Journeying to sacred and holy sites has held a special place in the hearts of travellers for centuries.
It is said of all important religious places around the world that the faithful should visit at least once in their lifetime—and so it is said that every Japanese should make the pilgrimage to Ise, and to the Shinto faith’s most sacred place: the Ise Grand Shrine. My visit to Ise was driven not by religious belief, but by a desire to better understand Japan and the Japanese people; Shintoism is unique to Japan and is considered by most Japanese to be not only a religion, but a way of life.
The Ise Grand Shrine is unlike other sacred places around the world that attempt to anchor faith by creating a sense of permanence through massive buildings that are often considered architectural wonders in their own right. Ise Grand Shrine’s two principal sacred places of worship, Naikū and Gekū, as well as the Uji Bridge at the Naikū entrance—all are completely rebuilt every 20 years, most recently in 2013. It is this never-ending cycle of rebuilding necessitated by the unrelenting forces of nature and decay that contributes to a heightened sense of renewal at Ise. Visiting the Naikū and Gekū sanctuaries is anything but intimidating and everyone is welcome. There are, however, a few simple rules of respect every visitor should follow.
There is no photography of the sacred places of worship; there is no eating, drinking or smoking except in designated areas; it is polite to ritually wash your hands and mouth in designated areas before entering the sacred places; and it is respectful to bow both before and after passing under the immense wooden torii gates along the major pathways, and to remove hats when offering prayers. It is also OK for anyone to offer prayers at the different shrines, and many visitors buy omamori (amulets) to bring good luck, or ward off bad luck.
Nearby Meoto Iwa—or “married couple rocks”—is another Shinto shrine that is famous throughout Japan and around the world. This small shrine is built on the jutting rocks of the seashore where the constant forces of wind and waves also bring a sense of renewal and of being one with nature. The famous woven rice-straw ropes that “marry” the two shrine rocks are said to weigh over one tonne and are replaced several times annually. Early risers staying in nearby ryokan (inns) and hotels flock to this site at dawn to witness and photograph the summer sun as it appears to rise from between the two rocks—and, if the day is clear, to glimpse Mt.Fuji in the background.
After visiting the sacred shrines, many pilgrims to Ise continue their spiritual renewal in local bars and restaurants by drinking locally brewed sake, a beverage integral to the Shinto religion, and enjoying good local food. It is for this reason that Ise historically had one of the best entertainment districts in Japan. While the glory days of these fabled entertainment areas may have faded, the area still features bars, restaurants and ryokan that won’t disappoint those seeking to add a gastronomic dimension to their pilgrimage. Here you will find famous Ise-ebi (spiny lobsters), fresh oysters and delicious abalone on offer. And wagyu lovers can take heart, as world-famous Matsuzaka beef is also on the menu.
Uji Yamada Station, ©Brent Borgundvaag
A visit to Ise is a chance to explore renewal, nature and good food while adding a spiritual dimension to your travels. Ultimately, my visit to Ise gave me new insights into Japan, the Japanese people and the Japanese way of life—but, more importantly, I left with the feeling of having made a rewarding and renewing pilgrimage and the desire to return again someday.
From sacred sites to fine entertainment
With a stately presence calmly overlooking the ocean near Meoto Iwa shrine, this former guest house to the imperial family and visiting VIPs is now a stunning museum open for anyone to visit.
©MIKIMOTO PEARL ISLAND/©JNTO
Ise has long provided the world with the finest pearls. At Mikimoto Pearl Island, you can learn more about pearls, their cultivation and the man who perfected the cultured pearl.
©MIKIMOTO PEARL ISLAND
While the number of these world-famous free-diving sea women (ama) who once dove for pearls, abalone and other undersea treasures is dwindling, you can still witness this honoured practice in Ise.
Ise’s eats and treats
©Showado co.ltd/©IKI CITY/©Iki City Tourism Federation/©JNTO
Ise-ebi: Treasure from the sea
Super-fresh spiny lobster caught right from the sea at Ise can be enjoyed two ways: served raw (as sashimi) with fresh wasabi and soy sauce, or grilled over charcoal. In either case your meal will be memorable. Most restaurants and ryokan prepare this delicacy according to your wishes so don’t be afraid to state your preference!
Ise’s comfort food
A big, hearty bowl of delicious and satisfying Ise udon will stick to your ribs and give you lots of energy for a full day of visiting the Ise Grand Shrine and surrounding areas. Thick and chewy udon noodles are served in a bowl with a concentrated “black broth” made with soy and sake, then garnished simply with sliced green onions, shaved bonito flakes and an optional raw egg yolk. The concentrated broth means you get less soup in the bowl, but what’s lacking in volume is more than made up for in taste! Itadakimasu!
Okage Yokocho near the Ise Grand Shrine is a restored shopping emporium with many restaurants and gift shops. Here you will find endless gift and souvenir possibilities, like tasty treats and beautiful jewelry including pearls. Be sure to keep an eye out for the clay roof decorations of sleeping cats, monkeys with telescopes and other fanciful animals perched high above the shops and restaurants.
Made from red azuki beans, akafuku mochi is a well-known and loved Ise omiyage (souvenir). This chewy treat has a limited shelf life, so enjoy it with a cup of tea during your visit.
©Akafuku Co., Ltd
All photos courtesy of Chihiro Segawa unless otherwise noted