May 26, 2021
The island of Shinto deities: welcome to Miyajima！- Shrine visit
Hello everyone！I am Yamazaki Kazuko, writer at 供TOMO！
Today I'm introducing you to one of Japan's three treasures: the Itsukushima Shrine, located on the island of Miyajima. Also called "the island of deities", this place mixing nature and architecture is not only beautiful, but also shares a unique mystical aura.
The resplendent architecture of Miyajima Shrine and the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism
No matter how many times you saw this place through pictures, you must see this shrine with your own eyes.
Built in 1168, at the end of the Heian period, Itsukushima shrine has the particularity of floating on the sea… But don’t worry, this is just an impression caused by the high tide! You will be also overwhelmed by the magnitude of the shrine when you visit it.
The main shrine, which is the biggest in Japan, is built in the Shinden-zukuri style (architectural style developed for palaces and aristocratic residences).
The main shrine is in the center, and the auxiliary shrines and the noh stage are connected by corridors running east-west. The view of the sea and mountains in the background is as beautiful as if you were looking at a painting!
Some tiles are used on the cypress bark roof, and the corridor is about 196 m long.
The vermilion Ootorii (big torii), stands about 196m from the main shrine. Furthermore, you can notice that it is not embedded in the ground, but it stands upright by its own weight so that it can release the pressure of typhoons, high waves and earthquakes.
This big torii weighs about 60 tons. It is accessible by walk during low tide. According to the past etiquette, believers had to pass under this torii in order to visit this sanctuary. If you pay attention closely, you can observe the small pillars which are located at the bottom of the two main ones. Called ryoubutorii in Japanese, they represent vestiges of the Shinto-Buddhist syncretism specific to Japan.
The deities and blessings of Itsukushima Shrine
The three goddesses of Itsukushima Shrine are Ichikishimahime-no-Mikoto, Tagorihime-no-Mikoto and Tagitsuhime-no-Mikoto. They are also known as Munakata Sanjojin. The goddesses of Munakata are believed to be responsible for safe travel and traffic, good fortune, abundant fishing, prosperous business, luck with money, and improved skills and techniques.
The shrine was founded in 593, by Saeki-no-Kuramoto, the ruler of the island, after consulting an oracle. It is said that he built the shrine on the sea so as not to damage the island, which was considered a sacred body.
Historical figures related to Itsukushima Shrine
Itsukushima Shrine has been revered since ancient times. Consequently, many historical figures are connected with the shrine. Here are two of the most famous:
The present structure in the Shinden-zukuri style was built by Taira-no-Kiyomori. An incident in Koyasan inspired him to build the shrine. The following facts are traces left in The Tale of the Heike.
In 1146, Taira-no-Kiyomori, who had been appointed governor of Aki, was ordered to repair the great pagoda of Koyasan.
After six years of work, he finally completed the renovations, and he went to the inner temple of Mount Koya, where he met an old white-haired monk.
The monk said to him: "Next, you must repair the Itsukushima Shrine, which has fallen into ruin. If you do this, you will no longer have to fear for your rank."
Taira-no-Kiyomori thought that this must be a sign from Kukai (a Japanese monk who founded the Shingon Buddhist school). He eventually took charge of Itsukushima Shrine in 1168.
Thereafter, not only the Heike clan but also many members of the imperial family and aristocrats such as Emperor Go-Shirakawa came on pilgrimage to this shrine, bringing with them the culture of the capital to Miyajima.
2. Motonari Mori
The battle of Itsukushima, in 1555, was fought at Itsukushima Shrine. Despite an overwhelming disadvantage (Sue Harukata's army numbered 20,000 men, and Motonari's army had 4,000 soldiers), Motonari's army was victorious.
This battle soiled Itsukushima, and hence it is said that Motonari washed the corridors and buildings of the shrine after winning. He replaced the boards, and washed the part of the land on the surface of Miyajima into the sea to remove the smell of blood. This event is considered to be part of the "three great surprise battles of Japan", with the battle of Okehazama and the siege of Kawagoe.
The “power spot* of Miyajima”: let’s climb to Mount Misen!
In 1996, Itsukushima Shrine, the part of the sea next to it, and Mount Misen became part of the UNESCO World Heritage.
Mount Misen is 535 meters high and can be reached by cable car. The view of the Seto Inland Sea from the top of the mountain is breathtaking, and the area is also dotted with other historical sites and megaliths. The fire created by Kukai when he performed a goma (fire ritual in the Shingon Bouddhism) is located in a building called Kiezu-no-reido. Feel free to go there if you have time.
*Translator’s note: a “power spot” is an expression used in Japanese to describe places where believers can recharge their soul and body.
Renovation of Itsukushima Shrine in 2021
The eighth generation Ootorii was rebuilt in 1875. Since then, more than 140 years have passed, and the torii has become damaged over time. For this reason, large-scale repair work has been underway since June 2019. The completion date is not yet determined, but it is expected to finish within two to three years. (As of May 2021)
Itsukushima Shrine and Miyajima will continue to be associated with Shinto dances and rituals that have been passed down from the Taira-no-Kiyomori era in the late Heian period. Despite the fact that this shrine is far from where I live, it is a place I would like to visit again with a fresh mindset.
Basic information about Itsukushima shrine
1-1 Miyajimacho, Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima 739-0588
Text et pictures: Kazuko Yamazaki - editorial team 供TOMO
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