Nagoya is one of my favourite places in Japan, with history and culture and delicious local cuisine in spades. That said, when I’m in the mood for something a little different, this city’s status as a regional transport hub really proves its worth, with a broad range of options for easy day trips in all directions. On one cloudy autumn morning last November, I used Nagoya as a jump-off point for exploring the Ise-Shima area: home of the most important Shintō shrine in Japan.
Today’s area of interest goes by a tossed salad of names. Ise-Shima (伊勢志摩). The Shima Peninsula (志摩半島, Shima-hantō). The Ise-Shima National Park (伊勢志摩国立公園, Ise-Shima Kokuritsu Kōen). Lying within the borders of Mie Prefecture, this ruggedly outlined appendage on the eastern side of the Kii Peninsula is sprinkled with a variety of attractions, both natural and man-made – including a vast shrine compound held especially sacred in the indigenous Shintō belief system.
Nagoya is the nearest major urban centre, with direct rail links operated by Kintetsu and JR. Read my separate rail report to learn more about the options for train travel to Ise-Shima.
With the region’s key landmarks spread out over a wide area, I chose to start my day in the city of Ise (伊勢): Ise-Shima’s transport hub and home of its most important attraction, at least from a cultural and historic perspective.
After arriving at Ise-shi Station (伊勢市駅, Ise-shi-eki)…
…I pulled out a 1,000-yen note and purchased a one-day Michikusa Pass (みちくさきっぷ, Michikusa Kippu). This ticket offers unlimited rides on designated local bus services – including the tourist-orientated CAN Bus – for one calendar day. A two-day version of the basic pass (1,600 yen) is also available, and there’s a special two-day “Wide” pass valid for use on even more bus routes. Of course, which type makes the most sense will depend entirely on your travel plans.
After a short bus ride from the station, I reached the stop that serves Gekū (外宮), the “Outer Shrine” – one of two precincts that make up the Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮, Ise Jingū).
The compound is fairly spread out, but not quite as large as that of the other major shrine in these parts (which we’ll have a look at shortly).
Right, let’s head inside.
In due course, I found myself standing before the main shrine at the heart of the compound. To my right was a large open space strewn with coarse stones, completely empty save for a few trees and a lone wooden structure near the far end.
This plot of land reminds visitors of an ancient custom now observed only at the sacred shrines of Ise, although it was formerly practised at other Japanese shrines as well. Every twenty years, the major structures at both precincts of the Ise Grand Shrine (including the smaller auxiliary shrines on their respective grounds) are taken down and completely rebuilt on an adjoining site. The primary enclosure of Gekū stood on this vacant space until 2013, when an identical set of buildings was erected alongside it.
Speaking of which, here’s the shrine’s present incarnation right next door.
Note that photography is strictly forbidden inside the enclosure.
This new shrine will itself be torn down in 2033, after the next iteration is constructed on the empty lot we saw earlier. Then that will get torn down after two decades, with the new buildings rising where we see them standing today. Lather, rinse, repeat.
There are three subsidiary shrines on the grounds of Gekū, all of which are demolished and rebuilt from scratch along with the main precinct. This explains the vacant lot next to each structure: once occupied by the previous incarnation, and due to be occupied again at the next rebuilding.
After leaving Gekū, I crossed the street and waited at the designated stop to catch a bus bound for my next destination. I’ve included pictures of the schedule and fare table for reference, but – needless to say – the details are subject to change without prior notice.
That next destination was Naikū (内宮), the “Inner Shrine” of Ise Jingū. Located about four kilometres (as the crow flies) southeast of Gekū, the larger Naikū is the more important – and supposedly the more ancient – of the two precincts.
A sign posted just before one crosses into the core shrine grounds bears a stark warning: There are no toilets after this point. And there’s quite a lot of ground to explore after this, so now’s the time to do whatever business needs doing.
There’s a fairly normal-looking purification trough not far past the no-toilets sign…
…but in a moment, I’ll show you one that’s far from normal-looking.
Upon reaching a fork in the road, I turned right…
…and walked towards what might be the largest purification trough in the entire country.
I mean, it’s a flipping river. The Isuzu-gawa, to be precise.
From here, I continued deeper into the sprawling shrine grounds, passing through a dense forest and walking past elaborately decorated outbuildings…
…before I arrived at the foot of a wide stone-paved staircase.
At the top of those steps sits the innermost sanctum of Naikū. It’s claimed that the Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡), an ancient mirror and the most important of Japan’s three Imperial Regalia, is housed within that precinct. Such is the sanctity ascribed to this relic that it never leaves Naikū, not even for the ceremonies marking the enthronement of a new Emperor; on that occasion only the other two Imperial Regalia (a sword and jewel) are presented to the monarch.
There’s a one-way system in place to keep foot traffic under control. Entering visitors go up the main steps in front (image above); exiting visitors go down the narrower staircase off to the side (image below).
As at Gekū, there’s a strict ban on photography within the perimeter wall.
I didn’t see the empty site where the shrine buildings stood until 2013 – and will stand again come 2033 – but it’s right next to here, as clearly shown in this satellite image.
The grounds are extensive, and there’s quite a bit to discover in terms of secondary buildings. Do set aside a fair amount of time if you’re hoping to see more than the average rushed traveller.
Sightseeing done, I headed out of the shrine grounds and plunged deep into Oharai-machi (おはらい町), a shopping and dining district that grew up around the approach to Naikū.
There are shops and restaurants aplenty, but one establishment in particular caught my eye. This place eventually managed to wring quite a bit of cash out of my wallet, for food and for merchandise…
…but we’ll save that for another post.
Till then, cheerio.