Four or five years ago, standing alone in front of the clear, gently bubbling waters of Kiyomasa no Ido, a natural spring secreted in woodland at the far end of the Meiji Shrine’s iris garden, I strained to detect any sound, but even the noise from car horns was smothered and muted by the grove. If I had to elect the single-most tranquil spot in Tokyo, this would have been it.

Returning a few months later, I met a long line of visitors, corralled behind red plastic bollards, the type found at the edges of road construction sites. Two uniformed guards, barking instructions through bullhorns, inveighed people to be orderly as they approached the tiny pool of water. It transpired that a few weeks before this second visit, a TV celebrity had discovered the well, declaring it a “power spot.” An easily persuaded public had responded by turning out in force, tearing up the site’s last shreds of silence.

Mercifully, there are manifold alternatives to the media’s spiritual flavors of the month. Exploring the Shima Peninsula and its dense, green interior, stumbling upon sacred rituals and ceremonies, watching Japanese supplicants at prayer or making offerings in tiny forest shrines, add to the sensation of being connected in some mysterious fashion to a similar, but vastly larger, spiritual power grid.

Located in Mie Prefecture, the entire peninsula, with its two sacred Geku (Outer) and Naiku (Inner) shrines acting as spiritual generators — central energy sources — for a host of smaller, untrammeled shrines, temples and holy sites, might be considered as one massive power spot.

Animism: A visitor touches a tree in the forest at the Grand Shrines of Ise for good luck.
Animism: A visitor touches a tree in the forest at the Grand Shrines of Ise for good luck. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Every Japanese, even those with only a smidgen of pious yearning, want to pay homage to the Grand Shrines of Ise at least once in their lifetime. Famously rebuilt every 20 years in precise replication of the originals, visitors are not permitted to photograph the main shrine buildings. It isn’t clear whether the rigorous standards in rebuilding the sites that prevailed during Sacheverell Sitwell’s visit to the shrines in 1958 were in force, but according to the English writer, carpenters were required to, “wear clean white clothes, bathe often, and if a workman cuts his finger and a drop of blood falls on the wood it is immediately thrown away.”

German architect Bruno Taut, was sufficiently impressed by the majestic simplicity of the structures to declare, “The Parthenon is the most aesthetically sublime building in stone, as are the Ise Shrines in wood.” The Sacred Mirror, one of three objects constituting the imperial regalia, is believed to be stored here. The lay public are strictly forbidden to enter the inner sanctums. Here lies a supreme irony, that one of the world’s great religious monuments remains invisible to the eye. Ultimately, the experience is memorable because of the location’s air of sanctity and mystery, its very lack of drama and exposure. Perhaps the spirit of the Grand Shrines exists not in its native spatial forms, which can resemble empty theaters, but in the surrounding sanctity of its forest of towering cedars.

The worship of deities connected to food, in common with many early cultures, predates the cult of the Sun Goddess that’s deeply connected to Ise. It is no coincidence that the primary rites at the shrine and in its vicinity focus on the cultivation of rice, or that the shrines here, and elsewhere on the peninsula, resemble rice granaries.

Fair harvest: Giant fans are used as part of a rice planting ritual at Sarutahiko Shrine.
Fair harvest: Giant fans are used as part of a rice planting ritual at Sarutahiko Shrine. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

At Sarutahiko Shrine, a short walk from the precincts of the Naiku, rice planting rituals are performed once a year during late spring by men and women in ornately embossed costumes stylistically similar to their peasant ancestors. In the same manner that shrines throughout the peninsula are idealized rather than literal representations of granaries, rice planting ceremonies are perfected versions of reality.

I am drawn to the shrine by the sound of drums, the music is a preliminary for an event that attracts several spectators who line up around a rice paddy at the back of the shrine, where a ceremony involving sake is taking place next to the field. Two sumptuously dressed priests summon the gods by blowing on conches, and the slow, methodical movements of the sowers, as they weave across the waterlogged paddy, is hypnotic.

At events like these, whose roots are often lost in the mist of time, you grow attentive to details and ritual items that can seem inexplicable to the casual observer. Likely to baffle but enchant, lay visitors to ancient performances rich in decorative and sartorial touches can expect to come across striped gaiters and white leggings; scarlet cloths and streamers; lacquered boxes carried at chest height; gold, brocade hats; rows of sake bottles wrapped in white wax paper; rosaries; long-handled, tasseled bells mounted with gold flowers and phoenixes; women in somber kimonos and purple stoles; and shrine maidens bearing ornamental coral tiaras on their heads. The provision of exhaustive explanations may have the counter-productive effect of demystifying these timeless micro-pageants.

Stumbling by chance across the rice planting ritual is a reminder that timing in travel is everything. And good fortune shines on us again as we approach the coastal town of Futami. Early risers gather here to watch the sunrise behind Meoto Iwa, a sacred tableau better known as the two “wedded rocks.” The island boulders, attached by a shimenawa, a sacred rope made from plaited rice straw, represent the primordial figures of Izanagi and Izanami, creators of the earth.

On the morning we arrive, a fine day during the May Golden Week holiday, the rope is being replaced, a process requiring the services of several men, each required to wade through the sea to the rocks while bearing sections of the heavy rope. Before the rope reaches the men, it is fed through the hands of spectators, who attempt to absorb a little of its divinity.

Hanging out: Teams of volunteers change the shimenawa (sacred rope) of Meoto Iwa in Mie Prefecture.
Hanging out: Teams of volunteers change the shimenawa (sacred rope) of Meoto Iwa in Mie Prefecture. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Surprisingly, the event is not that rare, being staged three times a year, on May 5, Sept. 5, and in the middle of December. Sights like this are well-documented, but visitors who have more time to penetrate the interior of the peninsula, its forest shrines and ancient mountain temples, will discover a seemingly lost world of esoteric spiritual practices.

The next day, driving into the rural heart of the peninsula, we smell wood smoke on the winter air. Making our way along a forested path toward the waterfall of Shirataki Daimyojin, we come upon two young women, soaking wet, huddled over a fire, warming up after standing beneath the fall’s icy torrent in a practice known as misogi (ritual purification). If you practice such ablutions at this time of year, subjecting your shuddering body to the force of a waterfall, even a small one like this, you need to be close to a source of heat.

As they returned to the cascade, we could make out an incantation, a chanting, again and again, a tantric optimism in the words, “neigai tamae, kanae tamae” (“pray hard, that it may come to pass”). This is likely a contemporary addition to a practice that is largely about self-cleansing as opposed to wish fulfillment. The women, who hailed from outside the peninsula, described the event as “experience tourism,” claiming to feel pleasantly lustrated after the immersions.

Experience is the operative word as we try to ascend to the temple of Aonominesan Shofukuji. A narrow road, just sufficient for one vehicle, rock face on one side, deep storm drains on the other, requires considerable concentration to remain on its unpaved surface. Dense forest and enlarged ferns press in on both sides. We pray that an approaching vehicle does not appear. There is, we would later discover, an alternative, a properly paved, albeit narrow, road snaking up the other side of the mountain. At the top, magnificent in its isolation, the temple, its timber silver with age and mildew, is a fine structure deserving of more attention. We almost have the precincts to ourselves, free to wander its connecting corridors, standing in the shadows of dimly lit rooms, admiring the complex carvings beneath ancient transom.

It’s a thirsty business exploring the spiritual haunts of this peninsula, even in the colder months. On our final night, I order several cans of Simo Beer, pronounced “Shimo,” the spelling denoting the old name of the region. A well-established brew, the brand is said to have been used in celebrations and rituals. Like the Catholic faith, Shinto is not averse to the occasional drink, its creed enabling a lenient, tolerant view of life, in which alcoholic spirits and spirit of place converge in perfect harmony, and to everyone’s satisfaction. In the liquor stores of the Shima Peninsula you may find the sacred even in a can of beer.

The sovereign blessing of the peninsula, its religious treasures, festivals and rites, allows us, under the watchful regard of the gods, to partake of its profound timelessness even without entirely grasping the religious correspondences, or the magnitude of its mysteries.

And there is infinitely more to explore. Somewhere at the bottom of the peninsula, a fisherman with a glint of wonder in his eyes tells us, there is the torso of a submerged stone Buddha, its salt-pitted features visible only at low tide.

Although there are a number of towns to stay in on the Shima Peninsula, the best options are Ise, Toba or, further down the peninsula, Kashikojima. These are connected by the Kintetsu Line, which extends to Osaka, Nagoya and onward to Tokyo.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.