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Hike a Forested Pilgrimage Trail and Escape to a Hidden Shrine in Japan’s Mie Prefecture

I’ve been writing a lot about the Japan I have come to love, the Japan outside of Tokyo and Kyoto, the Japan of the heartland prefectures.

For my latest trip, I visited the Shoryudo Region of Honshū, Japan’s main island. Made up of nine prefectures stretching between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, Shoryudo is known for its rich agricultural land, spiritual landscapes and majestic mountains, including the iconic Mt. Fuji.


I explored Mie Prefecture on the eastern edge of the region. Bordering the Pacific Ocean and Ise Bay, the prefecture is home to pilgrimage trails that cut through ancient forests and lead to the most famous Shinto shrines in Japan.

The Route Magose-toge Pass on the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route

Trucks and cars jockeyed for position as they sped up the steep hill on busy Route 42 (Kumano Kaido). We pulled off the highway as quickly as we could to avoid the traffic and parked at a trailhead where there was room for about a dozen cars.

During Japan’s feudal era, travel between towns and villages was prohibited except for the nobility. The exception was for people taking pilgrimages to temples and shines.

I met Keiichiro Matsuno from the Higashi-Kishu regional tourism department to lead me on a hike on the Kumano Kodo, which in 2004, UNESCO declared as World Heritage Site. Along with Northwestern Spain’s Camino de Santiago that leads to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the Kumano Kodo is included on UNESCO’s list of Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes.

With three routes (Kiji, Kohechi and Iseji) that criss-cross the Kii Peninsula, Matsuno chose the Magose-toge Pass trail, part of the Kumano Kodo Iseji or eastern route that leads to the Ise Grand Shrine, Japan’s most revered Shinto shrine. 

Popular with pilgrims, the trails are also used by trekkers who want an up-close-and-personal encounter with nature.

Some trails reach up into the mountains. Others follow the shoreline. The Magose-toge Pass trail crosses Mt. Tengura at over 1,000 feet so the walk can be steep. The hike from the trailhead at Route 42 and the Washige bus stop to Owse City station usually takes three hours.

We only had an hour so I wouldn’t be able to walk the entire trail which usually takes three hours. We wasted no time and started walking. The trees close to the highway were slender with the look of new growth. We followed the trail up the slope and to the left. Within minutes all I could see were thick stands of cypress trees. We couldn’t see the highway and we couldn’t hear it.


The hill was steep, but the climb easier than expected. Happily the Magose-toge Pass route wasn’t a dirt and gravel trail. Laid solidly in the soil, large flat stones, polished flat by weather and the feet of pilgrims, made for a sure-footed walk. At some places, the path was several feet wide creating a virtual foot-highway. The thick stones were fitted in such a way that they kept the others around them in place. Matsuno explained that the stones were four hundred years old. The trail had been built by a feudal lord (daimyō) to aid pilgrims on their journey.

Even though the path was maintained, I saw where heavy rains had disolodged some of the rocks. Other rocks were damaged by cypress roots that had risen up out of the ground, pushed the thick stones out of the way and snaked across the trail.

A section of the trail followed the path of a river. We stopped to watch the heavy flow of water that smashed against Volkswagen-sized boulders. After a distance, the trail angled into the middle of the forest. The cypress tree canopy was so dense, sunlight barely penetrated the branches towering overhead.

Matsuno pointed to his watch. I had wanted to reach the crest of Mt. Tengura to enjoy the view of the valley, but we needed to turn back. We had more places to visit before it got dark. Time for a quick photograph to memorialize the hike.



When pilgrims walk the length of the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route to visit the ise Grand Shrine, the trek takes ten days. Next time I visit the area, I wouldn’t do the whole walk, but I definitely want to walk all of the Magose-toge Pass trail so I can see the view from the top of Mt. Tengura.

The Naiku Shrine, part of the Ise Grand Shrine

The holiest of Japan’s many Shinto shrines, for millennia pilgrims have been coming to the Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingū) to celebrate the spirits (kami) of the earth. The complex houses one hundred and twenty-five shrines organized around two main sites, Geku (Toyo’uke Daijingu) where the spirits of the harvest, well-being, cloth, food and shelter are worshiped, and Naiku (Kotai Jingu), the most venerated shrine because it is dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess. We visited Naiku.


We watched people arriving on foot, in taxis, on motorcycles, bicycles and in cars. Young and old, families, teenagers, babies in strollers, women wearing kimonos, business men and women in their dark suits, ties and white shirts, people in wheelchairs and teenagers taking selfies, everyone had smiles on their faces as if they were entering a theme park. Coming to Ise Jingū, Kyoko Kitamura, our guide, said, makes people very happy.



To enter the inner shrine, we had to cross the Uji Bridge (Uji-bashi). We stopped to admire the massive wooden torii gate that draws a line between the earthly and spiritual worlds. 



Given the security at many popular public attractions in the United States, I was impressed that there were no guards at the entrance, no one asked to look inside backpacks and no one collected an entrance fee. Kitamura explained that the shrine is so important to Japanese culture, charging a fee would be unacceptable. And, because the shrine was so revered, everyone who enters does so respectfully. No Japanese would think of behaving inappropriately inside the Ise Grand Shrine.

Before we entered the shrine, Kitamura told me that we needed to show respect by bowing twice.  As we stepped onto the bridge to cross the Isuzu River (Isuzugawa), she told me another point of etiquette. We needed to walk on the right side of the bridge as we crossed the wide river. The left side was for people exiting the park. And, the center of the bridge was reserved for the gods.

Once we entered the park, we needed to purify ourselves before we visited the main sanctuary. We could either stop at a covered, open-air structure (temizusha or temizuya) or walk to the river bank to make our ablutions directly from the river (mitarashi). We chose the temizusha where we clapped, captured water with the wooden scoop, cleansed our hands and rinsed our mouths with the water.


The gravel path narrowed and the canopy of tall trees blocked out the sky as we walked deeper into the park.  The noise of the city melted away. People walked leisurely to enjoy the quiet and beauty of nature.

The path led to a large clearing dominated by several large buildings where lines of pilgrims waited to buy good luck charms, souvenirs and prayer books. Other paths snaked off in different directions, leading to smaller buildings.


Following the maze of gravel paths, we discovered first one shrine and then another dedicated to different kami. The shrines were constructed in a simple yet elegant style called shinmei-zukuri. Wood posts were secured directly into the ground, sometimes anchored on a bed of stones. The thatched roots were held in place by large logs shaped smooth and placed with a watchmaker’s precision.



The Kazahinomi-no-miya shrine celebrated the god of wind who saved the island nation when it was attacked by a combined Chinese and Korean force headed by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in the 13th century. In its own clearing, the Koyasu Jinga was for the kami that protected women in childbirth and the healthy development of children.

These shrines were open to the public but the beating heart of the Ise Grand Shrine was a shrine no commoner may visit.


To approach the main sanctuary, we climbed steep stone stairs framed by a thick forest of ancient bamboo and cypress trees. We joined two dozen people standing in line to pay homage and say a prayer in front of the shrine. No photographs were allowed.

I watched Kitamura drop a coin, her offering, into a tray. She bowed, clapped twice and with her hands clasped together, eyes closed, said a silent prayer. Then she bowed again, clapped once and backed away.

I did as she did and then joined her next to a wooden fence. She gestured to a small shrine on the other side of the fence. She whispered so she would not disturb the people next to us, “That is the sacred shrine that can be visited only by Shinto priests and members of the Imperial family.”

Beyond that shrine, she told me, there were more fences and beyond that, hidden from sight, the innermost, most sacred shrine in all of Japan. In that shrine (Kotai Jingū) were jewels important to the Imperial family and the most prized of all objects, the sacred mirror (Yata no Kagami) of the sun goddess Amaterasu-Omikami.

Reflecting the Shinto belief in the cycle of birth, death, conservation and renewal, to honor the deities, every twenty years, the innermost shrines, the torii gates and the Uji bridge are deconstructed and rebuilt. The ritual called Shikinen Sengu began more than a thousand years ago. The next rebuilding will begin in 2033 and will take several years because only traditional tools and no nails are used.

In addition to the recycled wood, new cypress trees will be harvested by independent sources and from a forest set aside specifically for the rebuilding. Every scrap of wood will be recycled, either used at the Ise Grand Shrine or in other shrines around Japan. In that way the sacred spirit in the cypress trees will be shared throughout the nation.

Okage Yokocho Street in Oharai-machi

The day was ending and as the sun was setting, with a last bow at the torii gate, we walked into the village called Oharai-machi a few steps from the shrine. For thousands of years, pilgrims have visited Ise Grand Shrine. Tired and hungry, they needed rest and refreshment. Over the millennia, the streets outside the shrine filled with shops. In the 1990s, Okage Yokocho Street was rebuilt into what we saw that day, a recreation of an Edo period (1603-1865) village.



We walked down the narrow streets and looked in the small shops selling snacks, shoes, souvenirs, sweets, jewelry, sake, fresh orange juice, Hello Kitty figures (beckoning cats), umbrellas and hats. 




Cafes served diners on their outdoor covered patios. The restaurant Fukusuke prepared Ise-style udon in a sweet, soy sauce based broth. We arrived on kimono day when open air stalls were set up with kimonos and all the accessories that could be purchased or rented for the day.



Combining the walk on the Magose-toge with a visit to the Ise Grand Shrine was a good way to immerse myself in the Japanese reverence for nature and to enjoy the natural beauty of Mie Prefecture. I was impressed by the quiet of the ancient forests and the care with which the walkways and shrines were maintained. The excellence of Japanese workmanship was in evidence everywhere I looked.

When you go

A survey of Shoryudo destinations can be found on https://www.jtbusa.com/shoryudo/

Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingū), the inner shrine (Naikū), 1 Ujitachicho, Ise, Mie Prefecture 516-0023,  +81 596-24-1111, https://www.isejingu.or.jp/en/

Magose-toge Pass Route, on the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route, http://kumanokodo.com.au/iseji-the-eastern-route/

Okage Yokocho, Oharai-machi, Ise, Mie Prefecture 516-8558, http://www.okageyokocho.co.jp/english/englishA.html



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