Ise: Japan’s Holiest Shrine
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.
The sex was voracious, lasted days, weeks, and while you and I would produce sweat amongst other unmentionables, the byproduct of Izanagi’s and Izanami’s coupling fell to the ocean and crystallized into the Japanese islands.
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.
Or that’s one story. Another is that, fully satiated, the divine couple lay down upon their creation and became the twin valleys of Ise, a small town south of Nagoya.
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.
Considered too sacred to be housed in a house – no matter how glorious – Amaterasu went on a journey which ended in 4 B.C., when the imperial princess Yamatohime no Mikoto decided Ise should be the permanent home of this important deity, daughter of Izanagi and Izanami.
Four and a half centuries later another shrine was constructed nearby to house the Shinto god Toyouke. Considered a very important deity in his own right, Toyouke was placed within a few kilometers so that he could provide food and offerings to Amaterasu. Since that time, Ise has become the holiest place in Japan, a land every native is supposed to journey to at least once. Each year six million make the trek.
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.
While Japan usually grooms to a fault, in Geku the forest runs free, untamed streams and fallen leaves in the breeze dominating the ears.
Photos aren’t allowed of the principal shrine, but everything else is fair game save the priesthood. Every morning and afternoon food offerings are made at Geku to Amaterasu – the only asymmetrical aspect of rituals between the two locations.
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.
Geku’s sacred feel is balanced by the energy surrounding Naiku, a perfect example of the irreverent piety Shinto prefers over pomp.
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.
Both shrines and the sacred Uji Bridge over the Isuzu River are torn down and rebuilt every 20 years in an homage to the impermanence of all worldly things and the immortality of the spirit behind them. It is quite a festive spectacle making use of nearby forests, but the next one isn’t scheduled until next decade.
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.
One might also visit on the same route a mock-up of a samurai village, or the twin gods of Meotoiwa, who reside in a stately pair of stones just off the coast, jutting up from the ocean. Toba’s aquarium or a pair of lighthouses are also worth a visit if you have the time.
Accommodation 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).
Budget accommodation is sparse; the best bet is Ise Shima Youth Hostel (0599-55-0226), just east of the Anagawa station on the Kintetsu line (and one of the only places you’ll hear English). Prices start at 2800 yen per person.
A variety of minshuku (b&b) are available in nearby towns like Futami, if you don’t mind the commute. Ryokan (hostels) such as Hoshide Ryokan (0596-28-2377) and Yamada-kan (0596-28-2532) offer places to stay as well as two meals, starting at 6000 yen for the former and 10,000 yen for the latter.
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.
Visited and approved of by emperors, Daiki is the place to go for sushi and sashimi, or a spot to sample the famous Ise-ebi, a crustacean that is somewhere between a shrimp and a lobster. Another dish Ise is famous for is abalone steak, often cooked in a liver sauce and known for promoting healthy skin. Daiki is easy to find, as it is a five minute walk from the main station and is featured on all maps of the area.
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).
With a menu that changes seasonally, you’ll find Tamaya serving everything from quiche and pizza to farfalle and confit de canald (slow-roasted duck).
Even lamb is served here, a rarity in Japan. The wine list is fairly extensive, as are the cocktails and liquors available (ever had a Cuban rum?).
Finally, you can stop in the lobby of any major hotel for a bit of mastication, if not titillation. Italian restaurants and steakhouses abound on their ground floors, along with a random Japanese meal or two.
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.
Ryan Cole is a freelance writer living in Kyoto, Japan. His website is thehungrywriter.com