If youre visiting Japan, of course youre going to do Tokyo or Osaka and experience all the kitsch and kawaii things the city has to offer.
By heading south-east from Tokyo, past Nagoya and into Mie Prefecture, however, youll see a completely different side to the country, steeped in Shinto tradition.
Mie Prefecture moves at a slower pace compared to the capital.
Driving out from Nagoya through forests and mountains is like an initiation into the stillness of Mie.
On the coast of Japans main Island Honshu, this area represents a Japan that isnt as touched by pop culture.
Its somewhere you really need to visit if you want to ground yourself and get back to nature.
Check out these attractions for maximum zen.
Shintoism is at the heart of Japanese culture, and one of the most sacred shines, Ise Jingu, is situated here.
From bowing as you pass through its colossal arches to blessing yourself with stream water, youre encouraged to be mindful of your surroundings.
For me, a staunch city-dweller, this is almost disconcerting.
Once youre in the swing of things, though, its nothing short of freeing.
Id seriously recommend visiting Ise Jingu to witness the untouched beauty of the regions nature.
If you can, organise a tour so you can fully understand the Shinto customs and what the shrine means to people who come here.
You might find it gives you some sanctuary among the cypress trees yourself.
This is right beside Ise Jingu, and is a shopping and food hub selling everything from old-school Japanese toys to tofu ice-cream.
We had sushi at Sushikyu, where the eel in a sticky teriyaki-style sauce was a risk worth taking.
Another delicacy in this region is the mandarin orange grown locally.
At Okage Yokocho you can have one of these drilled into and muddled from inside the fruit.
They stick a straw in the top and youve got the freshest orange juice youll ever have, as well as some super-cute Instagram fodder.
Not far from Ise Jingu are the Meoto Iwa Rocks.
The legend has it that these rocks are husband and wife, and this spot is sacred and visited by the gods.
This is a must for honeymooners or loved-up travellers who want to witness the picturesque coastline and get a blessing in the process.
Mikimoto Pearl Island
Pearls are a big part of Mie.
Around Toba, youll notice the nets along the shoreline used to grow cultured pearls.
Mikimoto Pearl Island is well worth a visit, and you can see how this process works.
There are also some incredible sculptures made by Mikimoto Kokichi himself. Dont touch though, as theyre pretty much priceless.
You could always purchase a piece of jewellery, as, although some of the items are incredibly valuable, there are smaller necklaces and bracelets for about 8,000 Yen (about £54).
Once you finish your museum tour, you can watch the Ama diver show, which will truly blow your mind.
Women of up to 90 years of age work as divers in the area, previously collecting pearls but now diving for everything from seaweed to shellfish.
Nothing will prepare you for seeing a pensioner freediving – without a wetsuit and in traditional white cotton get-up – in the freezing sea.
The Ama Diver Experience
Because the Ama divers are so incredible, you should try to make the effort to visit one of the Ama huts.
We visited the Ama Hut Satoumian in Shima.
Once you enter the hut, you sit on the floor around a grill, and a diver chats to you about her experiences while cooking you locally caught fish.
Its part-museum, part-restaurant but definitely something youll never forget once youve been.
If you do have a Japanese companion, wed advise you take them along, as some of the divers arent fluent in English.
But even with an interpreter, the friendliness and lived experiences of these women come through.
If you like seafood, youre in for a treat in Mie Prefecture.
We mainly ate at the restaurants in our two hotels to save a drive. Both had a huge range of shellfish, from abalone to perfectly grilled Japanese spiny lobster.
The sushi is also outstanding, as youd expect in a fishing region, and make sure to treat yourself just once to the Matsusaka wagyu beef from mie.
It melts in your mouth like butter.
Where to stay and how to get there
I stayed in two hotels in the area.
The first was Nemu Resort, which is nestled in the woodlands of Shima.
With a huge golf course, outdoor yoga classes, and a private beach – which staff will take you out to watch the sunset on and toast marshmallows – its a perfect mix of luxurious and calming,
Nemus onsen is also something to behold.
There are three different hot-spring pools, one of which is enriched with pearl and leaves your body literally sparkling.
During the second leg of the trip, the Toba International Hotel was home.
There are two parts to this hotel, so you can choose to stay in the Japanese building – where you can opt for an onsen in your room – or the more Western-style rooms with a view of the sea.
My flights were with British Airways from London Heathrow direct to Tokyo Haneda. Return flights start from about £830.
To get to Toba, we got the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya – which took just under two hours and cost about £80 one-way – then drove to Ise-Shima.
Cars are available to rent from Europcar at Nagoya Shinkansen station.
A Japan rail pass is about £200 for a week and, although you might not be allowed on certain high-speed bullet trains, it could be a good option if youd like to see other parts of Japan as well as Mie.