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Historic Kansai: Ask for Onshi's advicer to enjoy visit to Ise

By Junzo Tanaka
Most people must have visited the Ise Grand Shrines. The Ise Shrines are a Shinto mausoleum of the Imperial Family in Ise City, Mie Prefecture, according to the definition of Kojien, the most widely used Japanese language dictionary. Since ancient days, the Ise Shrines have been popular among Japanese people and widely known even abroad. German architect Bruno Taut, who visited Japan in the 1930s, praised the Ise Shrines as the essence of the Japanese beauty of simplicity.
A large number of worshippers will visit the shrines during the coming New Year holidays as in the past. There are various interesting spots to see both in the compound of the shrines and in the town of Ise. Those who have already visited Ise tourists spots many times are advised to ask 'onshi,' Shinto priests who serve as town guides, what to see and where to visit in Ise. In the real sense of the word, 'Onshi' means Shinto priests belonging to shrines who preach teachings and tell stories about backgrounds of the teachings in order to propagate them. Long ago, there were a large number of Ise 'onshi' who traveled all over the country to spread the divine grace of the Ise Shrines. They were like the Christian missionaries who preached in the early days of Christianity. Indeed, the Ise onshi had a strong sense of mission like Christian missionaries. But, characteristically the onshi were more or less common people and in a casual way tried to motivate people to visit Ise rather than preaching noble Shinto doctrines.
The Ise onshi made great contributions to enhancing the popularity of Ise among people. In the Edo Period, people all over the country hoping to visit the Ise Shrine at least once in their lifetime formed fraternities, called 'Ise Ko.' Members of the Ise Ko accumulated funds for Ise visits, offered prayers and went to Ise on group tours at their convenience. Some folklorists say that the 'Ise Ko' fraternities were instrumental in building roads and lodging facilities along the routes leading to Ise and made Japan one of the leading tourist countries in the world in those days.
There are still a lot of people in Ise doing the work of 'onshi.' The Ise Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Ise Tourist Association, the Ise Hotel Association and the Ise Shinto Priest Association as well as individuals formed the 'Ise Ko Fraternity Association' several years ago in an effort to make Ise as popular as it was in the Edo Period. The association asked local residents well versed in things about Ise to do volunteer work such as tour guide, just as 'onshi' of the Edo Period did. As one of its activities to propagate Ise, the association is asking the owner of old shops making herb medicine, swords, netsuke, traditional lanterns, rattan products, 'miso' bean curd, and traditional rowing boats, among others, to open their shops and workshops to the public as 'town museums.'
Recently, this writer visited town museums exhibiting 'ukiyoe' prints and ceramics and were shown valuable collections while warming in a traditional 'kotatsu' heater, and fully enjoyed the traditional atmosphere of Ise. Since the museum staff serve as guides for visitors as side work while handling their daily chores, visitors wishing their guide services had better make appointments in advance. All visitors to Ise would be exposed to the traditional Japanese spirit.
Incidentally, the Ise Shrines, normally closed at night, are open to visitors day and night from December 31 through the morning of January 7. A bonfire is built from the New Year Eve through the morning of New Year Day, while sacred music and dancing are played.