Everyone quickly piled off the bus that had been carrying us for nearly 4 hours. As we were told we only have just over an hour to spend here, everyone began rushing through the torii marked entrance.

After all, there was a lot to do here with such little time, there were some shrines to see, as well as omiyage (gifts) to purchase for our host families– and omiyage is serious business in Japan.

Ise, Japan - 2011

My friends and I automatically began following the group.

As we crossed over a long, traditional bridge, we found ourselves in a wooded area. We were surrounded by trees beginning to show their fall colors, as well as a wide variety of wildlife. There were herons, koi fish and… chickens? Yes, for some reason there were many chickens running freely in the area.

Apparently chickens are the messengers of the shinto goddess Amaterasu.

Ise, Japan - 2011  Ise, Japan - 2011

As we kept walking further in, we started to suspect we weren’t getting any closer to the shopping area. We stopped to reposition our map, to try to figure out where we were.

We were near a small museum, and what looked like the entrance to the shrine. My small group decided to turn around, because the shopping district was in the opposite direction– and we were on a mission.

By this point in our trip we had seen so many shrines and we still had no omiyage to show for our trip. There would be bigger, more important shrines to see later on this trip, or so we thought, so we decided to skip checking out another billionth shrine in favor for shopping.

As we retraced our footsteps, we finally found Oharai-machi, the shopping area.

Ise, Japan - 2011

The street was lined with traditional buildings, all selling various types of omiyage. However, we were looking for something in particular– Akafuku.

Akafuku is a mochi, or pounded rice cake, that has been sweetened with red beans. It is considered some of the best mochi in all of Japan, and can only be purchased in this specific area. Because of this, we were told that this is what our host families would be expecting us to bring back for them.

We searched through the streets frantically after noticing we only had 20 minutes left to get back on the bus. Finally, we saw a long line ahead of us, and knew we had found what we were looking for.

As we patiently waited in line, a friendly shop assistant informed us that from the time we purchase the akafuku, we would only have 48-hours to consume it.

Ise, Japan - 2011

After purchasing a few small boxes for our families, we happily made our way back to the bus.

We waited for the bus to leave, eager for the next stop, which was Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮 Ise-Jingu). As we looked out the window, it began growing dark very fast. Were we really going to visit the shrine in the dark?

We finally spoke up and asked when we would see Ise-Jingu. People stared.

Finally, someone was polite enough to explain that the shrine we had just been at, was in fact, Ise-Jingu.

It turns out that the shrine we had made it to the entrance of, was the shrine we had been waiting to see all along. It was the main point for our trip to Mie, as it is the shrine to visit in Japan. Ise Grand Shrine is the most important shrine in all of Japan that most shinto followers make a pilgrimage to once a year– and we missed it to go shopping.

If only we had walked just a bit more to see another billionth shrine…

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