Japan: Day 8 + 9 - Ryokans and Ghost Towns - Exploring Ise & Futamiura

I think the highlight of the last two days was snapping this pic of an elderly wheelchair bound crew to a desolate town for a picture with what seemed to be two papier-mâc style frogs! (p.s why is the woman second from the left holidng up three fingers on each hand? ... Extra peace?)

 But I jump the gun - back to yesterday.

With the last seven days being pretty non-stop with very little sleep, I could really do with a bit of R&R ... so thankfully my two day stay at the next stop has come at exactly the right time. Hopefully I'll be able to recharge my batteries and get ready for the following ten days, which I've got a feeling are going to be relentless (in the best sense of the word!)

I was up early to check out of the hotel and head to Kyoto Station to start my journey. I took the bus at the end of the road which took around 15 minutes to get to the station.

I haven't really said much about the hotel in Kyoto yet; it wasn't bad at all. Clean rooms, great location, friendly and helpful staff who can speak English (well, the basics). All in all it was really good, I'd stay there again for sure if I was in town and if one of the apartments from Japan Experience wasn't available.

It was a 2-hour train ride direct to Ise-shi which was my final stop. InsideJapan had reserved a seat on the Kankou Limited Express Shimakaze train that left Kyoto at 10am.
I was getting really familiar with Kyoto and started to know my way around (which is always a nice feeling, being able to dart around feeling like you're a local).
To my surprise as I arrived at the station guess who was waiting for me ...

Yep, you guessed it - Sento-kun! This guy ... deer ... Buddha ... (whatever he is) gets around! I've decided that if I come across a toy of Sento-kun during my trip I'm going to buy him, although I doubt I will, but you never know.

As I arrived at the platform the train was just pulling in and there was around 10-15 people dotted around the place with their cameras out. Now I know the Japanese love a good picture but I assumed they didn't wait around for just any train! The majority of the people taking photographs didn't actually board the train ... so it must be a bit of an aphrodisiac for trainspotters ...

To be fair this train was pretty swish! It looked super futuristic and the space inside the train was just as impressive; private rooms, make-up rooms, changing areas, reclining seats! What more could you want?

I took full advantage of the reclining seats. It was 2-hours spent chilling, doing some research on the next few places using the Pocket WiFi from JapanExperience.

There were some great views as the sun shone down on the vast forests and wide rivers during the 2-hour ride.

The ryokan I was staying in for the next 2-nights was a 10-15 minute bus ride from the station Ise-shi. I figured out which number bus I needed and jumped on board.

Ise, formerly called Ujiyamada is a city located on the eastern tip of Kii Peninsula, in central Mie on the island of Honshū, facing Ise Bay. Ise is home to the Ise Grand Shrine, the most sacred Shintō Shrine in Japan making it a very popular destination for tourists. The city has a long-standing title — Shinto — that means "The Holy City". Most of the city is within the limits of Ise-Shima National Park. After seeing how beautiful Nara's parks were I was looking forward to exploring the Mie area.

The Ryokan was literally a straight 50 metre walk from the bus stop. I was staying at the Asakichi Ryokan at the top of the hill in Ise. The Asakichi has been in operation since the mid-1700s and was built on a sharp slope by means of so-called 'cascade construction'. The inn appears as if it were five-stories when viewed from the bottom of the hill.

I was greeted by the chef of the inn who spoke very basic English but managed to explain that I was early and that the room wouldn't be ready for 4 hours. This wasn't a problem as I asked to leave my main bag in the lobby so that I could start to explore. My first port of call was the Okage Yoko-chō which was a 5 minute bus ride in the opposite direction to the station.

Okage Yokocho branches off of Oharai Machi and leads the way to the entrance to the Inner Shrine. Okage Yokocho is a recreated traditional Japanese market district, mirroring what must have been the scene for visiting pilgrims on their way to and from Jingu in the past. It's a really busy market / shopping area filled with traditional buildings and little food stalls and restaurants making all sorts of delicacies, all shouting out what they're serving. It makes for an amazing atmosphere. There's also a series of games stalls such as the 'shoot the Ritz biscuits to win the Ritz biscuits' game (I came up with that name myself!)


My favourite place was a shop selling fish; both dried and raw. To entice people in there was a chefs station in the centre of the shop and the chef was frying up different types of fish for people to try.  Obviously I got involved and whatever it was that I had, it was tasty!


Behind the street was an area that surrounded a large square, with a series of places free to use to eat the food you had purchased with complimentary chopsticks and green tea!

The next place on my list was actually only at the end of the road. This place was called Naiku and is the most venerable sanctuary in Japan. Inside the Naiku is a jinja (Shinto shrine) dedicated to Amaterasu-Omikami of the Imperial family. She was enshrined in Naiku about 2,000 years ago and has been revered as a guardoian of Japan. Naiku is the inner shrine. Geku is the outer shrine and is about 20 minutes train ride from Naiku, but I was told the inner shrine was more impressive as well as being next to Okage Yokocho, so for me there was only one option.

You have to cross the Isuzugawa River to enter the shrines grounds. The park itself is beautiful with some of the tallest trees I have ever seen! It's very well maintained with groundsmen busy at work throughout the park.

Every 20 years, a new Shikinen Sengu with the same dimensions as the current one is constructed at an alternate site which is adjacent to the main sanctuary. The sacred apparel, furnishings and treasures to be placed inside the palace are also remade.


After exploring for a few hours I took a stroll back down Okage Yokocho as I hadn't eaten since breakfast and was up for grabbing something a little out of the ordinary. There was so much choice ... a lot of it I had no clue as to what it was, but it all looked interesting! I forgot to mention that in this area of Japan it doesn't seem like many people speak English. And there are no English translations for anything so the language barrier can make certain things a little tricky.

Out of all of the food stalls and restaurants, guess which one place I stumble upon and end up eating at ... yep, a chicken shop!! I couldn't help myself - I really wanted to try their boneless chicken as they had different variations. It was delicious so I had no regrets with my choice, after all, you can take the boy out of North London ...


I wanted to look around Ise a bit more before heading back to the ryokan. It seemed like a cute little area with to be fair, not much going on. But before long I would be spending a lot of time in the more built up urban areas of Japan, so a stroll around the quieter more local family parts sounded like a good plan.

It really is a quiet town with buses only passing through every half an hour, the main road through the street leading up to the ryokan is only wide enough for one vehicle. This made journeys to and from the ryoken on the bus quite interesting, watching the very capable bus drivers navigate around oncoming traffic without hitting the houses which butt right up to the road!

It was time to check in to the ryokan and boy was I impressed - from start to finish by the whole experience. This started with the service provided by the mum, son and possibly wife of son who run / own the inn. Their English is extremely limited, but what they lack in this area they more than make up with in smiles and politeness! The extremely traditional building feels like it should be an open museum rather than accommodation, but I was very happy that I was getting to stay here for a couple of nights. It felt like I'd gone back in time and was experiencing Japan during the Shogun era.
The apartment I had was rather large; A front door with a lobby, a private bathroom with bath, shower, sink and toilet, the main room which included a sleeping and dining area as well a large cupboard for me to hide my rucksack inwhilst I took photographs!

I taken so many photographs whilst here because as the light changed throughout the day it makes the landscape look very different. I've only included a few here, I'll add the rest of them at the end of this post as not to bore you!

Dinner was served within the room and was again of the highest standard, all prepared within the ryokan in the kitchen across the stairwell.

I've had the pleasure of two dinners whilst staying at the inn, both with different dishes. Some of these dishes over the course of the 2-nights were:

- Grilled barracuda
- Fried sole
- Grilled yellow tail
- Tuna sashimi
- Fried tofu
- Conga eel soup! (Wasn't a fan)
- Flounder sashimi
- Grilled sliced beef

Both came with rice, wasabi, green tea and other mini sides.

Being in rural, traditional Japan, the breakfast was obviosuly pretty similar consisting of rice and fish. Again it was of the highest quality, but I'm more of a cereal and toast breakfast kind of guy so I may have grabbed a snickers or two from the Family Mart in town!

My second day in Ise was set aside for venturing over to Futamiura to check out the Meotoiwa.
This area was a place for visitors of the Isu Jingu Shrine to purify their bodies.

I took the bus down the winding road to Ise-shi from the inn and then jumped on the JR line heading for Toba, getting off after 2 stops at Futamiguarua.

The walk to the Meotoiwa was only 20-minutes so again instead of getting a taxi I decided to explore on my way - and I was surprised with what I found, or more to the point, what I didn't find!

The place was quiet which I kind of expected, but what I didn't expect was the whole area to be completely dead! And when I say dead, I mean DEAD! There was no one around; no tourists, no locals, no open restaurants, stores, bars ... nothing! It felt like everyone knew something other than me.

There were Tsunami Evacutation signs down every road as Futamiura is on the south east coastline running along the main areas which were effected the most by the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami. You forget how much of an effect that natural disaster had on Japan, the amount of lives lost and the cost to the country. But it's impressive with how the country just picked itself up and got on with life - I guess that's the only way to carry on.


But back to this ghost town ... there was honestly no sign of the place being up and running today. I mean it was 3pm on a Friday, surely something should be happening?

As I got closer to the Meotoiwa I started to see tourists. Little did I know that most come to the rocks via coach which are parked on the other side, next to the shopping arcade and Futami sea paradise.

The whole area had a very eighties feel to it - everywhere was fairly run down and outdated. The arcade was full of eateries and souvenir stalls all jumping at the chance of a buyer as you walk past.

And as for the sea paradise, I was contemplating checking it out, but once I saw the state of the giant sea lion enclosure which is used at the entrance over looking the car park to entice people in, ironically it put me off! It was tiny - far too small for these huge beasts, and the water was dirty and it just didn't look very well maintained.

I'd finally reached the Meotoiwa (translating as 'The symbol of Marriage') through the ghost town and the trip back to the eighties thanks to the retro shopping arcade. As most of these sites busy with tourists (I've come to find) there were a number of shrines along the route for people to pray, wish and spend cash!

Meotoiwa are two rocks that are tied firmly together with a large thick rope called the shimenawa which is used in Shinto to ward off evil. The morning sun rises between the two rocks from May to July.
The ropes are renewed each year in a special ceremony on January 5th. The view itself is beautiful, but much of the surrounding area has been ruined with the souvenir shops which are positioned far too close to this national treasure.

After taking some shots of the rocks and the extremely peaceful sea and its surroundings I made my way back to the station via the ghost town.


The highlight for me was stumbling across this group of elderly Japanese people who were obviously on a day out and had decided to pose in front of Futami's mascots -  happy frog couple (obviously)!

The trains were every hour and I arrived just in time to jump on board back to Ise-shi followed by a bus trip with a bunch of very polite school kids to get back to enjoy one last evening relaxing in my ryokan with a private dinner.

Tomorrow I head to Osaka which is somewhere that's always been on my list to check out. So for now I'll get back to enjoying this view :)

Here's more pics of the ryokan for those who are interested:



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