Next to the somewhat dreary industrial suburb of Ise lies the most sacred Shinto site in Japan. An ancient and mysterious shrine dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun goddess, it is probably the most famous in the country.
That part is simply legend. But historians can agree that the oldest shrines in Japan can be found in Ise. It's believed these would have been dedicated to local deities before being devoted to Amaterasu in the sixth century (when imperial authority was affirmed and affiliation with the goddess was claimed by the government).
Very early on, it became customary for unmarried princesses of the imperial family to worship the goddess at these shrines. Even today, it is the role of the high priestesses of the shrines. During the Second World War, the high priestess was the sister of Emperor Hirohito!
In the heart of a sacred forest (5500 hectares and covers 1/3 of the area of the city), populated by cedar and cypress trees, that one can visit both of Ise's shrines today, although they are 5km apart.
Due solemnity is required when you get to Naiku, after crossing the Uji bashi Bridge, it is the heart of the worship of Amaterasu, and probably the most famous shrine in Japan. The most mysterious too, because nobody really knows what happens there. The main building is reserved solely for the emperor, his family, and a very small number of senior Shinto dignitaries.
Less grand, the Geku (outer shrine) contains the spirit of a god, Toyouke Omikami, protector of crops and homes.
Beyond these best sights, why not spend a little more time in the Ise area to enjoy the Shima Peninsula National Park, including the Bay of Futami, where people come to see the famous married rocks Meoto Iwa. To the north in Toba, a celebrity other than Amaterasu is attracting crowds - Mikimoto, the founder of Japanese pearl farming.
For a long time local waters have been home to pearl oysters, formerly harvested by snorkelers called ama divers. They dive today only for tourists, but a museum (Mikimoto Pearl Island) remains as a tribute to their traditions, particularly the method that allowed Kokichi Mikimoto to make pearl farming a thriving industry.
The southern peninsula is quieter but less served. More photogenic too, because the rugged coastline offers a panoramic view of 60 islands in the Bay of Ago, and its pearl fishing boats. Hiking trails take the viewpoint of Yokohama, while Goza is a quiet little fishing port with a wide range of fine white sand (Goza-shirahama).