ISE and NARA
Ancient paths from mythology
The region of Ise and Nara leads on the paths of spirituality, to the origins of Japanese mysticism.
In the heart of Kansai, Nara is world famous for its Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, some of the oldest in Japan. They are set on lush meadows, in the heart of a wooded park populated by Sika deer. The ancient capital of the 8th century was the political and religious center of Japan. Nara's inestimable artistic wealth still makes her a great center of spirituality. Nearby, the 5-story pagoda of Hōryū-ji Buddhist temple is considered the oldest wooden building in the world.
The sacred lands extend to the Kii Peninsula, which is teeming with sacred mountains. There, in deep forests of hundred-year-old cedars, the kami have been revered for nearly two millennia. Ise-jingu (Ise Shrine) is one of the holiest and most revered sites in Japan. The Japanese consider it to be a “cradle of the Japanese soul”.
In addition to the spirituality and ascetic practice of shugendō around the temples, the region of Ise and Nara cultivates ancient traditions, foremost among them sumo and the distillation of sake. On the sea side, the coasts of the Kii peninsula have seen the emergence of the culture of the ama, these women who snorkel in search of pearls, shellfish, fish and crustaceans. The peninsula and its coasts are cradled by the oldest traditions of Japan, and the most striking for the collective imagination.
Asuka culture is a fusion of Japanese, Chinese and Indian Buddhist culture brought together around 1,400 years ago in the Nara region. Many great temples were built in the area, including Hasedera Temple. The Yamanobe Road from Miwa to Nara is said to be Japan’s oldest ancient road.
Also known as Hoko-ji, the temple was founded at the end of the 6th century, during the Asuka period, it is considered one of Japan’s oldest Buddhist temples. It houses Japan’s oldest Great Buddha. Most of the original buildings were lost in two fires, but the Great Buddha has remained sitting in the same spot for 1400 years. The present buildings date back to the Edo period.
Symbolic of Mt. Yoshino, Kinpusen-ji is the head temple of Shugendo. Shugendo was developed by En no Gyoja in the late 7th century as a unique religion combining Shintoism, Buddhism, and Taoism with ancient Japanese mountain worship. The main Zao-do Hall is Japan’s second largest wooden building after the Great Buddha Hall of Todai-ji Temple.
Omiwa Shrine is said to be Japan’s oldest shrine. The deity is Mt. Miwa itself, a sacred mountain where the spirit of Omononushi no Okami, the god of nation-building, is said to reside. To enter the mountain, one must be dressed in white or wear a white sash. Except for rehydration, drinking, eating, taking pictures, and speaking of one’s experience inside the mountain afterwards is prohibited.
Amaterasu Omikami, ancestor of the Imperial Family and revered by Japanese as their all-powerful deity, was enshrined in Ise Jingu’s Koutai Jingu, also known as Naiku, beside the Isuzugawa River around 2,000 years ago during the reign of Emperor Suinin. Toyo-uke Daijingu, also known as Geku, is the Shinto-shrine where Amaterasu's meals are prepared, and is revered as the guardian deity of food, clothing, shelter, and industry. Passing through the Torii gate and walking the gravel path along the green approach, you will notice a certain difference in the atmosphere.
The Saio were unmarried royal princess or queens dispatched to Ise’s Saiku Shrine as a representative priestess to Amaterasu each time an Emperor ascended the throne. The practice lasted for around 660 years, and 64 Saio were appointed, each accompanied by around 500 attendants. There were five lodgings called Tongu in the cities of Seta, Koka, Tarumi, Suzuka, and Ichishi to accommodate them.
"Ama" refers to traditional women skin-divers who catch abalone, turban shells, seaweed, and other sea foods for a living. Ama fishing equipment has been found in Jomon period ruins from about 5,000 years ago. In the Heian period over 830 years ago, the Shima area was famed for providing the Heian period imperial family and imperial court with marine products such as puffer fish, abalone and turban shells.