In May, during Golden Week, I decided to explore Ise. I’d been to the area once before during my first few months in Japan to visit the newly opened Amanemu (read about that here), but I didn’t really leave the hotel to investigate the area. This time I returned with intrepid travels as my goal, rather than indulgent relaxation.
The first thing that caught my attention was how quiet everywhere was. Granted, I arrived on a rainy day, deciding to brave the downpour and head to Ise Jingu (brolly in hand), but even still, compared the hoardes in Kyoto, it almost seemed empty. It was incredible. So peaceful and beautiful, even the thick air and charcoal skies couldn’t detract from the postcard-worthy panorama.
Ise Jingu is a stunning collection of 125 shrines located throughout the prefecture, with the two main naiku and geku – the inner and outer shrines – being the most famous and the ones that I visited during my trip. Ise Jingu holds a special place in the hearts of Japanese people. It’s one of the oldest and most famed shrines in Japan, dedicated to Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, and one of the most beautiful natural landscapes that I’ve ever seen. Walking through the centuries-old sites you can see why, all those years ago in 4 B.C., princess Yamato-Hime fell in love with the shores of the Isuzu river and decided on this as the place to enshrine Amaterasu.
Luckily I had two days in the area so I split my time between naiku and geku, wandering without feeling rushed, holding out for hope that on the second day the rain would clear and I wouldn’t have to take my return train to Kyoto with sodden socks. Perhaps my visit the previous day had appeased Amaterasu herself, as I was blessed with blue skies (and a somewhat larger crowd than the day before, but still nowhere near what I’m used to in Kyoto). I’m glad that I left myself enough time. Part of the beauty of this ancient site is the calming nature, much more appreciated at a relaxed pace than marching through without the opportunity to bask in the zen-glow that radiates from even the tiniest of pebbles in the painstakingly-raked karesansui.
The streets surrounding Ise Jingu are old too. OkageYokocho reminds me of Hanamikoji in Kyoto, lined with traditional machiya that house cafés and souvenir shops. The bounty that comes from being located so close to the sea obviously features highly in the local cuisine and array of dried squid snack-packs, prawn senbei and fresh fish dishes on menus up and down the street are enough to make even the fussiest of eaters salivate. The senbei (crackers) are particularly delicious and last long enough to shove in the suitcase to take back as souvenirs for fish-loving friends at home.
The final destination on my whistle-stop tour of this amazing area was Meoto Iwa, the married couple rocks. I’d seen pictures of these on my Instagram and articles about Japan in various magazines and haven been completely obsessed since. Japanese folklore, like that of Amaterasu, are so captivating to me and any shrine, temple or structure with even a hint of a connection to these fantastical stories features highly on my must-see list.
The two rocks, know as Izanagi (the husband) and Izanami (the wife) are said to symbolise the union that created the spirits of the world in the Shinto faith and have been joined using the astonishingly intricate and heavy shimenawa, a rope made of rice straw, braided in such a way that is sacred in the Shinto religion. The shimenawa is continually battered and eroded by wind and weather so that three times a year the one tonne cord is replaced in a special ceremony.
What I loved most about Ise, aside from the breathtaking natural beauty, is the lack of tourists, even in one of the busiest weeks of the year. It’s off-the-beaten path but wildly accessible (I hopped on trains and sightseeing buses to visit all of the places I’ve mentioned). There’s so much to see in Japan and as much as I love living in Kyoto, I love escaping it too. Particularly when places as incredible as Ise await…