Regarding shrines and temples in Japan, most thoughts go to the Fushimi Inari and Kiyomizudera in Kyoto or the Todaiji temple in Nara. However, if you’re brave enough to stray from the shinkansen to the reaches of Fukui and Mie prefecture, you’ll discover some of the most significant places of worship in Buddhism and Shinto.
So let’s talk about my trips to the Shrines of Ise and Daihonzan Eiheiji, two of Japan’s most atmospheric and historical holy sites.
Okage Yokocho ancient street
Ise is a small city nestled on the eastern coast of Mie prefecture. Before arriving, this was all I knew about the city, besides the fact that it was home to a nice shrine.
I didn’t expect to be greeted by a living, breathing Edo-period town. The streets are lined with beautiful Edo-era buildings, completely open storefronts and restaurants. Even though most of these shops were just the typical assortment of sweets and souvenir stores, the overall aesthetic of the street and its surrounding area won me over.
After wandering the streets for a while, I stopped for lunch at a restaurant. Ise has a few different specialties when it comes to food. Ise Beef is rich and perfectly matches the sweet and salty sukiyaki soup. If you like fatty Japanese beef, I would highly recommend trying Ise Beef Sukiyaki.
The shrines of Ise
Now onto the main event, the shrines of Ise. Considering that these shrines are so significant to Shinto that they were specifically targeted during World War II, what shocked me was how humble the architecture was.
Compared to the opulence of shrines in Kyoto and Tokyo, Ise is understated. All the rooves are thatched, the log pillars are unpainted and even the surrounding area is cut off from the idyllic Edo market town I’d just been through. Instead, it’s surrounded by forest, crisscrossed with broad paths and situated right next to a nice, shallow river. Only a few golden lacquered highlights hint at the importance these shrines hold to Shinto, as Amaterasu’s (the Japanese Sun God’s) most hallowed shrine.
Even with the large number of domestic tourists that visit every year, it is incredibly easy to become lost in the serenity of the location.
That being said, there is a lack of English signage and descriptions of the history of these truly Grand Shrines. Unless visitors have done their research or bring their own guides, it can be difficult to appreciate the timeless energy of the location, so I’d recommend doing your own reading before visiting.
Daihonzan Eiheiji’s differences are first noticeable, first and foremost it is not a part of a city, instead, it’s an hour bus ride outside of Fukui. However, this bus ride is well worth the detour, for up in the hills lies the hidden Buddhist monastery that brought and popularised the Sotto sect of Buddhism in Japan.
Eiheiji is nestled into the hills and is a sprawling complex of cloisters, hermitages and temples, all dedicated to Eihei Dogen, a monk revered for his studies in China and bringing zen Buddhism to the forefront of Japanese Buddhism. His legacy is clear because even today over 200 monks and nuns train there while the monastery is open to tourists.
The entryway opens into a broad courtyard. After entering the main building, I was escorted into a greeting room, where a monk gave the gathered tourists a brief history of the temple.
Unfortunately, this introduction was entirely in Japanese, however, the complex has great English brochures that detail the significance and history of the place.
Following this introduction, I went to the entry hall, whose roof was covered in 100 paintings. After admiring the art, I wandered through the cloisters and the courtyards.
There I was lucky enough to attend a Buddhist mass. Where six monks chant in perfect melody with one another, as others beat drums of varying sizes as the congregation watches on. The incense and the understated music of the ceremony bring a gentle sound to the calm of the valley.
The Dharma Hall featured beautiful chandeliers that bathed the entire area in soft golden light.
In all honesty, the best part of Eiheiji is wandering the grounds, so I gave myself over to quiet contemplation, which was the best part of the experience.
Have you been to any of these shrines before? Let us know in the comments!