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MIYAJIMA – JAPAN’S SACRED ISLAND

The vermillion coloured, sixteen metre tall Torii Gate that rises out of the sea off Miyajima Island is one of the most photographed objects in Japan. We felt compelled to join the surge of camera carrying passengers heading to the rail for a photo opportunity, as the ferry sailed slowly past this famous icon. A temple gate has stood at this spot defying tide, time and typhoon for almost nine hundred years. The current gate was built in 1874 out of massive camphor tree trunks. It stands on the seabed supported only by its own weight.

Torii Gate

Twenty minutes after commencing our trip from the port of Hiroshima the large three-deck Japan Rail ferry gently nudged into the dock of Miyajima’s modern terminal building and we went ashore to explore. The day was already very hot and we purchased bottled water from the large bank of now familiar slot machines that spread along almost the entire length of the outside wall of the terminal. Later in the day, from other conveniently placed drink machines, we would indulge our growing addiction to the many versions of iced tea on sale in Japan.

 

Apart from the foreshore and town area, there is very little flat land on Miyajima, which is a mountainous, bush covered island. We walked through the foreshore park towards the Itsukushima Temple. Miyajima Island is home to many small and relatively tame deer, which graze in the park and can occasionally be seen threading their way through the tourists in the town streets. Signs are strategically placed giving information about the deer. To assist tourists like us who cannot read kanji script, the signs also contained cartoon-like illustrations. The most common one showed an antlered deer prodding a hapless tourist in the back. The message was clear and we gave the deer a wide berth.

 

Itsukushima Temple was largely built in the twelfth century, although records of a shrine in this location extend back as far as the year 593. The complex sprawls across the shallow waters of the bay. The floating Torii Gate that we had passed on the ferry is its formal entrance. In ancient times Miyajima was considered to be too sacred a place for commoners to go ashore. Pilgrims approaching the island by sea would travel through the gate and disembark at the temple. After attending to their devotions they would depart without ever having set foot upon the island. The temple has been destroyed several times over the centuries by typhoons and fire but has always been recreated largely in the twelfth century Heian period style. The wooden structure has a maze of roofed walkways joining the various wings of the complex. With the water gently lapping below the floors it is a tranquil place to visit. Within the complex there are several shrines with brightly coloured religious figures and symbols displayed as well as a number of raised stages where religious ceremonies take place. The temple and the Torii Gate are regarded as Japanese national treasures and along with the whole island are part of a UNESCO World Culture Heritage site.

Itsukushima Temple and Pagoda

 

Leaving the temple, we climbed up steep steps to the top of a nearby hill to inspect a large five-storied pagoda that towered above us like a many-tiered wedding cake. The bright red pagoda with its pointed sweeping eaves and rounded ceramic roof tiles is a fusion of Japanese and Chinese temple architecture. We were unable to enter but through the doorway we could see the cool, dark stained wooden interior. The pagoda contains many religious artefacts and scrolls.

 

After leaving the pagoda we wandered through the shopping area of Miyajima. The winding, narrow streets and glimpses of exotic produce are typical of small town Japan. However, most of the small shops and restaurants are of modern construction and the whole town is clearly geared to the tourist market. We decided to lunch in the town but had difficulty finding an eating-place where we could have a light cold snack, more suited to our western tastes. Although we always enjoyed experimenting with Japanese food, a huge bowl of steaming noodles was not particularly appealing on a day where the temperature was already well over thirty degrees Celsius and we still had plenty of walking ahead of us.

 

Mount Misen, which commands the centre of the island, stands 530 metres above sea level and is Miyajima’s highest point. This was our post-lunch destination. Although there is a walking track we opted for the aerial ropeway. From the outskirts of the town, a small free bus took us up a narrow winding road through a dense forest of maple trees to the start of the ropeway. The ropeway is in two sections. The first section has small gondolas, similar to those found at Rotorua and Queenstown that travel to a high ridge opposite the peak of Mt Misen. There we transferred to a large gondola capable of holding about thirty people and traversed a wide, deep and heavily wooded valley to reach the top of the mountain. The ravines and ridges that passed below us showed off the rugged the interior of the island and reaffirmed that the walking track would have been a major hiking expedition on such a hot day.

 

A short distance from the top of the ropeway is a lookout. From this rocky outcrop there is a panoramic view across the waters and harbour of Hiroshima. This large anchorage at the southern end of the Japanese Inland Sea showed clearly why in a time of war, Hiroshima had been such an important embarkation area for troops and supplies departing overseas. Our visit the previous day to Hiroshima’s disturbing Peace Museum and A Bomb memorial site was still fresh in our minds. However, such thoughts could soon be forgotten by looking up the Inland Sea towards the north. The water was like a large glistening sapphire and small wooded islands like green beads were scattered haphazardly throughout it. The view from Mount Misen clearly proved the Japanese claim that Miyajima Island and the surrounding Inland Sea are one of the three most beautiful places in Japan was not an exaggeration.

View of the waters, harbour of Hiroshima

We travelled back down the ropeway to the town to commence our omiyage hunt. Our daughter Jennifer, who was teaching English in Japan, had taken leave from work to travel with us. There is a Japanese custom that a holidaying worker should bring back a small gift, usually food, to show workmates left behind that they had not been forgotten. Many tourist destinations in Japan produce their own speciality biscuits or cakes to fulfil the custom of omiyage. Miyajima is known for its special maple leaf shaped cookies. To bring some back in an appropriately decorated box from such a famous destination would not only show Jennifer was observing the custom of her host country but also earn her some kudos.

 

Miyajima has several bakeries producing the local delicacy. The biscuits were probably hand made originally but these days it is a production line affair. The bakery shops all have large plate glass windows for visitors to peer through and watch the spotlessly clean and shining stainless steel machines mass produce the biscuits on an endless conveyor belt system. Choosing a shop, largely at random, we purchased several boxes of the individually wrapped cookies. The brightly coloured boxes, emblazoned with island scenes, were carefully wrapped again by the extremely courteous shop assistant and finally placed in a large carry bag. In Japan, presentation is all important. As Jennifer taught at four different schools, we staggered out of the bakery laden down with enough biscuits for about a hundred schoolteachers and the repeated thanks of bowing shop assistants ringing in our ears. On a later trip on our own we decided to buy some omiyage for our daughter. The biscuits with the brightly coloured filling that we thought were berries when eaten were found to be fermented bean curd. Not understanding the language, always makes travel and eating an interesting experience when overseas.

 

It was late afternoon when we finished our shopping and we hurried to the ferry terminal to catch the boat to return to Hiroshima. As the ferry pulled away from the island the Torii Gate that was now back-lit by the late afternoon sun and looked like a giant picture frame displaying the Itsukushima Shrine and the rugged emerald mountains beyond. Miyajima, Japan’s famous sacred island was truly a living masterpiece in nature’s art gallery.

 

© Terry Carson 2004

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