Mie: The land of Amaterasu

The more developed a country’s economy becomes, the fancier the part-time jobs become. In Japan, foreign students can gain some easy pocket money by working as “tour testers” or participating in モニターツアー (monitor tours) as it is called. Basically, you travel, stay, eat, enjoy for free and they pay you a day wage on top. Usually it requires full days of your time, but the reward is worth it and a lot of students apply. This is how I visited Mie (三重) for a day and a half trip.

The tour was less about sightseeing and more about experiencing the eternal balancing between the sun and the moon. It consists of two legs; one in Mie prefecture, the kingdom of the sun goddess Amaterasu-Omikami, ancestor of the Japanese emperor, and one in Yamagata prefecture, the lair of the moon god Tsukuyomi-no-mikoto. The name of the tour was Ise Dewa, because of the main shinto shrines of the two gods, Ise Jingu and Dewa Sanzan.

Throughout the trip cellphones were required to remain deactivated, in order to immerse yourself into the connection with the spirits of nature. For this reason, I couldn’t take any pictures by myself, but a photographer was following our group capturing the moment.

Due to a schedule conflict, I participated only in the Mie leg of the tour. We took an airplane to Nagoya and then headed to Mie by bus. After arriving to the traditional ryokan, the Asahikan, where we would stay the night, there was a meeting held in order to understand the concept of the tour.

We received a commemorative booklet (朱印帳 shuincho) depicting the sun and the moon, designed to hold stamps collected from each temple (御朱印 goshuin) we would visit. Stamp collecting during religious pilgrimage or just during travelling is a common hobby in Japan.

The next morning, we had to wake up at 5:00 pm and head out immediately to catch the sunrise at the Futamiokitama Shrine. It is most famous for the married couple rocks of Meoto Iwa, two rocks that have been connected in eternity with a ceremonial rope. They represent the connection of man (big rock) and woman (small rock) as the connection of the creation gods Izanagi and Izanami.

At the shrine, our tour guide explained various shintoistic concepts, as well as the purification rituals. Apparently, apart from the common hand washing, there are some hoops made of straw rope which one uses to “dust” themselves from evil and impure elements.

After the morning walk everyone was hungry, so we were all eager to go for breakfast. Of course, the breakfast was in Japanese style and with a focus on the local ingredients, especially the sea salt.

Soon after, we visited a traditional building in the vicinity, the Hinjitsukan (賓日館). This amazing building has been used as a guest house of the imperial family in the past. At the time of our visit, it was holding an exhibition on Hina dolls, an arrangement of doll sets of the previous centuries depicting the imperial court.

Some rooms in the building were decorated in European style, which is interested to observe in contrast to the Japanese room architecture.

Ise Jingu is basically the head shrine of all shinto shrines in Japan. It was so wide in terms of area that needed to be separated in two, the inner shrine and the outer shrine. All structures in the shrine have always free space of the same area left next to them. The reason for that is that they are periodically destroyed and rebuilt on the free space next to them, in order to depict the continuous alteration of life itself. A tiny shrine represents the heart of each structure and it is the only thing that remains after the ritual destruction, in order to serve as the core of the structure at the next rebuilding after the current one.

Because the wood and other materials used for building the shrine structures are holy and still in good condition during their ceremonial destruction, they are distributed to many children shrines across Japan, among which is the popular Meiji Jingu, in Harajuku, Tokyo.

The outer shrine is located outside of the city, closer to nature and feels much more atmospheric and spiritual.

The structures, are surprisingly lacking colors compared to the bright red lacquer of other famous temples. This is due to the fact that Ise Jingu is impressive as it is, through its importance and history, that it doesn’t need additional glam in order to shine.

Eventually, the sightseeing was done for the day so we headed back towards the city for lunch. The area next to the outer Ise Jingu shrine is full with traditional houses made of dark-coloured wood. For a short while, we visited a calligraphy school and were introduced to their projects aiming to promote calligraphy as an interesting hobby for foreign students.

This area is cramped with restaurants and tourist shops and is called Okage Yokocho (おかげ横丁) Ancient Street. You can easily figure out you are there, because apart from the obviously old houses, there is also a maneki-neko cat statue welcoming you. If you are hunting specialties of the prefecture, here is where to find them. The must-have items are: akafuku (red bean paste sweets), ise udon and tekone sushi.

After that long day and after giving feedback for the tour, it was time to get back to Tokyo. Luckily, this time we used the Shinkansen bullet train to travel more comfortably. I returned with a couple of interesting omiyage (memorabilia) gifted to me from the organizers of the tour and the representatives of the local authorities. The stamp notebook with the sun and the moon, locally produced sea salt, a lucky charm made with salt, one made from holy wood from Ise Jingu, a plush toy of Amaterasu, a fortune fox-figure, lobster crackers and akafuku assortment.

Despite the fast pace, this tour was nice chance to be introduced to Mie. Of course there are additional interesting things to see, such as the female divers of the area, the Ama, or the formula 1 racing course in Suzuka. I am sad that I couldn’t participate to the Yamagata leg of the tour, because it seems that the landscape on the mountains there offers even deeper spiritualism. In the future, I hope to visit Dewa Sanzan and make the collection in my stamp notebook complete.

The majority of the images was provided from ise-dewa tour promotional material, captured during our monitor tour. You can book a tour here https://www.ise-dewa.jp (although they are temporarily suspended, possibly due to the coronavirus).

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