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
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
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:
Tange, K., Kawazoe, N., and Watanabe, Y.,
Ise: Prototype of Japanese
Architecture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,
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.
Several websites give various views of the Ise
Shrine and discuss the design subtleties of the
The Engines of Our
Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John
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