Ise-Shima National Park in Mie Prefecture, Japan, reads more like an amusement park resort than a national park due to its diverse offerings of natural attractions, interactive cultural experiences and onsite hotel. The 214-sq.-mile park, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary next year Nov. 20-22, is the ideal vacation destination for second-time visitors to the country who could easily spend a week or more dissecting the area’s many remote islands and mountainous coasts, as well as learning about its famous pearl culture, traditional woman divers and rich history.
There’s no shortage of unique activities for visitors to participate in at Ise-Shima National Park, case in point, the Water Ball Experience. For two hours and $45 per adult ($36 per child), guests can climb into an inflatable plastic ball and crawl, walk, and move around like a hamster out at sea without getting wet. Ise-Shima National Park’s Aquarium’s Backyard Experience ($20 for adults; $10 for junior-high and elementary students; $5 for smaller children) allows guests to observe more than 850 species of marine animals, including giant spider crabs, the finless porpoise and sea otters, in one of Japan’s largest aquariums. For more information, visit tobakanko.jp/en.
A famous, must-see cultural landmark is the Meoto Iwa (the Wedded Rocks). These sacred rocks, which rest off the shores of the small town of Futamigaura, were tied together by a rope about 650 years ago and are said to represent a married couple. During the summer solstice, guests can see the sun rise between the rocks, and around winter solstice, the full moon appears between them. Perhaps the most significant attraction at Ise-Shima National Park is the Ise-Jingu (Grand Shrine) on the Kii Peninsula. The Ise-Jingu is one of the holiest Shinto shrines in the country and is considered a Japanese mecca.
For scenic views of the park, guests can visit the Asamayama, Nankai and Yokoyama observatories, getting a bird’s-eye view of the Pacific Ocean, Mt. Fuji, and Ago Bay, respectively. From the Toba Observatory, situated on Mt. Hakoda in Toba City, guests can view a coastal area where Japanese women dive for pearls and seafood, the Atsumi Peninsula, and the Toshi, Suga and Kami islands, which call all be reached using Toba City Municipal’s boat service.
One of Ise-Shima National Park’s main focuses is the preservation of local culture and historical heritage by involving local community members. The aforementioned female divers are called Ama or “woman of the sea”. Their jobs are to free-dive, sometimes up to 30 ft. underwater, for abalone, seaweed, shellfish, and, most importantly, pearls. Visitors can take part in the centuries-old practice during the half-day Ama Experience Tour ($71 pp) on Mikimoto Pearl Island, where groups of up to seven people can meet with the traditional Japanese divers and dine on fresh grilled seafood in the women’s huts. The island itself was named after Kokichi Mikimoto, who is regarded as the first person in the world to successfully cultivate pearls. A detailing of the island’s history, pearl culture and sampling of pearl products can be found at Mikimoto’s Pearl Museum and Gallery.
Why let the Ama have all the fun? Your clients can join local fishermen in Minami-Ise on a boat trip to fish for their own lunch the old school way, with nothing but a net ($25 per adult; $13 per child). At the local fish market, visitors can purchase pre-caught seafood, both live and dead, in addition to watching a live fish auction.
Japan’s oyster season runs from November to March, during which a multitude of oyster growers sell their briny delicacies in many of the park’s shops. Back on the Kii Peninsula by the Grand Shrine, are two more locations for both dining and shopping—the Oharaimachi and Okage-yokocho districts. These old-fashioned shopping streets feature souvenir shops, street-side stalls and vendors selling candles, tea, jewelry and the popular Japanese dessert Akafuku mocha (a soft rice cake covered with sweet bean paste). Fortunately for park guests, there’s a nearby onsite hotel where they can slip into their food comas. For more information, city.toba.mie.jp or pref.mie.lg.jp/english.
While Japan boasts a highly sophisticated and modern culture, preserving the country’s cultural heritage is at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. For example, visitors to island nation can sleep in ryokans, traditional Japanese inns that date back to the Edo period (1603-1868). The Kaigetsu Inn is a “no frills” ryokan located in the Ise-Shima National Park of Toba City just a short distance away from Toba Station, offers guests the chance to participate in ancient Japanese customs dating back to the Edo period (1603–1867), when the inns came about.
The 4-story, family-run hotel features Japanese-style guestrooms with tatami (straw mat) floors, a futon mattress, and complimentary amenities, including soap, shampoo, a yukata (casual kimono), and tabi (thick-soled Japanese ankle socks). For those who feel so inclined, the hotel also offers a free ofuro (public bath) for guests in the morning and at night where clothing is forbidden. While many ryokans include meals with the stay, the Kaigetsu Inn charges $6 per person for breakfast. Guests can choose from two different breakfast menus, a traditional Japanese breakfast consisting of fish, egg, pickles, miso soup, rice, and Japanese tea, or a typical Continental breakfast complete with bread, eggs, salad and coffee. For lunch and dinner, guests can visit the inn’s restaurant on the first floor, where the owners themselves prepare the meals, or try out a nearby restaurant. Rates start at $100 per night dbl. For more information, visit kaigetsu.co.jp/e.