Considered as the home of the goddesses of the sea, Miyajima has been treated as a sacred site since ancient times. The island is widely known for its gigantic vermillion torii that seems to rise from the seabed, as well as a grand shrine floating over the waves. In both cases, human craftsmanship has been skillfully integrated with the sea, reflecting harmony between Mother Nature and the human.
Nestled in the Seto Inland Sea, 14 kilometres southwest of the city of Hiroshima, the small island of Miyajima (宮島) is a holy place of Shintoism. Officially known as Itsukushima, the island is more commonly referred to as “Miyajima”, literally “shrine island” in Japanese, thanks to its primary attraction, the centuries-old Itsukushima Shrine.
Since ancient times, the Japanese have sensed the spiritual sanctity of the island. Thus, they have worshipped it as a divine being – so much so that commoners were forbidden from visiting. Even the prominent Itsukushima Shrine had to be built floating next to the land, and not on it. Today, people can reside on the island but no one is allowed to give birth or die there.
Constructed in 593 and later enlarged to its present size in 1168, Itsukushima Shrine is dedicated to the three Shinto sea goddesses: Ichikishima, Tagori, and Tagitsu. It is an outstanding example of sacred architecture in Japan, in which human elements are perfectly harmonised with nature.
The shrine consists of multiple buildings, including the main hall, several subsidiary temples, and a Noh theatre stage. They are interconnected by numerous bridges and boardwalks and supported by pillars above the sea. However, not a single metal nail was used in the construction of the shrine. Vermillion lacquer is also applied to keep evil spirits away and protect the building from corrosion.
The Great Torii
Standing in front of Itsukushima Shrine is the Great Torii – Miyajima’s most recognisable symbol. First erected in 1168, the 16-metre tall vermillion gate marks the boundary between the spirit and human worlds. It stands on six pillars, with both main pillars are made from single trees, making the gate highly resistant to harsh weather. Additionally, the base of the torii is not buried deep in the seabed but rather stands by its own weight. Therefore, a typhoon or even an earthquake can hardly make the gate fall or move.
The current Great Torri was built in 1875 and is the eighth to occupy this site. During high tide, it appears like floating on the waves – a scene that has been traditionally ranked as one of the three most beautiful views in Japan. The torii looks even more photogenic at dusk when the sun seemingly descends through the holy gate.
The Deer of Miyajima
The island of Miyajima is also home to more than a thousand wild deer. They wander around the same sites as tourists and sleep on the walking path at night. According to local lore, they are the messengers of the goddesses, and killing one was punishable by death until 1637. Today, the deer is still protected by Japanese law, however, the punishment was less severe. Normally, these animals run away when seeing people. But the deers of Miyajima have become accustomed to humans. They don’t mind if you pet or feed them.
Practical Information in Miyajima
- Miyajima is easily accessible by train from Hiroshima. Take the JR train from Hiroshima station to Miyajimaguchi Station (25 minutes, 410¥ one way), then walk to the ferry pier where ferries depart frequently to Miyajima (10 minutes, 180¥ one way). The whole trip takes less than one hour and is covered by JR Pass.
- Check the tide table before visiting Miyajima. Though the torii and the shrine look most impressive during high-tide, you can even walk to the gate at low-tide.
- Keep your belongings in your bag, especially important papers. Don’t hold them in your hand or hang them on your bag, because the deer might snatch and eat your stuff.