Ise is the original pilgrim's playground; home to Japan's holiest shrine and some of the friendliest people you'll encounter.
A quaint coastal town on the tip of the Kii peninsula in Mie prefecture, Ise has been welcoming pilgrims come to pay their respects at Japan’s holiest shrine for centuries. Local culture is characterised by a deep sense of empathy and respect, from the easily digestible udon catering to weary pilgrims to the heavy shimenawa ropes that hang in front of doorways marking each home as a sacred space.
Warm hospitality is Ise’s forte; it’s unlikely that you’ll find a more welcoming place in your travels around the region.
The Ise Jingu shrine is the geographical and spiritual heart of Ise, making up around a fifth of the town’s total area. It’s one of the most sacred shinto sites in all of Japan and is an extraordinary spiritual space; walking in silence beneath the sunlight filtering through thousand year-old fragrant cypress trees, even the most sceptical atheists will struggle not to feel their soul lifted.
125 shrine buildings are spread across a forested complex split into two parts; the Geku (outer shrine) and Naiku (inner shrine) so you’ll need to dedicate at least a half, if not full, day to exploring the area. Entrance to both sections is well-signposted and you can pick up a map at the stands outside the main entrance gates. The shrine’s sanctity is strictly observed.
Don’t expect to find any vending machines or food stalls once you’re inside, turn off your phone and use your indoor voice wherever possible – the atmosphere is so tranquil and contemplative you’ll find yourself whispering anyway.
Before you enter the shrine, you should cleanse yourself at the purification fountain near the entrance. There are wooden ladles lined up; take one and fill with water, rinsing your left hand, then your right, followed by your mouth (sipping water from your hand, not the ladle, and spitting as delicately as you can into the drains at the bottom). At the Naiku, many pilgrims choose to wash in the crystal clear flow of the Isuzu River just over the other side of the Uji-bashi bridge.
Spend some time exploring Oharai machi street, the original pilgrim’s pathway lined with traditional shops selling local specialities of akafuku mochi, panju and Ise udon. Stop at the Akafukumochi Main Store at the top of the street for some pre-shrine tea and sweets. The store starts lighting its ovens at 4 a.m. to serve early visitors to the shrine. Nearby is the Okage Yokocho, a bustling Edo-style market which recaptures the golden age of pilgrim culture in Ise.
If you want to follow the traditional pilgrim’s route, you should first head to the scenic area of Futami along the coast, about 10 kilometers from the Ise Jingu. This is where you can spot the Meoto Iwa or ‘Wedded Rocks’, two holy rocks set just offshore that are connected by a thick shimenawa (sacred rope). Couples come here to pray for luck in love at the adjacent Futami Okitama shrine. Visit early if you’re there from May to July when the sun rises exactly midway between the rocks.
Along the seaside promenade leading to Futami there are a couple of interesting sights. The Hinjitsukan is a former holiday home for the Imperial Family that has been turned into a cultural museum. Next door the Iwatokan Hotel is also a salt plant, where you can watch artisans make pure salt to be offered at the shrine (or at your tempura plate.)
Fans of Japanese history can visit the snappily-titled Ise Azuchi Momayama Cultural Village close by for a chance to experience Edo life through ninja shows, rides and architecture – you can spy the gilded roof of the reconstructed Azuchi castle from the road heading to the Meoto-Iwa. Around the theme park, the hills offer some leisurely hiking and nice views of the town and ocean.
Dedicated shuttle buses ferry tourists to and from the major sites. You can also rent a bicycle for more freedom. Walking between points of interest is ambitious but doable. You can more access information at the Tourist Information Center just in front of Ise-shi station.