The grand torii of the Itsukushima Shrine is one of the many reasons that Hiroshima’s Miyajima Island is considered one of the top tourist attractions of Japan (in my opinion, even maybe the top attraction). At high tide the torii sits seemingly in the middle of the ocean but on low tide the water recedes and you can easily walk right up to it.
This torii was designed not to be anchored to the ground, it actually remains in place just by its own weight which makes it more or less earth quake proof. During high tide many tourist boats pass through ut and I as is customary people like to offer money to the gate. At low tide the money becomes visible in droves underneath the gate, in some places it piles up in droves. Still, to pick anything up or remove any of the money would be big no-no, so most people leave it alone where it is.
It was raining during most of my visit and together with this being a weekday afternoon meant that there were quite few other tourists during my visit. I even managed to meet one of the many wild deer out for a stroll later in the afternoon after the school kids and tourists had left.
One morning in Hiroshima I visited the famous Toshogu shrine (広島東照宮) located not too far from the north exit of Hiroshima Station. The rains was absolutely pouring down and I had a hard time keeping myself and my camera dry so please excuse the poor quality of the photos. There are plenty of Toshogu shrines all over Japan and they all enshrine the same spirit, the fist Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu (1543-1616). The most famous being the one in Nikko north of Tokyo. The Hiroshima Toshogu was built in 1648 to commemorate the great shogun who unified Japan. One of the main ceremonies of this shrine was the festival thrown every 50 years to commemorate the shogun. However, in the late 19th century the shogun dynasty fell and the festival was cancelled. In 1989 it was revived as a trial and the next festival will be in 2015, back on schedule. If you miss this one, you will have to wait until 2065 for the next!
Toshogu is built on the hillside overlooking Hiroshima city. The main shrine is located below a series of little shrines and holy places connected by a hill trail from the back of the main shrine. It was too wet and slippery for me to explore so I only went to see the first of the small hill shrines, but next time I visit I will see them all!
The shrine is 2.1km from the center of the blast of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima on August 6th 1945. The blast wave pulverized a stone torii (shrine gate) and blew most of the roofs off. The buildings that survived the blast are permanently tilted to the north to this day. Most of the main building however survived as a small detachment of the 2nd Army Signal Corps who were stationed in the shrine on that day. The soldiers fought the fires and then set up a first aid station to receive the wounded civilians who started coming in after the blast. The badly wounded were sent further on to a nearby temple while the walking wounded stayed for treatment. On the day after the blast the Hiroshima post office (which is now just to the south of Hiroshima station) relocated to this shrine. One of the people who came to this shrine for treatment was the writer Tamiki Hara 原民喜, 1905-1951) who wrote the famous novel Natsu no Hana (Summer Flowers) based on his experiences of the bombing. The shrine was finally rebuilt in 1965 but one of the losses of the was was the line of cherry blossom trees leading up to the temple.
The shrine on Isukushima Island, or Miyajima, is built into the flat tidal bay of the Setonaikai, a small sea surrounded by the main islands of Japan. In the old days the it was forbidden for commoners to set foot on the holy island so the shrine was built into the bay to make it possible for ordinary people to pay their respects. Although the building has been rebuilt many times, the original shrine dates back to the 6th century, making it one of the oldest in Japan.
During high tide the shrine sits in the middle of the water, a very beautiful effect. Unfortunately I visited during the rainy season so it was raining for most of the day and by the time I arrived low tide was in effect and most of the water had already run out. Still, it is good to see something different from what every photo in every tourist book tells you!
Shinto places great importance on purity, and since the island of Itsukushima is one the holiest places births and deaths and blood were not allowed on the island traditionally. These days of course, customs have changed though. Anyone who died on the island would be taken over to the mainland with their immediate family for funeral rites and there are still no cemeteries or graves on the island. Pregnant women were also expected to leave the island before giving birth and although not a rule anymore it is still considered prudent as there are no official maternity wards or hospitals on the island and the daytime only ferry access can be canceled in times of bad weather.
Walking around on the shrine which covers quite a lot of ground but is surprisingly small is a fantastic experience and I would easily rate this shrine as one of the premier places to visit for anyone touristing in Japan. This was also one of the places visited by Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio on their honey moon trip to Japan. As much as I have searched though, I can’t find any official dates or photos, but it must have happened on the afternoon of February 12th, 1954. Any fans who knows more out there?
More photos and posts to come!
About 23km from the city of Hiroshima lies one of the most beautiful spots in Japan, Itsukushima island, or as it is known in everday life, Miyajima (the island with the shrine). It is considered one of the three scenic views of Japan and is also on the UNESCO world heritage list of sacred places.
In the old days the island was considered to be so holy that laymen and ordinary people were not allowed to set foot on it, it was exclusively reserved for priests and nuns. To allow visitors to the local shrine to properly worship there, a torii, a shrine gate was constructed in the 12th century and placed in the middle of the bay. In those days visitors would be rowed over in long narrow boats but these days commoners are allowed on the island so almost everyone approach it on foot.
The present gate was made in the 19th century by using water resistant camphor trees and is about 16 meters tall. It is really much larger than you can tell from these photos which were taken at quite a distance. Remarkably enough no saltwater nor waves nor typhoons has managed to topple the gate which is actually not anchored to the ground, it is really just plonked on the sand and is kept in place by its own weight! The pier and ocean side walk leading up to the shrine is lined with stone lanterns and the many tourists are kept an eye on by the local population of wild deer, which are protected on this holy island.
I will blog more about the wonderful Itsukushima shrine and the island itself tomorrow and the coming week.