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Ise: Day Six

Though there had been some talk of taking us all to Iga Prefecture—a locale famous for its ninjas—on the weekend, we actually wound up touring the museums related to the ruins of the Saikū, the palace complex of the Ise Priestess (saiō). This was intensely preferable. I enjoy ninjas as much as the next girl, but I would much rather learn about the various cultural traditions of Heian (794-1185) period Ise. (Nerd power!)

Learning about the Saikū, and the tradition of sending a daughter of the Emperor (tennō) to it in order to act as the court's liaison to the kami of Ise, was a perfect use of time in my book. I had been peripherally aware of the practice from reading The Tale of Genji (where the selection of the next Ise Priestess is a major plot point during one part of the book), but I hadn't ever really taken time to consider what was involved in the practice: the selection methods, the travel involved, the rituals invoked before, during, and after a priestess's tenure. I was absolutely fascinated by this aspect of Heian history, and I hope to have a chance to learn more about it in the future. As you can imagine, I bought several books related to the site in the museum shops, and someday—when I achieve that legendary semblance of "free time" that people sometimes talk about—I'll turn my attention to it and see what I can make of it all.

The role of the Ise Priestess in ritual practices at the shrines of Ise is very interesting, both in and of itself and because of the priestess's duty as a representative of the court. Japanese emperors since Meiji have made pilgrimage trips to the shrines at Ise, but emperors before that time did not—a factoid that adds an interesting dimension to the formation of State Shinto and the redeployment of the shrines at Ise as the heart of that new religious practice after the Meiji Restoration. This is yet another point where taught lectures on these shrines can sometimes be quite vague, so I'm glad to have this information to factor into future classes.

After a morning at the Saikū, we made our way to a famous kamaboko (fish cake) shop, where we were treated to a hands-on class on how to make kamaboko! Of course, we weren't provided with recipes, but we were able to smoosh, mix, flatten, scrape, press, and sculpt our very own fish cake rolls, which was a lot of fun. (Although, man do I have serious respect for people who make fish cakes for a living—all that smooshing, and mixing, and flattening, and scraping, and pressing, and sculpting is HARD!) Once we were finished, they took our rolls for quick steaming in the cooker, and then let us fashion hand-shaped kamaboko for grilling and eating on the spot. I made my kamaboko look like a fish. (I named him Peko, and he was delicious.) At the end of the class, we were all presented with special kamaboko pilgrimage tokens—available only to those who have taken the kamaboko challenge. We also got to keep our steamed fish cakes.

One of my favorite things about traveling in Japan is that it's always an awesome food tour, and Ise is no different. I've eaten so many good things since I got here that I think I'm going to be entirely spoiled by the time I get back to Tokyo.