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Travel: Discover Japan’s Beautiful Mie Prefecture Before Everyone Else Does

Mie prefecture in Japan is famous for its lobster, beef and beautiful landscapes. Discover it before everybody else does…

Japan is my spirit country. I’ve never felt moved to find my spirit animal, but I’m pretty sure I’m allowed a spirit country. Since teaching English over there for a few years as a graduate, I just haven’t been able to keep away.

Tokyo is thrilling and Kyoto is glorious, but Japan is vast and varied, and Japan’s lesser-frequented regions are ripe for exploration. My last trip to the land of the rising sun, a couple of years ago, took me to Fukuoka in Kyushu, and earlier this year, I discovered Mie prefecture. Just south of Kyoto in the Kansai region, Mie is fantastically scenic, characterised by its higgledy-piggledy ria coastline, forests, rice terraces and cascading waterfalls.

It’s a couple of hours on the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya, plus a couple of hours’ drive to reach Ise-Shima, eastern Mie. We headed for Nemu Hotel & Resort in Shima, a sprawling, picturesque golf and spa resort by Ago Bay.

The perfect antidote to city life, it has plenty of ways to unwind, from morning yoga to sunset cocktails and boat trips around the bay. There are also three onsen (hot springs), inspired by land, sea and forest, a spa and an impressive golf course devised by Damian Pascuzzo (once the president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects).

Choose a room with a view of the bay, and up the authenticity of your experience by requesting a Japanese tatami room (in place of a bed, an expertly unrolled futon will magically materialise in the evening). The Western-style rooms are spacious and contemporary, designed to make the most of the sweeping views with huge windows and unfussy furnishings.

The food is fantastic. After discovering that yuzu liqueur goes marvellously with prosecco as an aperitif, we hopped on a golf buggy for a very memorable private dining experience in an elaborate marquee. Here, right in front of our eyes, Kyoto-trained Head Chef Michihiko Yoshida prepared a feast starring Mie’s most famous foods; Ise lobster, abalone and melt-in-the-mouth Matsusaka Beef (one of the three ‘big beefs’, or wagyu, alongside Kobe and Yonezawa beef).

First, head for Yokoyama Observation Deck to get your bearings and take in the full view of Ago Bay and its 64 islands. The area’s biggest draw by far is Ise Jingu, one of Japan’s holiest Shinto sites

The hotel is ideally positioned for a number of sights. First, head for Yokoyama Observation Deck to get your bearings and take in the full view of Ago Bay and its 64 islands. The area’s biggest draw by far is Ise Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine), one of Japan’s holiest Shinto sites. We were blessed with perfect sightseeing weather – crisp, cool, early spring temperatures teamed with blue skies and bright sun (fitting, since the shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun goddess).

You could easily spend a day wandering both the Naiku (inner shrine) and Geku (outer shrine) complexes. We only had time to amble about Naiku, strolling over the impressive Uji bridge, passing under torii gates crafted from Japanese cypress and over the gleaming Isuzu River. You’ll snake through woodland passing a number of smaller shrines before reaching the large stone steps that lead to the main shrine, Kotai Jingu.

Afterwards, follow the crowds to Oharai Machi, a long street lined with traditional buildings housing souvenir shops, restaurants and ice-cream vendors. Some of the businesses here have been serving pilgrims and tourists for several centuries, so do stop for lunch (Sushikyu serves a great unagi don, or unadon, which is essentially grilled eel served on top of rice).

Our next port of call was Toba International Hotel by Toba Bay. The wide, spacious rooms on the bayside offer Instagram-worthy panoramic views across the crystal blue waters. The hotel also has an alfresco onsen infused with pearl ingredients, so that you emerge iridescent from the hot waters.

The hotel’s food is top notch. Seahorse restaurant serves up fine French cuisine, while Mondo Misaki prepares the freshest, locally sourced seafood, including that fantastic Ise lobster again, served as delicate sashimi, as well as eel sushi, jellied blow fish and simmered abalone. There’s also the intimate, 10-seat Kiyoishi teppanyaki restaurant, where you can devour that exquisite Matsusaka beef straight from the chef’s hotplate.

The Ama divers are famous for freediving 30ft down into the sea wearing nothing but a loincloth. The practice is carried out exclusively by women because, apparently, we’re better equipped for cold water diving because we have extra body fat to keep us warm (thanks for the observation, guys)

The hotel is a five-minute drive from Mikimoto Pearl Island, where you can learn all about the complex process of pearl cultivation, invented by Toba local Kokichi Mikimoto. There’s also an antique jewellery exhibition, which showcases Mikimoto’s elaborate pearl craft including a scale replica of Himeji Castle, made with 19,000 pearls.

Do hang around to watch the Ama diver demonstration. The Ama divers are famous for freediving 30ft down into the sea wearing nothing but a loincloth, gathering shellfish, seaweed and, hopefully, pearls. The practice is some 2,000 years old and carried out exclusively by women (apparently we’re better equipped for cold water diving because we have extra body fat to keep us warm – thanks for the observation, guys). Mikimoto later used Ama divers to look after his cultivated pearls, inextricably linking two of the region’s most famous industries.

Even more impressive was a trip to Satoumian, a traditional Ama diver hut where you gather around an open charcoal fire as Ama divers grill up a feast of fresh shellfish and tell tales of life under the waves.

Mie is a marvellous place with so much more to explore, so if you’re hitting the Tokyo-Kyoto tourist trail, make a little room on your itinerary for this nature-lover’s paradise.


ise-shima at a glance

Where to stay

What to see

  • Yokoyama Observation Deck for views of Ago Bay and its 64 islands
  • Ise Jingu
  • Mikimoto Pearl Island (be sure to catch the Ama diver demonstration)
  • Find out more about Ise-Shima at iseshima-kanko.jp
  • Experience the Pearl Aurora onsen, a pearl-infused alfresco hotspring) at Toba’s neighbouring hotel Shijitei

Dining experiences

  • If you need a break from travelling en route to Ise-Shima, make a pit stop at Aquaignis, a hot spring resort complex themed around healing and food with a contemporary farm shop selling local produce
  • Head to Oharai Machi for lunch after visiting Ise Jingu. Sushikyu serves a great unagi don, and try a tofu ice-cream or freshly squeezed orange juice from a street vendor
  • The glamping-style dining experience at Nemu Resort is seriously impressive, serving the local lobster and beef cooked to perfection
  • The tasting menu at Mondo Misaki restaurant at Toba International Hotel will confirm those sneaking suspicions that Japanese cuisine is the best in the world
  • For a grilled shellfish lunch in an Ama diver hut, head for Ama Hut Satoumian

How to get there

  • BA Club World direct from Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda Airport for £2,694 (based on a 7-night return journey). See britishairways.com
  • It’s a couple of hours on the bullet train (shinkansen) from Tokyo to Nagoya, costing about 11,000 Yen (see jreast.co.jp to buy tickets and japan-guide.com for information about discounted rail passes for foreign travellers), plus a couple of hours’ drive to reach Nemu Resort in Ise-Shima (for further advice see nemuresort.com)


 

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