Beyond Kyoto: A Trip to Ise Shrine

While there's plenty to see in Kyoto, it's also nice to get out of the city and explore the Kansai region to find new experiences and sights. With only just a short train ride, you can arrive in a city or region that offers culture, food, architecture, and history that are wildly different than in Kyoto. For example, anyone in Kyoto for more than a few days should add a trip to Nara to their itinerary to get a feel for another side of the region. Visitors from large countries like America often comment that you don't have to go very far in Japan to find yourself in what feels like a whole other part of the country. Things aren't so spread out here!

Since I'm always looking to explore new area of Japan, I took a trip to Ise in Mie Prefecture recently to experience another side of central Japan. It was an enjoyable trip to a charming destination that remains under the radar of many foreign visitors. However, Japanese have been making it a point to come to Ise for millennia. Housing the shrine containing the sun goddess Amaterasu, Ise remains an important pilgrimage spot to this day.

 
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The history of the shrine stretches back into Japan's prehistory. Legend places the founding of the Ise Shrine in 4 BCE, but it may have been a few centuries later. Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess and mother of the family that became the Japanese imperial line (which is still reigning today), is worshiped in the central site at Ise. Her shrine is set back in the mountains, deep in the protective primordial forest. With it's deep connections to nature, the Shinto religion reveres places in nature where they say the gods make themselves known. Sometimes this is through massive boulders perched atop cliffs, towering waterfalls, or unthinkably huge trees. And sometimes it's just a sense of calm that pervades through a special part of the forest. It's said that Amaterasu herself spoke to her followers and chose this spot for her shrine due to its pleasant solitude. If you ask me, she made an excellent choice.

 
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Over the centuries, Ise grew to into a sprawling religious center with multiple shrines and sacred areas. A pilgrimage to offer thanks to Amaterasu for her blessings on the country became almost a social and religious requirement for Japanese people. By the 1600s, it's said that 1 in 10 people in the country made the journey at least once in their life. For a pre-modern society with a social and economic structure that severely limited travel, that was a huge number! There's even a famous story of people sending their pet dogs to Ise in their stead if they couldn't afford the journey themselves. These okage inu (blessing dogs) became a popular symbol of the shrine and are still celebrated today. You'll see plenty of cute versions of them for sale in the shops surrounding the shrine districts.

Nowadays, Japanese people visit Ise for more than just religious reasons. The area has become famous for its seafood - especially lobster and seaweed - as well as the beautiful local scenery. Every Japanese visitor will certainly stop at the main shrine and offer a bow and perhaps a short prayer in thanks to their nation's protective deities. A lively shopping area with famous souvenirs and local food is also a huge draw for tourism.

The shrine area itself is divided into two large sections separated by wooded hills and valleys. The Geku (outer shrine) is located on the edge of the modern city of Ise and is walkable from the city center near the main train station. A long pathway through the forest delivers you to the main building, hidden behind several rings of walls and outer buildings. Just the tips of the roof decorations are visible to guests, and this only heightens the sense of mystery that wells up inside as you encounter this ancient site in the deep forest.

As old as this site is, there is an element of freshness and life throughout. This is thanks to sengu, the tradition of reconstructing the shrine buildings every 20 years. Shintoism is a celebration of life, regeneration, and the natural world that we all live in. Therefore, it makes sense to keep the holiest structures in Japan revitalized and new every generation. Compare this to Buddhist temples that are allowed to fade and decay over time. In Buddhism, it's more about the longer timeline of not just this life, but the countless lives that you'll live in the future as you experience rebirth until (hopefully) finally reaching enlightenment. Shintoism's focus on celebrating the here and now is a refreshing alternative to the dizzying depth and complexity of the Buddhist universe - a fact that was surely not lost on worshipers throughout history.

After visiting the Geku (which is itself larger than most Shinto shrines in Japan), it's time to head over to the Naiku (inner shrine). Most visitors make this trip via bus and get off at Oharaimachi, the long shopping shop leading up the main shrine precincts. This bustling district follows the tradition of a wide road called a sando (approach) leading up to important shrines, originally lined with ryokan inns and shops selling religious trinkets to pilgrims. Oharaimachi nowadays caters to the more nonreligious side of the tourist crowd, offering all sorts of souvenirs and popular snacks. The big local item here is akafuku, a traditional sweet made from sticky mochi rice and smooth red bean paste. You'll also see plenty of fresh seafood, traditional wooden toys, and cute stuffed dolls in the form of those okage inu dogs. The shopping is the main draw here, but the restored Edo period architecture is also a great part of the atmosphere of the street. If you can block out the vending machines and the shops selling cellphone cases, walking through Oharaimachi is pretty close to going in back in time and seeing Ise as it was a few hundred years back.

After snacks and shopping, it's time enter the realm of the Shinto gods. Cross the 100 meter Uji Bridge, careful to avoid the central planks, for this area is reserved for the gods themselves. This bridge is also renewed ever 20 years as part of the sengu process. It's still fresh from the 2013 restoration, but it's starting to show some signs of weather and wear.

As you proceed deeper into the shrine, you'll pass through several wide open grassy areas used for religious events and performances. On the day that I visited, a stage was set up for the performance of bugaku, a traditional form of religious dance and music. I don't think this kind of performance has many fans nowadays, as it's very slow and not the most exciting. However, it is fascinating to watch in short sittings to see the techniques that the dancers use to tell stories with their movements.  The costumes are particularly impressive as well, and managing a long train or sash as it drags behind you during an intricate dance is truly a skill that these performers have mastered.

A brief stop at the shores of the Izusu River is in order. Since it passes through the shrine grounds, the water here is considered holy and perfect for cleansing yourself before entering the home of the Shinto deities. After all, water is the preferred purifying element in Shintoism. Dip your hands in the cool stream and marvel at the clearness of the water. Fish - who've clearly gotten used to human fingers - will swim right up to your hands without fear. Across the water is an untouched wilderness reminiscent of the area as it once looked before modernity took hold.

The final approach to the Naiku shrine is lined with massive cedar trees soaring into the forest canopy above. Many of the trunks have been worn smooth from the millions of hands that have pressed against them to petition the gods in prayer. Through the forest, small shrines and huts are visible. They all hold objects in which the Shinto gods reside. Since the gods are invisible spirits, they must take up residence in a physical object to have a presence in our world.

 
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One of the most of important objects in Japanese culture is housed in the central shrine in Ise. The Yata no Kagami is a mirror said to be one of the three imperial regalia that grant the emperor his power and - before the modern era - his divinity. In Japanese mythology, the mirror at Ise was one of the objects used to lure the sun goddess Amaterasu out of her hiding cave, thereby bringing sunlight and spring back to the Japanese islands. No one is exactly sure what this object looks like or if it's even inside the shrine, as public information about the imperial regalia is scarce and closely guarded. For visitors to the shrine, the existence of the mirror is best left up to faith.

The crowds in front of the Naiku shrine make for an interesting site. Almost everyone lines up to pray before the outer gate, which is as close as you can get to the actual building itself. Despite all the prayers being offered, it's doubtful how many of the pilgrims actually believe in the Shinto gods. Shintoism has the unique distinction of being a religion without a core belief system that people are expected to follow rigidly. Think of it more as a tradition or cultural heritage that is being carried on by its followers out of a sense of cultural obligation. Considering how much Shintoism revolves around superstition, wishes, and fortune telling, it remains a comforting part of life for many Japanese, and allows them to maintain a connection to the cultural systems that they were raised in - regardless of if they have faith in the gods or not.

And even if YOU don't believe in the Shinto gods, Ise Shrine is definitely worth visiting if you have an extra day or two in the region. Reached easily by train from Kyoto, Osaka, or Nagoya, this destination remains an under-appreciated gem that most tourists still haven't discovered.