Ise-Shima National Park is the resting place of Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrines. While that is the main reason tourists flock to the area year-round, there’s plenty more to see.
Even if the Ise Jingu, also known as Ise Grand Shrine, Shinto’s king of shrines, wasn’t located in this stunning pocket of eastern Mie Prefecture, we’d still champion the area as a place to visit for its picturesque coastline, diverse natural beauty, incredible seafood, and unique local culture.
From hiking mountains, lunching with the ama divers, and soaking up the power of the home of Japanese Shintoism, there’s a lot to pack into a visit to Ise-Shima National Park. But if you have two days, plenty of ambition and even more energy you can do it all. Here’s a two-day run-down on how.
Feel the power at Ise Grand Shrine
Japan’s most sacred shrine Ise Jingu is located here in the top-left corner of Ise-Shima National Park. It’s the perfect place to start your exploration of Ise, which is one of Japan’s most spiritually significant locations.
Ise Jingu’s history is over 2,000 years old, with deep-rooted connections to the country’s semi-mythological age. Ise Grand Shrine is a complex of 125 shrines centered in and around Ise City, but the heart of the site is the Naiku (inner shrine) and Geku (outer shrine).
This site is considered the heart of the Shinto religion. Each year between six to eight million visitors make the pilgrimage to the site to get a glimpse of the shrine and pray.
We’ve put together a comprehensive guide to the history, legacy, and architecture behind Ise Jingu. It’s worth bookmarking for future reference.
When you’re there, put aside some time to explore Oharaimachi, a quaint shopping street lined with many old world–style buildings. There you’ll find traditional gems, like local restaurants that serve some of the freshest, most delicious seafood from Ise-Shima.
Say hello to Futami Okitama Shrine
Next on the itinerary is Futami Okitama Shrine, home to Meoto Iwa, Mie’s iconic Wedded Rocks. Located just off the coast of Futami, a small town in Ise City, these rocks are said to represent a husband (the larger rock) and wife (the smaller).
Tied between these two rocks is what’s known as a shimenawa rope. It’s a straw rope that acts as a division between the spiritual world and our earthly world.
For photos, try to time your visit with the high tide when the high sea level separates the two rocks, making them appear connected only by the shimenawa rope.
Arguably, however, the very best time to visit is at sunrise. If all the elements align, during a bright early summer morning, you can see the sun rising between the rocks during high tide with the picture-perfect silhouette of Mt. Fuji far on the horizon.
Admire the scenery from Mt. Asama viewpoint
As the day starts to roll later into the evening, it’s time to admire Ise-Shima from a whole new perspective, atop Mt. Asama. Sitting at a tidy 555 meters high, it’s the tallest mountain in the Ise-Shima National Park area.
It’s considered, like many parts of Ise, to be a site of spiritual significance, and at the summit, you’ll find Kongosho-ji Temple. On a clear day, here is one of the farthest locations from Mt. Fuji, where you can still see the famous mountain.
You can reach the summit within a two-hour hike that’s doable for those who don’t mind a little trek. But if you don’t have a lot of time to spare, you can always drive or hop aboard the Mie Kotsu Bus.
Take a ferry to Toshijima
Toshijima is the largest of Ise Bay’s islands, a scattering of lush green islands that occupy the coast of Ise Bay. You would have admired them from the top of Mt. Asama viewpoint, but now
it’s time to explore them in more depth.
Around 80% of the population of Toshijima are involved in the lively fishing industry, making the 6.98 km² island an incredible place to gorge on fresh seafood and learn a little about one of the nation’s proudest and most diverse culinary industries.
It takes about 15 minutes to reach the island, which sits 2.5 km northeast of Toba Port. Regular ferries leave from Toba Marine Terminal daily. For those who live on the island, this journey is part of their daily commute to school and the office.
Book a night at one of the large, but cozy traditional-style waterfront hotels. Most come with classic tatami mat rooms, futon bedding, and the kind of homely hospitality that’s synonymous with regional Japan.
Stroll through Toshijima’s fishing village
If you can get up early enough, a sunrise stroll along the water of Toshijima is the best way to catch all the action of the town. You’ll spot sprightly fishermen hauling in the day’s catches, and wakame farmers hard at it sun-drying seaweed by Wagu Port.
Meet the ama divers of Osatsu
It’d be a crime to talk about Ise-Shima National Park without mentioning the area’s biggest celebrities, the ama divers. Ama divers are—predominantly female—free divers who put their bodies on the line fishing for pearl oysters, seaweed, and shellfish along the coastal pockets of Japan.
In Mie, the culture of free diving is one that’s ingrained in both the legacy of the area and its economic growth through export and tourism.
While the free diving culture of the mid-century is no longer as widely practiced, it’s a history that’s still greatly respected and draws tourists to Ise-Shima all year round.
The Osatsu Hut experience is the ideal place to meet some of Ise-Shima’s most famous residents and learn about this ancient fishing technique.
While today, many of the divers you’ll meet at Osatsu Hut have plenty of stories to tell. Plus, they know how to masterfully craft the perfect seafood lunch with little more than a grill and pile of hot charcoals.
The hut hosts lunches between 11:30 am and 2 pm daily. The menu includes turban shell, o-asari (large clams), scallops, mochi (rice cake), mackerel, and side dishes for ¥3,500. Be sure to book via the Osatsu Hut website a few days before your visit to reserve your spot.
Enjoy the view at Yokoyama Observatory
If you have time up your sleeve, visit Yokoyama Observatory. Grab a coffee at the Yokoyama Tenku Cafe Terrace, admire the incredible panoramic views of Ise-Shima’s Ago Bay and try spotting the pearl cultivation rafts from an altitude of 140 meters.
There are a few decks scattered across the Yokoyama viewing point, all of which offer slightly different views of ultimately the same incredible scene. If you don’t have a car, the trip is a 10-minute taxi ride from Kintetsu Ugata Station.
Learn about pearls on the Kashikojima Espana Cruise
The fact that Mie is a prefecture synonymous with pearl production—a fact you’ll be reminded of time and time again when in Ise-Shima. While pearls themselves are beautiful, pearl shopping isn’t always on everyone’s to-do list. But, the history and art behind pearl cultivation in Mie is a fascinating one, and one even the most pearl-uneducated folk can appreciate.
To learn a little about the local pearls, hop aboard the Kashikojima Espana Cruise, a Spanish-themed pleasure cruise that runs through Ago Bay. This 50-minute long cruise weaves between islands and pearl oyster rafts before stopping off at a model pearl factory. Here you learn the ins and outs of pearl cultivation and even watch a steady-handed pearl maker run through a nucleus-implanting demonstration, and you rest secure in the knowledge that you’ve done Ise right.
How to get to Ise-Shima from Tokyo
By train: Take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen heading to Shin-Osaka, get off at Nagoya Station. Switch to the Kintetsu-Limited Express to Toba, getting off at Ise-shi Station. The journey takes around 3.5 hours and costs a little over ¥14,000 each way.
By bus: The Mie Kotsu Highway Bus connects Tokyo to Ise and Toba. There are pick-up locations in Omiya, Ikebukuro, and Shinjuku. The fare from Ikebukuro and Shinjuku costs between ¥8,000 and ¥12,000 each way.