The band is back together, Ken doll is joining us and Aki who’s name henceforth is Barbie, for a day trip to Ise and the grandest, most important Shinto shrine in Japan, Ise Jingu. With amazing grace and beauty preserved in Japan at every turn it can be hard to know exactly where to look, this type of sightseeing is often somewhat mundane in other countries but with the sharp edge of design and grace that is Japanese culture on display, sightseeing is all that’s required. And lets face it, after two days of Fuji San kicking our ass the adrenaline can take a break; we’ll take pretty things and yearn for nothing more for just one day. 

 Covering Japan is a breeze given the phenomenon that is Japan Rail, in a blink of time Ken and Aki are power walking towards the towering gates of Geku, it seems Ise Jingu isn’t just one temple. At the gates we’re pulled up short for our first culture lesson from Aki; at Shinto shrines you bow before passing through and never pass through the centre of the gate, only to the sides as if humbly sticking to the outer lanes. Through the main gate and over the timber bridge that demands a stop to just stand upon craftsmanship that can’t be overstated we’re at the wash pool. Japan does gates and bridges gloriously and standing at the raw yet refined arrangement of bamboo ladles atop the stone well it appears that wash basins are on the list of refined beauty too. 

Charlie Winn

Bridge towards Geku Shinto shrine, Ise, Japan.

  Time for culture lesson number two. Taking the small bamboo ladle we run some purifying water over the left hand, then the right, before washing our mouths and running water back down the handle to wash the handle clean. We’re now cleansed and ready to enter the shrine. For a non believer these rituals often run perilously close to childish patronisation but in the midst of craftsmanship and beauty it’s so easy to adopt what seems indulgent and take it as it is. I can’t say I have a sense of spiritual cleansing but the cool water, the beautiful well in these immaculate grounds and the process enjoyed by all does leave us feeling a little less like gawking tourists. On to the next gate with a bow. 

 Lets just keep adding to this beautiful stuff list shall we, Japan does carpentry and Japan can certainly do a roof. Shinto shrines are rebuilt every 20 years using only traditional methods; no nails or screws, just dowelling and joinery to fill the world with the delicate smell of cypress. Immaculate timber sits in perfect array, topped by ornate roofs that arch outward before rolling over at the nose, topped, trimmed and adorned by strong yet elegant detail. We bow twice, clap twice and bow once at the shrine before leaving not really understanding anything of what we just did but happy to be part of a gracious place that’s hard to define beyond just saying that it’s beautiful.  

Charlie Winn

Cleansing well, Geku shrine, Ise, Japan.

  Next stop Naiku, the inner shrine here dates from the 3rd century and houses the sun goddess, the ancestral goddess of the imperial family so funnily enough it’s bigger. The elegant bridge that captivated us feels like a kids toy now, a timber bridge of similar craftsmanship yet spanning a river about 30m across arcs elegantly over the river as we bow and walk to the sides of the gates like seasoned pro’s. This list is getting longer, lawns, gardens and grand stone staircases just seem to be a Japanese thing now along with trees that reach arrow straight to the sky. Trees are revered here with people seemingly praying to them all around, it’s believed that a god lives in each tree, god woods literally. If only more of the world held that irrational yet beautiful belief. 

 Beautiful, beautiful beautiful; it’s all just offensively perfect as we pass across the best bridge ever made and into Ise town. Are we on a movie set? a tight winding street pans out before us lined by traditional style buildings, all linear dark timber and white washed panels to rip us back a century or two. Let the food fest begin. A small lap through a tiny store sees us downing some smoked fish samples straight off the grill before it’s noodle time. Plump fat udon noodles swim in a bowl of soy and miso sauce topped with a massive tempura prawn to add crunch to the soft silkiness of the noodles. Of course rice gluten and red bean mochi’s keep us going until it’s time for green tea shaved ice. On a huge mound of shaved ice, sugar syrup and green tea reduction is lathered on to make a mountain of icy, sweet heaven with a little sweet bean surprise in the middle. Despite the binge we may have had prawn and octopus cakes on the way out, it would be rude not to try.  

Charlie Winn

Shinto priest walking away from the shrine, Geku shrine, Ise, Japan.

  Aki is in fine tour guide form today, we’re off somewhere but he’s not saying where to. A sugar coma nap on the bus and soon enough we’re walking the ocean shore of Japan past taste tests of marinaded squid and nori seaweed paste. We loosen our belts and waddle out along the shore taking in some sunlight barely making its way out for the first time today still unsure of where we’re going. Around a bend and our destination becomes clear, an image we’ve seen often while flicking through books about Japan: couples rocks. Two jagged rocks burst from the ocean close to the shore with heavy ropes wound around lashing them together in typically beautiful Japanese fashion. We need no interpretation, these rocks may be stationary but the symbolism of connectivity and partnership is unmissable. 

 We farewell couples rocks walking a little closer together for the long, quick journey back to Tado, all exhausted by this punishing day of eating and sight seeing. We’re skipping through this day laden with beauty taking little time to soak it up. Who knew being a tourist was so exhausting, maybe it has something to do with only arriving back from our climb up Fuji San yesterday. Punishing schedule or not it’s time for food and Aki has plans. He’s on a roll today so we’re gladly tagging along, it’s off to the pub we go. Well, sort of a pub, we walk past an immense barrel taller than me into a tiny immaculate garden that from the street is entirely invisible. This is not like any pub I know.  

Charlie Winn

Sashimi plate in a traditional Japanese “pub”, Kuwana, Mie prefecture, Japan.

  In truth, calling this a pub is a bit of a stretch, we’re ushered through tight corridors lined with dark timber and paper screen walls and upstairs into the subdued lighting of our private room fitted with a low table atop a well for our legs to sit comfortably in. This beauty list is getting burdensome. Timber really has been the order of the day and in this tight room that elegantly makes the entire world about us four we gorge, as if we hadn’t gorged enough already today. Beer upon beer upon sake goes down with over twenty dishes as Aki keeps gleefully pressing the call bell for more food. Horse meat sashimi, beef tendon stew, fried chicken and crab croquettes are just a few of the avalanche that comes at the end of a long night of punishing the call bell. This is no cheap pub grub, each dish has a heart felt lack of pretentiousness with no small amount of fine dining dash. This is the place, the food, the beer, the company I had dreamed of for Japanese cuisine before arriving to these shores. 

 To describe a travel day to make me want to pull out my fingernails it might entail visiting shrines, wandering cute streets and catching trains all over the country. But this torment belongs only in countries that aren’t underpinned by the simple notion of beauty. As we sit to finish our sake and one last dish of rice in this room only for us it’s evasive to give a name to the beauty that doesn’t shout at us but calls us to it on whispers we cannot hear. Beauty has no function, no need; just a presence to attract overstated admiration from those with the mind to value the useless. In gates, wells, bridges, roofs, steps, food and trees the definition of Japanese beauty takes shape: Calling the admiration of the useless to the necessity of the useful. Just; beautiful.