Dating back to the 3rd century, Ise-jingū is the most venerated Shintō shrine in Japan. Shintō tradition has dictated for centuries that the shrine buildings be replaced every 20 years, with exact imitations built on adjacent sites according to ancient techniques – no nails, only wooden dowels and interlocking joints.
Upon completion of the new buildings, the god of the shrine is ritually transferred to its new home in the Sengū No Gi ceremony, first witnessed by Western eyes in 1953. The wood from the old shrine is then used to reconstruct the torii at the shrine's entrance or is sent to shrines around Japan for use in rebuilding their structures. The present buildings were rebuilt in 1993 (for the 61st time) at a cost exceeding ¥5 billion. They'll next be rebuilt in 2013.
You may be surprised to discover that the main shrine buildings are almost completely hidden from view behind wooden fences. Only members of the imperial family and certain shrine priests are allowed to enter the sacred inner sanctum. This is unfortunate, as the buildings are stunning examples of pre-Buddhist Japanese architecture. Don't despair, though, as determined neck craning over fences allows glimpses of the upper parts of buildings (at least if you're tall). You can get a good idea of the shrine's architecture by looking at any of the lesser shrines nearby, which are exact replicas built on a smaller scale.
There are two parts to the shrine, Gekū (外宮; Outer Shrine) and Naikū (内宮; Inner Shrine). The former is an easy 10-minute walk from Ise-shi Station; the latter is accessible by bus from the station or from the stop outside Gekū. If you only have time to visit one of the shrines, Naikū is the more impressive of the two.
Smoking is prohibited throughout the grounds of both shrines, and photography is forbidden around their main halls. Also, you might notice that many Japanese tend to dress fairly neatly to visit the shrines. You might feel distinctly out of place in tatty jeans, flip flops and sleeveless T-shirts. You don't have to dress formally and you can even wear shorts, but opt on the side of neatness.
(外宮) The Outer Shrine dates from the 5th century and enshrines the god of food, clothing and housing, Toyouke-no-Ōkami. Daily offerings of rice are made by shrine priests to the goddess, who is charged with providing food to Amaterasu-Ōmikami, the goddess enshrined in the Naikū. A stall at the entrance to the shrine provides a leaflet in English with a map.
The main shrine building here is the Goshōden , which is about 10 minutes' walk from the entrance to the shrine. Across the river from the Goshōden, you'll find three smaller shrines that are worth a look (and are usually less crowded).
From Ise-shi Station or Uji-Yamada Station it's a 10-minute walk down the main street to the shrine entrance; the shrine is southwest of both stations. Note that it's slightly easier to find if you start from Ise-shi Station (be sure to exit the south side of the station).
(内宮) The Inner Shrine is thought to date from the 3rd century and enshrines the sun goddess, Amaterasu-Ōmikami, who is considered the ancestral goddess of the imperial family and the guardian deity of the Japanese nation. Naikū is held in even higher reverence than Gekū because it houses the sacred mirror of the emperor, one of the three imperial regalia (the other two are the sacred beads and the sacred sword).
A stall just before the entrance to the shrine provides the same English leaflet given out at Gekū. Next to this stall is the Uji-bashi , which leads over the crystal-clear Isuzu-gawa into the shrine. Just off the main gravel path is a Mitarashi , the place for pilgrims to purify themselves in the river before entering the shrine.
The path continues along an avenue lined with towering cryptomeria trees to the Goshōden , the main shrine building. As at Gekū, you can only catch a glimpse of the top of the structure from here, as four rows of wooden fences obstruct the view. If you feel the temptation to jump over the fence when nobody's around, think again – they're watching you on closed-circuit TV cameras not so cleverly disguised as trees!
To get to Naikū, take bus 51 or 55 from bus stop 11 outside Ise-shi Station or the stop on the main road in front of Gekū (¥410, 15 to 20 minutes). Note that bus stop 11 is located about 100m past the main bus stop outside the south exit of Ise-shi Station (walk south on the main street). Get off at the Naikū-mae stop. From Naikū there are buses back to Ise-shi Station via Gekū (¥410, 15 to 20 minutes from bus stop 2). Alternatively, a taxi between Ise-shi Station and Naikū costs about ¥2000.