Our focus today was on Ise Shrine. Ise is a Shinto site that many people in Japan want to visit at some point in their lives. The architecture at Ise is iconic, featuring rounded “bullets” on the thatched roofs, and crisscrossed gable ends that project into the sky. There are a couple things that are interesting about Ise. The first is that you really can’t see very much of it. Many of the buildings and treasure houses are behind tall walls, and only Shinto priests and other important dignitaries are allowed access to those inner buildings. So, when you go there, the idea is to be there, not see what is there. The second interesting feature at Ise is that it is completely rebuilt every 20 years. So, there are two sites—the current shrine and associated buildings, and an empty site, which will be the home of the new shrine when it’s constructed. There’s a brief moment when both sites are occupied and the treasures are moved from the old to the new. And then the old site is dismantled and its timbers and pieces are given to other shrines across Japan.
Ise was remarkably peaceful, for how many people come to visit. The forest surrounding the shrine lends an atmosphere of quiet and contemplation, and it’s possible to wander down old paths and find yourself completely alone with the huge tree trunks and the moss.
We ended the day at Resort Hills Toyohama, located in the town of Toba. If ever you are in Toba, stay at this hotel! They have lovely hot springs, and they have massage chairs. They have fish in the lobby that will eat the dead skin off your feet (unless they cause extensive death, instead), and they have fabulously soft samues that you can wear all over the hotel.
Allow me to interrupt myself to talk about Japanese spa wear for a minute: at any hot spring hotel you visit, you’ll find yukatas (cotton bathrobes) or samues (cotton two-piece pajamas) in your room. You’re meant to relax at these establishments, so it’s perfectly acceptable for all guests to check in, put on yukatas, and then spend the rest of the evening in comfort. You can wander around the hotel and grounds in your yukata, and go to dinner in your yukata—it’s wonderful. A side bonus is that it’s easy to pack your luggage ahead of time, because you aren’t wearing the clothes that also need to go in your suitcase.
In the morning, we were off to the town of Shingu to see the Hayatama Taisha Shrine, and the Kamikura Jinja Shrine. Both of these are beautifully painted vermillion red. Kamikura Jinja requires a bit of a hike up 538 uneven stone steps, but the site—a shrine beside a gigantic rock named Gotobiki-iwa, which is the earthly representation of a Shinto god—is beautiful and peaceful and worth the effort.
Our home for the evening was Yunomine, which is a small hot spring town. It contains a UNESCO World Heritage site—a hot spring/bath house approximately the size of a steamer trunk. You can also buy raw eggs at the town’s general store and boil them in the public hot spring.
Getting to Yunomine was a bit of an adventure. We had opted for the big bus in order to give folks more space, but we were also traveling on narrow mountain roads, which made maneuvering pretty tricky. Our driver, Hashimoto, was incredible. He knew the exact spatial dimensions of the bus, and navigated down harrowing switchbacks beautifully. I don’t even think he was swearing the whole time, which shows admirable restraint on his part.