Ise coast
ISE PENINSULA contains some of the most beautiful coastline in Japan. Among the beautiful inlets and islands are numerous wooden rafts where pearl farmers grow cultured pearls. Inland are mountains and some of Japan's most famous temples. The Peninsula is also called Shima-hanto Peninsula and the Ise-Shima region.

Ise-Shima National Park (about an hour from Nagoya, Osaka and Kyoto) is known for it pearl fisheries and magnificent seascape. Inside the park are two of Japan's most interesting sights: Ise Grand Shrine, and the most venerated of all Shinto shrines; and Wedded Rocks. The designation of national park is little misleading. The region is just as developed and populated as other rural areas of Japan. Website: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Photos japan-photo

Ise Shrine

Ise Shrine (in Ise-Shima National Park) is the most sacred place in the Shinto religion. Founded in A.D. 690 and known as Jingu in Japan, it is considered to be the spiritual home of Japanese people, and traditionally been the Shinto equivalent of Mecca, a place all Japanese felt they should go. These days about six million people visit the Ise Shrine every year.

The Shrine of the Shinto Goddess Ise is comprised of the Inner Shrine at Ise, dedicated to Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun; the Outer Shrine, dedicated to Toyouke, the Goddess of Arms, Crops, Food and Agriculture; 14 auxiliary sanctuaries; and 109 lesser sanctuaries, including special facilities for the preparation of sacred food and textile offerings.

According to legend the mirror that symbolizes that power of Amaterasu was brought to Ise in 4 B.C. when Imperial Princes Yamatohime chose the present site on the upper Isuzu as the place where Amaraterasu should reside for eternity.

Unfortunately for tourists the main shrines are so sacred that only a few people are allowed to enter them and visitors are kept at considerable distance from them, only capturing glimpses of the roof of the main sanctuary structure from above walls and behind trees.

The people allowed in the main shrines are high-ranking priests. There are approximately 100 priests who work at the shrine. They are headed by the saishu (Master of Ceremonies) and assisted by Superintendent of Sanctuaries. On Oharaimachi Street near the shrine area are old shops selling souvenirs and local specialities such as fried fish balls, skewered oysters, roasted chestnuts, sweet potato croquettes and, some say, some of the softest and tastiest mochi in Japan

In recent years the number of people going to Ise Shrine has rises as reports of special power spot there---with restorative and energizing powers---have been widely circulated in lifestyle magazines and on its website. In 2009, more than 8 million people visited the shrine. Many of the visitors seeking the energy spot are women. A 39-year-old Tokyo woman told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Those stories I read in fashion magazines about power spots were really fascinating. This I my first time here, in about 20 years; I came to absorb he shrine’s power."

Websites: ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Wikitravel Wikitravel Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO and Ise area JNTO ; Ise Jingu Hotel Web Sites: Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Ise is accessible by train from Nagoya and Osaka and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet ;Ise Jingu

Ise Architecture

The main sanctuaries of Shrine of the Shinto Goddess Ise are beautiful austere structures made of new hinoke (cyprus beams) in what is said to be the purest and simplest style of Shinto architecture.

"Here, better than anywhere else," writes historian Daniel Boorstin, "we witness the distinctive Japanese conquest of time by the arts of renewal. Here, too, we can see how Japanese architecture has been shaped by the special qualities of wood, and how wood has carried the creations of Japanese architects on their own kind of voyage through time."

The architecture is base don the architecture of the traditional Japanese rice storehouse. The supporting columns pass through a raised floor and inserted directly into the ground. Responding more to natural principals than architectural ones, these columns are much thicker than is necessary to hold up the structure. They are the shape and thickness of a live tree and are placed in the ground and suck up moisture like a live tree.

No nails are used, only dowels and interlocking joints. The roof is thatched with miscanthus grass. The wood is unvarnished and unpainted, displaying the wild beauty of the cypress's natural texture. There are crossbeams at either end of the roof and large rounded logs on the ridge of the roof. Protruding from the upper part of the gable at either end of the building are metal-tipped poles that add structural symmetry.

Ise Renewal Ceremony

Every sanctuary consists of two identifiable adjoining sites. Since the 7th century A.D., with only a few exceptions, the main sanctuaries are rebuilt every 20 years and the symbols of their kami are taken from the old sanctuary to the newly constructed sanctuary. By performing this ritual the Japanese people receive renewed blessing from their kami and pray for world peace.

Daily ritual
The shrines were rebuilt for the 61st time in 1993 at cost of $60 million. The next time they will be rebuilt is in 2013. The reason for the periodic rebuilding is not clear. Some have suggested it is away of keeping traditional carpentry techniques alive. Others believe it might have more to do with ancient tradition of rebuilding and relocated the palaces of a new emperor after the old emperor died.

Every effort is made to make sure the new structure is as elegant as the one it replaced. Selection of the hinoki from a special forest begins ten years in advance. After the new site and the wood is purified by Shinto priests, local residents in ceremonial white robes haul 16,000 cypress timbers using wagons to the site and white pebbles are tossed on the inner precincts of the two main shrines to indicate they are off-limits.

The sacred treasures and apparel which are offered to the kami are also remade. There are 125 kind of sacred apparel, 1085 objects, 491 treasures and 1,600 accessories. They are all remade by skilled craftsmen in accordance with exact traditional specifications.

After the new sanctuary is completed an elaborate nighttime ceremony, called the Offering of the First Fruit, takes place in which the symbols of the kami are placed in a series of special container and carried with in a long silk shroud, along with sacred treasures, apparel and accessories, from the old sanctuary to the newly constructed sanctuary. The wood from the old shrine is used to construct the tori gate at the entrance of the shrine or given to shrines elsewhere in Japan.

Annual Ise Ceremonies

omike ceremony
Each year more than 1,500 ceremonies are performed at the main and auxiliary sanctuaries. Among these 20 are considered major ceremonies.

The annual rituals and ceremonies of the temple are intimately bound with nature and the seasons. In February prayers are offered for a plentiful harvest. In June men and women in traditional white and red costumes transplant rice seedlings to the music of sacred flutes and drums and dance and pray for a good harvest at the shrine honoring the deity of the rice paddy.

The most important ceremony, the Kannamesai, takes place in mid-October. The first grains of the rice harvest are offered to Amaterasu, first at 10:00pm and 2:00am at the Outer Shrine on October 15th and 16th and then at 10:00pm and 2:00am at the Inner Shrine on October 16th and 17th. The offering are made with a silk cloth by a representative of the Imperial Household.

According to myth, rice was given to the Japanese people as their staple food by Amaterasu. The rice for the sake and cakes used in the renewal celebration and other rituals comes from the same seven-acre paddies which has been used for thousands of year. The field is irrigated with water from Isuzu River and the soil is fertilized with dried sardines and soy bean patties. In April trees are cut down to make rows for planting the seeds.

Outer Shrine at Ise

Outer Shrine at Ise (about 4 miles from the Inner Shrine) is smaller, older, less visited and less sacred that the Inner Shrine. Established in A.D. 477, it is dedicated to Toyouke, the Goddess of Arms, Crops, Food and Agriculture. The remains of tree called the heartpost from the original 5th century shrine lies beneath the shrine.

Known as Geku, the Outer Shrine is essentially the same as the Inner Shrine and the annual ceremonies of the two shrine follows a similar pattern. One of the main difference is that only at Geku are food offering made every morning and afternoon. These offerings are made by Amaterasu.

The main shrine is hidden from view by four fences. Most pilgrims pray outside the four fences. Those who want to get a little closer pay about ¥5,000 to pass through the outermost fence, to be ritually purified by a priest and express their thanks numerous bows and prayers

The main sanctuary is called Toyoukedaijingu Shogu. Goshoden is the main sanctuary building .Kodnechi is alternative sanctuary site where the main sanctuary building was from 1973 to 1993 and will be again from 2013 to 2033. Also on the main sanctuary ground is the Hall for Daily Offerings of Sacred Foods.

Before reaching the main sanctuary one passes over the Hiyoke Bridge, the Font of Ablutions, the First Sacred Gateway, Purification Hall. There are auxiliary sanctuaries for Takanomiya, Tsuchinomiya, Kazenomiya, as well as a Hall of Pure Fire, and Stall for the Sacred Horse (a living white horse can often be seen here).

Inner Shrine at Ise

Inner Shrine at Ise (reached by bus from the Outer Shrine) is large, more spread out, more crowded and more sacred that the Outer Shrine. It is dedicated to Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun, and the deity from which the Japanese Imperial family purportedly traces its origins.

The entrance of the Inner Shrine at Ise begins with the Uji bridge, which crosses over the sacred Isuzu River. The walkway and railing are made of cypress and the pillars are made of water-resistant zelkhoba. Parallel to the bridge are large pillars intended to protect the bridge from heavy debris coming down the river during a flood. The bridge is rebuilt every 20 years and has an architectural style that is uniquely Japanese.

After crossing the bridge you enter an area with a teahouse, administrative center, after turning right you come to a rest area. Near the river is Font for Ablutions. Beyond that is the First Sacred Gateway, which leads to the river where pilgrims ritually wash themselves and clean out their mouth before worshiping at the main sanctuary.

sacred fire
On the path to the main sanctuary you pass the Purification Hall, where priests take ritual baths and spend one or two nights to purify themselves before leading ceremonies; the Second sacred Gateway, with a pure style of torii gate architecture unique to Ise.

The building to the right of Purification Hall is for the exclusive use for the Emperor and Empresses for their occasional pilgrimages to the shrine. For most important ceremonies the Emperor sends a representative form the Imperial Household rather than shows up himself.

Approach to the Main Sanctuary of Inner Shrine at Ise: The large structure of the left of that main path to the main sanctuary is the Hall of Sacred Music and Dance. The dances and music performed her are expressions of gratitude aimed at pleasing or protecting the resident kami. The Yamatomai and Ninchomai, performed to ancient court music, are the most frequently performed dances. Talesmen, amulets and votive offerings can be purchased at a counter here.

Further on to the left are the Gojoden, used occasionally for food and purification ceremonies; the Misakkadono, dedicated to the god of sake; and the Yukinomikura, a sacred storehouse. After these is the Hall of Pure Fire, where food offerings for kami are prepared on a pure fire made by a priest with a drilling device; and the Sacred Foods Ceremonial Preparation Hall, where special offerings of abalone are made.

Main Sanctuary of Inner Shrine at Ise

Four rows of fences and hedges enclose the main sanctuary with the first fence closest to the sanctuary and the forth farthest away. Photography is prohibited beginning at the stone steps that lead to the sanctuary. The best glimpses of the building are from the western side and the approach to the Aramatsurinomia shrine.

sacred forest around Ise
Most ceremonies in the main sanctuary take place in the courtyard situated between the second and third gates. To the left the center are seats, surrounded by stones, for officiating priests. To the right are seats for Imperial envoy and his assistant. To the left, between the second and third outermost gates, in a building in which at least one priest remains at all times as guard of the mirror.

The architecture of the main sanctuaries at the Inner Shrine and Outer Shrine are essentially the same but a number of small details are different such as the number of rounded logs on the roof and the placement of the treasuries. The empty space next to the main sanctuary is the alternate site for the new sanctuary scheduled to be built in 2013.

Pilgrims who come to worship at the main sanctuary usually do so before the gate of the second outer fence. Sometimes special group of pilgrims are allowed in the courtyard with the second outer fence. No daily food offerings are made as is the case at the Outer Shrine.

The hills around the Inner Shrine cover an area of 5,500 hectares. Until the Middle Ages all timber used in the reconstruction of the sanctuaries was obtained from this forest. Over the last few centuries timber has also been taken from the Kiso mountain range, which extends between Gifu and Nagano prefectures. A reforestation project launched in 1926 has produced enough trees

Auxiliary Sanctuary of Kazahinominomiya is dedicated to the kami of wind. It is reached by crossing a bridge over a branch of the Isuzu River. There are nine other auxiliary shrines at the Inner Shrine. The most important of which is Aramatsurinomiya, dedicated to the spirit of Amatesasu.

Sights and Towns in Ise Area

Wedded Rocks (20 minute walk from JR Futaimigaura station) is a pair of jagged rocks, rising from the sea near the coast, that are linked together by a giant Shinto rope. Nearby, Futami Sea park features shows with marine mammals and allows visitors to touch the animals when the shows are over. Website: Japan Guide

Toba (7 miles from Ise) is the main tourist center in the Ise-Shima region. Among the cheesy attractions in the area are Toba Aquarium, and the Toba International Erotic Science Museum, which depicts naked human beings abducted by aliens with men having their sperm mechanically extracted and placed in beautiful women.

Websites:Japanzine Hotel Web Sites: Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Parque Espana (near Toba and Shima Isobe in the Shima) is a Spain-inspired. theme park, a cheesy place with less than thrilling rides and dull shows. Opened in 1994, the park welcomes about 1.5 million visitors a year with copies of the statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza found in Madrid’s Plaza de Espana. There are also replicas of the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Santa Cruz Town in Seville and Javier Castle.

Among the Cervantes-themed rides are Don Quxiote’s Magical Flight. “Pyrenees” is billed as the longest suspension rollercoaster in Japan. Matador, a bullfight-inspired roller coater, places the rider in the position of the bull. The park’s mascots include Don Quixote hound, Pancho Panza bear and a white cat Dulcinea. Website: Japan Visitor blog

Mikimoto Pearl Island

Mikimoto Pearl Island (near Toba) is where the world's first cultured pearls were raised by Kokichi Mikimoto in the early 20th century. Visitors can observe the production process---including the seeding, selection, drilling and stringing of the pearls---and enjoy a demonstration of ama (women divers) gathering pearl oysters and see trays full of pink, gold, blue and black pearls worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of the demonstrations are in English.

pearl oyster
In 1932 Mikimoto purchased the island and converted it into Pearl Island. In earlier times the island was as playground by a local daimyo. The island is reached by a footbridge that is covered by trees and greenery. The buildings are understated. Over the years the island has attracted millions of visitors.

Visitors can shop for pearl products, and tour the pearl museum, with an interesting display on how culture pearls are made and an interesting collection of curiosities, including pearl tiaras favored by royal families around the world. The Mikimoto collections contains of reproduction of the Liberty Bell made in 1939 with blue pearls defining the famous crack and the fire-tiered Gojunoo pagoda carved from mother of pearl and set on background of pearls. Most impressive is the Yagurama broach made with pearls, diamonds, emeralds and sapphires that can be changed into 12 different pieces of jewelry. In Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall you can see displays on the Mikimoto’s life and personal items that belonged to him. Website: Mikimoto Pearl Museum ; Mikimoto Pearl Island ; Japan Guide

Pearl Island

Ago Bay (south of Pearl Island) is the center of Japan's pearl trade. The bay is filled with ladder-like frames supporting bamboo baskets of pearl-producing akoya oysters. Workers skillfully walk across the frames to check on the mollusks’ progress. Women divers work but their main job is collecting seaweed and shellfish not gathering pearls. Goza is a fishing village that is worth visiting.

Image Sources: 1) Japan National Parks 2) 4) 5) 8) 9) Ise jingu site 3) 6) 7) Yamasa 10) Wikipedia 11) 12) 13) Mikimoto Pearl Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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