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Ise: The land of gods, myths, and udon?

Ise: The land of gods, myths, and udon?

Japan is a country no stranger to gods, myths, and just some of the best food money can find. Walking around any Japanese city or town you are in, it is not hard to chance upon a shrine dedicated to a god or kami (神), as it is to find a vending machine or FamilyMart. 


But if you happen to find yourself in the company of a Japanese, ask “Where is the one place in Japan that you think is the most sacred?” and I am confident the answer to that question would be Ise (伊勢). 


Located on the eastern tip of Mie Prefecture (三重県 Mie-ken), along the Kii Peninsula (紀伊半島 Kii-Hantō), Ise has long since been called Japan’s “holy land”, or shinto (神都). And right at the heart of the city is the Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮 Ise-jingū), considered the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan.


Our journey begins on the platforms of Kyoto Station (京都駅) served by the Kintetsu Railway (近鉄鉄道 Kintetsu Tetsudō). Kintetsu was my choice of transport for this trip, if you’re wondering why I chose Kintetsu over JR, it’s because of this!


The island wind

Shimakaze, can I go even faster? (Image credit: John Ong)


Meet the Shimakaze (しまかぜ). The Kintetsu Premium Express Shimakaze, or Island Wind, is a limited sightseeing service that connects the Kansai cities of Osaka and Kyoto to the Ise-Shima region of Mie. Like JR East’s Genbi Shinkansen, this train is a beauty! 


(Image credit: John Ong)


Its sharp and elegant exterior, coupled with its sky blue and crystal white livery, commands the attention of most in the station—both passengers and passersby alike whipping out their phones, snapping shots as the train moves slowly to a stop.


(Image credit: John Ong)


The interior is no slouch either, boasting comfortable seats with built-in massage features, and a myriad of facilities, such as Japanese and Western-style private rooms, to large glass windows providing a commanding view of the surrounding scenery. Putting the “premium” in “Premium Express”, the Shimakaze was designed with the passengers’ comfort in mind.


I got the 5th Anniversary version! (Image credit: John Ong)


And the cherry on top? Every passenger will receive a special commemoration card, adding that extra level of flex that you can show off to your friends!  


Being a limited express service, all seats in the Shimakaze are on a by-reservation-only basis, so booking a seat prior to departure is a must. Foreign travellers like you and me will have the added benefit of the Kintetsu Rail Pass, which gives us a discounted price on booking the Shimakaze. The Shimakaze isn’t gonna win any speed awards, but like the island wind that gushes along the coast of Ise, I guarantee you a smooth and relaxing ride. 


Kintetsu Railway Sightseeing Limited Express “Shimakaze” (近鉄観光特急しまかぜ)
Timetable, fares: Here
Reservation: Here


Start with the Outer…

As aforementioned, the Ise Grand Shrine located in the heart of Ise City is the most sacred Shinto shrine in the whole of Japan. A complex of 125 shrines centred around the Inner (内宮 Naikū) and Outer Shrine (外宮 Gekū), the Ise Grand Shrine draws travellers from all parts of Japan and the world due to its cultural significance.


(Image credit: John Ong)


Arriving at Uji-Yamada Station (宇治山田駅), the Outer Shrine is approximately a 10-minute walk away. Chatting to a local friend while enroute revealed that there is a sequence in visiting the grand shrine: start with the Outer, followed by the Inner. To add some weight to this, this sequence is also practiced by the Japanese Imperial family!


(Image credit: z tanuki / CC BY 3.0)


Dedicated to the Shinto God of Food, Housing, and Clothing, Toyouke-no-Ōkami (等由気太神), the Outer Shrine features the Sengukan Museum (せんぐう館). The museum depicts the history of the Ise Grand Shrine and its ancient tradition of Shikinen Sengu (式年遷宮 periodical renewal)—buildings of both the Inner and Outer Shrine are torn down and rebuilt from scratch every 20 years. If you are not in a rush for time, I would definitely recommend visiting the museum and the Outer Shrine first. 


Sengukan Museum (せんぐう館)
Address: 126-1 Maeno, Toyokawa-cho, Ise-shi, Mie 516-0042
Nearest train station: Ise-shi Station (伊勢市駅) / Uji-Yamada Station (宇治山田駅)
Opening hours: 09:0016:30
Admission fee: ¥300
Tel: +81-596-22-6263


...followed by the Inner

Taking a local bus from the Outer Shrine will take you straight to the entrance of the Inner Shrine. Held in higher reverence than the Outer Shrine, the Inner Shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu-no-Ōkami (天照大神), the Shinto Sun Goddess, and ancestor of the Japanese Imperial Family.


Gateway to the realm of the divine. (Image credit: John Ong)


Spanning across the sacred Isuzugawa River (五十鈴川), the Uji Bridge (宇治橋) bridges our world to the realm of the divine, and serves as the main entrance into the Inner Shrine. The stunning picturesque bridge is constructed using a Japanese-style free of external influences. Like the Inner and Outer Shrine, the Uji bridge is torn down and rebuilt every 20 years. Remember to bow before crossing it!


Revel in simplicity. (Image credit: John Ong)


Crossing the bridge brings you into a realm that sits in harmony with nature. Walking through gravel paths to the various shrine buildings surrounded by a serene forest that gives off a cool breeze in the scorching Japanese summer, take some time to purify yourself using the water of the Isuzugawa River. This is truly a bucolic experience.


I waited 30 minutes just to take this picture. No regrets. (Image credit: John Ong)


As you move further into the Inner Shrine, travellers will pass by the Kaguraden (神楽殿 Kagura Hall), the winner of my “Most Aesthetic Shrine Complex” till date, and a place where charms and amulets unique to the Grand Shrine can be acquired.


Anyone home? (Image credit: John Ong)


At last, we approach the Inner sanctum of the Inner Shrine. At the top of a flight of stone stairs lies the Kotai-jingu (皇大神宮), or the main sanctuary of the Inner Shrine. Surrounded by multiple sets of fences, it is said herein enshrines Amaterasu herself, and the Yata-no-Kagami (八咫鏡 sacred mirror)one of the three Imperial regalia, said to be given by Amaterasu to Japan’s first emperor. The Kotai-jingu is constructed in Yuiitsu-shinmei-zukuri (唯一神明造) style. Characterised by its simplicity and antiquity, the architectural style predates buddhism in Japan, and is reserved only for the construction of the Kotai-jingu.  


Adjacent to the Kotai-jingu is the Kodenchi (古殿地)an alternate site where every 20 years during the Shikinen Sengu proceedings, a new Kotai-jingu will be constructed, featuring exact dimensions to the current one.   


Due to its divine status, travellers are not allowed entry into the Kotai-jingu, and photography around the area is strictly prohibited, alluding to a sense of purity and mystique. 


Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮)
Address: 1 Ujitachi-cho, Ise-shi, Mie 516-0023
Nearest station: Isuzugawa Station (五十鈴川駅) 
Opening hours: 05:00–18:00
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81-596-24-1111


A throwback in time

(Image credit: John Ong)


If you were like me and took the bus to the Inner Shrine, do drop by Oharaimachi (おはらい町) and Okage-yokocho (おかげ横丁) on your way back from the other realm. Located directly outside the Uji Bridge, Oharaimachi and Okage-yokocho was built as the original approach that leads people towards the grand shrine, and has served countless pilgrims across centuries. 


(Image credit: John Ong)


Nearly 1km long, the shopping street is lined by many restaurants and souvenir shops selling items distinct to the Iseshima region. 



I should have asked for meat... (Image credit: John Ong)


Regional specialties like the Akafuku (赤福 Red Happiness), and Ise Udon (伊勢うどん)— thicker-than-usual udon noodles served in a rich soy-infused sauce unique to Ise—are a must try! For the summer days, the Mie specialty lemonade sherbet cider, and matcha soft cream (which, if I recall correctly, is just around the cider shop) are a must to quench your thirst after that eventful journey through the other realm. I do not have a specific shop to recommend, so I’ll just leave it to you to explore and try! 


Housed within wooden facades that are reminiscent of centuries past, experience a throwback in time when you take a walk along Oharaimachi and Okage-yokocho. 


Oharaimachi and Okage-yokocho (おはらい町・おかげ横丁)
Address: 52 Ujinakanokiricho, 〒516-0025, Ise City, Mie
Nearest station: Ise-shi Station (伊勢市駅) 
Opening hours: 09:30—17:30 (April–July), 09:30–18:00 (August–September), 09:30–17:00 (November–February)
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81-596-23-8838


The Wedded Rocks  

Till death do us part? (Image credit: John Ong)


Another iconic site travellers will commonly visit is Meoto Iwa (夫婦岩 Wedded Rocks). Located within the premise of Futami Okitama Shrine (二見興玉神社 Futami Okitama-jinja), dubbed the “Frog Shrine”, Meoto Iwa embodies Izanagi-no-mikoto (伊邪那岐命) and Izanami-no-mikoto (伊邪那美), creators of the Kami, and represents the union of man and woman in marriage.


Eternally tying the two rocks together is what is known as a shimenawa rope (注連縄), the sacred rope that acts as a division between the spiritual world and ours. 


Travellers are advised to visit either during sunrise or sunset, when the sun sits in between the two rocks. If you are in Amaterasu’s good books, the silhouette of Mount Fuji can also be seen on clear days.


Do visit the Frog Shrine when you are there as well. Not only are the frog sculptures cute, but they are believed to be a type of charm in bringing people or things back! This is according to a local legend that frogs in this shrine have the power to grant you wishes. Coupled with the fact that frogs, or kaeru (蛙・カエル) in Japanese, is a homonym of “to return” (帰る・返る), maybe you could pray for a return trip? Or a returning lover perhaps? 


Futami-Okitama Shrine / Meoto Iwa (二見興玉神社・夫婦岩)
Address: 575 Futamichoe, Ise-shi, Mie 519-0602
Nearest station: JR Futaminoura Station (JR二見浦駅)
Opening hours: 07:30–16:30 
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81-596-43-2020


Getting there

(Image credit: John Ong)


If you are thinking of visiting Ise during your next visit, here are some pointers to take note. Only JR serves the route between Ise-shi Station and Futaminoura Station—the closest station to Meoto Iwa, but services are few and far between. The last services for the trains and local buses end quite early too, with the last train leaving Futaminoura Station at 22:00, and the last bus leaving Ise-shi around 20:00.


In addition, local and rapid Mie trains between Nagoya and Toba via Ise operate partially on non-JR railway tracks. If you are travelling along such sections with a JR pass, a small fee has to be paid either to the train conductor, or at a station. That’s just some Mame-chishiki (豆知識 — literally means “knowledge beans”, referring to little trivia in Japanese) for you!


So plan your schedule in advance to avoid waiting one hour for the next train (like me), or end up spending one hour walking back to your accommodation (like me).


Time to Ise goodbye


I sit to think, the journey ahead, as I admire the beautiful sunset sky. (Image credit: John Ong)


I shall close with a folk song from Ise: “I want to go Ise, I want to see Ise, at least once in my lifetime”.


I have always wanted to go to Ise. Away from the urban landscapes and loud nightlife found in cities of neighbouring prefectures, Ise City offers a solace among its sacred shrines, bucolic surroundings, and all I have are fond memories (of the place). 


My only regret? Not getting them Ise Grand Shrine magnets at the souvenir shop. Perhaps it’s foreshadowing a returning visit? Only god (or goddesses) will know.


Header image credit: John Ong


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