Whether you’re looking for a couple’s getaway, or taking a mid-winter break, February is the month to plan travels worth sharing. If you’ve never experienced the romance of train travel, climb onboard the Belmond Royal Scotsman. We also invite you to explore the latest in cruising, which has hit new heights of luxury and excitement.
Erika Reategui and Fernando Gonzalez
While Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto are always popular destinations in Japan, there’s one breathtaking, yet little-known area that makes our insider John Rios light up with excitement. Coastal Ise-Shima is home to the holiest of shrines, beautiful islands, bountiful seafood, and the famous Mikimoto pearls.
What’s so special about Ise Shima?
Located in central Japan’s Mie Prefecture, it’s off the beaten path for international visitors. To me, Japan’s rich history and tradition are very much alive here. Time felt like it had come to a halt. Nature is untouched with scenic coastlines, natural spas and mountains that droop to the sea. The Japanese hospitality known as omotenashi is also very special.
How do you get there?
The bullet train from Tokyo takes about 3.5 hours. Then an hour in the car. The train is excellent with very comfortable premium seats.
Is it popular with Japanese tourists?
The Ise Shrine is the holiest temple in Japan. It is found here in a sacred forest and is considered the spiritual home for the Japanese. Millions of pilgrims visit each year, including the Imperial family. Even the prime minister pays his respects on New Year’s Day every year.
Who are the famous Ama free divers from this region?
In Ise-Shima, the bounty of the sea is traditionally caught by Ama divers, who are women-only. This practice goes back 3000 years. These women, whose average age is 65 today, still free dive to catch abalone, oysters and shellfish with their hands. But the tradition is slowly dying. It is well worth visiting them in their huts to hear their stories and enjoy the freshest seafood lunch.
Where should we stay?
To immerse yourself in nature, stay in Amanemu, located in Ise-Shima National Park. The suites and villas all include private hot spring baths and ample terraces with views of Ago Bay. The setting is as serene as the rooms. I love the large bathrooms too. The restaurant serves excellent Japanese and western cuisine.
What activities are on your must-do list?
• Lunching in an Ama diver’s hut
• Visiting Ago Bay and Mikimoto Island, home of the pearl
• Touring a bonito flakes factory (katsoubushi)
• Visiting the sacred Ise Shrine
Japanese cuisine is so amazing. What should we try?
I mentioned that seafood lovers must try the famous spiny lobster, large oysters and abalone. Ise-Shima is also home to the best and most expensive beef in Japan known as matsusaka. Definitely worth the splurge. You’ll also find great local food and sweets along Okage Yokocho Street.
Tips for first-time visitors?
There is an indescribable purity in this area, so be very respectful of nature, and observe the traditions of the shrines. You should spend two days visiting the shrines and two days to enjoy the coastal areas like Toba and Shima.
Best time to go?
It’s great in all seasons. Spring has cherry blossoms. Summer is very green. Watch the leaves change color in autumn and early winter.