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Two days in Ise-Shima National Park

An overnight journey in the spiritual center of Japan

One of the 34 national parks in Japan, the Ise-Shima National Park encompasses the Shima Peninsula - an area of stunning natural beauty, with a deeply forested interior surrounded by ocean on three sides. Along this winding stretch of coastline, dominated by vast inlets scattered with small islands, delicacies like abalone and spiny Ise lobster are to this day gathered by fisherwomen known as ama, using traditional methods of freediving.

Aside from its scenic beauty, the region serves as the backdrop to some of the nation's foundational legends, and is best known as the home of one of its most important shrines, collectively known as Ise Jingu.

Day 1: Ise

For this article and video, I set out to experience some of the region's cultural and scenic highlights as a two-day trip. Departing from Tokyo Station, I took a shinkansen to Nagoya (96 minutes) and changed to a Kintetsu limited express train to Iseshi (85 minutes), gateway to the Ise-Shima National Park and home to most of the 125 shrines that together make up Ise Jingu.

Of these, the two most important are Naiku and Geku, each set in their own spacious precinct amongst a scattering of smaller secondary shrines, surrounded by a forest covering an area the size of Manhattan.

Following long-established local custom, I first made my way to Geku, located just a few minutes' walk from Iseshi Station. From the entrance, I followed a wide gravel path over a curved bridge and under a canopy of trees to the main sanctuary, established approximately 1500 years ago and dedicated to Toyouke Omikami, a deity of food and shelter.

Off-limits to all but a select few, the shrine's main buildings are enclosed by a tall wooden fence, allowing only a glimpse of the structures within. Approaching as far as the entrance, worshippers offer prayers in the traditional fashion - with two bows, two claps and a final bow - towards a gate with the view obscured by a linen curtain.

Incredibly, every structure on the site from its bridges and gates to the shrines themselves is rebuilt from scratch every 20 years - a tradition that has continued for over a thousand years, allowing the skills of traditional craftsmanship to be passed from generation to generation. The event climaxes with a unique ritual in which a mirror said to contain the essence of the deity is transported from the old building to the new one.

Built in an ancient architectural style called Shinmei-zukuri, buildings here lack the ornamentation and bright colors often found in shrines elsewhere, made instead from unvarnished cypress with a simple, refined geometry, creating a sense of harmony with the forest surroundings that is easily sensed but somehow hard to put into words.

To the right of the main sanctuary is a large vacant space marked by a small wooden structure the size of a postbox - it is here that the next building will be constructed for the next event in 2033 - with every new build the location alternates between these two spaces.

A short walk from here are two smaller secondary shrines that are also well worth a visit. Dedicated to a deity of the surrounding land, Tsuchinomiya is the only shrine within Geku or Naiku to be built facing east, and stands out from the others with its smaller and more compact layout.

Belonging to the deity of wind, Kazenomiya closely resembles the buildings of the main sanctuary albeit on a smaller scale, giving us a sense of what lies inside the walls of the inner precinct.

A final highlight of my visit to Geku was the Sengukan Museum, located just a few steps from the entrance. Built to commemorate the last rebuilding ceremony in 2013, the museum reveals the history and expert craftsmanship behind this fascinating tradition through a series of well-presented exhibits.

Especially striking is a highly detailed model showing the layout of the main sanctuary, which together with a life-sized reconstruction of one section of the main building, really help to bring home a sense of the shrine's scale and importance.

Itself built in an attractive, minimalist style that feels modern while matching its setting, the museum was fascinating even with the limited English explanations, and left a lasting impression.

Retracing my steps back to the main entrance, I took a 15-minute bus ride from Geku-mae to Jingu Kaikan-mae and proceeded towards Naiku along the traditional approach, called Oharaimachi, where a bustling town of shops, foot stalls and restaurants has catered over the centuries to a steady stream of visitors.

Close to the entrance of Oharaimachi is Okage Yokocho - an attractive area of several interconnected and stone-paved streets, with around 60 small stores built in the style of the Edo Period.

While many of the buildings have been faithfully reconstructed using only traditional joinery and materials, several are in fact much older and have been relocated from sites along the Kumano Kodo pilgrim trails elsewhere in Mie Prefecture.

One small but interesting detail is the way almost all of the buildings have their entrance on the gable side, in deliberate contrast with those of the shrines, whose entrances are under the eaves.

By now it was early afternoon, and I was keen to try one of the area's best known local dishes. Taking a seat at one of the many nearby restaurants, I ordered a bowl of Ise Udon - one of the softest types of wheat flour noodles in Japan, traditionally cooked very fast to keep up with the throngs of visitors passing through towards Naiku.

Served with a light, dashi based sauce and topped with green onions, it was delicious and surprisingly light - the perfect dish for a busy day of sightseeing.

After a quick lunch, there was just time for a final stop at a traditional sweetshop, specialising in another local favorite - sticky balls of mochi, topped with a layer of sweet bean paste. Prepared using a recipe first developed more than 300 years ago, the mochi is crested with three distinctive bumps representing the course of the river Isuzu.

As I arrived at the southern end of Oharaimachi, it was finally time to cross the Uji Bridge into Naiku itself.

Revered as the holiest site in Japan, Naiku is dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami - the most important deity in the Shinto pantheon and mythical ancestor of the Imperial Household.

Just like Geku, Naiku is set within a spacious precinct surrounded by forest, but with a much wider gravel pathway. Adding to the immediate sense of grandeur were displays of orchids, and manicured grass spaces dotted with beautifully shaped pine trees.

Making my way deeper inside, my first stop was the Mitarashi - an open, stone paved area at the banks of the Isuzu River, traditionally used by visitors to purify themselves for the final approach to the main sanctuary.

The river itself plays an important role in the shrine's cycle of reconstruction, as logs are cut from the mountains deep in the forest and floated downriver to the two precincts. The forest is otherwise left largely untouched, preserving a rich ecosystem while protecting the surrounding area from floods and other natural disasters.

After dipping my hands in the cool water of the river, I continued along the path to the Kaguraden, a special stage where prayers can be offered to the deity in the form of ritual dance.

From there, the path wound its way past towering cryptomeria to the entrance to the main sanctuary, an elegant wooden gate at the top of a series of stone steps. As with Geku, visitors are not permitted to enter the shrine precinct itself but instead offer prayers at a gatehouse bridging the inner fence. At the center of the complex is the shogu or main palace, where the mirror containing the deity is housed.

Doubling back as far as the Kaguraden, I took a left turn and crossed the river to the site of Kazahinominomiya, one of Ise Jingu's most important sub-shrines, dedicated to twinned deities of wind and rain. Although smaller than the main sanctuary building, it is built to a similar design and is a good representation of the Shinmei-zukuri style.

Two of the key design elements are chigi, the v-shaped crests continuing the lines of the roof, and katsuogi, decorative logs arranged horizontally across the ridgeline. The main sanctuaries at Naiku and Geku have ten and nine of these respectively, while Kazahinominomiya has six - reflecting a hierarchy of religious importance.

After exploring the shrines, I retraced my steps to Iseshi station and took a 15-minute train ride to the small seaside town of Toba, where I would be spending the night at a traditional ryokan. My evening was far from over however, as I would soon be sitting down to a kaiseki feast, highlighting some of the area's best known delicacies.

After the usual starter of colorful light bites and a few delicious slices of sashimi came three very special main dishes, starting with a small, spiny lobster called Ise ebi. Served uncooked and in its shell, it had a delicate texture and sweet, almost creamy flavor.

Next came abalone, a large shellfish with a smooth, firm texture and subtle taste, served simple with a few sliced vegetables.

The last of the three main dishes was a double-serving of Matsusaka Beef, one of the finest varieties of wagyu from nearby Matsusaka City, in the form of sukiyaki and as a mini steak. Wonderfully tender and flavorsome, this was something really outstanding even in a meal full of delights.

After a spectacular meal and a long day rich with new experiences, it was time to turn in for the night. After a refreshing trip to the inn's hot spring baths, I retreated to my room and was soon fast asleep.

Day 2: Ago Bay

Making an early start the following morning, I retraced my steps back to nearby Toba Station and took the Kintetsu Railway down the peninsula to Kashikojima, one of the larger islands in the Ago Bay. This vast inlet - one of the most spectacular along Ise Shimafs ria coast - was formed by a series of river valleys sinking into the ocean, forming a maze of around 60 islands resembling the branches of a tree.

To get a closer look, I jumped on board a sightseeing cruise ship modelled on the Spanish galleons that arrived in the area hundreds of years ago, for a leisurely 50-minute circuit of the bay.

The bay is one of several areas along the peninsula famous for pearl cultivation, and it is here that Mikimoto Kokichi, one of Japan's greatest inventors, became the first man in the world to cultivate pearls in 1893. His company was one of the first Japanese brands to achieve international recognition, and still exists today.

At the furthest point of the cruise, we made a brief stop at a pearl farm, where we had the opportunity to watch a staff member demonstrate the pearl nucleus insertion process. This involves using a mechanical device to carefully prize open an oyster shell, and inserting a tiny fragment of shell. The akoya pearl oyster is returned to the water and suspended from a raft, where it begins to form a pearl as a seal around the foreign object over a period of one year.

After the cruise, I took the Kintetsu Railway north from nearby Kashikojima Station to Ugata, then bus number 70 to the sleepy seaside village of Hazako. For the next part of my journey, I would be walking one small section of the Kinki Nature Trail - an epic walking route spanning over 3000 kilometers through nine prefectures.

Several beautiful stretches of the trail can be found nearby, but I chose one leading past little country houses and into the wooded hills overlooking the bay. In all, the trail is about six kilometers along paved roads and wooded nature trails, with some steep sections requiring good hiking footwear.

After making my way up and over, I arrived at a series of attractive terraces, all recently renovated in Japanese cypress and offering spectacular views across the bay.

The last and best of these is the Yokoyama View Point, with a spacious viewing deck, unobstructed views taking in the full length of the bay, and a pleasant cafe.

After taking a few minutes to enjoy the scenery, I made my way downhill along a tree-lined road in the direction of Shima-Yokoyama Station. My time in Ise-Shima was already drawing to a close, but I still had one very exciting stop to make.

Taking the Kintetsu Railway back up the peninsula to Matsuo, I changed to the Kamome Bus number 5 in the direction of Osatsu-cho, a small fishing town in the Matoya Bay. Here, at an ama hut, tourists can learn more about ama fisherwomen, and their ancient tradition of freediving for oysters, abalone and other seafood.

Huts like these are traditionally where divers would return after a long shift at sea to warm themselves and get a bite to eat. Here, I'm treated to a meal of scallops, mollusks and horse mackerel, hand cooked over an open fire.

Appearing in poetry from as early as the 8th century, ama diving is a unique and even romantic way of life - but one that now faces an uncertain future.

With that, after a hugely rewarding two days it was time to say goodbye to Ise-Shima. Even with a relatively short stay and some fairly long travel times, I felt very satisfied with how much I had been able to pack in, and some experiences - the taste of Ise ebi, the feeling of strolling through Ise Jingu and the view across the Ago Bay - were already beginning to crystalize in my mind he way that only a truly great travel memory can.

About national parks

Ise Shima is just one of the 34 national parks located throughout Japan, covering an impressive 6% of the countryfs total land. Established in 1931 to designate areas of scenic beauty and protect delicate ecosystems, they include a wide range of environments from volcanoes to marine habitats.

Each national park is managed by a dedicated workforce of park rangers. From administrative functions like zoning and authorizations to conducting wildlife surveys or working to actively restore threatened habitats, these are the men and women who ensure that Japanfs natural heritage is both accessible to the public and protected for future generations.

To plan your own adventure in Japanfs national parks, head over to the official website or check out our own info page.

How to get there

Located on the Pacific coast to the east of Osaka and south of Nagoya, the area can be easily accessed by Japan Railways or Kintetsu Railway from Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka.

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