Thursday, 16 August 2007

Mie - Futamigaura Meoto-iwa + Ise Jingu (Naiku)

Last Thursday to Friday, I took vacation to Mie prefecture town of Ise and its nearby beach of Futamigaura. Okitama-jinga (frog shrine) at Futamigaura (next to Meoto-iwa) was the fisrt photograph motivation of my tour. The Mie area is reached by shinkansen to Nagoya (1.5hrs) followed by a local Kintetsu line train to Ise-shi (2hrs).

A short distance south of Ise is a small town by the sea called Futamigaura. There, tourists are drawn to a pair of rocks in the sea, but close to shore, called the Meoto-iwa, or Wedded Rocks. The two rocks, considered to be male and female, are named Izanagi and Izanami and represent the primal couple in Japanese traditional history. According to legend, it is from this couple did all the Japanese islands arise. The rocks are also deemed husband and wife, and, as such, are joined in matrimony by sacred ropes called shimenawa, made from braided rice stalks. The ropes, which weigh almost a tonne, are replaced x times a year in a special ceremony. The Meoto-iwa celebrate the union of man and woman and the sanctity of the union between husband and wife in the Shinto belief of the people of Japan. Adjoining the Meoto-iwa (wedded rocks) is the Okitama-jinja, also known as the Frog Shrine. It is believed that the ancient goddess of food, known as Miketsu-no-Kami, resides in the shrine and it is there she is worshipped. The frog is Sarutahiko's messenger. Frog is called 'kaeru' in Japanese, which is a homonym for the another word meaning 'return home'. If you travel a lot, pray here for a safe return. 夫婦岩 There were water fountain frogs, frogs in the washing area awaiting bathing and purification, frogs on walls, frogs on rocks, frogs as shrine tokens, frogs in the shrine room itself, stone frogs, bronze frogs, ceramic frogs! Then there were the guardians of the wedded rocks who actually appeared to be various kinds of piebald and black cormorants, all rather large and exhibitionist. The Wedded Rocks are part of Futami Okitama Shrine known for frog sculptures. 二見興玉神社.

It was so hot that after a brief fanned visit to the rocks, I decided to walk along the waterfront, in search of a breeze and the purportedly nice beach and some cool water. There are many small shops lined along the route to the Meoto-iwa but there is also a kilometer long dyke on which to take a pleasant walk with the sea on one side and hotels and ryokan on the other. These older buildings are traditional wood panelled buildings amidst cypress pines and sandy soil. The local food, apart from locally canned Sinto beer (picturing the wedded rocks on the tin at sunrise) and scary-looking seashells from the BBQ, included noodles with mysterious sea creatures and many clam and crustacean components. Offshore are the islands where Mikimoto first invented the cultured pearl and oysters were also abounding, often simply BBQ'd in the shell over a grill. The beach was distinctly grey (not yellow or white as one might prefer) and bathers had to wash off the sand to avoid look dirty! A host of holidaying 20-somethings were frolicking in the (rather too hot) sun and cultivating their coconut-oil tans. I was amused by the proliferation of large inflatable beach toys that included elephant beetles and a whale.

I spent some time unsuccessfully trying to cool off because there seemed to be no such thing as a sea-breeze until it was time to wander back to Meoto-iwa for sunset on the rocks. The views along the promenade back to the Shrine in the low late afternoon sun were worthwhile and the sea possessed a stimulating deep aqua that seemed different. Large barges and cranes were busily excavating rocks from the ocean floor and relocating them to another new pier or storm-break. The shimenawa rope bonding the Wedded Rocks is replaced three times a year. The Wedded Rocks are actually a type of torii gate for worshipping the Okitama Sacred Stone in the ocean. A special ceremony is held in which village men walk out into the water at low tide and gradually replace the many-tonne rope and have been doing so for hundreds of years.

On Friday morning I headed to Ise-Jingu's Neiku (Inner Shrine) via Okage Yokocho that consists of streets of Meiji Period shops, traditional sweets, fish, pickles, pearls and many gift shops and restaurants. The cuisine here was amongst the most regional and interesting I have experienced, particularly in reference to eating types of new sea animals (and weeds)! Ise Shrine is a complex of Shinto shrines, surrounded by the 800-year-old cypress forest. For anyone living in Japan or interested in Japanese culture, Ise Jingu is a must-visit. It is the most sacred shrine in Japan, with great spiritual and historical significance. The city of Ise, located in Mie prefecture, is about two hours from Nagoya. With a population of only about 100,000 but with more than 6 million people visiting Ise Jingu every year, it can become very crowded, especially around holiday seasons. The busiest time of year is definitely oshougatsu (New Year's), when people gather from all over Japan to pray at Ise Jingu. Ise Jingu is divided into two large shrine compounds, containing over one hundred and twenty smaller shrines in addition to the two major shrines: Naiku (Inner Shrine) and Geku (Outer Shrine). The Inner shrine enshrines the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, who is believed to be the ancestor of the Japanese imperial family. For this reason, the Emperor visits this shrine when he assumes office, and on other important occasions. It is said to have been erected roughly 2000 years ago, and its location was chosen by the 11th Emperor of Japan, Suinin. The Outer Shrine enshrines Toyouke no Omikami, the goddess of harvest, and was erected in 478 A.D. It is customary to visit the Outer Shrine first, but many consider the (Naiku) Inner Shrine to be most beautiful. The inner sanctum is hidden except from select priests and the Emperor. The main building and inner sanctums of the Inner and Outer shrines are closed to the public, as they are considered to be very holy places. Only the top halves of the buildings can be seen over the gates. The entrance to the Inner Shrine begins at the Uji Bridge, which passes over the sacred Isuzu River. There are two large torii gates at either end of the bridge, and it is said that by crossing the bridge one's mind and heart are purified. What strikes visitors to Ise Jingu the most after passing through the gates is the sense of nature and life around them. The grounds is comprised of 5500 hectares of natural forest as well as young hinoki (cypress) trees, which were planted in 1926 for future harvesting. The trees tower over one passing through the grounds. Along the way to the main building in the Inner Shrine, one can wash their hands and mouth with the water from the Isuzu River at the Mitarashi. This is also done for purifications purposes.

The cedars were stunning and the beautifully groomed grounds every bit as magnificent (in a warmer way) as the temple gardens and shrine gardens of Kyoto or Nikko though its secretive nature and geographical remoteness makes this Shrine perhaps harder to appreciate. Other local attractions include the pearl museum and Ama women divers who dive to more than 10m with tanks to collect shellfish such as Awabi and Sazae.