At Peace in Ise Shima
In this Japanese prefecture, a quiet rhythm of calm and tranquillity
In a world so connected that it sometimes seems as if there are no more surprises for the jaded traveller, Ise Shima confounds on every level. Located in Japan’s Mie prefecture, a couple of hours south of Nagoya, this region has long been prized for its pristine necklace of islands, calm clear waters that produce luminous pearls and extraordinary cuisine. Scratch the surface a little deeper to uncover an unexpected spiritual centre, where for over a thousand years, pilgrims—including the Imperial Court—have arrived in droves to pray at Ise Jingu, Japan’s holiest Shinto shrine.
To outsiders, Ise Shima has remained relatively unknown, an insider’s reluctant tip for where to go once the attractions of Osaka and Kyoto to the northwest have been superficially exhausted. The recent G7 summit in Ise Shima put the region firmly in the crosshairs of a curious world media, though a dedicated corps of Aman junkies had already beaten everyone, rather smugly, to the punch.
This past March, just over a year after its debut in Tokyo, Aman Resorts opened Amanemu, set high on a wind-swept bluff overlooking Ago Bay. Framed by thick woodlands and landscaped with cherry, cedar, pine, maple and jasmine, the 28-room complex more than lives up to its name—a portmanteau for “peaceful sharing with pleasure”. Here, Singapore-based architects and long-time Aman collaborator Kerry Hill Architects have wrought their finest works yet, cladding the interiors of the low-slung, black-tiled pitched-roofed buildings in a soothing palette of black granite and white oak. A natural thermal hot spring on the grounds means that mineral-rich water is literally on tap for each room.
In every way, Amanemu makes a perfect launch pad for the region’s many-splendored attractions (not that there is ever any urgency about the exercise). There is a sleepy quality about the place, a quiet solitude where kindness towards strangers is a grace that has become rare even in a country that prides itself on fastidious politeness. At dinner at Tecchan, a neighbourhood diner, a friendly matron, after confirming by way of exuberant sign language that I am dining alone, elbows me in the ribs whilst pushing across the bar counter some tempura and prawn, and chopstick-tender braised pork smothered in wasabi.
The sensation of floating calmness is even more exaggerated at Ise Jingu—a gigantic complex of 125 Shinto shrines that has been in continuous use since at least the seventh century. Set against misty green hills, shadowy wooded glens, manicured gardens, lakes of iris and icy crystalline streams, the central Geku and Naiku shrines are engineering feats. Hewn from giant hinoki (or cypress) logs, they are dismantled every 20 years and then re-constructed on an adjoining block entirely without nails.
“Most Japanese aspire to come here at least once in their lives,” says my guide, Miwako-san, though she adds without any trace of irony that once they’ve arrived at Ise Jingu, those same Japanese are just as likely to race through their prayers at the shrines to make it in time for shopping and snacking along Oharimachi, a picturesque stretch of artisanal boutiques and purveyors of traditional snacks along the Isuzu River.
It turns out that the calmness engendered by Ise Jingu is not a localised experience. The unhurried rhythm infuses the air, especially from the viewing platform of Ise-Shima National Park, where warblers serenade the unfolding panorama of Ago city and the Bay of Nemu.
In the Amanemu spa, a generously proportioned square at the centre of which sits a labyrinth of outdoor hot spring pools, maple trees rise in splendid stands. Come autumn, they will all turn a flaming red. For now, the edge of a chilled spring day sweeps us into the dining pavilion—a soaring space that is ringed with Engawa-styled ledges. The view over Ago Bay induces a state of near-catatonic Zen—a moment briefly interrupted when curls of sea bream and yellowtail sashimi arrive on a raft of bush clover twigs, while a red lacquer bowl holds a clear fragrant broth of bamboo shoot hearts.
In life, there are few moments as tranquil and perfect as this.
How to get there
From Nagoya’s central train station, take a fast Shimakaze train to Kashikojima Station in Shima. The two-hour trip in a spacious cabin with reclining leather chairs zips through small sleepy towns and low, green-clad hills at a soothing 116 km/h.
The language barrier is even more pronounced in this part of Japan, so make use of the hotel’s car services to get around. That said, bicycles are a pleasant way to tool around for short distances in the area, especially down to the waterfront or the surf and white sands of Konohama Beach. For more adventurous excursions, Iwamitsu Miwako is a licensed guide and knows the region like the back of her hand. Knowledgeable and pleasantly low-key.
Ph: +81 (0) 90 7021 4736
Where to stay
Amanemu is the Aman Resorts’ second Japanese property and it more than lives up to the almost breathless advance publicity. A soothing sanctuary of just 24 suites and four two-bedroom villas, the latter featuring private onsens that look out onto bijoux private gardens. The most pressing item on the agenda is whether to have a spa treatment, a deep soak in the hot springs, or settle down for a superb meal of buckwheat soba and flash-fried sweet Kii Nagashima prawns, or some other culinary fantasy dreamed up by the resort’s extraordinary resident chef Inaba Masanobu.
Where to eat
Isao Mizutani, better known to locals as Tecchan, holds court in a tiny, hole-in-the-wall izakaya. With a gentle smile, he makes fresh, simple and honest fare. Highlights include fried sesame-flavoured tofu, creamy potato croquettes and a local specialty, seaweed ice cream.
4998 Agocho Ugata, Shima-shi, Ph: +81 (0) 599 43 6909
What to see
After the tour of Ise Jingu shrine, be sure to drop into Sengukan Museum for its small but fascinating collection of sacred relics and an astonishing life-sized model of main sanctuary Geku’s eastern façade.