This post is all about Mie, Mie, Mie. Japan’s Mie Prefecture that is. Or, more specifically, the pretty bayside region of Ise-Shima. Home to Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine, Ise-Shima isn’t as big on the international tourist radar as it is with locals in search of spa retreats, pearls, and enlightenment. But the Eats Worlds are seeking something else entirely… ninja.
Exploring somewhere off the regular tourist map is a great way to get in touch with local culture and we often find that the find the best way to get a feel for a place is to get lost in it. Luckily we were lost the minute we alighted our train in Ise-Shima’s pretty seaside town of Toba and were soon sucked into a vortex of local loveliness thanks, in no small part, to Super Toba Woman and Captain Cackle.
There is service and then there is the nicest person on earth, Super Toba Woman (the kind lady at the tiny Tobashi-Ekimae Tourist Information Office). Not only does she help us get our bearings, our shite together and our transport organised, she does it quickly and with the utmost joy. She also briefs us on all the amazing things we could do in Ise, while we confuse her with our antipodean weirdness.
“Would you like to go to Toba Aquarium, home to over 850 creatures, ranging from dugongs, manatees and jellyfish to poison arrow frogs?”
“Do you want to go to the pearl museum and sea the ama pearl divers?”
“A cruise to pretty Iruka Jima, Dolphin Island?”
“Explore Ise Shima National Park?”
Not so much.
“What about making the pilgrimage to Ise Jinga?”
“Then what are you here for?”
Ninjas. Oh, and lunch.
With a knowing nod she marks up a map for us to infiltrate all the ninja strongholds in the area – and given that nearby Iga-no-Sato is the birthplace of the ninja, there are many – then with incredible stealth has us quickly seated and diving head first into bowls of steaming Ise Udon at one of her favourite local nosheries. I love her.
I also love Ise Udon, as does Sugarpuff who is hooked on the heavenly handmade ropes of chewy perfection. Covered in a black broth made from concentrated soy sauce and sweet Japanese cooking sake and topped with dancing flakes of fragrant bonito, they are a revelation.
The clam noodle soup ain’t bad either. But I digress.
Bellies full we head to the bus stop and our first encounter with Captain Cackle, the hotel bus driver. An elderly gentleman with not a word of English, he spends the next hour pointing and laughing uproariously at the hilarious Aussies. Whether he was being nice or not, we’ll never know but it was strangely endearing and the kids loved him. The hotel? Not so much. The most strangely soulless hotel I’ve ever stayed in, it shall remain nameless.
But the view is magnificent.
And it does provide a place to rest our heads so we can prepare ourselves for our mission to Azuchi Momoyama Bunka Mura, otherwise known as Edo Wonderland.
A theme park built like an ancient castle town, Edo Wonderland looks like a movie set with its shrine, temple and old houses under the shadow of a full-size replica of the splendiferous Azuchi Castle.
It’s also chock full of ninja. Who, I might add, are making a right arse out of the whole hiding business.
The forerunners to today’s SAS, Spetznaz, Green Berets and Batman, the highly trained ninja dealt in infiltration, espionage, intelligence gathering and assassination. But nothing could have prepared these ninjas for the onslaught of Raffles who, though trained in none of the above, quickly defeats this lot with wanton ridiculousness and they fall about laughing at his unique and spectacularly unco-ordinated dance fighting techniques.
The samurai seem equally amused.
But Raffles, a child so completely fixated that he attempts to create DIY Samurai armour from paper plates and egg cartons, sleeps in a ninja uniform in his “dojo”, and has his heart set on a career as a ninja, is so overjoyed to be with his brethren that he’s oblivious to their mirth.
And they seem equally taken with him.
Edo Wonderland is not a theme park with roller coasters and thrill rides – handy because we’re a bunch of chicken-shits when it comes to those – it’s more like an old-school Japanese Fight Club. Full of obstacle courses, trick mazes, ninja labyrinths with secret passages, revolving doors and traps, haunted fortresses, and archery and throwing star ranges, Raffles is in ninja heaven.
Sugarpuff too gets into the warrior spirit, though is more taken with playing the traditional teiko drums than fighting.
Both the kids get up to speed on the weapons and trickery used by those stealthy Edo period tricksters in a ninja museum, go through their paces in a training dojo, explore the fortified gates and are in raptures over an action-charged live ninja show.
They’re having such a great time that getting them to leave proves a little problematic! But leave we do… though armed to the hilt with plastic katanas, nun-chucks and shuriken.
On our return to Toba we discover that gorgeous Ise is also the home of Ise ebi, Matoya kaki and Anori fugu. No, they’re not warrior clans, they are in fact seafood. And they are bloody good.
Ise ebi is local spiny lobster and nothing short of sublime. Matoya kaki is the name of the enormous and ridiculously tasty oysters that grow in the nutrient-rich waters of Ise Bay.
And anori fugu is a poisonous blowfish, which, if prepared incorrectly, can leave you a little bit dead. With ninja like stealth, we pass on the latter.
Beyond the ninja, we decide to soak up some of Ise’s other drawcards, the biggest of which is Ise Jingu, an ancient Shinto shrine considered to be Japan’s religious and spiritual centre. But we were more enamoured with the smaller Meoto Iwa (the wedded rocks) in Futami.
The two rocks quietly jut stoically from the sea in front of Okitama Jinja, a shrine dedicated to Miketsu the goddess of food (a fact which may have also played a small part in our affection).
Tied in eternal embrace by a shimenawa rope, the sacred rocks represent Izanagi and Izanami, the married deities of Shinto legend who created Japan. It’s also known for its many, many frogs.
Legend has it that in ancient times, a frog was offered to calm the soul of a big snake that lived in Futami Bay. With respect, if I were he, I’d have a word with Miketsu and order in some noodles next time.
Linking up with the utmost stealth to Essentially Jess for IBOT