East of the Kii Hantō mountain ranges, on the far side of the Kii Peninsula, a small knuckle of land sticks out into the ocean. Known as Shima Hantō (志摩半島), this peninsula has been designated a national park, partly for its natural beauty but also because it contains Japan’s spiritual heartland, Ise-jingū. Since the fourth century the Grand Shrine of Ise, on the edge of Ise town, has been venerated as the terrestrial home of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, from whom it was once believed all Japanese emperors are descended. Beyond Ise it’s pearl country. The world-famous Mikimoto company started up in Toba when an enterprising restaurant owner discovered the art of cultivating pearls. Now there’s a whole island dedicated to his memory, including a surprisingly interesting museum. Most of today’s pearls are raised further east in Ago-wan, where hundreds of rafts are tethered in a beautiful, island-speckled bay.
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The town of ISE (伊勢) wears its sanctity lightly, and many visitors find the town a disappointingly ordinary place. However, at Ise-jingū (伊勢神宮), Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine, even non-Japanese visitors can appreciate a deeply spiritual atmosphere. Apart from their historical importance, there is an unquestionable sense of awe and mystery about these simple buildings, with their unusual architecture, deep in the cedar forest. Ise-jingū is naturally a top choice for the first shrine visit of the New Year (hatsu-mōde) on January 1. This is followed by more than 1500 annual ceremonies in honour of Ise’s gods. The most important of these revolve around the agricultural cycle, culminating in offerings of sacred rice (Oct 15–17). In spring (April 5–6) and during the autumn equinox (Sept 22 or 23), ancient Shinto dances and a moon-viewing party take place at the inner shrine.
Central Ise is bounded to the north by the JR and Kintetsu-line train tracks and by the Seta-gawa River to the east. The southwestern quarter is taken up by a large expanse of woodland (which accounts for a full third of the town’s area), in the midst of which lies the first of Ise-jingū’s two sanctuaries, the Gekū, or outer shrine. This is within easy walking distance of both train stations, but to reach the Naikū, or inner shrine, some 6km to the southeast, you’ll need to take a bus. The two shrines follow roughly the same layout, so if you’re pushed for time, head straight for the more interesting Naikū.
The Shima Hantō ends in a bay of islands known as Ago-wan (あご湾). This large, sheltered bay has myriad coves and deep inlets. For centuries, divers have been collecting natural pearls from its warm, shallow waters, but things really took off when Mikimoto started producing his cultured pearls in Ago-wan early in the twentieth century. Nowadays, hundreds of rafts moored between the islands trace strangely attractive patterns on the water, while, in the nets beneath, thousands of oysters busily work their magic.