By Ryan Cole
Once long ago there was a Shinto god and goddess, Izanagi and Izanami. They were bored. There was nothing around. So they did what any self-respecting nature deities would do in their situation; they made love, and lots of it.
Sadly, Izanami died giving birth to the God of Fire, and Izanagi, journeying to visit his newly ephemeral love, became impure along the way and descended into the sea to cleanse himself. They now are without mortal form.
The Shinto Mecca
Despite this illustrious claim, Ise (also known as Iseshima, or Ise Island – though it’s not an island) wasn’t considered anything special until “the august mirror” representing a great Shinto god, Amaterasu, was moved from within the imperial palace walls.
Although the shrines are identical in every respect, the atmosphere of each is unique. Geku, the home of Toyouke, is subdued, quiet, an enclave of serenity surrounded by city life. Huge sweeping cedars with holy paper wrapped around their trunks contain their own gods, and provide a buffer from noise and neon.
The shade brings stillness, and the few pilgrims speak words no louder than the wind. Wandering the woods one finds small shrines tucked away, guarding the main one.
Naiku’s vibe is much more lively. Leading up to the shrine is a crowded maze of shops and restaurants, local cuisines and Shinto bric-a-brac for sale everywhere. Weekends see Japanese drum performances (taiko) and both local and internationally-known artists have galleries scattered about the traditional buildings.
The shrine itself is, as mentioned before, identical to Geku’s up the road, the only differences coming in the trees, the ground, and the multiplication of people.
Getting to Ise isn’t the easiest task, keeping foreign tourists away. Still, from Nagoya there are two train lines that make the trek, one the JR and the other the private Kintetsu rail line. Kintetsu is cheaper, at just over 1400 yen, while the JR (just under 2000 yen) is slightly faster, at about an hour and a half. Both leave from their main Nagoya stations, although on Kintetsu you can board as far away as Kyoto. Both services run hourly.
Once in Ise, the town is entirely walkable, although taxis abound as well. The shrines are a bit of a ways out of the city’s heart, and a one-day bus pass (1000 yen) will take you to both of them, as well as other nearby attractions, like the pearl divers of Toba who made Mikimoto pearls a name with international acclaim.
Accomodation is easy to find, if a little bland. The hotels are mostly around 6500 yen for a single, or 14,000 yen for a double, and are fine, nothing special. Most hotels are along a road just behind the JR side of Ise station (and just in front of the Kintetsu side).
One place to check is the Ise City Hotel Annex for reservations and information regarding a group of three hotels (0596-22-5100).
Unlike beds, the food in Ise is something worth discovering. Perhaps the most famous restaurant is Daiki (0596-28-0281), a Japanese style establishment that serves plenty of seafood.
If you’re in the mood for something a bit more modern and chic, it’s worth leaving the beaten path and finding Tamaya (0596-28-0281). Continuing along the main road where all the hotels sit, walk away from the station for about 10 minutes until, just past a gas station, turn right (the road isn’t named, call for more precise directions).
Ise is good spot to visit any time of year, although fall is most recommended – a very green area gets awful colorful in late October. Cherry blossom season is wonderful anywhere, but Ise doesn’t have many. The number of people picnicking will be large, but otherwise you’d do just as well coming any other time.
Like this on Facebook: