Packed full of impressive historical sights, cultural activities, traditional shops and delicious local cuisine, the remote city of Ise in Mie Prefecture is a great place to discover Japan off the beaten track. We asked resident Tokyoite and vlogger Chris Okano to head south with Willer Express’ new Tokyo-Ise service and give us the lowdown on what the city has to offer.
Willer Express now have an overnight bus route direct from Tokyo/Yokohama to Ise, making it convenient to reach the city and to access the surrounding region of Mie Prefecture and Kansai. Tickets start at 4,010 yen depending on the day – a way less pricey option than taking the bullet train or flying. Book online with the simple English booking system; select the date and time of your journey, choose a seat type, fill out your information and pay by credit card or at the convenience store.
Reclining bus seats on the Willer Express service come with a retractable hood, which was originally made so that female passengers could cover their faces when they sleep. The journey takes about ten hours, leaving before midnight and arriving in Ise around nine the next morning.
Start exploring Ise at the Azuchi Momoyama Bunkamura or Edo Wonderland, an historical theme park that recreates Japan during the Edo period, complete with traditional houses, a ninja fortress, costumed staff and a full scale replica of the golden-topped Azuchi castle built by samurai warlord Oda Nobunaga. At the top of the castle is a large lookout which has some breathtaking views of Ise Bay and the Shima Peninsula. You can even rent a costume to join in on the Edo action (choose from ninja, samurai or princess) as well as watch live fighting at the ninja theater or test your ninja skills at the games stalls. There are traditional restaurants serving food unique to the region as well.
Ise’s most famous sight is the Ise Jingu or Ise Grand Shrine which attracts millions of worshippers during the first three days of January for hatsumode or the first shrine visit of the new year. It’s Japan’s holiest shrine, dating back to the third century, and an important ‘power spot’ – an area of positive spiritual energy that is reputed to have special healing qualities. Every twenty years, according to Shinto tradition, the shrine is taken down and rebuilt with new materials using ancient techniques (no nails allowed). The god of the shrine is then transferred to the new building in a spectacular ceremony known as Sengyo-no-Gi.
There are two parts to the shrine, the Geku (outer shrine) and Naiku (inner shrine). The Naiku is more popular, as it enshrines the sun goddess Amaterasu-Omikami, considered the ancestor of the Japanese imperial family and guardian of Japan. There are a number of smaller shrines in the area which are worth a visit too.
You can head afterwards to the historic Okage Yokocho along Oharai Street for a well-deserved Ise food feast, where more than 100 varieties of shops and restaurants offer local and regional specialities to try. Don’t miss the chance to sample Ise udon; soft, thick noodles served in a dark, sweet broth and Ise takuan (pickled radish), as well as fisherman’s favorite, tekone-zushi or marinated tuna.
The buildings of Okage Yokocho are reproduced in the style of Edo and Meiji period architecture, using traditional construction methods or taken from other areas in Mie, and there’s an infectious atmosphere of generosity in the streets as people share food and drink, and local stories. You can pick up Ise souvenirs to take home such as akafukumochi, a pounded rice cake with sweet bean paste, and learn about local mythology at the Okage-za Museum of Japanese Mythology.