According to the Nihon Shoki, the second-oldest book of Japanese history, around 2,000 years ago Princess Yamato-hime was ordered by her father, Emperor Suinin, to find a new, permanent shrine for the most important deity in the land, the great sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. The princess, taking her task to heart, wandered the land for 20 years in search of a suitable home for the great goddess. Once she arrived in Ise, however, the goddess spoke to her and expressed a desire to establish her earthly abode in this bountiful area in between the mountains and the sea.
Ever since then, Ise Jingu shrine has been the home of Amaterasu Omikami, making it one of the most sacred places in Japan. The sun goddess resides in the Naiku, Inner Shrine — the most sacred shrine in Japan. Additionally, there’s also the Geku or Outer Shrine where Toyouke, the goddess of food and the harvest is enshrined. Today, the region on the eastern coast of the Shima Peninsula in Mie Prefecture is commonly called Ise-Shima, home to the historic town of Ise and the spectacular natural beauty of Ise-Shima National Park.
The most striking feature of this region with its mild, warm climate and fertile soil is its coastline. Called a ria coast, its many bays and small islands make the marine life very diverse and abundant, and harvesting its bounties has been a way of life here for thousands of years. This is the area where ama, or female divers, who can stay under water for long periods, originate. While ama are best known as pearl divers, they also dive for other treasures of the sea. One of these is the Ise-ebi (always called by that name regardless of where they’re caught) or Japanese spiny lobster. The Ise-ebi’s long antennae were traditionally regarded as signs of longevity, making them a must as centerpieces on the most festive occasions such as the New Year’s holidays. Fed by the nutrient-rich Kuroshio Current which flows from south to north along the Shima coast, the Ise-ebi caught here are especially prized for their sweet, firm meat that is enjoyed as sashimi, grilled, or simmered in dashi stock.
The peak season for Ise-ebi from Ise is the wintertime, but in late spring to summer another highly prized treasure from the sea comes into its own, awabi (abalone). The supply of abalone along the Shima coast is carefully sustained by limiting its season, as well as the length of time it can be harvested. An ama typically works for two hours per day hunting for abalone and then stops, so there is always some left for the next time. Not only does this prevent the supply of natural abalone from being depleted, it also allows them to grow to large sizes. Some of the best abalone are reserved as offerings for the gods who are enshrined at Ise Jingu, but there is still plenty left for us mortals though, and freshly caught abalone is something to be experienced when visiting the area. One of the best ways to do this is to visit an amagoya or diver’s hut near the coast, where the ama will grill freshly caught abalone on a charcoal grill right in front of diners’ eyes. The umami-rich juices of that flood the taste buds are simply heavenly.
Ise-ebi and abalone are the undeniable stars of Ise-Shima seafood, but there’s plenty more to enjoy too. The area is also where cultured pearls were first developed and while the local pearl industry is not what it used to be, the edible cousins of pearl oysters are abundant and delicious. Oysters are usually only in season in the cold months, but here there is a variety called iwagaki (rock oyster) that is available in late spring to early summer. Firm and plump, rock oysters are delicious eaten on the half shell with just a squeeze of lemon. And for fans of fugu (pufferfish), a variety that’s caught around the port of Anori called Anori fugu has a slight cherry-blossom pink hue and a subtle sweetness.
Madai (Japanese snapper), a must-have at wedding feasts and May 5 Children’s Day celebrations, is also popular. Seaweed varieties such as hijiki and aosa-nori are also harvested along the coastline.
While the bounty of the sea is what Ise-Shima is best known for, the land also yields delicious food, starting with rice. Great rice means that sake is made locally, too, and, like the local cuisine, the sake of Mie Prefecture is usually made in small batches, under the highest quality standards.
Just up the road from Ise-Shima is the city of Matsuzaka, which is world famous for having some of the best wagyu in the country. Although Kobe beef is well known around the world, in Japan Matsusaka beef is arguably better known than its Kobe counterpart. While the seafood of Ise-Shima is a product of nature, Matsusaka beef is a product of human innovation, pushing the limits of what tender, juicy and marbled beef can be.
In the early days, access to Ise Jingu was restricted to the Imperial family and later aristocrats and the upper samurai classes. Around the late 16th century, with the establishment of better roads, making a pilgrimage to Ise very popular, much like the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela or Canterbury in Europe around that time. During the mid to late Edo Period (around the 17th to mid-19th centuries), it’s estimated that one in six Japanese people made an Ise pilgrimage at least once in their lifetimes; amongst the citizens of Edo (current Tokyo), it was practically a craze. With so many regular folk making the trip to Ise, many of whom could not afford to dine on expensive delicacies, several down-to-earth dishes appeared to cater to their needs, as well as those of the regular folk who lived and worked there.
Many of these dishes are still popular today, such as tekone-zushi, marinated fresh katsuo (bonito or skipjack tuna) mixed with sushi rice that was originally enjoyed by fishermen on their boats; Ise udon, thick wheat noodles that are cooked in a dark broth until they are soft rather than chewy; and sanma-zushi, salt-cured Pacific saury pressed onto sushi rice. There are also some hidden gems to be found in area eateries that are popular with local residents, as well as tourists, such as spectacularly large fried shrimp, freshly made tempura and so much more. Whether exploring local dives or enjoy elegant meals at a ryokan (traditional inn), there’s something to please everyone’s appetite.
Legend has it that soon after the abode of the great sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami was established in Ise, she became lonely and asked for one of her fellow deities to come and join her there and be her companion — the aforementioned Toyouke, the goddess of food and the harvest. If one is allowed to indulge in a flight of fancy, it’s nice to imagine the two goddesses, partaking of the delicacies of the area as they enjoy the mild weather, chatting away and smiling benignly at the people of Ise-Shima, doing the same, as they have done for millennia.