Last summer’s research trip to Japan took me all the way to Miyajima Island (sometimes also known as Itsukushima, after the shrine that sits on its shore), where I spent two memorable days and a wonderful night exploring one of Japan’s most beautiful and iconic islands.
Miyajima (Itsukushima) sits across the Onseto Strait from Hiroshima, near the southwestern end of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. (The island itself is part of Hiroshima Prefecture.) Visitors access the island by ferries, which are easily reached by rail and subway lines. The trip across the strait takes 10-15 minutes:
While the island is home to many shrines and temples, the best-known, Itsukushima Shrine, sits directly on the beach.
Its giant red torii, known as the Great Torii, or Otorii, has become one of Japan’s most famous and enduring symbols:
Originally constructed in 1168, and rebuilt periodically in accordance with Shintō tradition, this version of the Otorii is the eighth, and dates to 1875. It survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, unharmed.
After arriving on Miyajima, visitors walk along a wide, paved path that leads along the beach and around a point to Itsukushima Shrine.
The Great Torii is visible most of the way, but the shrine itself becomes visible only after rounding the point.
The shrine’s buildings are constructed on stilts, because the shrine sits below the high tide line. At one time, the entire island was considered too sacred for most people (especially commoners) to set foot on. Hence, the shrine was built below the high tide line, so worshippers could access it via boats (at high tide only) and offer sacrifices and prayers to the gods without having to set foot on the sacred land.
Fortunately, those restrictions have been lifted, and Miyajima now welcomes visitors from across Japan and around the world.
The island is also home to several hundred sika (“deer,” in Japanese). Like the deer in Nara Park, the sika on Miyajima were once considered sacred, but are now officially titled “National Treasures.”
Miyajima’s deer are wild, but have no fear of humans and often approach visitors in hopes of a treat or a scratch behind the ears.
Signs on the island remind tourists that the deer are wild, and unpredictable, but the deer (and most of the visitors) pretty much ignore the signs.
Itsukushima Jinja (shrine) itself is over 1400 years old, and a registered World Heritage Site. The deities enshrined and worshipped there are the children of Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess (and chief deity in the Shinto pantheon) and her brother Susanoo-no-mikoto, god of the sea and storms.
During my visit, I spent a morning touring the shrine itself…and I’ll tell you more about it later this week!
Have you ever visited Hiroshima Province? Did you take a trip to Itsukushima/Miyajima on your journey?