draw upon the biodiversity aspects of community shrines, but perhaps most importantly, the community participation aspect of them. The forests are nearly always planted by the local community, presenting many with their first opportunity to plant anything, let alone a new forest. They are then maintained by that community for the first year, and henceforth are maintenance free; as a self-sustaining, biodiversity rich, community space.

It’s argued that these community spaces for worshipping nature are the original form of what became Shinto — forms of which are seen throughout the world and history as part of indigenous societies. In ancient Britain the Ash tree once played a role similar to the Japanese Hinoki tree in Ise. Such spaces appear to be the origin of and sustenance for environmental culture, in Ise, but potentially, as Miyawaki believes, in any city.

Cities to Worship Nature

The Shinto shrine was described by Arata Isozaki as a “machine to worship nature”; designed to facilitate a deep engagement between a community and nature. I came to view Ise, a city originating from two Shinto shrines, as a city to worship nature. This worship — or, engagement — is sustained by culture. Culture in the form of ritual, architecture, art, craft, skills, materials, food, and nature itself. Culture that involves everyone: the shop keeper, the architect, the artist, the merchant, the politician, the farmer, the priest, the school child, the ecologist. Culture that penetrates the industry, politics, design, tourism, religion, and everyday life of the city.

Ise demonstrates that environmental culture can cultivate an environmentally sustainable city. A cultural machine designed to sustain perpetual engagement between public and nature. If 68% of the global population are to live in cities by 2050, then it is cities where such cultures must prevail. It is not possible, nor desirable, to “export” the experience of Ise. I’m not suggesting we begin rebuilding a complex of oak Shinto shrines in Hyde Park every 20 years. I am, however, suggesting that principles of environmental culture — present in Ise, and certainly many other places — can and must flourish in every city. Each cultivating its own participatory rituals (festivals and celebrations), architecture and design, art and craft, food and drink, and natural community spaces; each responsive to, and in symbiosis with, the local environment — animistic urbanism.

What if there was an annual London Borough of Nature? Or UK Capital of Nature? What if Arts Council England launched an Environmental Culture fund? What if we rewilded dwindling city centres? What if each year, every metropolitan borough planted a Miyawaki forest in an underutilised space? What if there was an English Heritage for trees? What if the British government mandated that all public buildings be made of timber or other plant-based materials? Better still, what if such mandates were issued by local governments?

What if local renewable materials were subsidised, along with the skills training to work with and produce them? What if roofs were collectivised for solar use and the energy shared within neighbourhoods? What if increased flooding vulnerability became opportunities for new vernacular architecture and natural restoration?

Perhaps only when such questions seem redundant; when environmental culture is a part of everyday life as it is in Ise, can sustainable cities truly exist.

With thanks to British Council Japan and Ise City Council for sponsoring and facilitating the the residency, and those I met in Ise who were so generous with their time and thoughts.

I’m currently working on a film based on my experiences of Ise, and am interested to hear people’s responses to these observations, and ideas for how Ise could contribute to discourse around sustainable cities.

Artist creating public art installations in cities around the world

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