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.