Centuries ago millions of pilgrims trekked to Japan’s spiritual home in Mie Prefecture, especially to celebrate the cyclical dismantling and rebuilding of Ise Grand Shrine — the embodiment of Japanese shrines.
Along with being ranked among Japanese as the number one “power spot” travel destination, or source of divine energy, the prefecture also enjoys a rich food culture, many historical sites, a robust industrial sector and bountiful nature.
With a little less than 2½ months before the Ise-Shima Summit on May 26-27, there is little wonder why Mie Gov. Eikei Suzuki is ebullient: he is getting the opportunity to showcase the area’s omotenashi — Japanese-style hospitality — to visitors making their own pilgrimage from across the globe.
Aside from Ise Grand Shrine, the gifts from the region are boundless, said Suzuki. But asked recently about what he hopes visitors coming to the G-7 summit will really enjoy there, food topped the list.
“Well, I’d have to say the list is endless. But I really want people to taste our food,” Suzuki told reporters at the Mie Prefectural Government Office ahead of a press tour organized by the Japan National Press Club in the buildup to the summit.
“For example, most Japanese people know about Matsusaka beef, but around the world Kobe beef is still more famous. We want people to taste the foods of Mie and feel their allure,” he said.
The exquisitely marbled Matsusaka beef from Mie is generally considered Japan’s choice cut. The heifers raised in Matsusaka are fed beer to stimulate their appetite and receive regular massages with shochu, Japanese distilled liquor, before being slaughtered.
Examples of some of Mie’s other gourmand delights are the succulent grilled abalone, which ama female divers have been catching off the reefs of Toba and Shima for over 2,000 years, sweet and juicy Ise lobsters, red sea bream, rock oysters, Iga beef (a favorite of the Iga ninja clan), and flavorful, briny sea lettuce from the mouth of Ise Bay, to name a few.
The Chunansei region features historic ruins such as the Matsusaka Castle and Saiku, the palace of the Saio, an unmarried Imperial princess who was sent to serve as high priestess on behalf of the emperor at the Ise Grand Shrine.
The nearby Sakakibara hot spring, where Imperial princes would bathe themselves before paying respects at Ise Grand Shrine, is a historic site that appears in the 11th-century Japanese classic, “The Pillow Book.”
Mie also boasts a thriving industrial sector with the likes of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., bearings maker NTN Corp., and Toshiba Semiconductor and Storage Products Co., which operates the world’s most advanced flash memory manufacturing plant in Yokkaichi for devices such as digital cameras, USB flash drives and video games.
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route known as Iseji, which worshippers once traveled on their way from Ise Grand Shrine to the three Kumano Sanzan shrines, is a World Heritage Site in the Kii mountain range. Sections of the cobblestone roads that wind through a cypress forest are believed to have been built as far back as the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).
Other natural wonders include the fireflies that visit Sakakibara hot spring in early summer and the pristine Miya River, known for the lush vegetation along its embankments, which flows 91 kilometers through central Mie into Ise Bay.
Among the hot topics along with the opening of the new Aman Resorts luxury Amanemu hotel on Shima Peninsula on March 1, the governor is touting a nationwide research survey conducted by Mie in February, targeting men and women from their 20s to 50s that placed the prefecture first in four categories.
Of the 1,750 people polled, more than 60 percent said Mie was famous for delicious beef, with Hyogo Prefecture — home to Kobe beef — a distant second at little over 30 percent.
Mie won hands down at nearly 50 percent for being known as the sacred ground of motor sports, most notably the Suzuka Circuit that hosts numerous Formula One Grand Prix races.
And more than 35 percent of respondents said Mie’s shrimp was the tastiest in Japan, with Hokkaido in second at a little over 25 percent.
A third of those surveyed named Mie the No. 1 “power spot” they wished to visit, with Kyoto coming in second at around 19 percent.
Nearly three-quarters of respondents knew that Mie will host the Ise-Shima Summit at Shima Kanko Hotel on Kashiko Island in May, featuring the leaders from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. But those in their 20s were least aware at around 61 percent.
Mie is widely regarded as the home of the Japanese people and from where they derive their spiritual nature. Notably, British historian Arnold Toynbee wrote in the visitors’ log of the Ise Grand Shrine in 1967, “Here, in this holy place, I feel the underlying unity of all religions.”
During the Edo Period (1603-1868), millions of pilgrims traveled from rural areas, often walking for days to reach Ise Grand Shrine, where Amaterasu Omikami, a major deity of the Shinto religion believed to be an ancestral god of the Imperial family, is enshrined.
Those weary travelers — many of them women and farmers — were warmly received by locals with generous offerings of food, drink and shelter. This is why Suzuki asserts the concept of omotenashi is rooted in Mie.
“In places such as Nara and Kyoto there is tradition and culture you can see, but Mie offers the unseen heart and soul. That’s what I want people to know about,” Suzuki said.
The shrine, which currently has some 10 million visitors a year, came into existence around 2,000 years ago around the time of the birth of Jesus and its sanctuary has been traditionally dismantled and rebuilt every 20 years for over 1,300 years, Suzuki said. The renewal process called the Sengu started under Empress Jito circa 690.
“What happens there every day is Shinto religious services, but what we want to convey to those coming to the summit is the spiritual nature of the Japanese people, the architectural styles, the concept of the coexistence with nature, food, culture and things of this nature. I’ve heard Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe is very eager to have the heads of state visit there,” Suzuki said.
Shinto transcends race, sex, generation, and religion while teaching tolerance of others, Suzuki said.
“For example, at the summit we must be prepared for any threats from extremist groups like IS (Islamic State),” Suzuki said, “but in a roundabout way, by bringing people together there to transcend race, religion, sex, and generation, this leads to world peace.”