Ise Penninsula: Great Ise Shrine, Married Couple Rocks and Mikimoto Pearl Island

The next day I caught the ‘Special Limited Express’ back to Kyoto and from there took a Kintetsu Line train to Ise shi. Until now I have been utterly blown away by the connectivity, speed, efficiency and low cost of the Japanese public transport network, so I was rather surprised by the Kintetsu line. It’s extraordinarily slow and stops at about 101 stations an hour. With that and the equally long journey from Kanazawa to Kyoto I ended up spending most of the day travelling. No matter, for that afternoon I had a real treat in store and something that had been on the top of my TRIAD bucket list since my arrival in Japan – a visit to Ise Great Shrine.

Ise Great Shrine is the most venerated Shintō shrine in Japan and for many Japanese it is essential that they make a pilgrimage here at some point during their lifetime. Composed of an inner shrine complex (Naikū) and an outer shrine complex (Gekū), altogether there are 125 separate shrines. The construction of the shrines dates back to the 3rd and 5th centuries respectively: however Shintō traditions to do with purity and cleanliness require that the shrine buildings be replaced every 20 years, with exact replicas constructed from new wood on adjacent sites. The wood from the old shrine buildings is not wasted though: rather it is used to reconstruct the torii at the shrine entrance or is sent to other shrines in Japan for building works. Once the new buildings are complete a Sengū No Gi ceremony takes place where the god of the shrine is ritualistically transported to the new home.

Naikū and Gekū are rather far apart so this afternoon I took a bus to visit Naikū, the more famous inner shrine. I was surprised to see that Torii and stone lanterns were positioned all the way along the road from Ise shi station to the entrance to Naikū.

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It was surprisingly quiet in the grounds and I enjoyed a pleasant stroll along the forested paths looking at the various shrine buildings and other features scattered around the site. Sadly the main shrine buildings were out of bounds and could only be glimpsed through the trees but what I saw was both interesting and beautiful.

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After  a couple of hours exploring Naikū it was time to check in at the hotel in nearby Toba and to make use of the wonderful outdoor onsen on the top of the hotel building. Probably my favourite onsen to date – especially as I had it all to myself!

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The next morning I awoke bright and early and took a walk down the steep hill to Toba Bay, enjoying the beautiful views and studying the natural flora on the wooded hillside.

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Once I got to the bottom though I realised I would have quite a walk back up to the hotel at the end of the day!

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My first treat of the day was a boat ride around the bay – luckily the weather was just perfect for a spot of seafaring.

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Before returning to Toba Bay the boat stopped at Irukajima, better known as ‘Dolphin Island’. Excited at the prospect of seeing dolphins swimming wild in the sea I decided to stop here for a little wander and catch the next boat back. Sadly the only dolphins I saw that day were in tanks and were not in the healthiest of conditions. I resented that my boat fare must have gone some way to helping fund this enterprise.

Poor dolphins.

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These fish had even less room to swim around but were quite cute.

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Exploring one of Irukajima’s beaches I did at least get to see my very first starfish.

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Then it was time to catch a boat back to Toba Bay. Just off Toba Bay is a small island known as ‘Mikimoto Pearl Island – famous, as you might suppose, for pearl cultivation. The calm waters and offshore currents of the Shima Peninsula have provided the perfect, sheltered environment for akoyagai (pearl oysters) since ancient times. In 1951 Mikimoto became the birthplace of the cultured pearl and today the entire island is dedicated to informing visitors about pearl culture.

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On the island is a very interesting pearl museum with some very impressive pearl artworks.

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However, the main reason for my visit to Mikimoto Pearl Island was to see the Ama – Japan’s pearl diving ‘mermaids’. First recorded in around 750AD Ama are women trained to freedive 30 feet beneath the water surface to search for and collect pearl oysters. Originally these women would dive into the cold waters wearing nothing but a loin cloth but in modern times white diving costumes are worn. Interestingly, one of the reasons that Ama are female is due to their thicker layer of fat, which helps to insulate them from the icy waters. Most Ama are elderly women who have been practicing their trade for decades: sadly the art of traditional pearl diving is dying out in Japan as there are few young women to succeed them. It was fascinating to watch the Ama demonstration at Mikimoto Pearl Island and well worth the island’s rather hefty 1000 Yen entrance fee.

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Next I took a bus along the coast to Futami Okitama Shrine to see the famous Meota Iwa, or ‘Married Couple Rocks’. Joined by a heavy rope called a shimenawa, the rocks represent the union of Izanagi and Izanami and therefore the marriage of man and woman.

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I had hoped to make it to the Yokoyama Observatory that evening to see the sunset over the famous pearl rack patterned Aga Bay but it would have involved such a long and complicated journey with many changes, and in any case I had missed my bus at Futami Okitama so was a little behind schedule. On the recommendation of the kindly member of staff at Toba Station I instead decided to take the Kintetsu line train to Kashikojima to see Ago Bay from a different viewpoint the following day. Sadly it was raining when I arrived and I had 2 suitcases in tow so it was not much fun getting from the station to the water’s edge. Still, it was very pretty.

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Next I hopped back on the train and headed back to Ise to visit Gekū -the outer shrine complex of Ise Great Shrine. According to my Lonely Planet Guide Naikū is the more impressive of the two shrine complexes, but I think I rather preferred Gekū. Perhaps it was the beautiful shimmering sheen that the rain bestowed upon it.

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After exploring Gekū I prepared myself for yet another long train journey – a 2-3 hour journey with several changes back to Kyoto, then another hour’s train ride to Hikone. What fun! Oh well, at least it gave me time to sort through the thousands of photos I had taken over the course of the week.

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