The enchanting coast, bays, and islands of Ise-Shima National Park in Mie, Japan draws in millions of visitors each year. Pearl cultivation done by divers was once a major industry here and it still brings in tourists. The coastal environment has made Mie well known for its seafood, especially Ise Ebi(Japanese spiny lobster). The region was called Miketsu Kuni meaning the breadbasket of the Imperial court(paraphrasing) for the bountiful amount of food cultivated and harvested for the imperial court.

Sunset on a bay with mountains in the background
Photo of sunset at Ago Bay
By Miketsukunibito via Wikimedia Commons

Shinto sites in Ise-Shima National Park

The majority of Mie’s major attractions are located in Ise-Shima National Park. For instance, Mie’s most famous site,Ise Grand Shrine or Ise Jingu, a shrine complex dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu is located here.

a colorful woodblock print of an imperial procession to a large shrine
Wood block print of the Emperor Meji’s visit to Ise Jingu (March 11, 1869)

It is considered one of the holiest shrines in Shintoism and is said to be home to the Sacred Mirror, one of three items in the imperial regalia. Naikū (inner shrine) and Gekū (outer shrine) are the main shrines and are rebuilt every year as part of Shinto beliefs about the cycle of death and renewal in nature. But access to these shrines is restricted so tourists have to be content with viewing the structures from behind a fence and with roaming around the forest that surrounds the complex.

two thatched roof shrine buildings with a wooden fence
The fenced off Naiku
By N yotarou via Wikimedia Commons

Another famous site in the park and not far from Ise Jingu is Meoto Iwa or married rocks. These are two rocks in the water-bound together by a 40-kilogram rice straw rope. In Shintoism, the rocks represent the husband and wife creator gods Izanagi and Izanami. The larger one is the male rock Visiting during high time is recommended for the best view. Close by is the Okitama shrine notable for its frog statues.

One large rock and a much smaller rock tied together by rope in the ocean
Meoto Iwa
By Marubatsu via Wikimedia Commons

Flora and Fauna

Go to Toba and Ago bays and you will encounter a flock of seagulls, for these seagulls no need to run so far away, instead observe black-tailed and herring gulls in their natural habitat. In the summertime, Loggerhead turtles come to the beaches to lay their eggs. There are also, of course, boars, deer, monkeys, and other typical Japanese wildlife in the mountains.

The most unique animal to Ise is the Japanese Spiny Lobster. But the English name obscures the connection between this crustacean and the Ise area in Mie. In Japanese, it is named after the Ise, it is called Ise Ebi which means Ise Lobster. They can grow up to one foot in length. They are found in the ocean near Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea. But their significance is greatest in Japan, they are the center of the lobster industry in Japan. Like Maine lobsters in the US, Ise Ebi is also expensive and synonymous with high dining.

Woodblock print of a lobster with two shrimps in the background
Wood block print of Ise Ebi(1835)

The forest of Ise Jingu was made up of protected ancient cypress and cedar trees. The forest connection to the shrine spared it from destruction like other forests in the areas that were cut down for lumber. Unfortunately, the forest was destroyed by a typhoon in 2016. Notably, many nearby cypress forests were used for the construction of the inner, outer shrine, and the Uji bridge every twenty years.On the coast, there is the yellow flower Hibiscus Hamabo plant and the white Hamayu whose name means white cloth of the beach in Japanese. It was named for its similar appearance to the white cloth used in Shinto.

flower with long and thin white petals
Hamayu at Phnom Bokor National park in Cambodia
By Franz Xaver via Wikimedia Commons

Ama- Female Free Divers of Ise

Ama or Sea Women are exclusively female free divers in Ise. The practice is very old, possibly two thousand years old. The Ama would dive deep into the ocean, clad with nothing but a white loincloth to catch abalone for the imperial court.

wood block print of women diving for seafood
Woodblock print of Ama diving for Abalone by Yamaguchiya Tobei(1830s)

Nowadays, there wear a full white suit when diving. The color white being worn stems from the belief it prevent sharks from attacking and white symbolizing purity in Shintoism. Ama is unique from other forms of freediving for their breathing technique, they use a long whistle which they released air into as they resurface.

Photo of a woman clad in a white swim suit and headware  carrying a bucket in the water
Ama diver

In 1893, with Mikimoto Kokichi’s discovery in how to cultivate pearls and the subsequent creation of the pearl industry, Ama switched from diving for seafood to pearls. They were heavily utilized in the industry and 1940s there were an estimated 6,000 divers.

photo of men and women bringing a boat back after  Ama diving for seafood
Photo of Ama divers in the 1950s

Unfortunately, with the need for free divers obsolete with modern technology and the lack of interest in the younger generation to learn the skill, Ama is a dying tradition. There are only 60-70 divers left, many of which are elderly. Ama still dive but now it is more for tourism than pearls or seafood. A fun fact to end this post on is that James Bond`s love interest in You Only Live Twice was an Ama named Kissy Suzuki. I have never really seen a Bond movie but boy are those names ridiculous.

a woman wearing a white suit diving in an aquarium with fish to demonstrate Japanese free diving
Ama demostration at Shima Marineland, Shima, Mie.
By Miyuki Meinaka via Wikimedia Commons

Access

There are a variety of sites that I talked but the majority of them are in Ise city. Isuzugawa Station is a good starting point as you can take buses from there to Ise-Jingu Shrine. Note that the Inner and Outer Shrine are a 15 minute bus ride from each other. You can reach the station from major Japanese cities such as Nagoya(1.5 hours), Osaka(2 hours), and Kyoto(2.5 hours). The other attractions very popular amongst Japanese tourists can be easily reached by train or bus. For instance Meoto Iwa is a 35 minute bus ride from the Isuzugawa station and costs 490 yen.

10 thoughts on “Ise-Shima National Park-A Holy Seafood Wonderland

  1. What a fascinating story, well illustrated. I love those Japanese prints. I’ve got some Mikimoto cultured pearls and it’s wonderful to know something about their beginnings.

    1. l included more prints than usual because I thought they were really beautiful. Especially, the emperor visiting Ise-Jingu one.Thats very cool. Before researching for this post, I had no idea that pearl industry started in Japan.

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