Nowhere is more sacred to the Japanese than Ise Grand Shrine's Inner Shrine. The pilgrimage to this holy site will provide you with a unique opportunity to connect with the spirit of Japan and its people.
If you're visiting after a stop at the Outer Shrine in central Ise, as many Japanese tourists traditionally do, a bus can get you to the Inner Shrine in 10 to 15 minutes.
If you're coming from elsewhere by train, Isuzugawa Station will get you closer. Buses from the station run frequently and take only six minutes each way.
Isuzugawa Station is accessible from nearby major cities on the Kintetsu Line: from Nagoya in about 90 minutes, from Osaka-Namba in around 1 hour 50 minutes, and from Kyoto in approximately 2 hours 30 minutes.
The Inner Shrine, known as Naiku in Japanese, is the most important building within the Ise Grand Shrine complex. Traditionally said to have been founded in 4 BCE, modern research dates it to the 4th century. Some structures may have been erected as much as a century earlier.
The Inner Shrine's importance stems from its enshrinement of Amaterasu Omikami and its connection with the mythical origin of the Japanese state. As the sun goddess, she is the supreme deity of Shinto.
According to legend, Japan's emperors, including the current occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne, are her direct descendants. The shrine's chief priest must be related to the imperial household, and the Emperor himself visits Naiku every year.
The Sacred Mirror, one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan, is said to be kept within the Inner Shrine, although viewing it is off limits to the public. According to Shinto myth, this mirror was used to lure Amaterasu out of a cave where she had been hiding from her brother's offensive behavior. This seclusion of the sun goddess had plunged the world into dreadful darkness.
Naiku is popular year-round. The New Year's holiday, however, sees even more visitors. Many Japanese traditionally visit shrines to pray for good luck in the coming year. As the most sacred site in the country, the Inner Shrine is packed with visitors during this time.
In fact, many Japanese try to make the pilgrimage to Ise at least once in their lives, and New Year is considered an especially auspicious time to visit. As such, it's also the most crowded.
If you're able to visit in April or September, don't miss the Kagura Festival featuring performances of traditional Japanese theater, dance, music, and poetry, along with flower arrangement exhibits.
To enter the Inner Shrine's grounds, you cross the wooden Uji Bridge. From here you seem to step back in time, with the only sign of modernity being a nearby Japanese flag. Naiku's grounds have a solemn, otherworldly atmosphere.
Traditional torii gates stand at either end of the bridge, acting as a passage between the secular world and the divine. A central strip across has been raised to keep visitors from walking down the middle; only the gods pass through the center of a torii gate, and mere mortals doing so is horrible form.
The Inner Shrine, the Uji Bridge, and 14 other structures across the complex have been ritually reconstructed every 20 years since the 7th century, minus a few delays due to war. The most recent renewal was in 2013. Each cycle of reconstruction takes eight years to complete.
The structures here are built with unvarnished Japanese cypress traditionally harvested from the Kiso Valley in Nagano Prefecture. In recent decades, plantations in the forests surrounding the shrine have also come into use.
In contrast with the brilliant vermillion hues you see at other renowned shrines like Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, Ise's Inner Shrine is simple and not at all flashy. Some say that the buildings here don't need vermillion paint to ward off evil because the presence of Amaterasu makes it so powerful.
When you reach the main building of the Inner Shrine, the view is obscured by a hanging curtain, as regular people are prohibited from gazing directly at it. Access within is restricted to the emperor and senior Shinto priests.
After paying your respects, a vast array of food, trinkets, craftwork and more awaits you in the traditional pilgrim's district near the shrine, home to the atmospheric street known as Oharaimachi and the square called Okage Yokocho.
Other areas of interest near Ise Grand Shrine include the Hinjitsukan, an elite historic inn that's been converted into a museum. Head south to the city of Toba, and you'll find the Toba Aquarium and the famous “wedded rocks” of Meoto Iwa.