Summer in Ise: Grand Shrine Dedication Fireworks Festival
Some of you may have read fellow Community Writer John’s article on Ise back in September. If you have not done so, I would highly recommend reading it to get a gist of the background of Ise (伊勢市 Ise-shi) that I would also be covering in this article. Unlike John, however, I used the Ise-Kumano-Wakayama Area Tourist Pass to get to Ise from Kansai International Airport (KIX; 関西国際空港 Kansai Kokusai Kūkō) by JR trains via the town of Kushimoto (串本町 Kushimoto-chō)—the southernmost tip of Honshu—where you can also view the most spectacular scenery on the coastline.
So why Ise? To be frank, I made a detour specially for the fireworks display and the Japanese summer festival (matsuri 祭り). Also, Ise hosts the grounds of the most sacred Shintō shrine in Japan, giving it a long-standing title of Shinto (神都) which literally means "the Capital of the Kami'' or “the Holy City”. Ise remains untouched as of today—so if you enjoy the serenity of wooden low-rise buildings from the Edo Period (1603-1868) or the historical cultural part of it, I guarantee that you would like this place.
As a solo traveller, I would usually arrive at my accommodation ahead of the check-in time to deposit my backpack so I can travel around the area with ease. This time, I made a call to stop over at Tsu City (津市 Tsu-shi) as there were not many lodging options available at Ise by the time of my booking. With the Ise-Kumano-Wakayama Area Tourist Pass, it only takes 40 minutes to Iseshi Station (伊勢市駅 Iseshi-eki) on the JR Rapid Mie where you can change to their local bus at no additional cost.
Rapid Mie at Tsu Station. (Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
The Rapid Mie is a rapid train service which connects Nagoya (名古屋市 Nagoya-shi) to Toba (鳥羽市 Toba-shi). As the stretch between Nagoya and Tsu runs along a private Ise Line, JR Pass holders would have to pay a small surcharge of ¥510 for usage. Other than that, JR Pass holders can reserve their seat on this popular route at no additional charges, so be sure to maximise your dollars’ worth! Not as fanciful as the Limited Express Shimakaze (しまかぜ) that John took from Kyoto, but this train does get the job done.
Hidden under the Evergreen
(Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
The city consists of 125 shrines, which is centred on two main parts—the Inner (内宮 Naikū) and Outer Shrine (外宮 Gekū). While the Outer Shrine is just located just 500m out from the two main train stations (JR Iseshi Station and Kintetsu Uji-Yamada Station), the Inner Shrine is 6 km away and requires a bus ride which takes about 20 minutes, with one bus every 10 minutes. Without the Ise-Kumano-Wakayama Area Tourist Pass, the ride costs ¥440 one-way.
The Uji Bridge. (Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
Apparently, the official name of the main Inner Shrine is called Kotaijingu (皇大神宮) which reveres the Shintō Sun Goddess (天照大御神 Amaterasu-Ōmikami), who is an ancestor of the Japanese Imperial Family. The Inner Shrine’s grounds are home to several prominent structures such as the Uji Bridge (宇治橋 Uji-bashi) which spans over the Isuzu River (五十鈴川 Isuzu-gawa). Did you know that Isuzu Motors, which produces your everyday lorries and buses, originated from this river?
As part of the Ise Renewal Ceremony (式年遷宮祭 Shikinen Sengū Sai), these structures are rebuilt every 20 years. Less experienced carpenters are assigned to this bridge to gain skills before working on the main shrine. Knowing this, you will be able to better appreciate the workmanship difference when you get there—something I wished someone told me earlier.
The lush greenery and peace which envelopes you. (Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
Crossing the bridge, you will walk into what looks like Singapore’s Istana from the outside without the presence of security guards. It is so dark, full of secrets, and tranquility. Comparisons aside, you will encounter a small, roofed structure called the temizusha (手水舎), which isa pool of water used in ritual purification. Visitors are to wash their hands and rinse their mouths with it as a symbolic act to clean the mind and body of impurity. Do practice courtesy and respect the culture when visiting this sacred ground. The Inner Shrine enables one to be with nature—its serenity and soothing breeze is one of a kind; so relaxing that it doesn’t even come close to Singapore’s MacRitchie Reservoir.
So eerie, does not feel like summer at all. (Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
Remember when I said that 125 shrines cohabit the city of Ise? As we move deeper into the Inner Shrine, you’ll find that about 91 of them are associated with the Inner Shrine and most tourists do not bat an eyelid to them due to their lack of popularity. This will be your golden opportunity to snap that photo that will earn you bragging rights from your friends on social media for visiting these “deserted” places in Japan. If you are lucky, you’ll get a chance to meet the divine messengers of Amaterasu—the free-roaming chickens—which can be popular amongst children. As for the more popular sites like Kotaijingu and Kaguraden (神楽殿 Kagura Hall), John has them covered in his article.
Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮)
Address: 1 Ujitachi-cho, Ise-shi, Mie 516-0023
Nearest station: Isuzugawa Station (五十鈴川駅)
Opening hours: 05:00–18:00
Admission fee: Free
A town where time stood still
A quiet stroll down part of the Okage Mairi (お蔭参り) pilgrimage. (Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
Missed your bus back to the Outer Shrine? Fret not, walk straight down to Oharaimachi Street (おはらい町) from the entrance of the Inner Shrine and you will be rewarded with another Instagram-worthy photo—one which you can boast and pretend that you went back in time to the Edo Period!
Okage Yokocho Ancient Street is not as empty as you think. (Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
Walk 400m down this street and you will come across a major junction. On your right is a bridge across the Isuzu River, and on your left is a pedestrian-only walkway into what’s known today as the Okage Yokocho Ancient Street (おかげ横丁). This street carries a much livelier atmosphere, hosting popular matsuri games all year long. I particularly enjoyed walking down this stretch to see the Edo Period architecture style, with some of these wooden supports that were dated since then yet still in good condition!
Popular matsuri games like Gun-shooting (射的 shateki). (Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
And what is a historical street without food? That’s right, Okage Yokocho is also where you can find local and regional delicacies, often catering its seasonal variants. This means that every time you return to this place in a different season, you’ll get different food items on the menu! However, as evident in my photos, the food stalls were not in operation, and there is a good reason for this…
Oharaimachi / Okage-yokocho (おはらい町・おかげ横丁)
Address: 52 Ujinakanokiricho, Ise-shi, Mie 516-0025
Nearest station: Ise-shi Station (伊勢市駅)
Opening hours: 09:30–17:30 (April–July), 09:30–18:00 (August–September), 09:30–17:00 (November–February)
Admission fee: Free
Uchiage Hanabi (打上花火) – Launching Fireworks
The rain makes the air smell of Earth—the highlight of summer. (Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
“Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?”
If you have watched the 2017 anime movie “Fireworks” and have this irresistible urge to experience a matsuri in real life, the later half of this article will be your highlight. This annual practice originates from the year 1953 as part of the shrine rebuilding commemoration ceremony. Highly-skilled pyrotechnicians will come from all throughout Japan to participate and compete in this annual event, featuring over 10,000 different creative and multi-break fireworks. This makes the Ise Shrine National Dedication Fireworks Festival (伊勢神宮奉納全国花火大会 Isejingū hōnō zenkoku hanabitaikai) one of the three largest in Japan, attracting over 200,000 spectators yearly. The fireworks show begins punctually at 7pm, lasting more than 2 hours over the Miya Riverbank (宮川 Miya-gawa).
What’s matsuri without food? (Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
If seeing all that fireworks have somehow ignited your appetite, you are in for a treat. Perhaps you have been to either of Kansai Region’s grandest celebrations of the year—Gion and Tenjin Matsuri in Kyoto and Osaka respectively—you’ll know that their temporary street stalls (屋台 yatai) can stretch up to several districts in the well-developed cities. In the countryside (田舎 inaka), these stalls are arranged neatly in an open field like the riverbank below. Unlike the cities, you can see the entire stretch of the stalls in one glance, a feast for the eyes and to spot what you want to eat FAST.
A river has two banks, a bridge has two sides—guess how many stalls are there? (Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
I think the real highlight for me was not the fireworks or street stalls, but the pretty girls and handsome guys dressed in their traditional summer wear—the yukata (浴衣). I actually bought a set of yukata (costing ¥1,500) from Don Quijote during my stay in Wakayama and wore it there to immerse in the culture (and for self-camouflage). One regret that I have with my purchase was that I skipped the body measurements and bought one that was too large, resulting in my yukata getting dirty around the ankles. However, I managed to have it altered back in Singapore and wore it again for the Japan Summer Festival at Singapore Sports Hub in 2018. #NoRegrets
Ise Shrine Dedication Fireworks Festival (伊勢神宮奉納全国花火大会)
Date: Mid-July (annually) (Actual Date TBC. If rain, event postponed to the next day)
Address: 2-16-2 Nakajima, Ise, Mie 516-0067
Nearest station: Yamada-Kamiguchi Station (山田上口駅)
(Shuttle buses are also available from Ise-shi Station (伊勢市駅))
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81-596-21-5566 (Ise Tourism Board)
So, what else does Mie have to offer?
If I ever got fat in Japan, I would blame these. (Image credit: Benseun Kwek)
Seafood! Ise city is located just at the point where Ise Bay (伊勢湾 Ise-wan) connects to the Pacific Ocean. Earlier, I mentioned that the Rapid Mie train terminates at Toba. That is where you should aim to have dinner on the day after the matsuri. Having recommended that to you, maybe you will see me back at Mie Prefecture snapping up all those regional and time-limited food that I had missed. Bon appetit!
Header image credit: Benseun Kwek
A thrifty NUS undergraduate, Benseun (Instagram | YouTube) seeks to travel the whole of Japan and be proficient in Japanese to learn the history of the places he visits through social interactions with the locals. Ask him on how to save money in Japan!