Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ride Report: Ise

Total distance: 80km

Rolled out this morning after about 12 hours of sleep. At 10am it was already quite hot out. The cloudiness from Nagoya has completely dissipated now, and the temperature was around 32C (90F) by the time I stopped for a break around 11am.

The road, still route 23, was still nicely paved, wide (two lanes each way plus space for bikes) and blissfully free of broken glass. Got some nashi (asian pear) juice during the break -- really refreshing!

Since this is a round trip, I got to ride without the trailer. (Kind of feels like an engine upgrade, makes it easy to accelerate from a stop or climb up bridges.) Within about two hours I'd cleared the 40km to Ise and was pulling into the outer Ise shrine.

The Ise shrines are supposed to be some of the holiest places in Shinto, and are dedicated to Amaterasu-omikami (nerd reference -- this is the same as the deity who's the main character in the PS2 game Okami). The shrines are in beautiful condition, partly due to the huge amount of care they put into it, mainly due to the custom of tearing down and rebuilding the whole thing every twenty years, simbolizing the cicle of death and renewal. So the shrines I got to see today were actually the 61st incarnations of those shrines. They're still built to the same specifications as the originals, supposedly, and their design is unique among all shrines. Each shrine has an equally sized, mostly empty spot next to it, where the next shrine will be built before the current one is torn down. Over the generations, the shrine switches between the two sites. The only thing that stays constant is the center post in each site. It's not removed or destroyed; instead, they build a tiny wooden "hut" around it before taking down the shrine around it. The hut only gets removed once the next shrine is built on top of it, so the center posts are never visible to the outside. The next rebuild is due for 2013.

Uncharacteristically for Japan, some areas of the shrine do not allow photography. Although heavily patrolled by security, it was interesting to note that they only wrote "no photography" in Japanese on the signs... I wonder if they just don't get very many foreign tourists here, given that it's out of the way and has a much greater spiritual and historical signficance than it has postcard appeal...

The inner and outer shrines are about 5km away from each other, so once I was done strolling around the beautiful woods surrounding the outer shrine, I headed in the direction of the inner shrine till I found a nice looking italian restaurant that served me some pizza and really icy water and let me sit in the a/c for a while. :)

Another 4km brought me to the Inner Shrine (Naiku). This one is significantly bigger than the Outer Shrine, although the layout is very similar. The Inner Shrine is also where all the tourists go, apparently, for unlike the Outer Shrine, this one was packed with flocks of tourists (though still hardly any foreigners, and no signs in any language other than Japanese... gotta give them credit, even 'bathrooms, this way' looks good when written in Japanese calligraphy on a wooden sign).

The inner shrine is set along a creek at the foot of the mountains, and although it also has wooded areas, it has much more of a landscape than the Outer Shrine, with gorgeous mountains in the background. I picked up a mango shaved ice from a store that had an absolutely dizzying number of flavors for shaved ice and followed the throngs for a tour of the Inner Shrine.

With everyone there, it wasn't a meditative experience, but it was beautiful and nevertheless inspiring. Having been to some of the most important spiritual sites in Europe, I really enjoyed being somewhere so full of light and trees and water and people laughing and generally having a good time enjoying the beauty of the surroundings.

Around 4pm, having made the full rounds, I chugged an iced tea and started on my way back to Ise. The weather was beautiful -- still sunny, but the temperature was already dropping to a more comfortable range (sun sets between 6 and 7pm around here... also rises around 5am). The headwind from this morning was still around, but this time as a tailwind it helped me zoom along, returning the strength it had sapped in the morning's ride.

Along the way, tractors tilled the fields with flocks of white birds happily plocking along behind the blades.

Made it back to the ryokan riding on the tailcoat of the last of today's daylight and headed straight for the bath to scrub off the road grime (the stuff collects really fast on top of sunscreen) and soak my muscles. And now, for some dinner. :)

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