Sea and mountains, the land of ninjas and “mermaids,” where Japan’s most sacred place stands: the prefecture of Mie is rarely visited by international tourists, but it is a treasure chest full of precious pearls. Literally.
In fact, high-quality pearls are fished in Mie, harvested by what we can call the “Japanese mermaids,” the Ama. Women who dive into the ocean without any artificial breathing support, according to a thousand-year-old tradition.
But not only fine pearls, but Mie is also famous for its highly prized wagyu meat, Matsusaka Beef considered the best in Japan in the face of the world-famous Kobe beef.
Matsusaka is also the hometown of the founder of the world-famous Mitsukoshi department stores, who made his fortune precisely by bringing to Tokyo the cotton kimonos that were prized by pilgrims from ancient Edo who visited Ise Jingu, the most sacred and important shrine in all of Japan.
The Ise Shrine, dedicated to the goddess Amaterasu who created Japan and from whom the imperial lineage descended, is nestled in a cedar forest caressed by a river, and everything is imbued with a kind of spiritual power that is clearly felt.
Not only Ise but the whole prefecture is blessed with wonderful nature with mountains, forests, lakes and coasts. Ise-Shima National Park is a protected area that is home to one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in Japan, where the 2016 G7 was also held.
A two/three-day are ideal for visiting the main points of interest in Mie prefecture, but if you are only interested in visiting Ise Shrine you can also take a day trip from Nagoya (or even Osaka). If you need a hand in how to best organize your itinerary, in my consulting and travel design serviceI help you precisely in figuring out how to manage your days.
The Ise Jingu Shrine is one of the sacred and most important places in Japan, dedicated to the goddess Amaterasu, the Shinto deity from whom, according to legend, the Imperial family and Japan itself are descended. Ise Jingu is actually a complex of 125 shrines scattered across the Ise-Shima Peninsula, but the two main shrines are Geku (outer shrine) and Naiku (inner shrine), which are 6 km apart and are usually visited in that order.
Upon arriving at Naiku, a bow under the large stone torii gateway and cross the Uji Bridge. From here one enters a place full of sacredness, where one can clearly feel the powerful vibrations off the nature and the other cedar trees that accompany the pilgrim to the altar where he or she can pray, the maximum point where worshippers can arrive and photographs are forbidden. The most sacred central buildings are not open to the public, only the roofs of the buildings are glimpsed from view….buildings that are rebuilt every 20 years, since the Heian period, during the “Shikinen Sengu” ceremony, during which the buildings are disassembled and rebuilt in exactly the same way, so as to perpetuate their purity.
Construction of the new shrines begins years before the actual ceremony, using only wood from the shrine’s sacred forests and craftsmen who specialize in constructing sacred buildings. During the ceremony, everything that is dismantled is carefully stored and will later be used for reconstruction. All residents in some way take part in the event and even tourists are allowed to attend some of the events so mark the year 2033-this is the year of the next reconstruction.
Often the approach route to important temples and shrines is also a shopping street, dotted with small food and souvenir stores where since the past pilgrims have found refreshment after their long journey. Also near Naiku is a commercial area: it is Oharai-Machi, traditional houses lining the 800-meter approach road to the shrine entrance. In the center, Okage Yokocho recreates precisely the atmosphere of the Edo period, and you can often see performances of traditional arts such as taiko drums.
A few kilometers from Ise Shrine is another important Shinto symbol of Japan, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Meoto Iwa, also called “the husband and wife rocks.”
The CAN bus connects Ise Shrine to the small shopping area near the entrance to Futamiokitama Shrine, where there are the famous rocks in the sea connected by a Shimenawa rope, one of Japan’s most moving images as well as another extremely sacred place for the Shinto religion.
Meoto Iwa in fact represents Izanagi and Izanami, the two creator deities of Japan who were precisely husband and wife. In Japanese mythology, Izanagi and Izanami were created by the kami of the oceans and sky to create the Japanese archipelago. Together, they spawned numerous kami, including Amaterasu, or she to whom the aforementioned Ise Jingu is dedicate.
The sacred rope that unites them represents the sacredness of the marriage union and the generation of life, and the married rocks are considered a symbol of the union of heaven and earth, representing the fusion of cosmic forces and earthly nature, and are also cnsidered the place of return of the kami after they go to the Ise Jingu ceremonies!
Continuing to “go deeper” into the Shima Peninsula, one arrives in Toba, the town famous for the production of high-quality pearls caught by the Ama, the incredible women who dive to fish for pearls and other shellfish for prolonged times (even over two minutes) equipped only with mask and fins, without any artificial support!
The tradition of the Ama seems to date back to the 7th century and is a sustainable fishing method that focuses on harvesting pearls and shellfish while minimizing the impact on the environment, taking care not to harm oysters and other marine species. The Ama are still in operation today, and it is also possible to have an experience to admire them at work and have lunch with them grilling freshly caught shellfish. Needless to say, it is on my wishlist of things to do the next time I visit Mie….
The entire marine area where the Ama dive, as well as the land area on which the Ise Sanctuary is also located, are part of the Ise-Shima Nature Park, which also includes Ago Bay visible from the spectacular Yokoyama Observatory.
And the imposing nature of Mie was also the birthplace of the Ninja, the mysterious warriors of feudal Japan, experts in espionage and sabotage, often hired for secret and dangerous missions, which later gave rise to a more or less fictionalized narrative. Iga and the near Koka, in Shiga Prefecture, are famous as the “Cities of Ninjas” because this is where the ninja clans lived who so passed down secret techniques from generation to generation, and although the reality of ninjas is still shrouded in mystery, it is possible to learn the history of these clans at the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum, where equipment and weapons used by ninjas are collected. In the museum you can also visit a ninja house-museum where secret passages and pitfalls are shown, and you can watch a ninja show by paying an additional ticket.
In nearby Nabari town, in the forest that hosts the spectacular Akame 48 Waterfall trail, you can even become a Ninja and learn some of their fighting and escape techniques! A decidedly fun experience, not only for children but also for adults, bookable from the official website for 3.000 yen
But in addition to the ninjas, Iga is also famous for being the birthplace of the poet Matsuo Basho and for the production of kumihimo, or the art of woven threads, which I discussed in this YouTube video.
Although abroad if one thinks of fine Japanese meat, one immediately thinks of Kobe beef, in Japan it is Matsusaka Beef that is considered the finest wagyu (Japanese meat) in Japan. I would definitely say that on a trip to Mie then, a stop in Matsusaka is a must to taste this specialty, although not exactly cheap and perhaps discover all that this city has to offer. In fact, Matsusaka is the hometown of the founder of the famous Mitsukoshi Luxury Department Store, and of Motoonori Norinaga, a very important scholar who among other things produced the commentary to the Kojiki and the notes to the Genji Monogatari, two milestones of Japanese literature.
Near the ruins of Matsusaka Castle is also a still well-preserved Samurai district with one of the dwellings now open to the public free of charge, where several scenes from films set in the Samurai period were filmed, such as several scenes from Ruronin Kenshin.
Although it is not one of the most touristy destinations and renting a car would speed up travel time, the main sights in Mie are connected by a decent network of trains. There are a few JR trains, covered by JRPass, that connect it mainly to Nagoya, but there is mainly the extensive Kintetsu railway network that branches out to various destinations in the prefecture connecting major points of interest in Nagoya, Osaka, and Nara.
There are several “luxurious,” comfortable and fast trains that allow travel to places such as Ise and Toba, but also several small local trains that are often colorful and themed, such as the Ninja Train that runs in the city of Iga or the Mijimaru Train, the train fully branded by the Pokèmon Oshawott that is precisely the mascot of the prefecture and in particular symbol of Toba.
In short, a trip to Mie Prefecture is a journey of discovery of a mystical Japan in which to find the origins with such a close connection to the present.
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