Home > Highlighting JAPAN > Highlighting Japan December 2017 > National Parks

Highlighting JAPAN

Ise-Shima: Mystical and Magnificent

Location of Japan’s holiest Shinto shrine and home to some of its most beautiful coastlines, Ise-Shima National Park is a heavenly place to visit at any time of the year.

Ise-Shima National Park, which straddles the cities of Ise, Toba, Shima and Minami-Ise, is a coastal park notable for its distinctive littoral landscapes and for its rich forest environment, location of the Ise Jingu shrine. Blessed with a warm climate and tranquil seas, marine and plant life prosper here.

Symbolizing the park is the ria coastline of the Shima Peninsula, in particular the complex and spectacular landforms of Ago Bay, where there are many capes and inlets, and about sixty small islands. The island of Kashiko in Ago Bay was the main venue of the G7 2016 Ise-Shima Summit.

The Shima Peninsula’s bays, including Ago Bay, are known for the cultivation of asao green laver, edible oysters and Akoya pearl oysters. Some 3,000 to 4,000 cultivation rafts are said to operate in Ago Bay alone. The floating rafts in the bay lend a unique atmosphere to the beauty of the coastline.

Among the rafts are the pearl cultivation rafts that are representative of this area. In connection with pearls in the Ise-Shima area, professional women divers called ama are famous. The ama gather Akoya pearl oysters from the seabed so that pearl-producing nucleuses can be inserted before returning them to the sea. Technologies have since replaced the divers, but the ama tradition is preserved as a tourist attraction on a small island in Toba Bay.

To the west of Toba Bay off the coast of Futamigaura in Ise City is another popular tourist attraction, Futamiokitama Shrine, which is known for the Meoto Iwa “wedded rocks.” Viewed from the shrine between May and July, the sun appears to rise between the rocks, and on a clear day Mount Fuji is visible on the horizon. From November to January the rocks form a frame for the moonrise. Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), a representative Ukiyo-e artist of the later Edo period, made a woodblock print of the sunrise scene in his “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series. In days of yore, pilgrims would stop at Futamigaura to undergo a purification ceremony before visiting Ise Jingu nearby. These days pilgrims usually go to Ise Jingu directly by train but often make a separate visit to Futamigaura as well.

Ise Jingu is the representative inland symbol of Ise-Shima National Park. The grand shrine is the center of the worship of the Amaterasu-Omikami deity, belief in which has continued since ancient times. The shrine precinct consists of 125 shrines, the two main buildings being the Toyo’ukedaijingu (Geku, or outer shrine), which enshrines Toyo’uke-no-Omikami, the god of clothing, diet, housing and industry; and the Kotaijingu (Naiku, or inner shrine), which enshrines the Amaterasu-Omikami.

The grounds of Ise Jingu are vast covering some 5,500 hectares and are blessed with rich nature. Visitors are free to roam the shrine’s extensive forest footpaths and enjoy the cherry blossoms in the spring, lush green leaves in the summer and beautiful yellow and red leaves in the fall.

Traditionally Ise Jingu pilgrims walked from the Geku to the Naiku, but most pilgrims today start their journey to the Naiku by passing through the torii (main gate) and crossing at the Uji Bridge, a beautiful Japanese-style wooden bridge over the Isuzu River.

Having crossed the bridge, pilgrims walk through the sacred forest to the gate of the Shogu (main sanctuary) which enshrines Amaterasu-Omikami. On fine days pilgrims are rewarded with clear fresh air and the sight of sunlight filtering through the trees. On rainy days, the breathing of the forest delights. Around ten million people visit the shrine every year.

In the Edo period (1603–1867), it was said that everyone should visit Ise Jingu at least once in their lifetime, and visiting the shrine was a popular practice among the general public. A visit to the shrine to express the gratitude of okagesama (“thanks to the gods”) for a rich harvest and successful business was called Okagemairi, and continued to be popular until the turn of the Meiji period (1868–1912). It is said that a particularly large number of people visited the shrine four times — records note that about two million people visited the shrine in 1771 and about five million people visited the shrine in 1830. The estimated Japanese population was 26 million and 27 million people, respectively, which provides an indication of just how popular the pilgrimage was.

Okage-yokocho Street, which is close to the Uji Bridge, is a reproduction of stores on the Ise pilgrimage road that thrived because of Okagemairi. Here buildings of the time have been relocated or rebuilt and offer delicious food served by long-established stores and souvenirs. The street is a popular tourist spot where people can get to know the history and customs.

To this day the major allure of Ise-Shima National Park are the ever-changing beauty of its natural surroundings, and the peaceful grounds and solemnity of Ise Jingu.