The wooded wonders of Japan's Ise-Shima region
Eirik Johnson
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The wooded wonders of Japan's Ise-Shima region

As I puffed my way up a steep, forested path in a spirit-filled corner of Japan, my guide, Kimi Kuribayashi, told me a story. Years earlier, she'd been walking in the mountains near Shingu, a town not far from us, with a friend and her teenage daughter. Suddenly, Kuribayashi recalled, the girl stopped. “She said, 'I see figures flying toward us. Five mountain demons in white kimonos. And another one, tall, taller than the basketball coach at school. He's dressed in purple.' "

Her friend's daughter hadn't been frightened, Kuribayashi explained, because she'd had such visions before. She took them as a reminder that humans are trespassers in these mountains in central Japan, which, according to lore, have been crowded with deities ever since the gods Izanagi and Izanami created the Japanese islands and gave birth to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. "Many people, when they see the grave of the mother of the Sun Goddess," Kuribayashi continued, “burst into tears."

I didn't think that likely to happen to me. I've lived in Japan for 30 years now, and the modern country I know is a largely secular place of bullet trains and shopping arcades and wild goth fashions. But traveling across Japan has also taught me, again and again, that the most magnetic places in this land are its mountains. And I was finding the rugged region of Kumano to be one of the most spiritually charged landscapes I'd ever encountered in Japan. We were on one of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage paths, a network of six misty, wooded trails, some UNESCO-protected, that link sacred Shinto sites across the Kii Peninsula. Ahead of us, a rope was stretched between two trees above a 400-foot-high waterfall, indicating that even this rush of water was considered a shrine.

We labored up the Daimon-zaka slope, which is lined with 800-year-old cedars, passing a mossy rock on which visitors had laid coins. Beside it was a small stupa of pebbles — a miniature reliquary. I tried to push down a Blair Witch shiver, but Kuribayashi registered my unease. As a child, she said, she had been quite scared to visit the shrines of Kumano Kodo. "My father always told me I had to be a very good girl to come to such a sacred place," she went on. "It was always dark, and the steps were steep for my small legs. There are so many training centers here for mountain ascetics. The atmosphere can be very severe."

We pushed ourselves on, up nearly empty paths that bore no trace of the modern world, arriving at last at the Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine, one of Japan's most important Shinto sites, with a Buddhist temple at its side. If I took that trail over there, Kuribayashi told me, I could get to Hongu, one of the area's other great shrines, in 14 hours. Another auspicious site, a wooden sign showed, lay “only 315 minutes" away. All across Kumano, pilgrims walk these trails for weeks at a time.

Japanese Shrines
A torii gate greets pilgrims as they approach Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine, one of Japan's most important Shinto sites, from the valley below. Eirik Johnson

"We here are mutants, in a sense," Kuribayashi remarked as we looked across the deep valleys and unpeopled spaces. "In many cases, our ancestors were itako, female shamans. My own grandfather was a yamabushi, a mountain ascetic. He taught me secret chants at the age of eighty-eight, not long before he died. In Kumano, we're all living in two worlds."

Like many newcomers to Japan, I was most pulled by Buddhism when I moved to Kyoto from New York City in 1987: the enigmatic geometry of clean, raked sand, the silence of mountain meditation halls filled with black-robed monks. Yet the longer I've lived in Japan, the more I've come to understand that the country's secret soul lies in Shinto, its near-animist folk religion. By the time Buddhism arrived in the sixth century, Shinto had already been vibrant for a thousand years, reminding every being in Japan that he or she belongs to a living network of spirits. The "way of the gods," as Shinto defines itself, has no official texts or doctrines. It simply urges cleanliness and purity, devotion to the emperor, and deference before the kami-sama, the gods who are believed to inhabit every dust mote and drop of dew.

Traveling across Japan has taught me, again and again, that the most magnetic places in this land are its mountains.

The land of harmony, as Japan is sometimes called, has long sought to make its two spiritual traditions seem like braided parts of a single whole. But the customs and superstitions of Shinto haunt every corner of the country. They're in the little vase of salt that my Kyoto-born, Metallica-loving wife places outside our Western-style apartment to purify our home and in the freezing showers my mother-in-law used to take each morning, shouting prayers as if communing with the gods under an ice-cold water-fall. In a country where everything has a precise role, my neighbors head to Buddhist temples or funeral rites, but go to the bright orange torii of Shinto shrines for celebrations of all kinds. Buddhism may be the dark, elegant cloth that Japan lays over its ancestors, but Shinto is the heart that pulses beneath the land.

Though Shinto may sound unfamiliar, it's probably less foreign than you think. Just look at the New York Times best-selling books of Marie Kondo, the "decluttering guru" who suggests blocking the eyes of your teddy bear before throwing him away and asking your dress if it's “sparking joy." Pure Shinto! Watch the director Hayao Miyazaki's globally beloved anime films Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro and enter a universe in which every blade of grass has a soul and even radishes can smile benevolently.

I had longed for decades to travel deep into the Shinto realm of inner Japan. But the Kii Peninsula, a land of local trains and amusement-park hotels, has always been hard to get to. Last year, though, Aman Resorts opened Amanemu, its first Japanese property outside Tokyo, in Ise-Shima National Park, a region on the Shima Peninsula, which extends from the Kii Peninsula's eastern flank. The resort sits not far from the two holiest shrines in all of Japan, dedicated to the Sun Goddess, in the coastal city of Ise. As I arrived at Amanemu's welcome pavilion, a silent, empty space overlooking rolling hills and blue snatches of Ago Bay, I was reminded that I have always found Aman hotels to be spiritually Japanese, understated to the max. Yet here, in this wild region of protective deities, the company has found the ideal setting for taking its impeccable service and elegant simplicity to their ultimate extreme.

Shrines on the Kumano Kodo Trail in Japan
From left: The Buddhist temple of Seiganto-ji overlooks Japan’s tallest waterfall, Nachi-no-Taki; ritual umbrellas used by priests at Naiku, the inner shrine at the Grand Shrine of Ise. Eirik Johnson

All I could see at first were great stretches of open space: long, narrow corridors that were essays in shadow and light, minimalism writ large. Wandering down one slatted hallway in the spa, I noticed that the window at the end framed a red maple tree. When I stepped into the resort's exquisite library, I found myself looking out on a small courtyard with a single cherry tree at its center. Soon after I had slipped into a changing room to wash my hands, a ghost stole in after me, unnoticed, removing the towel I'd dirtied. I was reminded of how I'd sent the resort an e-mail about my arrival time and instantly received a response, in perfect English, at 4:18 a.m. local time.

The crowning glory of Amanemu, Aman's first hot-springs resort anywhere, is an enormous outdoor onsen with a set of interlocking baths the size of two large swimming pools, as intricately laid out as a water garden in a Persian miniature. I'd hardly checked in before I was hastening through a series of silent Japanese still lifes to soak in the warm (not scalding) water, as darkness fell and soft lanterns illuminated pavilions at the center of each thermal spring. After one of the tastiest dinners I've ever had — sesame tofu with caviar, barracuda sashimi, pan-fried Ise lobster, steamed truffle rice, and astonishingly tender beef from nearby Iga — I couldn't resist stealing back to onsen nirvana. The whole space remained miraculously empty (perhaps in part because all the rooms also have small private Japanese baths).

"For us Japanese," mused my wife, Hiroko, "this is like going to a foreign country." For us foreigners, though, it is like entering a truly global ryokan, a deeply traditional Japanese inn that nonetheless meets every international need. In other Aman resorts, dancers and musicians visit from neighboring villages to share their culture with guests; in this genuinely rural setting, I was tickled to see knots in the fence to keep wild pigs out and to hear of a turtle that had made its way to the spa from the nearby bay. At dawn one morning, as Hiroko sat on our terrace, watching the lights of far-away fishing boats under a pinkening sky, she noticed a small masked face staring at her: it was a tanuki, or raccoon dog — a legendary mischief-maker in Japanese folklore — pausing in its search for breakfast.

Aman means "peace in Sanskrit, and it must be be said that Amanemu is best suited for those who wish to savor the tranquility of ancient shrines, untrodden paths, and empty spaces, rather than for newcomers seeking to drink in the abundance of Japan. To get to the resort from Tokyo takes four hours on a sequence of trains. Once you arrive, you realize that the Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine is still three hours away by car. Even getting to the city of Ise from Amanemu requires a 60-minute drive.

When we made our trip to the Grand Shrine of Ise, we saw how much inspiration Amanemu's designer, Kerry Hill, had drawn from its re ned simplicity. There are actually two shrines: Naiku, the "inner" shrine, and Geku, the "outer" shrine. They are located about four miles apart, set inside large compounds just outside of town. It is typical, perhaps, of the Japanese faith in the rhythms of nature — and in the laws of impermanence — that both structures have been dismantled and reconstructed every 20 years since the late seventh century. Peter Grilli, a friend who has spent many of his 74 years in Japan, was one of a few thousand blessed souls invited to the ceremony in October 2013 to see the shrines as they were inaugurated for the 62nd time. He described to me the way the crowd remained absolutely silent throughout the night as a line of priests, a princess from the imperial household, and attendants carrying burning torches vanished into the enclosure in the dark, transporting the treasures of the old shrine to the new one, built adjacent to it. "It was," Grilli wrote to me, "one of the most inspiring experiences of my entire life in Japan."

Touring Japan's Shrines
A priest performs a ritual blessing on the grounds of Geku, the outer shrine at the Grand Shrine of Ise. Eirik Johnson

Hiroko and I began by visiting Naiku, walking under a high torii and across broad white-gravel pathways lined with dense foliage. Here and there an unprepossessing stone had been cordoned off as a piece of sanctity. When we reached the holy of holies, the place where a sacred, eight-pointed mirror belonging to the Sun Goddess is said to reside along with her other belongings, a guide reminded me that no one but the emperor is permitted to walk over even the external threshold. The rest of us were left to peer over a fence at a simple compound of unpainted cypress buildings that had been erected using joinery three years earlier.

At Geku, the story was the same. Yes, we could see Shinto priests in immaculate white robes and curved black hats in the open courtyard. Yes, we could gaze upon an aging gray stable horse that had once been ridden by Masako, the crown princess of Japan. Schoolchildren washed their hands in the crystal waters of the Isuzu River near Uji Bridge, said to link the human world with the realm of the gods. But the real highlight of the area was the spare and stylish Sengukan museum, which opened in 2013 above a pond near Naiku. Its gorgeous videos and immaculate re-creations filled in many of the missing details regarding the shrines' contents and construction.

For quite a few visitors, I suspect that the little town of Ise will prove every bit as evocative as the shrines themselves. As we drove along the quiet roads, a local pointed out a shop that's been selling seaweed for more than a century. On Kawasaki Street, which is lined with centuries-old wooden houses of the kind you seldom see in Japan anymore, we found ourselves inside a little store cluttered with old cups and bric-a-brac. The owner, who might have passed for an absent- minded professor, beckoned us down a corridor. Back and back we went, until we reached a storehouse of Edo- period books, old maps, coins, and gorgeous traditional paintings. These had been the treasures of his family for the past 300 years, he explained, leading me across an attic in which heirlooms were stacked in every corner. Suddenly, with a flourish, he produced what he claimed was the oldest banknote ever issued in Japan.

New Amanemu Resort in Japan
From left: A private onsen at the Amanemu resort; the Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine. Eirik Johnson

While in the city, we were lucky enough to catch the end of Kannamesai, the greatest of the hundreds of annual festivals held by the Grand Shrine of Ise. It celebrates the first rice harvest of the season with offerings to the Sun Goddess from thousands of shrines across the land, as well as from the emperor himself. We saw photos of the fresh seafood, vegetables, and rice that are ceremonially carried, on a kind of palanquin, to the deity twice every day, even through snow or typhoon. In the seaside town of Toba, about 30 minutes from Ise, we watched ama, female pearl divers of the sort who captivated Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice, offer free demonstrations of their lung capacity at Mikimoto Pearl Island.

One afternoon in Ise, our car passed a small stone gate above a path. "Oh," the driver remarked casually, "that leads to the cave where the Sun Goddess hid" — a reference to one of the central stories in Japanese mythology. "The gods are everywhere here," said this grizzled soul, who might have been a gangster or a wrestler. "The mountains are full of them. This whole area is sacred. You see those cypress trees? This whole forest, everything, is part of the shrine. Those trees will be used to rebuild Naiku two hundred years from now."

As on the roads that lead to Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain, the pilgrims who pass among the trees walk in the footsteps of fellow travelers (emperors included) from centuries before. I thought of the duke who arrives in the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare's As You Like It and finds "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything." On our way to the Nachi shrine, Kuribayashi had told me that 800 years ago, the faithful who filled the roads here were "thick as ants." In the ensuing years, the flow of pilgrims ebbed, but then 400 years ago they returned, only to subside once more. Now, with the new millennium, the paths have come back to life.

In Kumano and Ise, I realized, one absorbs the central lesson of Japan: that the words you hear — and the sights you see — are less important than the silent customs that lie beneath them. I asked our driver at one point if he'd been affected by a recent typhoon. "Oh no," he said, in his thick rural accent, "we have the shrine here, so we're protected." As he returned us to the comforts of Amanemu, Hiroko contemplated the passing greenery. "I've lived in Japan for sixty years," she said, "and I've never seen anywhere so unspoiled and traditional."

Japan's Ise Region
From left: The Meotoiwa, or "wedded rocks," near Ise are joined by a thick rope, a Shinto tradition; a mike, or assistant priestess, at Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine. Eirik Johnson

I had this same thought when Kuribayashi and I were visiting a simple local restaurant on a narrow road of shops a few minutes' walk from the Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine. There, we drank delectable plum juice and ate mehari, or "open- eye" sushi — so called because the rolls are so large, you have to open your eyes as wide as your mouth to take them in. If I wanted, Kuribayashi told me, she could take me to a stall near the shrine in Shingu, where a woman who sold fried octopus could read my aura. But before I could even answer, she was showing me a different version of the future, in a mandala on a wall nearby. It was a reproduction of one that had been carried all around Japan, she said, by hundreds of pairs of nuns.

"You see there?" she said, drawing my gaze toward what was apparently some Japanese variant on St. Peter's gate, complete with saintly examiner. These, she explained, were the 10 spiritual realms, some nightmarish, where we might all end up. "This is the Stalker Hell," she pointed out, "for men who chase beautiful ladies, where leaves turn into knives. The Hungry Hell, for those who waste food, only to find that everything they eat turns to fire. The Snake Hell...."

Potent stuff. But by then she'd lost me. I was already thinking of the Peaceful Heaven we'd taken in after our climb up the mountain. Of the Animist Heaven that lived in these shrines where the gods are still served food twice a day. And of the Medicinal Heaven that awaited me back at the lanterned mineral baths of Amanemu. In a place like this, getting into hot water doesn't have to be the first step toward hell at all.

The Details: What to Do in Ise-Shima, Japan

Getting There

Fly to Chubu Centrair International Airport, which serves the city of Nagoya and the Chubu region of Japan. A train ride from Nagoya to the city of Ise is about two hours via Kintetsu Railway or Japan Railways. There is also direct rail service to Ise from Osaka and Kyoto.

When to Go

The beginning of April and the last two weeks of November are typically the loveliest times of year to visit, though the weather is pleasant much of the year. Avoid July and August, which tend to be hot and very humid.

Hotels

Amanemu: You’d be hard-pressed to find a resort more exquisite, or with finer service, than this deeply Japanese oasis of tranquil- ity. Long windows in every room overlook Ago Bay or the garden, and the two-part onsen (with no mixed bathing) is a particular highlight. doubles from $809.

Nemu Hotel & Resort: Long the only resort option in the Ise-Shima area, this 60-room hotel has an outdoor pool, a spa, and a solid traditional Japanese restaurant. It opened an 18-hole golf course in 2015. doubles from $259.

Restaurants

Machiya Baru: Head to this spot in the city of Ise for idiosyncratic Japanese takes on Italian classics like pizza and pasta. 2-17-23 Kawasaki; 81-596-20-1186; entrées $10–$13.

Machiya Tofu: Located in an old wooden house across the street from Machiya Baru, this down-to-earth lunch spot serves house-made tofu with yuzu or green tea sprinkled on it. 2-14-12 Kawasaki; 81-596-25-1028; entrées $10–$15.

Restaurant at Amanemu: The resort is at least 10 minutes away from other dining choices (aside from neighboring Nemu). The food is top-notch, with Western-style breakfasts, tempura at lunch, and memorable dinner menus that change with the seasons. entrées $26–$183.

Activities

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Paths: These wooded trails linking Kyoto and Osaka to Shinto sites across the Kii Peninsula have been in use for more than a thousand years. While many visitors walk them alone, there are plenty of outfitters that offer tours, including Walk Japan, which charges $3,279 per person for an eight-night journey from Osaka to Ise.

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