The easiest way to see the park's sights is to start in Ise City, the northern gateway to Ise-Shima National Park, and work your way down the peninsula to Kashikojima.
Ise City (Ise-Shi)
The Ise Grand Shrines (Ise Jingu) -- Tied historically to the imperial family and considered the spiritual home of the Japanese people, Japan's most venerable Shinto shrines, the Ise Grand Shrines (tel. 0596/24-111), consist of an Outer Shrine and an Inner Shrine, plus more than 100 minor shrines spread through a dense forest of Japanese cypress. As the Outer and Inner shrines are about 6.5km (4 miles) apart, your best bet is to first visit the Outer Shrine, which is a 5-minute walk from Ise-Shi Station, and then either cycle or take a bus to the Inner Shrine. In addition to the CAN-Bus, a local bus runs between the two shrines every 10 to 15 minutes (fare: ¥410). Because of the distance between the shrines and their large grounds, plan on spending at least 2 hours exploring Ise.
The Outer Shrine (Geku) was founded in 478 and is dedicated to the Shinto goddess of industry, agriculture, clothing, and housing. The Inner Shrine (Naiku) was founded a few centuries earlier and is dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Both are among the few Shinto shrines in Japan without any Chinese Buddhist influences and are therefore thought to be the purest style of Shinto architecture. Constructed of plain cypress wood with thick thatched roofs in the oldest style of architecture in Japan, they're starkly simple and have no ornamentation except for gold and copper facing on beams and doors. In fact, if you've come all the way to Shima Peninsula just to see the shrines, you may be disappointed -- there's nothing much to see (and no photos are allowed). The shrines are so sacred that no one is allowed near them except members of the imperial family and high-ranking Shinto priests. Both shrines are surrounded by four wooden fences, and lesser mortals are allowed only as far as the third gate.
The fences don't allow you to see much, but that doesn't stop the estimated seven million Japanese who come here annually. They come because of what the shrines represent, which is an embodiment of Japanese Shinto itself. The Inner Shrine is by far the more important because it's dedicated to the sun goddess, considered to be the legendary ancestress of the imperial family. It contains the Yata-no-Kagami (Sacred Mirror), one of the Three Sacred Treasures of the emperor.
According to legend, the sun goddess sent her grandson to Japan so that he and his descendants could rule over the country. Before he left, she gave him three insignia -- a mirror, a sword, and a set of jewels. As she handed him the mirror, she is said to have remarked, "When you look upon this mirror, let it be as if you look upon me." The mirror, therefore, is said to embody the sun goddess herself and is regarded as the most sacred object in the Shinto religion. It's kept in the deep recesses of the Inner Shrine in a special casket and is never shown to the public. (The sword is in the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, and the jewels are in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.)
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Outer and Inner shrines is that, even though they were founded centuries ago, the buildings themselves have never been more than 20 years old; for more than 1,300 years, they have been completely torn down and rebuilt exactly as they were on neighboring sites every 20 years. Not only does the practice ensure that the shrines don't deteriorate but also that ancient building techniques are passed down through the generations. The 62nd rebuilding will take place in the fall of 2013.
Even though you can't see much of the shrines, they're still the most important stops in Ise-Shima. The Inner Shrine, considered the more sacred of the two, is approached by crossing the Isuzu River via the elegant Uji Bridge (also rebuilt every 20 years), passing through a manicured garden, and then entering a dark forest of 800-year-old cypress trees. Watch how Japanese stop after crossing the second small bridge on the approach to the shrine to wash and purify their hands and mouths with water from the Isuzu River. Its source lies on the Inner Shrine, and it's considered sacred.
Ise's Historic Districts -- After visiting the Inner Shrine (a 45-min. walk round-trip), turn right after recrossing Uji Bridge for the nearby historic district of Oharai-machi, whose 800m-long (1/2-mile) main street is lined with beautiful wooden buildings and kura (storehouses), some dating from the Edo and Meiji periods and others newly constructed but faithful to traditional architecture. This once served as the main pilgrimage road leading to Ise Jingu. During the Edo Period, when travel was strictly controlled, joining a mass pilgrimage to Ise was for many Japanese a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to venture beyond their homes; it's estimated a fifth of the population joined pilgrimages to Ise during that time. Today it's an interesting area for a stroll, shopping, or a meal.
About halfway down is Okage Yokocho (tel. 0596/23-8828) a re-created Meiji Era village with teahouses, restaurants, and shops selling Japanese candies, traditional toys, and folk crafts. If you have time, stop by Okageza (tel. 0596/23-8844; daily 10am-5:30pm, to 4:30pm in winter), a museum housed in an authentic Edo-Era building that captures the spirit of Oharai-machi during the Edo Period; dioramas of half-scale models and lively street scenes vividly convey what life was like for both the residents and the pilgrims passing through. On a bridge overlooking a model of the city and its shrines, take note of the small man: He's not half-scale; the average Edo man measured 4 feet, 11 inches. Admission is ¥300 for adults and ¥100 for children. You'll spend about 20 minutes here.
Off the beaten tourist track is Kawasaki, which served as Ise City's business district during the Edo Period, when boats traversing the Setagawa River delivered goods to storehouses along the river. A grass-roots movement has restored four of these storehouses along with an Edo-Era house, grouped together in the Merchant's House Museum (Ise-Kawasaki Shonin-Kan), 32-25-3 Kawasaki (tel. 0596/22-4810; Wed-Mon 9:30am-5pm), which you can tour for ¥300. In addition to a high-class teahouse, displays include Ise's own paper money, the first paper money in Japan and developed to lessen the load of pilgrims who might otherwise be forced to carry heavy pieces of gold or silver. Surrounding buildings now house restaurants and shops selling crafts, food, and antiques (ask for a map of the area at the museum). In a country where old neighborhoods are disappearing by the minute, the local people who fought to preserve this historic district deserve medals. It's a 15-minute walk north from Ujiyamada Station or northeast from Ise-shi Station.
At the southern end of the Shima Peninsula, the last stop on the Kintetsu Line is Kashikojima, where one of the main attractions for Japanese is a 50-minute boat cruise of Ago Bay. Vessels, built to resemble Spanish galleons or with other Spanish-based themes, depart from the town's boat dock, about a 2-minute walk from the tiny train station, every half-hour or so between 9:30am and 4:30pm (until 3:30pm in winter), weather permitting, and cost ¥1,500 for adults, half-price for children. You'll pass pearl-cultivating rafts, fishing boats, and many small islands along the way. For more information call the Shima Marine Leisure Co. (tel. 0599/43-1023).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.