5 Things To Do In Ise-Shima National Park
Located in Mie prefecture, Ise-Shima National Park is one of the most beautiful national parks in Japan, encompassing some of the most iconic places in the country. Close proximity to the Osaka and Nagoya areas, it is easily accessible on the different JR lines in less than 2 hours. Feeling like a living museum, there is something for everyone in this park. Here are 5 things to do or visit during your trip to the Ise-Shima National Park.
1. Stop by Ise Jingu, Japan’s holiest shrine
Ise Jingu, or Ise Grand Shrine, is located in Ise city and has a special place in Japanese history being considered the most important and holiest shrine in the country. Nicknamed the “soul of Japan”, this grand shrine is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu and consists of 125 different shrines across Ise city and its surrounding areas, including the two main shrines, Naiku (内宮) which is the main shrine and dedicated to the worship of Amaterasu, and Geku (外宮) which is dedicated to Toyouke-Omikami, the god of food, clothing, and shelter.
Although you cannot enter the main sites as the entrance is strictly limited, you would be able to enter the site of the shrines and be able to discover the forest in the surroundings. During the Edo period, pilgrimages to the Ise Jingu was immensely popular, and by the year 1830, 5 million pilgrims came to the shrine that year alone. Trips to this region became a true market and many businesses, shops and inns capitalised on this throughout the centuries. Today, the destination is still immensely popular among Japanese and international tourists, who still come here every year in great numbers (9 million people visited the site in 2013).
To reach the Naiku shrines and all its associated shrines, you will pass over the Uji Bridge, a traditional 100m long wooden bridge that stretches over the Isuzu River. Like the shrines in Naiku, the bridge is rebuilt every 20 years to keep it in perfect shape. You can walk down also to the banks of the Isuzu River to wash your hands and drink its water to purify yourself.
Aside from a visit to Ise Jingu, there is near the shrines the flourishing town of Oharai-machi, known for its souvenir shops and restaurants along an 800m long stone-paved road. In the centre of Oharai-machi, one will find Okage-yokocho, a re-creation of the buildings that were found on the road to Ise Grand Shrine during the Edo Period. One can also watch Japanese drum performances, Picture shows or even visit the museum Okageza about Ise Pilgrimage’s history.
2. Visit Mikimoto pearl Island
Located in the bay of Toba city, you can discover Mikimoto Pearl Island where for the first time in the world, pearls were successfully cultured by Kokichi Mikimoto. Born in Toba in 1858, Mikimoto is credited with creating the first cultured pearl and started the pearl culture industry with the creation of his company Mikimoto.
You will be able to discover more about the man and his enterprise by visiting the island where it all started, now turned into a theme park. Visiting this park, you will see all kinds of pearls and discover more about them. You can discover more about the man’s life at the Kokichi Memorial Hall and in the Pearl Museum, you will discover how the pearls are cultured, but also craft items and all kinds of works incorporating these pearls. Take some time to enjoy shows featuring Ama Divers (please see the section about the Ama Hut to learn more about these incredible women) who in the past were in charge of collecting the pearls at the bottom of the ocean. Do not hesitate to stop here to discover more about the historical importance of Mikimoto and his pearls, and what they have brought to the Ise-Shima region.
3. Enjoy a bicycle ride along the coast of Shima City
Shima city’s surroundings are the ideal place for you to go cycling with your friends and families, accompanied by a local guide if wanted to show you around. Here are some interesting spots you can reach on a bike:
Yokoyama Observatory: Just outside Shima city, go explore up to the Yokoyama Observation Deck. Park your bike by the visitor centre at the bottom of the hill and climb up on foot to the top. From the observatory, you will have an amazing view of Ago Bay and its deeply indented coastline. You will also be able to see the hotel on Kashikojima where the G7 of 2016 was held. You can also relax by the observatory’s café before heading back down.
Anorisaki Lighthouse: Located at Anori Misaki, it is a nice bicycle ride to reach this lighthouse at the end of the peninsula. Shaped in an unusual square shape, this lighthouse was completed in 1873 and was one of the first to help ships along the coastline in this region. It is now open to the general public, who can climb to the top of it. From there, one can see Omaezaki (Shizuoka prefecture) and even Mount Fuji if the weather is completely clear. The place can get extremely windy on some days so make sure to hold on to your umbrella/hat once you get to the top.
Anori Shrine: Located not far from Anorisaki Lighthouse, this shrine’s two characters 安[An] and 乗 [Noru] mean safety and ride, so Anori Shrine means "riding on the wave of better fortune safely". Mostly used by local surfers who come to pray before going to surf to hope to avoid any misfortune in the water, it has been recently used by cyclists also praying for good luck on the road. You will be able to buy a good luck charm from Negi-san at the shrine’s desk inside the shrine.
Koushirahama: A long beach located near the two previous locations; this is an ideal place to bike alongside. You will be able to admire the sea in all its splendour while cycling down. This beach is an ideal place for local surfers so keep your eyes open for some whenever the wind is strong. Similarly, to Anorisaki Lighthouse, you might be able to get a glimpse of Mount Fuji from the beach. Do not hesitate to stop by Ponchi’s Pizza near the south end of the beach, to enjoy some fire-cooked pizza and highly recommended by local guides.
Daiosaki Lighthouse: Located much more south than Anorisaki Lighthouse, you will be able to see from its top open to the public the area of ocean dividing the Kumano Sea from the Enshu Sea which was deeply feared by sailors in the past. As the ships that approach first appear by the tips of their masts, it is truly a place where you can see the roundness of the earth.
4. Have lunch in an Ama Hut
Ama (海女, literally “sea women” in Japanese) Divers are famous in the region and all across Japan, for collecting pearls and seafood on the ocean bed. A Japanese tradition of over 2000 years old, Ama divers have been mostly women and until the 1960s, used to dive wearing only a loincloth, but still, today dive without any scuba gear or air tanks.
Despite some of them starting to dive as early as 12 years old, most of the divers today are in their 50s, 60s and even 70s some of them. Despite their numbers being in decline (6000 of them in Japan, mostly in Mie prefecture, to around 60-70 of them today in the region), they are still considered an important feature of local culture and can be viewed today as more of a local tourist attraction. You can experience their local life by joining them in one of their huts in the region, where these women will cook for you what they have fished in the morning, being mostly abalones, sea snails and sea urchins.
To experience true contact with these wonderful women, we would recommend visiting the Osatsu Ama Hut close to Toba or the Ama Hut Satoumian near Shima. After your meal, which is prepared in front of your eyes in the middle of the room on a barbecue, you can ask questions to the Ama Divers about their life, their practice and what they do as a diver.
5. Visit Kashikojima
Kashikojima is an island in the Ago Bay near Shima and is also the last stop on the Kintetsu line in provenance from Osaka. On this island, made famous for hosting the G7 in 2016, there are a lot of things you can do. One of them being boarding a cruise ship in the shape of a Spanish armada vessel. This cruise ship, called Esperanza (hope in Spanish) will bring you on a 50-minute journey all around Ago Bay and its indented coastline with deep calm water.
On Kashikojima, you can also stop by Shima Marine Island if you have any kids, as this is the perfect place to learn more about the local fauna. You can also see an Ama feeding show there.
Matsui Pearl Store is another location on Kashikojima that is worth a stop. Opened in 1905, this store is specialised in selling high-quality pearl ornaments, and also experience making accessories with the pearls yourself in the shop itself.