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ISE, Japan – A Shinto shrine that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking his Group of Seven counterparts to visit on Thursday is no ordinary shrine.
The emperor of Japan was the head priest of Ise Shrine until 1945 while Shinto was the state religion and the emperor was said to be a living god. The shrine is still headed by a member of the imperial family.
Here are five things to know about the shrine, a center of Japan's wartime emperor worship that still attracts political and business leaders today:
HOLIEST PLACE IN JAPAN
Ise Jingu, or shrine, is actually a cluster of 125 shrines around the two most important sanctuaries, the Inner and Outer Shrines. A climb over an arched bridge and a walk through a forest of towering cypress trees leads to the Inner Shrine, or Naiku, considered the holiest spot in Japan. It enshrines the sun goddess Amaterasu, who sits at the top of "yaoyorozu," or 8 million gods of all things in Shinto.
The Japanese imperial family was once believed to be the direct descendants of the sun goddess. Rituals at Ise Shrine are intended for the imperial family, and its current head priest is Emperor Akihito's elder sister, Atsuko Ikeda, 88. One of the most important festivals is the Kanname festival marking the year's first rice harvest in the autumn.
Shinto, a religion perhaps as old as the nation itself, is a rich blend of folklore, reverence for all things natural and the Japanese nation. During the first half of the 20th century, a militarist government turned the indigenous belief into a state-sanctioned religion, rallying the population behind modernization and militarization.
State Shinto glorified the emperor, under whose name Japan invaded wide swaths of Asia before and during World War II. After Japan's defeat, then-Emperor Hirohito publicly renounced the idea that he was a living god, and state Shinto was banned.
The G-7 leaders will be the first sitting heads of their industrialized countries to visit the shrine. It will be symbolically important for Abe, who has sought to restore traditional Japanese values by "breaking free from the postwar regime" created under the U.S. occupation after the war. Abe's ruling party wants to revise the U.S.-drafted constitution to give the emperor a more prominent position.
PILGRIMAGE AND OFFERINGS
Affectionately called "O-Ise-san," the shrine has for centuries been a popular pilgrimage and tourist destination. The 1,500-year-old Outer Shrine, where visitors are supposed to pay respects first, is where sacred offerings of local produce are made: rice, fruits and vegetables, as well as prized abalone and sea bream. The acceptance of these offerings is an honor for the region's producers.
MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR REBUILDING EVERY 20 YEARS
Ise Shrine is rebuilt every 20 years, a process of moving a deity to a new shrine. It was most recently rebuilt in 2013, the 62nd time since the first rebuilding in 690. The 55 billion yen ($500 million) cost, which included the wood of 10,000 cypress trees for new buildings, was covered by the shrine and private donations, including from business leaders and members of the royal family. The rebuilding involves 30 rituals spanning at least eight years.
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Her work can be seen at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/mari-yamaguchi