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Ultimate Guide to Visiting Japan’s Ise Grand Shrine for New Year (2019 Edition)

Ultimate Guide to Visiting Japan’s Ise Grand Shrine for New Year (2019 Edition)

Date published: 10 December 2019
Last updated: 14 December 2020

Ise Grand Shrine is located in Ise City, Mie Prefecture. It is the most prestigious of all the shrines in Japan and uniquely different from all others. Worshipers come from all over the country (and globe) throughout the year, New Year’s being the busiest season of all.

It is so crowded during the first three days of the New Year that there is hardly room to move. Yet, for many Japanese, this first visit of the New Year to a shrine is something most would like to do at least once. Here are some important things you need to keep in mind before you go to the Ise Grand Shrine for the first visit of the New Year.

Table of Contents
  1. Entry is from the Outer Shrine of Ise
  2. Going to the Inner Shrine
  3. After visiting the shrines relax with a coffee and zenzai sweets

Entry is from the Outer Shrine of Ise

Ise Grand Shrine is not a single shrine. Amaterasu Omikami, the ancestor of the Imperial Family, is enshrined in the Kotai Jingu, which is commonly referred to as the Inner Shrine. Toyoke Daijingu, which enshrines Toyoke Omikami, the guardian deity of clothing, food, and shelter, is frequently called the Outer Shrine. One hundred twenty-five shrines, of which those above are the main, are collectively called Ise Grand Shrine (its official name being merely "Shrine").

These, together with the Shrine Forest, cover an area of about 5,500 hectares – roughly the equivalent of Manhattan. Mr. Nobuyuki Nishida of the O-Ise-san Tour Guide Group took me on the course for visiting the Outer and Inner Shrines.

The O-Ise-san Tour Guide Group is an organization made up of volunteer guides who show people around the Ise Grand Shrine. Unfortunately, during the New Year's holidays, they are closed, but at normal times their services are provided at no cost (reservations are required, and when transportation is required, there is a 1,000 yen charge for the fare of the guide, and if their services are retained during the lunch hour, then another 1,000 yen is required for their meal.)

As for the order in visiting the shrines, in most cases, the customary practice is to start with the Outer Shrine and then go to the Inner Shrine, so we began by going to the Outer Shrine.

▲ Mr. Nobuyuki Nishida of the O-Ise-san Tour Guide Group

The guided tour begins at the signboard in front of the Omotesando Hiyokebashi, which is the entrance to the Outer Shrine.

“Well, can you see the word Mike (pron. ‘mi-kay’) written here? Mike is food that is offered to the gods. About 1,500 years ago Toyoke Omikami, the god entrusted with offering food to Amaterasu Omikami enshrined in the Inner Shrine, came here. That’s what is written here.”

Mr. Nishida enthusiastically explained while showing me a copy of documents he made containing quotations from the Nihon Shoki. He proceeded to explain in detail the history of the Imperial Family and that of the Ise Grand Shrine.

After crossing over the Hiyokebashi we first went to the Temizusha (a Shinto water ablution pavilion for ceremonial purification).

▲ Temizusha of the Outer Shrine

Before entering you must first purify yourself here. Mr. Nishida explained how to do that.

First you take the ladle in your right hand and scoop up water. After you pour it over your left hand, you then take the ladle in your left hand and pour water over your right hand. After that you again take the ladle in your right hand, pour water into the palm of your left hand from which you then take the water into your mouth.
After once more rinsing your left hand, you hold the ladle in a vertical position so that the water runs down and washes the handle section before returning the ladle.

It seems that many visitors these days do not know this is the proper procedure. This is something you need to remember how to do.

▲The Main Shrine of the Outer Shrine

This is the Main Shrine of the Toyoke Daijingu (Outer Shrine). The Mikeden in the rear is where food offerings are given to Amaterasu Omikami and other gods. Twice daily, once in the morning and then again in the evening, a ceremony for offering food to the gods called Shinsen is conducted. I was amazed to learn that this ceremony has been conducted from 1,500 years ago. It has been continued through typhoons and wars for more than 1,500 years.

Hearing that impressed upon me all the more the special nature of this place.

  • Toyoke Daijingu (Outer Shrine).
    • Address 279 Toyokawa-cho, Ise City, Mie Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0596-24-1111
    • Visitation hours:
      ● January ~ April, September 5:00 a.m. ~ 6:00 p.m.
      ● May ~ August 5:00 a.m. ~ 7:00 p.m.
      ● October ~ December 5:00 a.m. ~ 5:00 p.m.
      * December 31 ~ January 5 until 10:00 p.m., visitations all day possible
      0596-24-1111 (Jingu Administration Office)

Going to the Inner Shrine

Next we headed to the Inner Shrine at Ise Grand Shrine. The distance from the Outer Shrine is about 15 minutes by car.

▲The Uji Bridge entrance to the Inner Shrine

The Uji Bridge is a Japanese-style bridge built of cypress that spans the Isuzu River and is a symbolic place said to be the front entrance to the Inner Shrine. Magnificent Torii gates stand at both ends of it

▲ Shin’en, the Garden of the Gods, is the large area on the other side of the Uji Bridge

After crossing over the Uji Bridge and going through the Shin’en we came upon another Temizusha. Just as we did at the Outer Shrine we once again performed the purification ritual. Going further in and down a gently inclined bank to the right of the approach path, we came to the Mitarashi on the bank of the Isuzu River.

▲The Isuzu River Mitarashi

“In olden times before the Temizusha was constructed, this is where worshipers came to purify themselves. Yamatohime no Mikoto, who was traveling in search of a place to enshrine Amaterasu Omikami, rinsed the hem of her garment here according to legend. From this legend, the Isuzu River also came to be called the Mimosusogawa,”
Mr. Nishida explained and continued to say,

“The river is extremely clear because it flows from the upper reaches of the Inner Shrine.”

Normally if you have performed the purification ritual at the Temizusha you need not do it again here. But since I was here I once again performed the ritual here at the Isuzu River, the place of Yamatohime-no-Mikoto legend.

▲ Takimatsuri-no-Kami

Let me introduce another style of worship. After purifying our hands at the Isuzu River Mitarashi, instead of returning to the approach to the shrine, Mr. Nishida led me down a narrow path.

“This is the Takimatsuri-no-Kami. Today "Taki" refers to a waterfall, but in the old days, rivers were also called "taki". That is to say, the deity of the Isuzu River is enshrined here. It may be small, but it is a very important place because even before Amaterasu Omikami came here, it was where the river god was."

Locally it is called Tottsukisan and Toritsugisan. "Takimatsuri no Kami was the place where worshipers came to offer their names, addresses, and from where they came to worship before they proceeded to the Inner Shrine." From that, it appears that Takimatsuri no Kami was a sort of intermediary for Amaterasu Omikami.
If you come here, by all means, please seek the intermediary blessings of Tottsukisan before proceeding on to the Inner Shrine.

▲ Kaguraden

Returning to the approach to the shrine, after a bit we came to the Kaguraden. This is a place where you can give offerings, purchase amulets, and receive prayers. You can also get a commemorative scarlet seal of your visit to the Inner Shrine here.

▲The Main Shrine of the Inner Shrine

Finally, we arrived at the Main Shrine of the Inner Shrine. “Shrines have offering boxes in front of them, but you do not have to give an offering here,” Mr. Nishida explained, because the one here is not for making wishes, but for making offerings of gratitude.

In the first place, tribute paid by anyone other than the Emperor is not recognized, so for that reason, there is no offering box placed here. However, during the first visit to a shrine in the New Year, there are many worshipers who wish to give monetary offerings, so an offering box is set up temporarily for that. 

Now let me explain how to worship. The standard method of worship when visiting a shrine is to bow twice, clap your hands twice, and bow once more.

First, you bow your head twice. Then you clap your hands twice. The main point when clapping your hands together is to make sure that your right hand is slightly lower than the left hand.

“Clapping your hands is a request to the god to listen to what is in your heart. If you clap your hands so that the palms are exactly aligned, the sound of the clap is not so clear, and also the left hand represents the god while the right hand represents you, so having the right hand lower is a sign of respect,” Mr. Nishida explained.

I managed to do it perfectly. You can convey your gratitude to the gods in this way for the daily protection you receive.

  • Kotai Jingu (Inner Shrine)
    • Address 1 Ujitachi-cho, Ise City, Mie Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0596-24-1111
    • Visitation hours
      ● January ~ April, September 5:00 a.m. ~ 6:00 p.m.
      ● May ~ August 5:00 a.m. ~ 7:00 p.m.
      ● October ~ December 5:00 a.m. ~ 5:00 p.m.
      * December 31 ~ January 5 until 10:00 p.m., visitations all day possible
      0596-24-1111 (Jingu Administration Office)

The scale of the shrine is so immense and there are so many fascinating episodes that it is not possible to describe them all here. If you are interested in hearing about the shrine, I would recommend obtaining the services of a guide to help you get around. The wealth of information that he will share with you while going around the shrines will help you discover new things.

  • O-Ise-san Tour Guide Group
    • Address 14-6 Honcho, Ise City, Mie Prefecture Tourism Information Center in front of Outer Shrine
    • Phone Number 0596-23-3323
    • * Reservations are required. For more information please visit the website.

After you have purified your soul at the Ise Grand Shrine visit Okage Yokocho

Okage Yokocho, which is in front of the Inner Shrine, is a popular street with a retro feel lined with buildings built in the styles of those from the Edo to Meiji eras, and a place lively with Ise visitors. Here you will find all sorts of souvenirs and places to eat featuring Ise specialties such as Akafuku.

After visiting the shrines relax with a coffee and zenzai sweets

During the New Year’s holidays, the shops in Okage Yokocho stay open longer than usual. Many of the shops stay open all night on New Year’s Eve providing hospitality to worshipers paying their first visit to a shrine of the year. The Isuzu River Cafe is the perfect place to rest and warm yourself after your visit to the shrines.

▲ The Isuzu River Cafe

This lovely building in the style of an old-style house sits on the Isuzu River. It has excellent coffee, cakes, and zenzai (red bean soup with pieces of rice cake in it) which is only served during the winter.

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee greets you when you enter the cafe. In addition to a counter, tables and chairs, there are also seats by the open hearth and a slightly raised tatami mat section. The atmosphere is a delightful blend of Japanese and Western.

▲ The open terrace (smoking section) offers an excellent view of the Isuzu River.

This being the season when zenzai is offered I ordered it with a coffee.

▲ Yokocho Zenzai and coffee set 890 yen (tax included)

The zenzai had the beautiful color of adzuki beans. Floating in it were slightly grilled small rice cakes. The steam rising from the bowl whetted my appetite.

“Ahhh. It warmed me all through,” I sighed unconsciously. Not too sweet, it had a familiar taste that warmed my cold body. The rice cake was simple, yet was firmly evident. It went perfectly with the soup.

▲Blended coffee: strong blend and mild blend, each 420 yen (tax included)

And the coffee. The Isuzu River Cafe original coffee is made with its own roasted coffee beans. The mild blend has a mellow flavor that is easy to drink and the strong blend has a bolder, richer flavor that is slightly bitter. I ordered the mild blend.

It was indeed easy to drink. While it had a distinct bitter coffee flavor it was still mild, as its name implied, and was very delicious.

▲Authentic nell drip coffee

If you go to the Ise Grand Shrine for your first visit of the New Year, afterwards stop by the Isuzu River Cafe for a rest and enjoy the zenzai and coffee. It will warm your body and soul.

  • The Isuzu River Cafe
    • Address 12 Ujinakanokiri-cho, Ise City, Mie Prefecture (inside Okage Yokocho)
    • Phone Number 0596-23-9002
    • Open: 9:00 a.m. ~ 5:00 p.m. (L.O. 4:30 p.m.) (times may vary according to the season)
      * Please ask about hours of operation: during the New Year’s holidays.
      Closed: Open daily

Text by:Advision

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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