A Trip to Ise – Part 1

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.

Golden Week at Home

Japan has a collection of national holidays end of April/beginning of May, which are known by the name of Golden Week (GW). It also happens that the company I work for closes off for the entire week around those holidays (using other national holidays on which we have to work).
Golden Week is thus the perfect time for a little travel and it’s easy to extend the GW a bit by adding one or the other day of paid leave.
I have made use of GW extensively and the last time I spent GW at home was 2010……… Alas… 2020 will be spent at home as well! I had booked a trip to my beloved Okinawa, but now cancelled it all, following the #stayhome directive.
I am of the kind who of course remembers having been on a trip to country X or island Y, but I do forget which year I went where. As a remedy I am in the habit of writing a journal and now it came in handy. I checked my journals and made a list of where I went every year during GW since the last time I spent it at home in 2010. The list is lovely and I shall bicycle around the neighborhood lost in memories of happy travels and island visits!

2011 – that was right after the big earthquake in Japan and I ventured out on my pre-booked travels to the Netherlands and the UK for sightseeing and heavy metal concerts in Amsterdam and London.
2012 – one of my most adventurous remote island trips so far. I went to the Ogasawara islands, 1000 km straight south of Tokyo in the middle of the Pacific. These islands have no airport and can only be reached by ship. One way takes 25 hours. The islands are insanely beautiful and I saw whales and dolphins during boat tours and in the harbor of Hahajima I saw sharks and mantas frolicking about.
2013 – I went to the island of Izu Oshima, not so far away from Tokyo and hiked around its central volcano, Mt. Mihara, which was great, but alas, my hotel was super crappy and infested with cockroaches, giant spiders and centipedes and I fled it one night earlier than planned.
2014 – No tiny Japanese island this time but a bigger one – I went to Taiwan finally after postponing a trip there for many times. I had a great time in Taipei and Kaohsiung walking around temples, skyscrapers and having good food.
2015 – Miyakojima. I rode around there with a rental car, sweating my guts out because of my fear of driving. But it is a wonderful island and I grew especially fond of the neighboring islands of Irabu and Shimoji where there is a fantastic beach studded with black rocks. Every day after the driving session was done, I went to an ice cream shop and rewarded myself after the driving stress.
2016 – Ishigaki. That time I tried with a scooter instead of a car, but found that to be equally scary and ended up not seeing much of Ishigaki island at all but hopping on boats every day to go to the surrounding islands which I explored on foot, with busses or rental bicycles. There was Kuroshima with 2000 cows and 200 people, Hateruma with a dream beach, and my favorite, Iriomote island with mangrove boat tours and hiking to waterfalls through the jungle.


2017 – something completely different! I flew to Moscow and St. Petersburg for sightseeing and heavy metal 😉 It had always been a dream of mine to stand on the Red Square in Moscow and visit the Basilica and the Kremlin. I enjoyed every minute of the trip to Russia. So much history and great people, even if they don’t speak English 😉


2018 – island time again, but not a Japanese one. I made another long held dream come true and flew to New Caledonia. Before coming to Japan, I didn’t even know about this place. I stumbled upon a flight coming from Noumea, had to google where that is and ever since I wanted to go there. Noumea is a wonderful city. I flew with a small plane to the Isle of Pines where is one of the most fantastic places ever called Piscine Naturelle, a closed off beach, where tropical fish swim around your feet in shallow waters.


2019 – Kumejima. Another lonely Okinawa island to explore. I had given up on car driving meanwhile and went around the island by bicycle up and down steep hills. The island has great beaches and stunning cliffs, but unfortunately the weather was not so good and lots of rain hampered the enjoyment, but that’s of course not the fault of the island.



So… what a nice list. I made great use of my Golden Weeks the past decade. I hope I can make equally good use of GW in the coming decade after spending the GW of 2020 in bicycle radius around my apartment! #stayhome #staysafe #stayhealthy