Ise is the original pilgrim's playground; home to Japan's holiest shrine.
A quaint coastal town on the tip of the Kii peninsula in Mie Prefecture, Ise has been welcoming pilgrims to pay their respects at Japan’s holiest shrine for centuries.
Local culture is characterized 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.
Ise shrine is the geographical and spiritual heart of Ise, making up around a fifth of its total area. It’s the most sacred Shinto site in Japan and is considered a spiritual place. Walking in silence beneath the sunlight filtering through thousand-year-old fragrant cypress trees, you can’t help but feel something special about Ise.
There are 125 shrine buildings spread across the temple grounds. It’s 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. Be sure to be respectful. 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 Isuzu River’s crystal clear flow just over the other side of the Uji-bashi bridge.
Oharai Machi Street
Spend some time exploring Oharai machi street, the original pilgrim’s pathway lined with traditional shops selling local specialties 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 that recaptures the golden age of pilgrim culture in Ise.
The Meoto Iwa, also known as “Wedded Rocks,” are two holy rocks just offshore 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 visiting from May to July to view the sunrise exactly midway between the rocks.
Japanese history buffs can visit the 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.
Ise’s Historical Landmarks
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.)
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.