A side-trip to Ise, off the beaten path in Japan

I mentioned this a few times before, but my recent trip to Japan’s Kansai region marked my second time in that region. The first time, I was flying solo, so I definitely wanted Sidney to see some of my favorite spots and show her why I fell in love with Japan. This included revisiting Kyoto and Nara. For myself though, this post about ‘keeping the same country fresh’ inspired me to try something different and look a bit deeper to see if I missed something amazing.

My research stage before a trip involves a lot of trailing off, which lets my mind wander. Are there good onsens nearby? No dice. Maybe cool monkeys? Too far north. Then I remembered a story I read about the completion of a Shinto shrine in Japan last year. Is that nearby? Turns out, it was only an hour away from Nara, or two hours if Japanese transportation still completely baffles you.

The river crosses the entrance to the Grand Shrine.
The river crosses the entrance to the Grand Shrine.

A brief on Shinto

Ise is the location of the Grand Shrine Naiku, dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. Japan’s native religion has fascinated me since I learned about it two years ago, and I was determined to see this site if time allowed. My understanding of Shinto is that is was one of Japan’s original religions before the introduction of Buddhism and was polytheistic. The Pagan-like religion merged with Buddhism and was further pushed during the Meiji Restoration up to WW2. The shrine to Amaterasu is the holiest of all Shinto sites and has been destroyed and reconstructed (according to their beliefs) every 20 years for the last 1300 years, but dates as far back as the first century BCE. Many Japanese people, even those who don’t actively practice Shinto, try to make a pilgrimage to Ise at least once in their lifetime.

Road Amaterasu Shrine

 

Off the Grid?

I mentioned in the title that Ise is ‘off the beaten path’ but that is only half true. Very few non-Japanese people visit the shrines, and even young Japanese people are hard to find. Shinto is mostly practiced these days by an older generation as the country becomes ever more atheist. Another reason it might not be visited by foreigners is that it is not very glamorous at all compared to nearby Kyoto. This however, is kind of the whole essence of Shinto in the first place and Japan is happy doing things their way despite what the outside world may think. Records show that the area outside of the shrine has been designed for visiting Japanese guests for over a millennium. Even today, there are lots of shops, and places to eat in the vicinity (although a bit pricey).

Amaterasu Grand Shrine

How are the Shrines?

The actual complex is not mind blowing in the sense of architecture or glamour, but it definitely is peaceful. Despite there being so many people at times, Japanese manners of keeping quiet definitely added to the effect of the holy site. We decided it was best to take our time before approaching Amaterasu’s main shrine and made sure to wash our hands in the river before approaching. I don’t know if this has any meaning, but every Japanese person was doing it and when in Rome.

River Washing Hands

If you are a fan of architecture, this site is one of the few that has buildings thought to be 100% Japanese design. Some time around 300 CE, the Baekje kingdom of Korea introduced Buddhism to Japan and the architecture of the country changed to reflect the new Buddhist beliefs. The original Japanese way demands simplicity where as Buddhist temples tend to me more glamorous.

Upon getting to the main complex, most people put their cameras away. No pictures are allowed in the main shrine and it is strictly enforced. Many made a donation and made a wish upon the shrine. We arrived during a collection period where they clean out the donation box and it was simply mind blowing how much money was inside, but it is really not my place to judge.

A tour group arrived and had a special VIP pass or something because they were allowed to go beyond the protective wall and approach the temple more than anyone else. After about five minutes of praying and bowing, they exited and it began to rain! Amaterasu was not pleased I suppose. While it was definitely not ideal for us, I felt bad for everyone who was in a suit that was being completely ruined.

The main shrine of Amaterasu. This is as close as you can get with a camera in hand.
The main shrine of Amaterasu. This is as close as you can get with a camera in hand.

We stayed a while in front of Amaterasu’s shrine and kind of just observed everyone around us. The officials went about their business with constant prayer and many people, much like us, decided to wait a while and take it all in. The road to the exit was equally peaceful and despite it being quite simple, I am glad we made the detour to Ise.

 

Market outside the Grand Shrine
Market outside the Grand Shrine

Oh, I almost forgot, I bought this huge piece of bread in the marketplace, too.

It looks great, tasted awful.
It looks great, tasted awful.
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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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