Ise Jingu Shrine was built in the fifth century but it has never stayed in one location more than 20 years. That’s right, it has moved every two decades, deconstructed and rebuilt 62 times nearby since 690 AD. It is thought that this act renews the strength and power of the spirits. It is the most famous and most sacred of the Shinto religion in Japan. Some 120 shrines are encompassed in the Ise Jingu complex. The primary shrines are the Naiku, or inner, and the Geku, outer shrines. The sun goddess Amaterasu O-mikami is said to be enshrined in the inner shrine, the Naiku, and is why the shrine was built as part of the Shinto belief of death and renewal of nature.
The shrine is one of the most important on the 311-mile-long Nakasendo Trail, path through mountains, that takes you through the heart of Japan’s main island of Honshu. It was one of only two means of transportation between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. This route has been used since feudal times.
After the last battle of national unification at Sekigahara, the Edo shogunate acted to establish a communication system which would allow the regime to move quickly and efficiently messages, personnel, diplomatic missions, spies, and important goods to or from Edo throughout the empire. Five highways including the Nakasendo were designated for this purpose. Each highway was organized along principles which the Chinese used to regulate their highways in imperial times. The route was carefully laid out, the width of the highway was determined, and villages at convenient intervals along the way were designated as post-towns, which were responsible for the functioning of the highway in the area and for providing food and lodging for official travelers.
In the second half of Japan’s Edo period (1600–1868), travel for the sake of travel was not allowed. Imagine that! Religious pilgrimages, however, were gaining in popularity. As time went on, various religious establishments, such as Ise Jingu Shrine, help popularize pilgrimages.
Post towns developed every few miles to provide travelers with places to rest, eat and find accommodation during this long journey. Along the Kiso Valley, a few post towns, particularly Magome, Tsumago and Narai, have been preserved to look as they did when they served travelers of the Nakasendo.
Today, hikers come from across the globe to walk the Nakasendo Trail and follow in the footsteps of emperors and shoguns. There are hikes of varied lengths for all skill levels. If you would like to experience this historic trail, explore our 14-day President’s Pick Japan Cityscapes & Sacred Trails.