A Day in Miyajima – Japan’s Most Sacred Island

the floating torii on Miyajima island

Miyajima, Japan is most famous for the photos of its floating torii gate. But this lovely little island offers up lots of gorgeous scenery, both man made and natural. Read on to find out about my experiences as I spent a day in Miyajima.

There are times when I visit a place and I just can’t stop taking photos-which is saying a lot, because I always take a lot of photos when I travel. It doesn’t matter if it is a popular tourist destination – and often times the most photogenic spots are just that. If I find it visually appealing and it stimulates my creative juices, I can’t help myself. I just keep snapping away, always looking for and easily finding another, more artistic perspective.

The day I recently spent in Miyajima, Japan was just such a day. Of course, it helped that the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the trees were turning a fiery red. And the sunrise as I took the ferry across was pretty perfect too.

The sun rises as the JR ferry leaves the mainland and heads toward the island of Miyajima

Miyajima is a small island in the Seto Inland Sea, about a 30 min train ride and a 15 minute ferry ride from the Hiroshima central train station. It is best known for the photos of the floating torii gate in the harbor, which is part of the Itsukushima Shrine, another one of Japan’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Miyajima’s famous floating torii gate

Miyajima is described as “One of the Top Three Scenic Spots in Japan”, and it is in part this scenic location that makes it such an important spiritual site for the Japanese believer. In fact, the word Miyajima means “shrine island” in Japanese. For a long time, the island itself was considered to be sacred, and commoners were not allowed to set foot on it. For that reason, the shrine was built to extend out over the water, looking like it floated and was separate from the land. The torii gate that has become such a tourist icon, was built as the entrance to the shrine and pilgrims were required to steer their boats underneath it as they approached the shrine.

Itsukushima Shrine

The centerpiece of the island is the vermilion painted Itsukushima Shrine which is uniquely built to extend out over the water. When the tide is in, the shrine and torii gate are meant to look like they are floating in the sea. The view of the orange shrine against the green forested hills surrounded by blue water and sky is considered to be a classic Japanese scene of beauty.

Itsukushima shrine floating in the sea at high tide

The first shrine was built here in the sixth century, and has since been rebuilt many times after destruction by both man and nature. One interesting fact is that no metal nails have been used in the shrine’s floor construction. The shrine is dedicated to three deities who are believed to protect the country, the imperial family and seafarers.

The Itsukushima shrine is actually a complex that consists of the main shrine building and a number of subsidiary shrines, connected by covered walkways. Entrance into the shrine is usually as early as 6:30 AM which is a good time to go. Not only can you get photos without people in the way, but you can also experience the shrine in the peaceful and serene atmosphere appropriate for a religious site. You are also more likely to see the monks performing some of their morning rituals.

Looking into the main worship hall of the Itsikushima shrine

One of the interesting structures within the shrine is a bridge that leads to nowhere. The Sori-bashi bridge was used for imperial messengers only and temporary stairs would be built so they could cross the bridge. Today, the bridge is not used and serves for pretty photos instead.

Soribashi bridge

But the object that consistently draws the eye is the large O-torii standing out in the water. This symbol of Miyajima is about 50 feet tall, with the current version built in 1875. This torii gate is free standing, that is, none of the pillars are buried in the sand for support. The main pillar is made of camphor wood which is naturally insect repellent and rot resistant, and has a circumference of about 30 feet.

First view of Myajima’s torii gate at sunrise
Itsikushima Shrine in Miyajima Japan
Itsikushima Shrine in Miyajima Japan

Once the tide goes out, the land around the shrine becomes a mud flat that can be walked on. When the tide is at its lowest point, you can walk right up to the O-torii and get the true sense for just how large it really is.

Besides this main shrine, Itsukushima also has 7 smaller shrines associated with it that are located around the shores of the island. Many of these cannot be reached by a road, and can only be approached by a boat.

A sacred dance at Itsukushima shrine

Itsukushima shrine has many scheduled events and festivals throughout the year. On the day I was there, a very large group filled the shrine and the promontory next to it. All the dancers were dressed in blue and white, except for group leaders, which were dressed in brightly colored outfits. One special group seemed to have the privilege of performing within the shrine, while a group of leaders performed with flags on the inside stage of the Itsukushima shrine. The performance didn’t last long, maybe 10 to 15 minutes at the most. The movements seemed to be Tai-chi like. I asked one of the shrine’s monks about the performance, but his English seemed limited and all he could tell me was that it was a sacred dance. Whatever the purpose of the dance, this was another one of those serendipitous experiences that makes travel interesting.

Other sacred sites on Miyajima

Itsukushima shrine is clearly the main attraction on Miyajima that draws the majority of the visitor’s attention. But within a short walk are a few other scenic religions sites also worthy of a visit.

Five Story Pagoda

On the hill above Itsukushima shrine is a beautiful five story pagoda. also covered in bright vermilion lacquer. The building originates from 1407 and enshrines the Buddha of Medicine.

Toyokuni Shrine

Next to the Five Story Pagoda is the Toyokuni Shrine. Unlike the other buildings, this shrine has not been painted and is still showing the bare wood of its unfinished state. After the brightly colored environment of Itsukushima, the unpainted surfaces here result in a quieter and more calming experience. This shrine was built in the 16th century and is dedicated to the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It was intended to be a Buddhist library, but when Toyotomi died, the construction on the shrine ceased. The shrine is also called Senjokaku-or Hall of One Thousand Tatami Mats because of its large size. The inside of the shrine is decorated with many “ema” or picture tablets that used to decorate the Itsukushima shrine.

Just outside the balcony of this shrine was a tree that had reached its fall peak color and glowed like spun gold.  The color was beautifully reflected in the wooden floorboards – boards that had been polished to a soft glow by stocking feet over the course of hundreds of years.

“Hall of 1000 tatami mats” reflecting a golden tree at its peak fall color
Daiganji Temple

Just to the west of the Istukushima shrine is the Daiganji Temple. It is believed this temple is from the 12th century. The temple is dedicated to Benzaiten, the Goddess of eloquence, music, wisdom and wealth. Dropping off a prayer request here would certainly cover a lot of bases.

Entrance to Daiganji temple

As with other religious sites in Japan, the 2000+ deer that live on the island are considered to be sacred and are protected. They wander around the shrines and the town at will. They are very tame, and at times can also be a nuisance. Keep a tight hold of your food when they are near.

Is the deer trying to decide what to order?

Other Things to do in Miyajima

The small town that has grown up around the religious sites seems to cater to the visitors and tourists. There are many accommodation options, though book early if going during peak times, like fall foliage or spring cherry blossom season. From the entrance to Itsukushima shrine, the traffic leads directly down into Omotesando street, the place for souvenir shopping and restaurants serving local favorites like oysters and eels. One of the oddest things you’ll see on this street is the biggest wooden spoon in the world – carved over the course of almost three years as Miyajima’s symbol. Of course, you can take home copies of both the wooden spoon and the torii gate.

The path from Itsukushima shrine leads right into the shopping district
Miyajima’s biggest wooden spoon in the world

Make sure to take the time to explore some of the other streets in town with their traditional Japanese architecture. Take the road uphill toward the ropeway and explore Momojidani Park which was especially pretty with the maple trees turning bright red when I was there in mid November.

On this trip, there were a number of sites I did not get a chance to visit: the ropeway to the top of Mt. Misen; the Miyajima History and Folklore Museum; the Miyajima Aquarium;  Daisho-in temple or many of the other smaller shrines and temples around the town – next time.

But the star of the island will always be the large floating torii gate in the harbor. As the light changed throughout the day, so did the mood of the shrine. When dusk fell, bright lights flooded the buildings, giving the shrines a completely different look than they had during the day.

The Itsukushima torii at sunset
At the “magic” hour just after sun set
The lights of a boat passing under the torii gate at high tide leave a light streak during the long exposure

Miyajima can easily be visited as a quick day trip from Hiroshima, but I think that to truly experience the sights and the town, it’s best to spend a night or two.  This way you can enjoy the area in relative quiet once the day trippers and tours have gone. I had a full day in Miyajima and spent the night, but could easily have enjoyed another day, taking the time to go to the top of Mt. Misen and then hiking down, or exploring some of the more out of the way sights.

For information on how to get to Miyajima please visit  http://visit-miyajima-japan.com/en/prepare-your-stay/comment-venir.html 

For up to date information on visiting Miyajima please visit  http://visit-miyajima-japan.com/en/

For up to date information about Itsukushima Shrine please visit http://www.en.itsukushimajinja.jp/index.html

 

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Thanks for visiting.

Rose

 

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