Hike a Forested Pilgrimage Trail and Escape to a Hidden Shrine in Japan’s Mie Prefecture
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A survey of Shoryudo destinations can be found on https://www.jtbusa.com/shoryudo/