April 5, 2019

Mie Prefecture

A trip to Mie Prefecture will be a travel experience that will create everlasting memories. Regardless of your interests, it is sure to deliver.

The  famous Meoto Iwa off of the coast of Mie Prefecture

For the longest time, I have actively asserted that Kanagawa is the most well-rounded of all the prefectures. Between the history of Kamakura, the hot springs and nature of Hakone, and the urban landscape of Yokohama, there’s little that this remarkable region cannot offer. Alas, after spending the better part of three days traversing the lion’s share of Mie Prefecture, I’m obliged to admit that there might be another contender for this title after all. From antediluvian shrines to vistas that seem to be pulled straight from the scenes of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, there’s a shocking amount of variety to sample in Mie. While you’re almost guaranteed to be kept alarmingly busy during your stay, a visit to this prefecture is undoubtedly nothing short of a once in a lifetime experience.

Now, as hard as this may be to believe for some of you, until recently I had never set foot in Mie. While the prefecture has long been on my bucket list the whimsical fates just haven’t allowed for it. For one reason or another, things just haven’t worked out. Case in point, though I was selected to be a #VisitMie supporter back in 2018, I embarrassingly had to cancel my trip at the last minute following my grievous injury in Okayama. Thankfully though, the prefectural powers that be did not hold a grudge and were more than happy to assist in rescheduling my visit. Honestly, were it not for their very helpful logistical support, I don’t think that I could have managed to cram this much into a mere few days.

Anyway, even by my area guide standards, this post is going to be very, very long. Before reading on, I suggest that you find a nice comfy chair and brew yourself a hot cup of coffee or tea. Given the sheer breadth of topics that I need to cover, I’ll be documenting my adventures across Mie in the first person. This travel log style is a major break from how I usually write but here I believe it’s warranted. In doing so, I hope yo give you, the reader, a glimpse of what you can expect during your time in Mie. While you need not go to the maniacal lengths that I did to see it all, this should be more than enough to pique your interest in the prefecture.

Getting to Mie Prefecture

One of the Kintetsu express trains that run throughout Mie Prefecture

Before we get started on what makes Mie so special, let’s first address the critical questions of where the prefecture is located and how to get there. Simply put, Mie is situated to the southwest of Nagoya on the eastern side of Japan’s Kii Peninsula. The prefecture borders Aichi, Gifu, Shiga, Kyoto, Nara, and Wakayama as well as a over 1,000 kilometers of coastline. Typically considered to be both part of the Kansai and Tokai regions, Mie has long been influenced by both of these two important Japanese territories. Note that the present incarnation of the prefecture is a modern conception. Historically, the area now called Mie has consisted of the domains of several feudal lords.

Unlike many off the beaten path destinations that I cover on this blog, getting to Mie is relatively painless, even for first time visitors to Japan. In fact, the entire journey can made made in just a few hours or so. All you need to do is take any of the frequently departing bullet trains from either Tokyo or Osaka to Nagoya. As always, to calculate the best route please refer to the ever-useful Hyperdia or a similar service. Once you’re in Nagoya, the northern reaches of Mie Prefecture are but a few minutes away by any of the limited express trains provided by the Kintetsu Railway company.

Now, one thing that you need to be mindful of is the fact that JR surprisingly doesn’t provide great access in Mie (at least inasmuch as when it comes to the major attractions). Instead, you’ll be relying primarily on Kintetsu Railway lines to get yourself around. Seeing as many interesting spots within Mie are spread across huge swaths of the prefecture, you’re going to want to make extensive use of the limited express trains. These are reserved seating only and require an additional fee (refer to this handy English site to book online) but it beats the alternative of taking the slower trains.

Before moving on, I’d also like to quickly comment on the incredibly handy and affordable Kintetsu Rail Pass. Like with the more widely well known JR Rail Pass, this convenient ticket grants you unlimited access to any of the Kintetsu Railway trains (though you’ll still need to pay the reservation fees for limited express trains). All in all though, this pass is a real steal and a highly recommended purchase. What’s more, the pass isn’t limited to just Mie either meaning that you can make use of it in other prefectures as well.

Start in Mie’s Prefecture Yokkaichi

The factory-filled nightime skyline of Mie Prefecture’s Yokkaichi

To kick off my epic adventures in Mie Prefecture, I headed for the city of Yokkaichi late on a Friday night after a long day in the office back in Tokyo. One of the biggest cities in Mie, this bustling urban center sits close to the border of neighboring Aichi Prefecture. Given its proximity to the major transportation hub of Nagoya, Yokkaichi is the perfect location to call it a night before diving into the rest of Mie. I was scheduled to spend but a mere night in Yokkaichi before getting an early start on the following day however I did manage to spend an hour or so exploring what the city has to offer. While it’s no Tokyo, this port city has a fairly bustling nightlife scene should you be an insomniac like me.

As a city, Yokkaichi has a fair bit of history to its name. In fact, the area’s moniker actually is an homage to its long commercial legacy. You see, during Japan’s Warring States period (1467–1603), the port had given birth to a recurring market that was open only on the 4th, 14th and 24th of every month. From this, the city derived its current title of Yokkaichi which literally translates into “market on the ‘four’ days.” Nowadays, there’s no longer a market to experience yet the area’s mercantile pedigree continues to live on in its many factories. These industrial complexes are dotted about the coastline and create the shimmering scene pictured above. Honestly, it almost feels like the city of Midgar from Final Fantasy VII manifested itself in our world or something!

While I didn’t have the time to thoroughly experience it first hand, I’ve read that the best way to see Yokkaichi’s dystopian-looking factories is not from land but from the sea. The area offers a number of night cruises that will transport you around the bay for better vantages. You can opt for either a 60 minute or 90 minute course which costs 3,900 yen and 4,900 yen respectively. While recently, these excursions are gaining a fair bit of traction, the Yokkaichi Port Building is also a good alternative if you’re not the seafaring type. This 14-story building is the tallest in the prefecture and offers stunning views of the tangled mess of steel that comprise the many factories far below.

Scaling Mie Prefecture’s Mt. Gozaisho

The summit of Mie Prefecture’s snow capped Mt. Gozaisho during winter

After getting a good night’s sleep in Yokkaichi (despite being out until 12:30 AM exploring the nightlife for you, dear reader), I first made my way to Mt. Gozaisho. Located on the border of Mie and Shiga, this crag is the highest mountain in the Suzuka Mountain Range. Nestled between the two prefectures, this area is starkly different from Mie’s coastal region. The snow-capped mountain is the closest destination to Nagoya and is therefore a popular winter ski resort for those living in Central Japan. Additionally, Mt. Gozaisho’s sharp lookout provides for some commanding views of the surrounding mountains and landscapes.

While Mt. Gozaisho is indeed hikable, it’s probably best explored via the Gozaisho Ropeway. This cable car will take you to the top of the mountain in approximately fifteen minutes, albeit at the cost of 2,400 yen round trip. The ride is a bit of an attraction unto itself though and guarantees spectacular views of Yokkaichi and Ise bay. At the summit, you’ll find several restaurants and relaxing cafes as well as the Gozaisho Ski Resort. Here, you’ll discover numerous slopes of varying difficulty ranging from novice to ace. The resort also maintains a special children’s area designated for sledding.

At the base of Mt. Gozaisho lies the small hot spring town of Yunoyama Onsen. While not one of Japan’s top destinations for a good soak, Yunoyama Onsen is very popular amongst those traveling from Nagoya, Osaka, and Kyoto due to the ease of access via the Kintetsu train lines. All in all though, Mt. Gozaisho and the surrounding area is a side trip I’d only encourage you to take if you’re blessed for time and not in a rush. With that said, those from warmer climates might do well to consider making the trek if no similar destination on your itinerary tempts you to rollick in the snow.

Mie Prefecture’s Bustling Oharai-machi

Oharai-machi, the main approach to Mie Prefecture’s Ise Jingu, is bustling with people going to visit the shrine

After exploring the heights of Mt. Gozaisho, I headed back to Yokkaichi so that I could catch a train to Ise Jingu, Japan’s most venerated shrine. This esteemed attraction can be reached via either Ise-shi station or Ujiyamada station. Given the choice of the two though, I highly suggest that you check out the latter. The reason for this preference is that the station building itself was listed as a Registered Tangible Cultural Property by the national government in 2001. Regardless of which option you choose, once you arrive, you’ll need to either hail a taxi or take a bus to reach Ise Jingu.

Cultural significance aside, one of the awesome defining features about Ise Jingu is the shrine’s bustling traditional approach. Known as Ohairai-machi, this stretch is lined with many historic buildings housing an eclectic assortment of shops and restaurants. Venture inside any of these venues and you’ll be met with a dazzling array of fine crafts and delectable treats. Honestly, a stroll down Oharai-machi is like an assault on your senses. There are savory smells and tempting delights to be had just about everywhere. What’s more, though some of the businesses here are indeed modern entities, others have been serving pilgrims to Ise Jingu for centuries on end.

Located halfway down Oharai-machi, you’ll catch sight of an area called Okage Yokocho. This small section of the greater Oharai-machi district recreates townscapes from the past, specifically those from the Edo period (1603–1868) and the very early years of the Meiji period (1868–1912). Although these structures were recently erected in 1993, the area feels every bit as authentic as the rest of Oharai-machi that has been around for god knows how long. Much like other sections of Ise Jingu’s main approach, Okage Yokocho features a number of diverse shops and restaurants.

Though it will be busy, I highly recommend you plan on eating lunch in Oharai-machi. Trust me here! Despite the fact that the area will be crowded with Japanese visitors to Ise Jingu, the experience is well worth your wait. If you’re the type who is always keen to sample the local specialty, know that this region is recognized for its Akafuku, a snack made from sweet mochi and red bean paste. Additionally, Oharai-machi is also well-known for its unique take on the typical udon noodles. This dish is served up in a thicker style of sauce yielding a flavoring you might not find elsewhere.

Mie Prefecture’s Venerable Ise Jingu

An artistic rendition of Japan’s sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami

Okay, okay, enough about Oharai-machi. Let’s talk about Ise Jingu which is arguably Mie Prefecture’s top destination. This legendary shrine is dedicated to the all-important sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami from whom the Japanese imperial line is said to be descended. Often hailed as the country’s most eminent shrine, Ise Jingu is believed to have been established over 2,000 years ago. Indeed, any historical records pertaining to this antediluvian shrine make references to it as if it has just always been around, almost like the sun itself. Though previously known by other names during earlier eras, Ise Jingu is a central tenet of the Japanese cultural narrative. Nestled deep within a tranquil forest, these hallowed grounds are sure to set your mind at ease. I’ve roamed many a shrine in my journeys across Japan and Ise Jingu easily ranks among my favorites.

Along with paying homage to Japan’s most important deity, there are a number of distinct traits that make Ise Jingu stand out amongst other shrines. First and foremost, Ise Jingu is devoid of any influence from Buddhism. While many other shrines employ motifs that bled into Shinto due to the syncretic union between the two religions, Ise Jingu’s design predates Buddhism’s entry into Japan by hundreds of years. While some shrines like Nikko’s famous Toshogu Shrine fascinate visitors with its splendors, Ise Jingu wows guests with its austere simplicity. The unadorned main structures resemble ancient rice granaries and are erected in a style that is entirely free of any foreign architectural influence that came along with Buddhism.

Alas, if you’re expecting to bask in the majesty of some ancient millenia-old buildings, I’m going to have to disappoint you. As per Shinto tradition, Ise Jingu’s buildings have been rebuilt every 20 years since the early mists of time. Rather than exonerate the constructions themselves, Ise Jingu seeks to ensure that the sepulcher to Amaterasu Omikami will be simultaneously forever new and forever ancient. Allegedly, the current iteration of the shrine is the 62nd. Given the fact that Ise Jingu’s origins are shrouded in mystery though, one must wonder what structure existed before people began counting. While the current structures are by no means considered antique, their design certainly is. In fact, the shrine’s layout hasn’t changed since the Roman empire was a thing and no doubt, this contextual layer is critical to properly appreciating Ise Jingu.

Ise Jingu’s Uji Bridge that leads to the inner sanctums of Mie Prefecture’s most venerable shrine

Visitors to Ise Jingu should budget for between 60 and 90 minutes. Typically, the experience begins at Uji Bridge (pictured above) which lies at the end of the Oharai-machi approach to the shrine. The 100 meter long bridge has two torii gates which have been fashioned from pieces of the shrine’s former buildings. After crossing over the bridge and walking by the typical temizuya (a water ablution pavilion — see this guide if you don’t know the ritual), you’ll have the unique chance to cleanse yourself at the Isuzugawa riverbank. Back in days of yore, travelers on a pilgrimage to Ise Jingu would purify themselves here at the stream before proceeding to the main hall.

Speaking of the main areas, after cleansing your soul at the Isuzugawa River, you’ll find Ise Jingu’s most sacred buildings to lie a short distance away. The main hall, where Amaterasu Omikami is said to supposedly dwell, is unfortunately hidden by a series of fences. Here, only the roof and its forked finishings are visible. Entry to these holy inner sanctums is strictly prohibited and only those of imperial decent are permitted access. What’s more, even from the perimeter where us mere commoners can tread, any and all forms of photography are also not allowed. That said, I highly suggest you etch a mental image of the spartan main hall in your thoughts.

Technically speaking, the term Ise Jingu refers to a duo of two shrines, the Geku (lit. “Outer Shrine”) and the Naiku (lit. “Inner Shrine”). Unlike the Naiku which enshrines the sun goddess, the Geku is dedicated to Toyouke Omikami, the god of agriculture, industry, and the rice harvest. Though a bit on the confusing side, most people are talking about the Naiku when they speak of “visiting Ise Jingu.” According to traditional custom though, visitors to Ise Jingu are supposed to start at the the Geku and then make their way to the Naiku. If you’re a stickler for things like this, know that visiting both shrines easily adds another hour to your trip as the Geku is located over six kilometers away nearby Ujiyamada Station.

I usually try to stay true to the proper way of doing things nonetheless I ended up visiting the pair of shrines in the reverse order. Oh well, even I make mistakes every now and then…

Mie Prefecture’s Gorgeous Ago Bay

The lovely Ago Bay of Mie Prefecture’s Ise-Shima area

After concluding my visit to Ise Jingu, I whipped out my trusty Kintetsu Rail Pass and made my way down to Kashikojima Station where I would be spending the night. Situated at the southernmost tip of the Shima Peninsula on Ago Bay, this area is known for its breathtaking bay that is dotted with many scenic islands. Likely due to its unforgettably stunning vista, the coast is home to an assortment of high end resort hotels. Case in point, former President Obama and other dignitaries stayed at the Shima Kanko Hotel when they visited this region during the 2016 G-7 Summit. While my lodgings were not exactly like those of Mr. Obama’s, I was ultimately spoiled by an equally fancy facility nearby called Miyako Resort Shima Bayside Terrace.

Now, one of the things that I really liked about this area is that its picturesque landscape is easily explorable by bicycle. While I have been absolutely mortified about getting on anything with two wheels since being thrown from my bike, something quite special about this area helped me settle my fears. After strapping my helmet on really tight, I took a good hour to explore the many islands making up this region of Mie Prefecture. If you’re traveling with family, I cannot think of a better way to experience this spectacular region. Note that many of the hotels actually have bikes to rent. Alternatively, you can do what I did and get one from Entrada Cafe near Kashikojima Station. Their bicycles are quite affordable at only 2,000 yen per person.

Though absolutely stunning from just about any angle, the area around Ago bay is best seen from the 200 meter high Yokoyama Observation Deck. While located back on the mainland’s Mt. Yokoyama and not on one of the many islands in Ago bay, this charming spot offers amazing panoramic glimpses that will have your jaw dropping to the floor. Alas, getting here is no easy task though. Those without some form of transportation will need to take a half-hour walk from Shima-Yokoyama Station. On the other hand, those with either a rental car or bicycle can reach the Yokoyama Observation Deck by snaking their way up the mountain. If you do chose to go by bike, try to get one fitted with an electrically powered motor to assist you during your ascent.

Mie Prefecture’s Ama Divers

A historical piece of Japanese art that depicts Mie Prefecture’s ama divers

With my fears of bicycling around Ago bay behind me, I headed off to my next destination, Osatsu. Here, I had an incredible opportunity to dine with the ama (lit. “women of the sea”) divers. When considering the many activities on my itinerary, this experience was by far the one I was most looking forward to. Cohort after cohort of these women have been free diving to the depths of the ocean for thousands of years. Moreover, this historical torch has been passed from generation to generation over the ages. While the number of divers is certainly starting to dwindle with only a mere 2,000 left in Japan, this proud tradition stands very much alive. Contrary to what you’d think, new divers continue to occasionally join the ranks.

While there are a number of spots throughout Japan that are known for their ama divers, the women hailing from Ise-shima are by far the most well-known. In fact, half of all the ama divers originate from this region in Mie. Now, you may be wondering why women took on the diving role and not the men. Here you’ll be pleased to know there’s an easy answer. Put simply, women just have more body fat than men and therefore are better able to withstand the frigid cold waters. Throughout the earlier years of Japan’s lengthy history becoming an ama diver was one of few ways a woman could earn a living Over the eons, many women used their diving wages to build up enough wealth for a later marriage.

Alas, such an authentic experience must come at the steep cost of venturing far off the well-worn path to some remote fishing village, right? Actually, no. Thanks to an amazing program put together by Ama Hut Hachiman Kamado, even those with no Japanese ability whatsoever can enjoy savoring the ama diver’s latest catch. The company has gone to great lengths to ensure that this once in a lifetime experience is perfectly tailored to the needs of foreign guests. Between offering free Wi-Fi, accepting cashless payments, and providing a shuttle bus, Ama Hut Hachiman Kamado has arranged every detail a tourist could encounter. I’ve witnessed many half-assed jobs during my travels and I must say, their phenomenal professionalism blew me away.

Interested in having your own dining experience with the ama divers? Well, you should know there are a variety of courses ranging anywhere from approximately 2,000 yen all the way up to 10,000 yen for a luxury meal. Of course, seeing your visit to Mie is rated an opportunity of a lifetime, here I suggest you don’t skimp and go for broke. Not able to eat meat or shellfish for whatever reason? Fret not. Here too, Ama Hut Hachiman Kamado has you covered. They’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that vegetarian and halal meals are also available. While the content isn’t exactly what the ama divers would typically prepare, you can still participate in the fun.

Oh, and before moving on, know that after your meal, you’ll have the chance to dress up as an ama diver yourself. You’ll be shocked to discover just how warm the garb actually is! As can bee seen here, it’s a rather hilarious look when worn by a foreigner that is just perfect for Instagram.

Mie Prefecture & Mikimoto’s Pearls

One of Mie Prefecture’s amazing ama freedivers diving for shellfish

Craving a bit more ama diver fun? Well, you’re in luck. After I had stuffed myself with delectable shellfish and sashimi in Osatsu, my next stop on this epic tour across Mie Prefecture was the area of Toba. This region is close to the hometown of the famous Mikimoto Kokichi who was the first person to succeed in cultivating pearls in 1899 (more on that in a second though). His legacy is chronicled on the Mikimoto Pearl Island. This tiny isle is located only a few meters off the coast in the Bay of Toba. Accessible via a glass encased bridge, the island is also home to several novel museums. Among these facilities you’ll find the Mikimoto Kokichi Memorial Hall as well as a another building dedicated entirely to the process of making a pearl.

Speaking of which, do any of you actually know how pearls are formed anyway? What’s that? You don’t? Don’t worry, I too was certainly clueless until I stepped foot on the Mikimoto Pearl Island. As I would learn in the isle’s museum, the process is owed to the miracle of nature. Essentially, shellfish produce pearls as a means of defense when confronted with an intruder or irritant. The creature begins by coating the invading entity with a membrane before slathering on layer after layer of a substance called mother-of-pearl or nacre. Overtime, whatever nuisance was causing issues for the mollusk will become safely encapsulated inside and pose no further threat.

Now, as I mentioned before, Mikimoto Kokichi was the first person ever to figure out how to take advantage of this natural phenomenon. While one can only guess what was going through his mind, Mikimoto discovered that by surgically implanting some kind of pest into an oyster that he could force nature’s hand. Mikimoto’s staff would gather small beads called nuclei and a piece of another mollusk and insert these deep into a host, usually around the gonads, to prevent it from being dislodged. While a grievous oversimplification of the process, ultimately this would be one hell of a irritant and the shellfish would respond by encasing the nucleus in nacre thereby producing a pearl.

Until this rather peculiar, but nonetheless significant breakthrough, pearls remained an incredibly rare natural wonder. As such, pearls were exorbitantly high-priced and thus traditionally only used as adornment by elite royals. However, following Mikimoto’s discovery of how to forcibly cultivate pearls via the aforementioned method, it became possible for commoners to make such a purchase. While still priced rather high due to the two-year gestation period required to make a pearl, Mikimoto’s manually cultivated crop revolutionized the market across the globe and ushered in a new era featuring pearl jewelry.

Of course, to make pearls, a good host is required and here Mikimoto recruited the help of the talented and experienced ama divers. As can be seen in the shot above, even today, this important part of the process is honored on the Mikimoto Pearl Island with hourly performances by skilled “women of the sea.” If you visit the island, be sure to check the schedule to see when the next performance is. Should you need to kill a few minutes while waiting, consider popping into the Pearl Plaza where you can view and purchase a variety of pearl jewelry.

Mie Prefecture’s Nabana-no-Sato

The wintertime illumination of Nabana-no-Sato in Mie Prefecture’s Nagashima Resort

For the final leg of my Mie journey, I made my way to one of the prefecture’s other iconic destinations, Nabana-no-Sato (lit. Nabana Village). This flower park is part of the sprawling Nagashima Resort complex that also includes a water park, a hot spring facility, and an outlet shopping mall. Every year, from October to May, the park comes alive at night with what very well might be the most amazing illumination show on the planet. Though priced quite steep at 2,300 yen per person, the experience is well worth the hefty entry fee. I mean, just look at that tunnel of lights. If that isn’t one of the most Instagrammable spots in Mie Prefecture then I don’t know what is!

Regrettably, the Nabana-no-Sato illuminations draws a real crowd. During the weekend, the facility tends to attract increased foot traffic. If possible, try to schedule a visit on a day other than a Saturday or Sunday if you’re not too keen on sharing the space with thousands of strangers. Stuck going on a weekend? Know that while there are a number of restaurants and whatnot inside for you to sample, these get jam packed with hordes of visitors from neighboring cities. I suggest you skip having a sit down meal here and instead grab a quick snack from one of the many vendors. As part of your entry ticket, you’ll get a 1,000 yen voucher which can be used at any of these food joints or gift shops.

Getting to Nabana-no-Sato can be a bit confusing. There are a number of options that include a variety of shuttle buses but these are rather hard to navigate. Be sure to check Nagashima Resort’s official site for timetables and more information. If you don’t mind a good 15 to 20 minute walk, Nabana-no-Sato can also be reached in a pinch on foot from either the Kintetsu Nagashima Station or the JR Nagashima Station.

There’s Still More to Mie Prefecture

The keep of Iga-Ueno’s Ueno Castle in Mie Prefecture

Exhausted yet? Don’t worry, the end is near! Despite all I’ve covered thus far, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring Mie, there’s so much depth within this prefecture. Alas, in the interest of not turning this into a tome rivaling the length of Crime and Punishment, allow me to end with a few additional suggestions. While I was not able to hit up any of these locations during my two-and-a-half day adventure, they look to be quite intriguing. No doubt, I’ll need to make another trip down to cover them at a later date…

  • Iga-Ueno’s Ninja
    This former castle town is the product of a modern merger and is composed of five surrounding towns and villages. Along with Koka in neighboring Shiga Prefecture, the area is historically famous for being one of two cradles of ninjutsu, the secret techniques of everyone’s favorite stealthy warriors.
  • Meoto Iwa
    Way back at the start of this article you will find a photo of two ancient boulders that are located just off the coast of Futami and serve as one of Mie Prefecture’s iconic images. The standing stones are joined together by a sacred rope; the larger of the two stones represents the husband and the smaller one, the wife.

Until next time travelers…