Bro’s Blessing Ceremony @ Ise Grand Shrine, Japan

Amidst the cacophony of strumming string instruments and whistling pipes, 5 girls in Shinto robes are staging a prayer-dance in slow, circular movements, paying respects to all the 4 directions while holding the fans and bells in their hands (torimono). This is Miko Kagura, one of the oldest type of kagura danced by women in Shinto shrines.  Originally, miko kagura was a shamanic trance dance, performed by the miko who were shamanesses but it later evolved into a prayer-dance led by the priestesses in the service of the Shinto Shrines.

I am kneeling with my back straight, sitting seiza-style at my Bro’s Shinto Blessing ceremony in Kaguraden (Hall of Sacred Music and Dance) at Ise Grand Shrine.

Trying hard I am to concentrate on the religious rites being performed on the wooden stage in front of the sparsely decorated timber hall, but I am in too much of an agony to absorb any of the religious renditions – least of all, understanding the utterances! All I know albeit selfishly  is that my legs are burning and stinging with pain after only kneeling on the tatami floor for 5 minutes (!!)  *what a whimp, but kneeling is not for the un-initiated!*

Finally, after what seemed an eternity – 40 minutes – the priest read out his last verse in humming sing-song chants. He invited everyone to join in by bowing twice, then clapping our hands twice and following our final bow – the drum is beaten. We are now allowed to step out of our seiza.

To complete the ceremony, my Bro and the other worshippers receiving blessings were invited to receive a sip of sacred sake and a piece of blessed wood to take home.

For me, I am only too happy to find my feet again!


A ‘Lil Intro on Ise Grand Shrine

Ise Jingu or Ise Grand Shrine is the holiest and most important shrine in Japan with over two thousand years history.  This is where the Japanese prime minister comes to, to make his new year’s prayer every year.

There are two shrines to the Ise Jingu Complex:   Naiku (inner shrine) which is dedicated to the sun goddess called Amaterasu – the mythological ancestor of Japanese Emperor –  and Geku (outer shrine) which enshrines the deity of food.  Each site has the central building for worship which is not open to public and a number of sub buildings in a forest.   Most people visit Geku first, then Naiku, but if you don’t have time, my advise is to visit the larger grounds at Naiku.

This year, 2013 marks a significant year of renewal for Ise, known as ‘Sengu‘ – whereby the shrine buildings at Naiku and Geku, as well as the Uji Bridge, are rebuilt every 20 years in accordance with the Shinto belief of the death and renewal of nature and the impermanence of all things – and also a practical way of passing building techniques from one generation to the next.

“The new shrines built identically with the old ones, are not considered a replica of Ise, but are “Ise re-created”, meaning the recreation process reveals Shinto’s understanding of nature which does not make monuments, but “lives and dies, always renewed and reborn.” (William Alex, Japanese Architecture.)

Photos Journal:
Parked car.  Walked into a busy pedestrian-only street and had lunch at one of the many noodles shops around.


Oharai-machi: A pedestrian-only street replicating the Meiji-era merchant quarters, very touristy but well-maintained.

Stopped by the famous dessert shop for Akafuku mochi (here).  This is another variation of mochi with red bean paste with 3-finger indentations encasing a glutinous rice center.  The mochi is very delicious and I do suggest buying a couple of boxes as souvenirs, although you can also buy them at convenience stores and service stations around the area.


Akafuku Dessert Shop: #1 in TripAdvisor (at time of posting)


Lots of stalls selling food, souvenirs and ‘whatevers’…

A fair walk later, we came to Uji Bridge -the entrance to Naiku – we gave a customary bow then walked onto the bridge across the Isuzu River.


Entrance to Naiku


The Uji Bridge constructed out of Japanese white cypress, Hinoki. This will be dismantled during Sengu


Cast-iron detailing on bridge


Isuzu River

Well-landscaped garden


Bonsai pine-trees


Bonsai pine trees


Pilgrims go for purification to wash their hands at the Isuzu River

In Japan, the mysterious forces of nature, called ke, were believed to permeate palpable matter and formless space (collectively called mono in Japanese) to create mononoke. Mononoke was seen to coalesce in trees and stones.  Thus, the beautiful trees to look at and lots of walking on gravelly stones!


Sacred grounds


Sacred grounds

Ise Jingu is built amid a dense forest of giant cryptomeria trees which are sacred, covering an area of 5,500 hectares (13,600 acres).  Abut 90 hectares of the area around the shrines are untouched since they were founded 16 centuries ago.  The rest has been used to provide construction materials for shrine construction.


The trees need to grow for at least 100s of years before they can be considered big enough for construction materials


Centuries-old trees





Steps leading to Naiku

Naiku Shrine is enclosed in sacred enclosures.


Steps leading to Naiku

The strong pure lines in the structure is said to hold mystical powers.


Inside Naiku



After visiting the shrine, the worshipper has walk the path to the west of the sanctuary, to see the rice storehouse, treasury  and also to get a view of the Naiku Shrine, however, we retraced our footsteps instead and found oursleves to be walking against the crowds.  Since it is regarded bad-luck to walk against the flow, we decided to return to our original path.  So here’s a file picture from the internet to show you what the Naiku Shrine looks like,  although obscured by the high wall.


Naiku Shrine
Only members from the Imperial Family and head priests are allowed into the Inner Sanctum where Amaterasu’s sacred mirror is said to be held held, wrapped in layers of clothes, no one had laid eyes on it for thousands of years.

My architectural profession insists on…

Brief notes on the architecture of Ise Jingu:
The building material from roof to floors for both structures and finishing comes entirely from Japanese white cypress, Hinoki. The wood is unvarnished and unpainted, displaying the wild beauty of the cypress’s natural texture. No nails are used, only dowels and interlocking joints. The roof is thatched with miscanthus grass.There are crossbeams at either end of the roof and large rounded logs on the ridge of the roof. Protruding from the upper part of the gable at either end of the building are metal-tipped poles to add structural symmetry.  The main building of the Naiku is designed in a special form of architectural style, called shimmei-zukuri. This style is prohibited for other shrines. It’s simple rectangular design is said to derive from the granaries and treasure storehouses of prehistoric Japan.


Road signs


Gigantic trees


Lamp post

In the middle of Uji Bridge and the Naiku Shrine is the Kaguraden.  There is a  building next to it where the worshippers can buy omamori  or Japanese amulets (charms, talismans) for luck or protection against adversity which costs about USD5. The luck lasts for one year but after that the charm needs to be returned to a Shinto shrine for disposal. According to legend, there’s a God inside so they should never be opened or disposed of improperly.   The worshipper can also request a blessing ceremony to offer their thanks and wishes to Amaterasu Omikami.   This is a special prayer to the kami accompanied by ceremonial music and dance which has been performed from ancient times.


Omamori souvenir complex


Kagura Den




Purple-curtained Music Hall


Water for purification



Going into the waiting area inside the Kaguraden for the ceremony


Water for cleansing


Waiting area for the kagura

Garden within the shrine grounds




Residential houses in the neighbourhood with perfectly landscaped gardens.


Private home


Private home

Check out what I saw on the ground!  And I believe this to be on my bucket-list!  Answer to guess here.


Symbol for Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage

A Modern Ryokan Experience @ Oyado The Earth, Toba, Japan

Date of Visit:  February 27 2013 (overnight stay)

To truly enjoy traditional Japanese hospitality, one should at least stay at a ryokan – like what I did for my little R&R after Tokyo Marathon 2013!

Never heard of a ‘ryokan’?  Easy-peasy, let me explain….

Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns which became popular in the 17th century (Edo Period) to accommodate travelling merchants and feudal lords along the Japanese highways (gokaidou).

And for a more verbose explanation with historical perspective…

In feudal Japan, vast landholdings were controlled by the Daimyo, ‘territorial lords’.  In order to stop them from becoming too powerful and rebellious, the Shogun, ‘generalissimo’, issued a directive that all Daimyos have to travel to Edo (current day Tokyo) every other year (sankin-koutai) to spend a year in Edo where their wives and children were forced to remain as hostages.   Since the Daimyos travel in an entourage of hundreds of people, they needed frequent stops along the road to rest and eat, and thus the traditional inns were born to serve these needs.

Today, the ryokans continue as the cornerstone of Japanese culture offering retreats to visitors to immerse in traditional customs, cuisines and architecture.

Ditto-ed and onward to my stay at Oyado The Earth!!


Oyado The Earth (OTE) is a 16-suite inn in the City of Toba located at the northeastern end of the Shima-hanto Peninsula in Mie Perfecture.  Bordering the Ise-Shima National Park and facing Ise Bay of the Pacific Ocean, Toba is also a beautiful place for boating and  hiking.  The area is famous for seafood especially oysters and cultured pearls.  Does Mikimoto ring a bell, Ladies?  I am sure that you are all too familiar with the name synonymous with the perfectly round pearls – and this is where it all started – Toba!

Nevertheless, the main reason I travelled down to Mie Perfecture was to visit Ise Grand Shrine – the most sacred shrine in  Shinto religion.  I was also lucky to have Taka, my friend whom I met in Hong Kong ages ago to volunteer as driver for Mom, Bro and I.  (FYI:  If you are not as lucky as us, OTE is 2 hours and 45 minutes by car from Nagoya, or a 1 hour 40 minutes by train from Nagoya station to Toba Station and a further 35 minutes ride by car from the station).

Booking Oyado The Earth (apparently ‘oyado‘ is another word for traditional-style Japanese inn) meant venturing into unfamiliar territory for me and proved an interesting exercise since I could not find much online reviews when I started booking back in December 2012.   And what a wonderful surprise to find out how wonderful The Earth was!

OTE is set in a near total immersion in a relatively pristine natural environment surrounded by forests and Toba Bay.  From the observatory deck in The Earth, one can easily see the numerous islands in the middle distance.  Our trip to OTE took us down the windy narrow and rocky road to the edge of a cliff.  

We were very suprised to find the hotel attendant already waiting for us at the gate to direct us to our carpark.


I am impressed with the geometric low-sprawling layout of Oyado The Earth set in harmony with the natural environment


Oyado The Earth

The passageway to OTE is quite James Bond-ish – cue in the automatic steel sliding-doors and zig-zag corridors with pockets of landscaping.


Passageway to oyado


Landscaped niche

While waiting for the key to our room,  we were seated in the lounge and treated to a welcome drink of sparkling wine and Japanese sweets.


Welcome drinks and snacks


Sweetened Soy Bean

OTE’s common spaces includes gender segregated 24-hour hot-springs bath or onsen (on the ground floor where the rooms are), a cosy library and an adjoining lounge furnished with plush sofas.


Bar, Lounge and Library areas


Reception Area




L: View into the entrance lobby/ reception
R: View from the entrance lobby looking up to the observatory deck


Central stairs: Ground floor = Rooms, Spa and Onsen
1st floor = Entrance, Reception, Restaurant, Lounge
2nd floor = Outdoor observatory deck


Ikebena/ Flower arrangements

While each suite in OTE has a  private open-air spring-fed onsen attached, ours went one step further with our own private entertaining room and a guest toilet.  Our Premium Suite is very spacious, we also have a separate sitting area for Bro to close off for his privacy.  He slept on a make-shift futon which was laid out on the heated tatami mat when we were having dinner.  I have to point out that service in Japanese hotels are truly all-inclusive whereby pajamas and toiletries are provided – the guest simply has to turn up!


Our room. Note the sliding screen door which can be closed off and the cupboard where extra futons and yutakas are kept.


Our room


Freebies: Mikimoto facial care kits (Yay!)



We had a small outdoor onsen where Mom, Bro and I went to soak our feet after dinner.  Even though we were sitting in the freezing cold,  the hot water warmed us up and  I must say the stiffness in my calves and feet literally melted away in the hot water from the springs!




Our backyard


Our private dining room with heated kotatsu seating which is adjoined to our room with a small kitchen.

Our packaged stay came with elaborate set meals for both dinner and breakfast, served at a time set by us.  (‘Confession!’: I had exchanged some emails with the  Eri, the GM of the hotel, regarding dietary requirements and meal times, so even though the attendants did not speak much English, everything went smoothly without a hitch!)  We had the traditional multi-course kaiseki dinner, drawing on freshest produce from the land and sea in the area.


1st Course + Orange Juice


1st Course – the roe was amazing




2nd Course: Sashimi with sea-urchin


3rd Course: Soup with white baits


4th Course: Asparagus and mushrooms specially prepared at our kitchen by our own private chef!


5th Course: Steamed vegies and fish paste


6th Course: Seafood – remember to request Ebi lobster, the speciality of Mie Perfecture!


7th Course: Kagoshima beef accompanied by the biggest broad pea ever!


Palate cleanser: O Cha


8th Course: Rice mixed with baby shrimps


9th Course: Preserved vegies and a cockle dressed in mustard. Yum!


10th Course: Miso Soup


Dessert: Ice-cream and fruits

Last, but not least, OTE left no details out, by ensuring that we have our midnight snack of rice and roe on standby in case we wake up in the middle of the night hungry!


Midnight Snack


Rice and Roe

We woke up early the next day to catch day-break.  Watching the sun-rise was truly a majestic experience and made even more special by catching the sun rising over the the Pacific Ocean.







We had our breakfast at the restaurant at 7:30am as arranged.  Here is our very attentive server.




Interesting round windows

Our breakfast of assorted small dishes was literally fit for a Daimyo!









Hang on!  That’s not all for breakfast!  We were invited out to the Lounge for fruits and yoghurt while waiting for Taka to pick us up!  More Oishi!


Yoghurt with fresh fruits

It was truly a fantastic experience staying at OTE – delicious food, attentive service and beautiful surroundings.   The only regret is that we only stayed overnight, if we revisit Toba in the future, we  will stay for an extra few days to take in attractions of the area such as  Meoto Iwa, Toba Aquarium, Mikimoto Museum and Pearl Island  – maybe even go hiking in the Shima National Park.

We also had a warm send-off from the manager.  As Taka drove out of the oyado, we noticed in our rear-view mirror that the manager maintained his deep-bow position until we lost sight of the oyado!  Wow!  Now, THAT was a real traditional Japanese hospitality!

Before we headed back to Nagoya train station, we detoured to visit Ago Bay which came highly recommended in the Michelin Green Guide.

The winding road to Ago Bay is a bit like the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia – trees and shrubs on one side of the road and scenic water views on the other.  Once we arrived at Ago Bay, we had to climb some steep steps to reach Yokoyama Observatory Deck.  There, at the height of 203m, one can take in the spectacular panorama overlooking the peninsula to see with our own eyes the famous saw-toothed coastline that has more than 60 small islets.   It is said that every season has its natural beauty, such as cherry blossoms and red maple leaves.


A steep walk up to the observation deck


Walked around the observation deck


Views of Ago Bay

After 30 minutes, it’s time to head back to Nagoya train station to drop off our rental and onward journey to Kanazawa!


Nagoya station: This is the only 2 modern buildings in Nagoya! (Surprise! Surprise!)

Additional info:  I booked Oyado The Earth through (here) and hired our car from  Japan-experience. com (here).