Over 2000 years ago in ancient Japan, an imperial princess set out in search for a place to worship the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. After 20 years of searching she came across the land of Ise where she heard the Goddess herself whisper to her. Ise is one of the most sacred places in all of Japan, a place where every Japanese person feels as though they must visit at least once in their lifetime.
If your going to Ise from Tokyo it’s only around a 3 hour trip, but it’s a little bit pricey (23,900 Yen round trip). You can buy your tickets at the JR ticket office where they can help you plan out your itinerary as well as provide you with information on which line to take. I took the Nozomi line to Nagoya (Around 1 hour and 45 min) and then from there I took the JR Mie line from Nagoya to Iseshi (Around 1 hour and 30 minutes). You can buy reserved seats or non-reserved seats. I highly suggest going with the non-reserved seats since it’s cheaper and you can take any train throughout the day, so if you’re running late you can just catch the next one without having to get a new ticket.
While on the train I wanted to learn as much about the Ise Grand Shrine as I could so I started to read, “Shinto: The Kami Way”.
This book is a translated version of a Shinto priest’s best interpretation of the religion. However, because there is no holy text and it is so old, it basically says that no one really knows what Shinto is and it’s more of a lifestyle and set of ideals in Japanese culture rather than a religion. The basic mindset of Shinto is that “man is good” and evil comes from outside sources, not within. Because of this we can wash away this impurity and start fresh while still being aware of our mistakes and problems. You must live for the happiness of society and the Kami, and to be selfish is impure.
Torii are gateways to the spiritual world and Ise is full of them, this one stands right in front of Iseshi station, greeting you to the sacred land. From Iseshi station walk through the Torii and keep going straight, at the end of the street you will see Geku, the outer shrine where Toyouke-no-O-mikami is worshiped. This is the Goddess of good harvest and who caters to The Sun Goddess, Amaterasu (the ancestor of the imperial family).
“The approach” is marked with more Torii as you enter into the fantastical forest that surrounds the shrine, as you walk though them make sure to bow to show respect as you are now entering the spiritual world.
When you walk into the main square you might see people holding their hands over rocks and touching the tree trunks. In Shinto, rocks and trees are sacred and it is said that through these pieces of nature you can communicate and feel the presence of the Kami.
While walking around you will notice that there are many small shrines inside of Geku. Ise Shrine is actually an umbrella term for 125 shrines in the area. There are multiple Gods enshrined within Geku and Naiku that you can pray to, all with their own myths and purpose.
The main shrine within Geku is surrounded by these tall wooden walls, adorned with tree branches with paper attached to them. These are called Gohei, they are a symbolic offering and they indicated the presence of the Kami in a sanctuary. You are allowed to take pictures outside, but inside it is forbidden and disrespectful towards the Kami. It’s not a particularly extravagant sight inside. There is the offering table where you can throw in a coin and pray, some priests on the side talking with devout worshipers, and a large area of white gravel with a Torii standing over it.
After I finished exploring Geku, I stopped at a small cafe called Akafuku; just across the street from the entrance of the shrine.
This is a small but very popular tea and sweets shop where you can try their famous mochi along with a refreshing cup of matcha or green tea. Afterwards you can buy a box for your family or later, as it is some of the best mochi I’ve ever had. I suggest going to the one here in front of Geku as the one in front of Naiku is very crowded and difficult to get a table at.
After enjoying some tea I took a bus to Naiku. Here it’s much more crowded, which made it difficult to appreciate honestly. Many people were also staring at me because I was the only white foreigner for some reason on this day. This place is very popular, but perhaps more for Japanese people rather than foreigners?
Between the late 7th century until the 14th century an imperial princess was appointed to live in Saiku, a nearby town, and spend her life worshiping the Sun Goddess as the chief priestess of Naiku, here in Ise. This is the place where the Sun Goddess is enshrined and the Saio spent her days praying.
This is actually the place where a replica of the mirror, one of the three sacred relics of Japan, is kept. I was so excited that I might be able to see it, but it’s kept tucked away and hidden from onlookers (even though it’s not the real one which is sitting in the Imperial palace). Much of the place is closed off to the public, but I’m happy with the little ancient experience I was able to have. I sat down and tried to imagine the imperial princess walk these gravel roads and pray at these shrines, it was a magnificent idea.
The buildings are repaired and rebuilt every 20 years, because of this the traditional architecture is kept looking beautiful and extremely similar to how it was even 2000 years ago!
There is resting place inside the shrine’s property, closer to the entrance where you can sit down and drink free green tea as you rest from walking all over the property. There is also a bathroom there and a movie on repeat that talks about the ceremonies, origin, and annual repairs of the shrine.
I just had to get a little charm for myself. I wanted to get one specifically for love or money but the priest said that I can just pick a color I like and it will bring me general good fortune.
After Naiku I walked over to the marketplace where the old streets, Oharai Machi and Okage Yokocho, are covered in souvenir shops, street food, and restaurants.
It’s very crowded and lively. It’s the perfect place to find a little souvenir or try the famous oysters and beer. I don’t eat a lot of fish so I didn’t want to try it, but this is a fishing town after all.
My friend recommended to me to try the udon in Ise as it is a famous dish here. I stopped at one of the restaurants along the road and sat at the small counter. It’s easy to order as they have pictures of the food on their large and simple set menus. It really was the best udon I ever had!
After a late lunch I was tired so I took a bus back to Geku and walked to my hotel, a humble Japanese style place. My room was very simple with tatami mats, futons, a TV, a desk and some complimentary green tea. It was perfect for a one night stay and only around 8,600 Yen; Ise is very popular on the weekends so this was a steal. They even serve traditional Japanese breakfast; a small piece of tamagoyaki, rice, miso soup, and fish.
After another bus ride I made it to Meoto Iwa, one of the most beautiful shrines I have ever laid eyes upon. These sacred rocks have been worshiped since ancient times as they represent Inzanagi and Inzanami, the parents of the Kami and the land of Japan. Izanagi is the husband and the larger rock, while Izanami is the wife and the smaller rock, unified by the rope that ties them together. The rope was first set there in the 1300’s and is replaced every 3 years during a special ceremony. There are many married couples here that come together and wish for a happy and strong relationship.
I bought two of the wooden charms, one as a souvenir since the picture was so pretty, and on the other I wrote my wish for good fortune in love and friendship. I hung it on the shrine in hopes that my luck might turn around. Along with that I also got a small frog charm that is supposed to help you have a safe return home. I picked a fortune out of the many different boxes and it turned out to be the very best one!
There is another separate shrine the looks out onto the famous rocks, Futami-Okitama Shrine. Here there are numerous statues and charms that are sold in the shape of frogs. Frogs in Japanese culture represent good fortune and safe return of loved ones.
It was here that I decided to buy a Goshuinchou, which is a stamp book that you can take to a shrine and have stamped as well as signed by the priests that attend to it. Many Japanese people who are very devout will sometimes fill these books and take them to the grave as proof of their worship and love for the Kami. It was a great souvenir and I even decided to quickly run back to Geku and Naiku to get my stamps before heading back to Tokyo.
Overall Ise is great for a simple weekend trip. It’s a bit pricey but it’s one of the most important, oldest, and most sacred areas of Japan. As I walked through the dark streets of Shibuya on my way home I really did feel somewhat more pure, as though the dark cloud that I felt had been hanging over my head had finally gone away and my “impurities” washed away. It’s crazy what a sacred place can do for you, even if you’re not devout or even a believer. I feel fresh and ready to take on the world again. Even though things have been hard and they probably still will be, I feel the Kami is on my side.
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