Kumano Kodo Iseji, Ise – Mie, Japan

This post is part of a series about the Kumano Kodo trail network in Japan which links the three grand shrines of Kumano. You can read the first part of the journey here.

I arrived in Ise around 4pm, and after checking in to my hostel (which was very comfortable and right next to Ise Jingu Naiku, I highly recommend it!) I tried to hurry to catch the train to Futamino-ura so I could see the famous Meotoiwa “two wedded rocks” bound by sacred ropes called shimenawa during sunset.

I made it just after but still enjoyed visiting Okitama shrine which was full of frog statues before seeing the wedded rocks. I’ve heard it gets crowded in the daytime, so if you’re looking for an ideal time to visit it would be either early morning or in the evening. There were only a few people when I was there and in the evening light with the sound of the waves breaking while passing through the shrine, it felt very peaceful and spiritual.

Sunset at Futami bay.
Meotoiwa, known as the two wedded rocks. The shimenawa (sacred rope) that binds the two together weighs almost a ton.

I now realize I wouldn’t have gotten the big money view of the sun setting between the rocks even if I did make it. You actually only catch sunrise between the rocks which is best viewed in the summer around 4:30 in the morning. So it was the wrong time and season (March), oops. Regardless, it was still fun to visit and go through the Okitama shrine in the early evening twilight. The frog statues are said to be envoys of the God Sarutahiko, who guards the bridge between heaven and earth. It felt like Alice in Wonderland walking through.

One of the many frog statues carved out of stone that line the path.
A stone lantern glows in twilight with another frog statue in the background.

The next morning I visited Ise Jingu Naiku, which is the inner shrine. Ise Jingu is made up of 125 shrines and centres around two main shrines, an inner shrine called Naiku, and an outer shrine called Geku. Both are in separate locations, with Geku being closest to Iseshi JR train station and Naiku is easily accessible by bus 5km from the station. The Ise shrine in Mie is one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Naiku is said to house the Sacred Mirror, one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. Since the general public is unable to access the main shrine where the Mirror is kept, nobody knows this for sure… But that just makes it more interesting.

The first Torii gate with Uji bridge crossing over the Isuzu river.
Another torii gate, there are several throughout the large complex.
The large pathways accommodate the large crowds of people that visit the shrine. I came early at 9am, and by 11am groups were beginning to arrive and make their way.
Kazaridaru are empty wooden sake barrels bound together and displayed. At first I was confused why this would be in a shrine, but I learned that sake is symbolic of the union between the Gods and people. During Shinto festivals, the barrels are filled with sake and ready for good times.
Build around.

Leading to Naiku is Oharaimachi shopping street filled with shops and restaurants serving all sorts of delicious treats and the famous Ise udon noodles served with a thick black sauce that is made from a mixture of soy sauce and fish broth. I enjoyed walking along this street and seeing all the traditional style buildings. You can easily spend half a day exploring Naiku and the area, trying all the food on offer. By the time I left to make my way to Geku, the outer shrine near Iseshi station, my stomach was going to explode.

Unohana donuts, deliciously soft and chewy, and made of soy! They are small, so you end up eating several to make up for the size…
The prettiest and tastiest matcha ice cream I’ve eaten so far. Ise is also known for the cultivation of pearls, which is why the ice cream cone is in the shape of an oyster.
One of the many traditional style buildings with shops that line the street leading to Ise Jingu Naiku.
Wood, windows and an owl friend.
The sign of a sake shop.

I decided to leisurely walk the 5km to Geku and then Iseshi station since it wasn’t raining and would help with digestion. When stuffed to the brim, an after meal walk helps plenty. In less than an hour walking from Naiku I reached Geku, two large lanterns marking the outer boundary of the shrine.

Two large lanterns stand before the entrance to Geku shrine.
Wooden dippers at Temizusha used for ablutions before continuing to the shrine.
Kaze-no-miya, the shrine dedicated to the kami (God) of wind.
Sakaki (cleyera japonica) branches with shide tied to them (the white paper strips) along the wall separating the main sanctuary. The sasaki along the wall delineates the sacred space within.
Black and white stones are placed around the shrines, which represent heaven and earth, and a combination for happiness.

What I appreciate most about the Naiku and Geku shrines was the simplicity of it that made it most beautiful. All the wood was unfinished, the only embellishments were the hints of gold on the roof ends and the green of the sakaki against the wood of fences and torii gates. I feel it reflected my kumano kodo journey; simple in walking from A to B, and beautiful in all the landscape I saw and the people I connected with.

What have I learned? With the movie Wild people assume going outdoors on a long hike by yourself maybe you’re running away from life or pursuing self-discovery, “Are you going off to find yourself?” is something I’ve heard several times! But the truth is my reason is super boring. I love hiking, my dream has always been to visit Japan, I read an article on Kumano Kodo, I wanted to hike it solo for the experience, and I did!

If I had to part with some golden nugget of thought, I will say that as a woman we’re often discouraged in things. Travelling solo is high on the list of “things you shouldn’t do” as if our gender dictates what we can and can’t do. While it’s true as a woman travelling a little more caution is good, it’s also true that yes you can go alone if you want and yes you do have the strength and courage, more than you think if you give yourself the opportunity to experience it. And if shit hits the fan (no journey is smooth all the time) and people shout “I told you it was a bad idea!” then wouldn’t it be better to lock ourselves in a cave and hope that nothing bad will happen? To live in fear deprives us of fulfilment. So tell yourself, mother, daughter, sister, friend, go for it! Possess a healthy dose of rational thinking, street smart, optimism and kindness. Our gender should not be making decisions for us, whether we’re a man or woman. Ok, sermon over! Stepping down from the soapbox.

Overall Kumano Kodo is an amazing network of hiking trails, showcasing just a snippet of the beauty Japan has to offer. I highly recommend hiking some of the trails (or all of it if you have time!), visiting the Grand shrines of Kumano and Ise, and experiencing the spiritual soul cleansing that pilgrims have had for a thousand years.

Top tips:

  • The Iseji route has sections of Kumano Kodo trail and the rest goes through towns along roads. Having walked parts of it, I feel the whole thing is doable with a combination of hiking and cycling. An idea I might pursue in the future!
  • You can also rent a car (International Driving License needed) or take the JR train to complete the route in sections.
  • If you do want to save money on accommodation and camp, options are limited – unless you’re comfortable with urban camping (not my cup of tea). There are plenty of reasonably priced accommodation options available, and you can ask a tourist information centre at one of the bigger train stations (Shingu, Owase, Ise) to help you with bookings.

Useful links:

  • For more information on the Iseji route, visit the Kumano Kodo Mie Prefecture website here.
  • Download maps, brochures, and other useful information on Iseji here.
  • For more information about the Grand Shrine of Ise, visiting etiquette, and maps, find it here.

And finally, after thousands of words and many photos over four blog posts, this is the end my Kumano Kodo story (for now)! Thank you so much for reading, and following my journey with me.

I dedicate my Kumano Kodo posts to my amazing friend Tomomi, who everyday made sure my ignorant foreign butt was safe on the trails while I journeyed solo, and is always ready to help and support me. There’s a saying I read that “happiness in life depends on how many times you get to say thank you from the bottom of your heart”:

Tomo – thank you for making Japan feel like home.

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