I went recently to Ise city (伊勢市）(google location) in Mie Prefecture with my girlfriend. Have you ever heard about it ? This is a very small city but a very important one in japanese history. There is the Ise Grand Shrine where Amaterasu Omikami is worshipped. Amaterasu is the God of Sun, bornt from the left eye of Izanagi, the male God who created Japan Islands with his heavenly spear (read all about this here). From Amaterasu all the Japanese people are descendants. No need to say that's the most sacred shrine of all Japan !
There is actually two main shrines : the inner one and the outer one. To them are attached 123 others minor ones. The two main shrines are accessible only to the Imperial family and you won't be able to approach nearer than the fourth wooden fence. Minor shrines are accessible though, and the woods around them are gorgeous.
The main shrines are completely rebuilt every 20 years, to symbolize nature cycle and keep this sacred place in perfect state. The next one will be held in 2013. It should be something huge to see ! Until then, leading up events also occur, as collecting huge wooden logs which are used for the reconstruction.
Near the Inner shrine a old shopping street offers full of restaurants to eat the local specialties : the Ise shrimp, and the Ise udon. I tried the second one, it was very good ! I also taste several seafoods directly fished in the vicinity. Mmmmmhh !! But there is not only restaurants. Of course a lot of souvenir shops, and more interesting : very very old buildings.
We also went there to see the Aquarium of Toba (鳥羽市). By bus you can reach Toba in 15 min. from Ise. There is a one day pass (1000 yen) and a two day pass (1600 yen) bringing you to every interesting places of the area. Don't forget to buy it at the tourist information center of Ise (in front of the outer shrine), it will give you reduction on others attractions. The aquarium is mid-sized with several rooms in a range. Each one has a main big aquarium on one side and smaller ones on the two other sides. Windows are quite big, and dugongs and manatees are some of the rare species you can observe here (I LOVE the leafy seadragon). There is also several performances with animals : the classic sea-lions, or more unusually walrus ! Several "view from below" are also available, and always impressive. A small restaurant allow you to take a break if you spend long time there. Also on the lower floor a shell museum, with a large collection of splendid shells from all over the world, is not to be missed, as unfortunately do lot of people due to the "out of the regular course" location.
Another recommendable place in Toba is the Pearl Town on a island in front of the city. You can learn here everything about production of pearls, and of course buy jewelry. You can also see the women diving to collect them. Unfortunately for us we haven't see anything of this as the weather was very bad and we preferred to stay all the day in the aquarium.
Between these two cities another attraction is the Meotoiwa rocks. That's two rocks in the sea linked by a sacred rope. They are symbolizing husband and wife, and their union. Around them few others smaller rocks excited the imagination of local people who tried to find in their shapes some animals or whatever. As one of them is supposed to look like a bullfrog, little statue of this animal started to appear on the seaside, and now it's a real crowd of bullfrog looking at the sea ! Even the fountain to wash your hands before praying at the shrine is shaped like a giant bullfrog.
At Ise, we stayed in a traditional ryokan : the Hoshidekan (星出館, staff can speak very few words of english then if you don't speak japanese I recommend to book online). I've already stayed once in a ryokan but it was a 'modern' one. The Hoshidekan exists since years ago, and it is absolutely gorgeous. All made of wood, tatami, sliding paper doors. In the middle, a little garden with greeneries, rocks, a well and a pine (this kind of garden is called a tsuboniwa). Running around it, on the second floor, an alley, one third closed by windows, one third opened on the garden, and one third as a little bridge over the garden linking rooms to a bathroom. Bathrooms are large stalls with ceramics. Tooth brush and tooth paste are provided for free, as well as yukata and linen in the room, and towels in the bathroom. Toilets are half old style and half modern style. The room was perfect : 7.5 tatami sized, with a balcony, an alcove enhanced by ink painting and flower arrangement, two thick futons, tv, phone, tea, cookies, shogi board (I would have preferred Igo though ;-) ). Everything is old but perfectly clean. Before going to bed we also could enjoyed a japanese traditional bath (shared but used privately).
You can have a meal at the ryokan but we preferred to eat outside. It has been a very bad idea ! At 17:00 everything close and the city look like it's dead ! We walked so long to try to find something open ... The only restaurants we found, on a saturday night, was an italian one, which was full, and two cafe with light meal menu. We ended up with a lunch box in our room ! Gladly, for the next morning we had ordered the breakfast. It's given in a large room on the first floor. Fish, Sea weeds, eggs, vegetable and of course rice and tea. Cooked by two very busy grand'ma in the kitchen just behind, it's very very good.
Before coming back home we wanted to buy some omiyage of course. We almost never could ... Everything was already closed in the 'downtown' of Ise. Under the rain it somehow looked like a ghost city ! I also run out of money and couldn't find anywhere to withdraw. A bank ATM who was accessible and accepted one of the card of my girlfriend finally saved us. And we could buy some foods in the *only* one shop opened in the main street. At least, wandering made us discovered several others ryokan in the city, all more beautiful and older than the other. Next time I go to Ise, I want to try the Yamadakan (山田舘). From the outside it's out of words. Probably run by Chihiro herself ;-)
From Osaka you can go to Ise with the Kintetsu Ltd Express, from Tsuruhashi station on the loop line to Ise main station. There is two trains per hour (timetable). It takes 1h40mn and costs 3030 yen. So you can even think about doing it as a one day trip from J-Hoppers Osaka.