The island of Itsukushima - or Miyajima as it is more commonly known - is simply divine. Its very trees, rocks and sands deemed sacred since times from which only myth and legend remain, Miyajima's main attraction is Itsukushima Shrine, built over the water so as not to impinge on the island's sacred soil. All Shinto shrines have a torii gate through which the gods housed within are to be approached, but the gate to Itsukushima is something else. The huge vermillion gate "floating" on the water is an iconic image that has adorned the front of many a guidebook and was chosen by a 15th century scholar as one of the Nihon Sankei, "three great scenic views of Japan".
The "great view" status has ensured a steady stream of visitors to the island over the centuries. Scenes painted on Edo-era folding screens show that the history of the island as a place of recreation and amusement, as well as pilgrimage, is a long one. Miyajima's deer strolled the streets then as they do now, and there are even depictions of the still commonly seen contest between tourists and tenacious deer with an appetite for maps and even rail passes in lieu of real food.
The island's profile has risen further in recent years. First by its designation, along with the A-bomb Dome in the center of downtown Hiroshima, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then, when Taira no Kiyomori, the 12th century Heike clan leader responsible for expanding Itsukushima Shrine into the form we see today, was the subject of a year-long historical TV drama series. In 2012, visitor numbers exceeded 4 million, and this sacred island, which has a residential population of only around 2000, can, at times, become very busy.
The vast majority of visitors, however, only remain on the island for a few short hours, generally making their way down the seafront past the torii gate, paying their respects at Itsukushima Shrine before returning to the ferry terminal along the lively Omotesando shopping street with its restaurants, food stalls, and trinket shops.
On the one hand, they are missing out on so much that Miyajima has to offer - one could easily spend a couple of days or more here. On the other, however crowded the main thoroughfare may be, it takes very little effort to escape the throng.
The main sites, however, should not be missed. The scale of the torii is difficult to appreciate without standing at the base of its huge legs which, incredibly, are free standing on the seabed, weighed down by their own weight and tons of stones inscribed with Buddhist sutras inside the cross beams that form the roof of the gate. In this land of earthquakes and typhoons, it seems incredible that the current torii gate, which has stood since 1875, is only in its eighth incarnation in as many centuries. Most visitors aim to arrive at high tide so they can view the shrine in its "floating" state. Stick around for low tide too, and you can walk right up to the gate, marvel at and feel its bulk, and examine the small votive rocks placed upon its cross beams and coins stuffed into its cracks.
On my most recent visit to Miyajima, I decided to forgo the seafront route and make my way to Itsukushima Shrine via Machiya-dori, a narrow street lined with traditional town houses some of which have been converted into ryokan, galleries, boutiques and cafes. At the eastern end of Machiya Street, very close to the ferry terminal, is Mt. Yougai. Imase Shrine in the small park on top of this hill is one of the many across the island that go largely unnoticed, and one of many historic locations rarely visited by tourists.
Mt. Yougai was the site of Miyao Castle, a decoy fort built by the one of the great warlords of the tumultuous time known as the Warring States period, when samurai were as remarkable for their cunning and guile as for their adherence to the chivalrous warrior code of bushido. Motonari Mori used the purposefully poorly defended fort to lure his rival, Harutaka Sue, into a vulnerable position as a precursor to the Battle of Itsukushima in 1555. This was the only battle to ever take place on the island and much blood was spilt. Extensive purification rites had to be performed after the battle and the victory established the Mori clan's domination of western Japan. Alone in the now peaceful park, I looked across to the view of the great torii gate, as perhaps Sue's men had done unaware of the coming attack all those years ago.
Looking down, I saw an elderly gentleman working on huge pieces of wood in the small space between his house and the wall that separated it from the narrow street. He was cutting rough, paddle-shaped pieces which would become shamoji rice paddles, an item that can be seen displayed in every souvenir shop on the island. The idea for the shamoji is said to be thought up by an 18th century monk named Seishin who was concerned that the increasingly well-known Miyajima lacked a local memento. The story goes that Seishin got the idea from a dream in which the goddess Benzaiten appeared holding her trademark biwa lute, which brought to mind the similarly shaped rice paddle. Even the souvenirs on Miyajima come from divine inspiration.
Miyajima's other well known souvenir is of more recent origin, momiji-manju - little maple leaf shaped cakes modeled on the momiji maple leaves that turn such stunning colors in the autumn. Originally filled with sweet red bean paste, but now available with a wide array of fillings, Miyajima's shops are filled with boxes of the cute little sweets. If a whole box is too much, sitting in one of the shops to enjoy just one with a complimentary cup of green tea is a great way to recharge one's batteries, and watching the mechanized production process through a shop window is mesmerizing.
Framed by the eaves that line Machiya Street the vermillion five-storied pagoda stands tall on another hilltop that marks the street's western end. A walk up here brings you to one of Miyajima's most interesting buildings - Senjokaku, The One Thousand Mat Pavillion - which stands in stark contrast to the adjacent brightly colored pagoda. Senjokaku was commissioned in the 1580s by the second of Japan's great unifying warlords, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. The warlord died before the building was completed and remains unfinished and unpainted to this day. This is, however, our gain, as it is an incredibly beautiful building, and a real treat to be able to view the huge beams, which would normally be concealed, that criss-cross the space below the massive roof. Strolling over wooden floors polished by centuries of use - not quite 1,000 tatami mats in area, but not far off at 857 - among the thick wooden pillars, taking in the various large votive tablets with their equine themed illustrations and scenes from classical literature is a very calming experience. It is well worth taking a little time, as many visitors do, to sit quietly and look out through the exposed front of the building to the greenery beyond - or in autumn, to the breathtakingly bright yellow curtain of leaves provided by the huge ginkgo tree that stands on the hillside.
It is easy to think of Miyajima as a small place, extending just a few streets back from and around the Itsukushima Shrine complex. The island is, however, over 20 square miles in area, most of it covered with deep virgin forest, penetrable only by Miyajima's deer. The 1,755 foot high Mt. Misen which forms the backdrop to Itsukushima Shrine is, fortunately, easily accessible to humans. The mountain was "opened" by itinerant mountain ascetic Kobo Daishi who is said to have performed 100 days of Buddhist practice on the mountain over at the beginning of the 9th century. Hirobumi Ito, the former Prime Minister with an appreciation for the hands of serving maids, is quoted as saying that it is the view from the summit of Misen that really makes Miyajima one of the three great scenic views of Japan. Anyone who has made the climb either from the base of the mountain or walked over from the ropeway station in anything but the worst of conditions would likely agree.
There are several routes up the mountain, but one of the most popular starts from the oldest temple on Miyajima, Daishoin, which traces its roots back to Kobo Daishi's time on Misen. Until the Meiji government enforced separation in 1868, Shinto and Buddhism were highly syncretic and this temple was closely involved in running the affairs of Itsukushima Shrine. Compared to the simplicity of typical Shinto shrine design, Daishoin is like a religious wonderland that snakes up the side of a mountain valley. Hundreds of statues line the paths, are housed in temple buildings and packed into lantern-lit caves. The complexity of esoteric Buddhism makes my head spin, but the temple's English pamphlet does quite a good job of guiding you around the temple precincts. Overhearing Japanese visitors expressing their own confusion made me feel less self-conscious about my ignorance, and the statues of Japanese cartoon and television characters such as Anpanman and Ultraman made me smile.
If you are able, the walk up Misen is a must. It is a stiff hike of around 90 minutes, but the trails are beautiful. The mountains have a powerful effect on people. People loosen up in the mountains, become more open. Hikers, who would barely look you in the eye down below, happily regale you with cheery cries of "Konnichi wa!"
Around the summit itself are more temples and shrines, as well as strangely formed boulders and rocks and mysterious phenomena. The Reikado Hall houses a fire which is said to have been originally lit by Kobo Daishi himself and to have been burning ever since. It is this fire that was used to light the flame of remembrance in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park. The water in the large kettle heated above the fire is believed to cure disease.
Soot-covered heart-shaped votive tablets, wishing for everlasting love, are attached to the wall of the Reikado Hall. This surprised me as it used to be quite common for young couples to be warned that they should avoid visiting Miyajima lest the jealous island goddesses sabotage their relationship. The roots of this belief are another result of the mixing of the sacred with the secular.
In the early 17th century, Hiroshima clan administrators relocated the "pleasure quarters" out of the town that was growing around Hiroshima Castle to Miyajima. It was in the interests of the managers of "tea houses" and their customers alike that women didn't accompany their men folk to Miyajima and thus the jealous goddess story was started. I was still hearing the jealous goddess story when I arrived in Hiroshima in the late 1990s. Today, you no longer hear young couples being warned away from the island, and, on the contrary, Miyajima is being marketed as a "Lover's Sanctuary" - there is even a "Fire of Oath" machine which imparts "the joy and magic of encounters, blissful marriages and raising a happy home" at the mountaintop ropeway station.
Miyajima can indeed be a very romantic location. As afternoon blends into evening, the crowds head towards the ferry port or to their hotels for dinner. The seafront, so crowded during the day, becomes quiet. As the sun goes down, stone lanterns are lit and floodlights illuminate the torii gate and Itsukushima Shrine. It is very beautiful and for those who hang around long enough, it is likely to be a lasting memory of any visit to Japan.
It is possible, and quite acceptable, to eat your way around Miyajima. Other than the ubiquitous sweet momiji-manju cakes, Miyajima's signature dishes are the oysters harvested from the many rafts that float in the bay, and anago-don grilled conger eel served on a bed of rice. Both are fresh and delicious, and can be found in many restaurants on the island and in the street between the railway station and the ferry port over on the mainland.
Piping hot grilled oysters in the shell can be bought on the street, but on this occasion I chose to sit in at Kaki-ya an oyster restaurant on the Omotesando shopping street with a modern look. I thoroughly enjoyed my plate of juicy deep fried oysters, followed by a couple grilled on the shell. As the jazz music washed over me, I let the locally brewed sake sipped from a wine glass work its magic.
Miyajima is a place where one can eat until fit to burst without even stepping into a restaurant as a cornucopia of delights on sticks and wrapped in paper are served from store fronts. Don't dilly-dally however, as the deer are eagle-eyed when it comes to spotting the weak one in the herd.