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Ise-Shima

A Spiritual Pilgrimage by the Sea

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Above: The main sanctuary of Naiku.
Below left: The main sanctuary building seen from outside the surrounding wall; public entry is not permitted as the grounds are regarded as sacred.
Below right: Kaguraden, a prayer hall stands midway along the approach to the main sanctuary. (Photos: AFLO)

Located on the Shima Peninsula, the Ise-Shima area of Mie Prefecture looks out onto the Pacific Ocean. Designated a national park, mountains rise some 500m above sea level, giving the region a great natural beauty. Off a coastline with small peninsulas and inlets, the open sea is dotted with a multitude of large and small islands. This is a land blessed with the bounty of the sea, and one that has a special meaning for Japanese people.

Beautiful Vistas in a Land of PrayerThe area's importance comes from Ise Jingu, one of the most prestigious Shinto shrines in Japan. The shrine complex (officially called "Jingu") consists of two main shrines known as the Naiku ("inner shrine"), where the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami is enshrined, and the Geku ("outer shrine"), as well as over 120 auxiliary shrines, large and small. The two main shrines are built about 6 kilometers apart from each other.

Worshipers customarily pay a visit to the Geku first, followed by the Naiku. A five-minute walk from Iseshi railway station, the entrance to Geku is marked by a large torii gate, followed by an approach to the shrine lined with cedar trees. The Geku shrine is dedicated to a deity of industry, clothing, food and housing; it is said that rituals offering food to Amaterasu Omikami have been held here daily for over 1,500 years.

Once respects have been paid at the Geku shrine, visitors proceed to the Naiku shrine. While a torii gate also marks the shrine's entrance, visitors cross the Uji Bridge beyond the gate to reach the Naiku, leaving the everyday world behind and entering a sacred space. The bridge spans a creek with such clean water that the creek bed is clearly visible. Before approaching the shrine grounds, visitors wash their hands and mouth at the creek. The shrines stand on a thickly forested site; peeking out from between the trees comprised entirely of cypress, the thatch-roofed structures project an air of holy purity. The shrines are rebuilt every 20 years—a tradition called "ritual reconstruction," which has taken place for over 1,300 years—and this reconstruction is thought to maintain purity and achieve eternity in Shinto.

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Shops in old traditional buildings line the streets of Oharaimachi.

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Pilgrimage to Ise Jingu by commoners began in the Middle Ages, and the shrine became an even more popular destination every 20 or 60 years during the Edo period for worshippers to see the newly reconstructed shrines. It was at this time that the nearby Oharaimachi Town grew to prosperity. The lively town's 800m stone-paved street, the front approach to the Naiku, is lined with old, wooden-built restaurants and souvenir shops that retain the character of the time. Ise's popularity has clearly not declined: It continues to be a favored destination with about 7.5 million tourists visiting each year.

Among the scenic attractions of the Ise-Shima coast is Futamigaura, a small town where pilgrims on their way to Ise Jingu have long found lodging. Lined with traditional Japanese inns, the town offers picturesque views that have remained unchanged for generations. Of note to tourists is Meoto-iwa (Wedded Rocks), a large and small rock off the shore joined by a thick rope that are said to be "wedded as husband and wife."

The entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi, founder of fine jewelry maker Mikimoto, first succeeded in developing cultured pearls in this region. Rafts of cultured pearls float off the coast of Shima, just south of Ise, giving a view at dusk that is a stunning combination of natural and man-made beauty. Lucky tourists may chance upon female divers called ama, who collect shellfish using traditional diving methods.

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The rocks, one small and one large, are considered married.

The Bounty of the SeaAfter experiencing Ise-Shima's history, culture and scenery, it is time to enjoy the food; the sea here yields a bounty of sea urchin, oysters and Japanese scallops. In fact, the Japanese word for lobster, Ise-ebi, takes its name from this region, and the long-whiskered deep-red lobsters—an essential dish at celebrations—are a must-try. The abalone caught here is renowned for its excellent quality and is often offered to the deities at the shrines.

Meat-lovers are not left out: the famed tender and juicy Matsuzaka beef is produced nearby. The cattle graze in wide-open spaces with streams of clear water, making its meat ideal for steak and a variety of dishes. Try shabu-shabu, where thinly sliced beef is lightly waved back and forth in simmering broth until cooked, or in sukiyaki, beef and vegetables simmered in a sweet broth.

Ise-Shima offers visitors a spiritual pilgrimage to Japan's holiest shrines, picturesque traditional scenery and plenty of opportunities to indulge in delicacies fresh from the sea.


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Ama shellfish divers hold fresh lobsters and shells.

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Amiyaki, fillet of Matsuzaka beef grilled over a high flame (Cooperation: Rikiya)

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Thick, juicy abalone simply grilled (Cooperation: Nihonryori Tai)

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(September 2011)

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