(as it appeared in Tripatini.com)
The spritely deer, nosing their way around on Miyajima Island 10 miles from Hiroshima in the Seto Inland Sea and a sacred Shinto and Buddhist site, are the closest parallel between this verdant Island and Sarnath, near Varanasi in the hot, dusty River Ganges plains of North India. It was in Sarnath, called ‘Mrigadava’ or deer park, that Buddha gave his first sermon after his ‘Enlightment’. The current name Sarnath derived from the word ‘Saranganath’ meaning ‘Lord of Deer’ must be a changed place now. But memories linger compelling me to stop to admire the deer at Miyajima, believed to be messenger of gods, and inhabitants of the island since 6000 years.
We arrive by ferry from Miyajima-guchi ferry port to Miyajima Island reveling in the resplendent autumn hues of burnt sienna, russet and gold and greens. One can spot the Island’s icon, the vermillion O torii the gateway that was once the entrance to the Itsukushima Shrine and the adjoining buildings. The present O torii, eighth in succession since the Heian period (794-1192) and constructed in 1875, is 16 meters tall with a 28 meters long top. The pillars made of single camphor trees stand on their own support presenting a floating image during high tide. During low tide the O torii can be assessed by foot with visitors getting chance to place coins in cracks for good luck or gather shellfish. At night the 100 stone lanterns placed along the path to the shrine cast an empyrean aura to the surroundings.
A 10-minute walk from the ferry, past crowds strolling the 350 meters long Ometesando shopping street lined with stalls selling specialities of Miyajima i.e. pottery, wood craft, fresh seafood and oyster and we are at the land entrance to the Itsukushima shrine. The Shrine, constructed in levels with pier shaped sea entrance clings to its sanctity as at one time commoners were not allowed on the Island. They, commoners, had to steer their boats through the O torii. Even now restrictions are there on farming, giving birth or dying on the island. In 2010 there were supposedly no hospitals or cemeteries on the island. Birth one can control but not death and we wondered at the sagacity of the inhabitants.
The Itsuku-shima Shrine, constructed on water to give a floating imagery during high tide, is dedicated to three Shinto goddesses of the sea, Ichikishima, Tagori, and Tagitsu. After a brief purification session, washing our hands with the water from the stream, we enter the shrine from the East Corridor and from the entrance walk past the Marodo Shrine and the Asazaya or Morning Service Hall towards the purification hall of the Main Shrine. The corridor is a marvel with 108 ma or bays between the beams or pillars that are 4 meters wide. Space had been created between the floorboards to alleviate the pressure of the high tide as well as drain rain water. Before the Ondo-no Seto route was opened by Taira-no-Kiyomori ships took the Southern route to the shrine and were tied at the Western Shore for entrance from West corridor. This is now the exit. The shrines are linked by circular, newly painted passage, bridges and walkways that oscillate past an original NOH stage constructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 16th century, The wooden boards used in the buildings had been transported all the way from Northern Japan and no metals nails were used in assembling them. The round Imperial Envoy’s Bridge or Soribashi, constructed in 1557, appears improbable to walk on especially with the Geta or Japanese wooden clogs, and we later learnt that stairs or ladders were temporarily installed when the Emperor sent his court nobles to Itsukushima.
The abridged English translation of the Kamakura period epic, TALE OF HEIKE” * of the struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans for control of Japan, recounts the Heike war lord Taira no Kiyomori’s* visit to the Shrine and on seeing ramshackle buildings tells the priest that he wants to change the face of the island. The original tale is part fictionalized but Kiyomori talks about building ‘an archway like no other that has ever been seen, spanning the water as you approach Itsuku-shima from the sea, and those who come to worship here will enter by this gate. The main shrine and its adjoining buildings will be connected by wide galleries, suspended above the seas….at night a hundred stone lanterns will be lit….making this island even more enthralling’. At that time his words must have sounded improbable to the listeners but the Itsukushima Shrine and the towers increased the ‘beauty of the surroundings’ and Kiyomori’s predictions of people coming from far countries
Close to the Itsukushima shrine is the Hokoku shrine and the inner part or Senjokaku constructed by Japanese warrior Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Senjokaku is also called ‘hall of thousand mats’ because of its size that could fit 857 tatami mats. The work on the shrine halted due to Hideyoshi’s death is still incomplete.
The square opens out into streets flaunting houses with white walls, shikado doors and latticed windows, creating an antiquated atmosphere highlighted by fiery red Japanese maples and the red Five Storied Pagoda. The 28 meters high Pagoda, constructed in 1407, is a blend of Japanese and Chinese architecture of Tang dynasty. Visitors are not allowed inside the Pagoda though there is a painted image of the Buddha.
The Machiya Street or Honmachi Suji, once the main street, is now flanked with hotels, galleries and stores. Another old street, the Takikoji Alley, the former housing area for priests and Imperial messengers, leads to the Daishon temple, situated on foot of Mt. Misen. This is an ancient Shingon Buddhist temple that was responsible for the Itsukushima Shrine and religious ceremonies.
Nature lovers can climb up Mt.Misen, the highest peak on Miyajima Island or take the Rope-way for a panoramic view of the islands dotting Seto Inland Sea and the distant mountain ranges of Shikoku. Hiking trails, cable car rides, the Momiji-dani Park or Maple Leaf Park, beaches, camping grounds and onsens (hot spring baths) lighten up the heavy religious and traditional dose of the temple area. The Miyajima delicacy,fresh Hiroshima Oyster eaten raw, cooked or grilled and washed down with cool drinks, ice creams and candies, adds to the picnic ambience.
For a more enduring impression of the island savour the cool fresh breeze and the setting sun in the company of deer before boarding the return ferry. We were not so lucky and had to return before the evening sun played out.
*THE HEIKE STORY by EIJI YOSHIKAWA translated by FUKI WOOYENAKA URAMATSU
* Taira no Kiyomori (1118 – March 20, 1181), a general of the late Heian period of Japan, established the first samurai-dominated administrative government in the history of Japan.