We arrived at Miyajima in the evening & our timing was perfect as we could freshen up at our Ryokan, enjoy our Kaiseiki Dinner & round up the night with the Illumination tour of Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) & the Great Torii. The downside was that the narration was all in Japanese & our party of 8 was a 100% lost but the hilarious tour guide tried his best to throw us clues with his one word English vocabulary charades-like; which eventually had everyone onboard in stitches. Laughter is infectious!
We approach the brightly lit Giant Torii & the Boat was a buzzed with excitement as everyone wanted to capture the memory on their cell phone or camera. Selfies & wefies are the order of the day.
Our captain brought us around the O-Torii anticlockwise & positioned the boat for the highlight of our 30min experience by passing through the Torii to a chorus of Oohs & Aahs! During the time of Taira-no-Kiyomori (1118-1181) it was common for devotees to pass under the Torii gate before entering Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社). The etiquette was to bow twice, clap twice & end with a single bow.
Welcome to Miyajima which is lauded as “An Island where People & Gods live together!” It is also known as Itsukushima Island which literally translates as the “Island of worship” with a circumference of about 31km.
Toro (灯籠) – A traditional lantern made of stone, wood or metal. This element of Japanese architecture has its origins in China & they were used only in Buddhist temples where they lined & illuminated paths. Lit lanterns were considered an offering to Buddha. However over time, they started to be used in Shinto shrines & even private homes.
About 212.7m from the Itsukushima Shrine’s Haiden (Main Prayer Hall) is the Great Torii.
This Ryobu Torii gate is supported by pillars on both sides. The presence of a torii at the entrance is usually the simplest way to identify a Shinto Jinja (Shrine) & it is a symbol marking the transition from the mundane world to the sacred.
Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) which is situated on the island of Itsukushima in the Seto Inland Sea was first built during the 6th century & has always been venerated as a holy place of Shintoism. This present shrine dates from the 12th century & the harmonious arrangement & architecture reveals great artistic & technical skill. At high tide, the shrine appears to be floating in the sea.
Long roofed corridors link the different shrines & halls together & Itsukushima plays on the contrast in colour & form between the mountains & the sea to illustrate the Japanese concept of scenic beauty which combines both nature & human creativity.
The property covers an area of 431.2 hectares on the island of Itsukushima & the buffer zone of 2,634.3 hectares includes the rest of the island & part of the sea in front of Itsukushima Jinja (厳島神社).
This is the Haraiden (Purification Hall) of the Marado Shrine which was where purification ceremonies are held.
Looking through the Haiden (Prayer Hall), Heiden (Offerings Hall) & Honden (Main Hall) of Marado Shrine. This is the 2nd largest shrine or Sessha (Auxiliary Shrine) in this complex & it is dedicated to different 5 deities. It is similar in architectural style to the Main Shrine with only slight differences in details. On the lit paper lanterns is the emblem of Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社).
These bronze lanterns hanging from the eaves along Higashi Kairo (East Corridor) approaching the Asazaya are called Tsuri-dōrō or Kaitomoshi (掻灯) & they are usually small, four or six-sided & are made of metal, copper or wood. They were introduced from China via Korea during the Nara Period (710-794AD) & was initially used in Imperial palaces.
The Asazaya is the hall where the Shinto priests gather during Shinto ceremonies & also the Morning ceremonies. The roof is gabled & the whole complex is built in Shinden-zukuri (寝殿造) architectural style used predominantly during the Heian Period (794-1185) in palatial or aristocratic abodes.
Gojunoto seen from the corridors of Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社). This 27.6m high 5-storied Pagoda was originally constructed in 1407 & restored in 1533. It is coated with red lacquer & its roof is covered with layers of Japanese Cypress bark shingles & its structure is built so strong that it can resist horizontal oscillation caused by earthquakes or typhoons. This pagoda was dedicated to the Buddha of Medicine accompanied by the Buddhist saints Fugen & Monju & during the early Meiji era (1868-1912) these deities have been moved to the nearby Daiganji Temple.
The 6 pillars of the O-Torii are not buried in the seabed but actually sits on ground that has been strengthened; stones & pebbles inserted into the top of the gate also helps it to keeps its balance.
The Higashi Kairo (East Corridor) painted in vivid vermillion links the Marodo Shrine to the Main Shrine & here you can see how the roof & the columns are constructed symmetrically. The East & West Corridors have 108 bays with the pillars 2.4m apart enough to fit eight floorboards with gaps in between to relieve water pressure from rising tides & also allow drainage of rainwater.
Prayer is in session at the Haiden (Prayer Hall). Looking through, you catch a glimpse of the Heiden (Offerings Hall) & the Honden (Main Shrine) which is also designated a national treasure. It was reconstructed in 1571 by Mori Motonari & covers an area of 271 sq m making it one of the biggest in Japan. Interestingly there are no doors or walls in this area, creating a spacious environment in this sanctuary.
In the background is the Haraiden (Purification Hall) of the Marado Shrine looking from the Hirabutai (Open Stage) of the Main Shrine.
The Takabutai (High Stage) which is elevated, stands between the stone lanterns & this is where the Bugaku (Ancient Court Dance) is performed when the weather is fine. Itsukushima Shrine is dedicated to the 3 daughters of Susano-ono Mikoto, kami (god) of seas & storms & brother of the great sun god.
A decorated Bronze lantern the Hitasaki stands at the end of a narrow pier extending from the Hirabutai (Open Stage) & the torii gate is straight ahead, making it the best spot to view the O-Torii especially at low tide.
The O-Torii stands at 16m in height & weighs about 60 tons. For the current main pillars of the gate, 600 year old Camphor trees were used after years of searching for the right trees. They are resistant to rotting & insect invasions. The supporting sleeve pillars are made of cedar.
These sake casks are called Komodaru; they are empty & are put on display as an acknowledgment to those sake brewers who have donated sake for the Shrine’s use during festivals in spring & fall. O-miki (御神酒) which is rice wine used during Shinto rites & festivals in Japan has always been a way of bringing gods & people together. Imbibing sake during festivals makes one feel happy & closer to the gods & things couldn’t get any better for those who love to drink!
It is a common sight to see O-mikuji (おみくじ) tied to trees or stands & they are actually random fortunes written on strips of paper. You can make a small donation at the shrine or temple & choose one from a box hoping for good fortune. I suspect the reason why so many are left here is because the fortunes read were not desirous & people want to leave the ‘bad luck’ behind.
Sori-bashi (Arched Bridge) – This bridge dates back to 1557 according to the inscription on one of the ornamental caps of the railing posts. It was also called Chokushi-bashi (Imperial Messengers’ Bridge) as it was where the imperial messenger crossed over to the Main Shrine on important festive occasions as Gochinzasai. Temporary stairs were assembled & placed on the bridge for easier passage.
This Noh Stage was presented to Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) by the Mori Clan during the Warring States period & underwent restoration work during the Edo Period. This stage is unique in that it is the only Noh stage constructed over water & the floor has been constructed to act like a soundboard creating acoustics in place of Tsubo – Urns filled with water that were usually placed beneath the ordinary stage. Shin Noh (Sacred Noh) was performed here during Tokasai (Peach Blossom Festival) from 16-18 Apr & in autumn, Kenchasai ( Tea Offering Ceremony) when a Tea-master performs a tea ceremony to the goddesses. On these occasions a temporary balcony is set up for audiences to enjoy the stage performances.
This is the Tenjin (Ten Shrine) dedicated to Sugawara-no-Michizane, a prestigious deity of Education & Intelligence. This is also sometimes referred to as the Renga-do Hall as Renga poetry ceremonies were held here on the 25th of every month until mid Meiji era, some 100 years ago. Renga is a traditional poem composed of lines linked in theme written by two or more persons.
Looking at Itsukushima Shrine from Daiganji Temple where you can see Toyokuni Shrine, Gojunoto (5 Storied Pagoda), the two Kado-Marodo Shrines with the long pier between them leading to the Hitasaki Lantern & the Gakubos (Dance & Music Halls) which flank the lantern on each side.
At low tide the wooden & stone foundations of Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) lay exposed. These have to be constantly repaired due to decay & water erosion.
People start streaming towards the O-Torii.
This is Itsukushima Shrine’s most recognisable landmark & celebrated feature & also one of Japan’s most popular tourist attraction.
The mighty O-Torii looms larger than life! Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) is listed in Nihon Sankei (日本三景), as one of the top three most celebrated sights in Japan alongside Matsushima Islands (松島町) in Miyagi Prefecture & Amanohasidate (天橋立) in Kyoto Prefecture.
The Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996 & the Japanese government has designated several buildings & possessions here as National Treasures.
You really have to see this amazing place to understand for yourself…. Why?