In 2020 I stayed at home during golden week (a collection of national holidays and the company I work for closes for a week) for the first time in over ten years while the country (and most of the world) was in the first state of emergency during the pandemic that had just started. Notably the COVID figures at that time were in the hundreds in all of Japan, not in the thousands as now, a year later.
This year a few prefectures are in state of emergency, a few are in a semi state of emergency, many have no such state at all. I had booked a hotel for Okinawa again, but some three weeks before I was scheduled to go, Okinawa entered a semi state of emergency and was asking people not to come. So what to do instead? I felt like I’d be going stir crazy if I have to spend another golden week at home. Inspired by a colleague of mine, who went to Mie and Wakayama prefectures in March, I “remembered” the place and thought why not. I’ve been to Ise city once before, during my very first trip to Japan, since it is the home of the most holy of all Shinto shrines, the Ise grand shrine, which belongs to the sun goddess Amaterasu. My previous visit to Ise is now a staggering 28 years ago. I visited the place as a cute and naive student in 1993. OMG, have I become that old? Yes, I have! Naturally I hardly remembered anything about the place. It’s not that far away either, just by Shinkansen to Nagoya and from there with an express train for some 90 minutes.
In Ise I rented an apartment with cooking facilities, to be able to avoid having to go to restaurants considering the COVID situation.
The holidays of golden week were timed favorably this year with the national holidays of 29th of April, and May 3, 4, and 5 all on weekdays, so also for people whose company doesn’t close for a week like mine, you could get 7 days off with taking only one holiday, the 30th of April. Last year the golden week travel was at an all time low, this year however, many people, such as myself, found it impossible to stay put. I rode the Shinkansen to Nagoya on the 30th of April, hoping for the trains to be not too full, but actually, the Shinkansen was pretty crowded and I stayed between cars to avoid having to sit next to someone for the 90 min from Yokohama to Nagoya. The train to Ise was much emptier, luckily.
I went to the Ise grand shrine right on the first day, the 1st of May, a Saturday in unsteady weather, with rain showers in the morning and epic thunderstorms in the afternoon, but luckily I was already back at the hotel for the worst parts of the thunderstorms. There were plenty of people around but in the large park of the inner part of the Ise grand shrine the crowding situation was acceptable. It was a lot more crowded in the shopping and food street next to the shrine and I felt a bit unsafe but went with the flow.
The shrine and the park around it are pretty amazing, even if you cannot really see the main shrine, since it is too holy and closed off for the most part. It is also one of the few places in Japan where you are not allowed to take pictures. There are plenty of lesser shrines around the main one though, which are accessible. An interesting point about the Ise grand shrine is that it is being rebuilt every twenty years. All buildings are made from wood and are renewed every twenty years. The first mentioning of the renewal of the shrine in whatever documents is from the year 690. It’s a beautiful place and well worth the visit. Right in the middle of town is the outer area of the shrine with ponds and several smaller shrines and also a main shrine. I found the outer shrine to be very nice also, in part because there were fewer people there.