There’s a lot to see around Hiroshima but today was dominated by high tide: I wanted to be on Miyajima Island before 9.00 in the morning to see the floating O-torri gate at its most submerged. Thanks to the wonders of a) my JR pass, b) efficient Japanese public transport systems and c) my ability to navigate train stations when Leigh isn’t breathing doubt over my shoulder, I was skipping off the ferry onto Miyajima soil by 8.45am.
In December 1996 the World Heritage Committee officially inscribed Itsukushima Shinto Shrine as World Cultural Heritage. The area designated includes the building of Itsukushima Shrine, the sea to the front and the Mt Misen Primeval Forest to the rear; in total this area covers around 14% of Miyajima Island.
The free tourist brochure has recommended sightseeing courses by foot and I (somewhat ambitiously given I spent the last three years walking maybe twenty minutes a day – I probably wasn’t entirely awake yet) chose the four hour course.
I started by skipping the crafts centre. The path to Itsukushima Shrine (which goes along the beach and gives the best view of the O-torii gate) was relatively free of tourists and I wanted to get some pictures before the next tourist ferry unloaded in 20 minutes. On the way, I met these guys:
Miyajima is full of wild deer who roam the streets freely and apparently indulge in the occasional spot of window shopping. Not far from the ferry terminal, the O-torii gate comes into view.
Brochure-speak: The O-torii Gate of Itsukushima Shrine is designated as a National Important Cultural Property. It’s about 16.6 metres in height and weighs about 60 tons. Its roof, thatched with Japanese cypress bark, is 24.2 metres in length. The main pillars, which are 9.9 metres in circumference, as made of natural camphor trees, while the four supporting pillars are made of natural cedar. The present O-torii, which is the eighth since the Heian period, was erected in 1875. The top rail of the torii has a hollow space and stones the size of a fist are put inside as a weight (7 tons in all). The gate stands under its own weight.
It’s red, a little faded, and very pretty on a nice day.
Itsukushima Shrine is directly behind the O-torii gate when looked at from the water, so that was the next stop. I have to admit… it lost some of its otherworldly sparkle when I read that the three goddesses the shrine is dedicated to are worshipped, among other things, as deities of traffic safety. The shrine, first built in 593, is in the Shinden style of architecture. Originally more humble, it was remodelled into the present structure by Taira-no-Kiyomori in 1168. The vermilion colour of the shrine and O-torii is thought to keep evil spirits away and the vermilion lacquer coating helps to protect against corrosion.
The bay that the shrine is set in isn’t very big and there’s a spit of land stretching along the other side of the O-torii gate. If you ever make a trip, be warned: your photos may be bombed by kayakers!
After wandering through some forest and getting ever so slightly lost (I think they’ve made more roads since the tourist map was printed), I found the Municipal Museum of History and Folklore of Miyajima. The museum preserves the main house and part of a storehouse which used to belong to the Egami family, one of the most properous merchant familiy on the island. There are around 1,000 artefacts of Miyajima folklore on display including ancient documents, paintings and woodcraft; none of which I saw because the museum is closed on Mondays. Instead, I ducked inside the Treasure Hall to look at samurai body armour, weapons, paintings, poetry and handicrafts. There was a no photo rule but the body armour sets were amazing!
Next I went further inland to the feet of the hills and found Daishoin Temple, headquarters of the Omuro Branch of the Shingon denomination of Buddhism and so the most distinguished temple of Miyajima. There were quite a few buildings here so I was never quite sure which was the main temple or what deity each was dedicated to, but the atmosphere was very peaceful and it was nice being surrounded by forest. One of the temples was set quite high with a sort of basement-area under the main entrance steps. There was a soft chanting so I hung around the outside, wanting to look inside but not wanting to interrupt. It went on for a long time and when I finally built up the courage to peek in the door I saw a ceiling full of suspended lamps and a “for sale” sign over the CD chanting mix they had playing through the sound system. Not much to interrupt, I was the only one in there!
On the way out of the CD-chanting basement back down towards the harbour there were some bells hung and I really wanted to ring them… so I did (after I saw other people doing it first!). The first one I hit with a mallet and it was loud and high-pitched, the second had an attached beam on a rope to swing into the side of the bell… the bell was bigger than me and I didn’t want to make everyone stare so I swung the beam gently… it didn’t even hit! So I swung it a little harder and a little harder and eventually there was a small tap and the bell made a deep, soft ringing noise over the river (Amy, if you’re reading, it made me think of your Dad – have any of his bells been sent to Japan?).
Hungry. Time for cake. I had a Momiji cake fresh off the production line, it was still warm. I expected that a maple-leaf-shaped cake would have a maple-syrup flavoured filling, but I forgot that I wasn’t in Canada. It was a dark purple sweet bean paste filling that was weird, but tasty. I’m not sure they would be as good warm unless you’re a fan of bean paste.
I had a problem: still hungry… time for oysters! They were the size of my palm, grilled in the shell over a barbecue and coated in chili & lemon. Really, really good. They should be a non-optional part of anyone’s visit to Miyajima Island.
Hunger satiated, I climbed some steps to get to the five storied pagoda, which was tall (28m high, to be precise). Wandered through the shopping alley, which was busy. There was a store with claims to having on display the world’s largest wooden spatula. I’d seen just about everything I could without hiking an hour or two up into the mountains and my feet were starting to get sore so I grabbed some Miyajima Deer Beers to share with Leigh in the evening and jumped on a ferry back to the mainland.