A pilgrimage to the holy island of Miyajima

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“Please don’t move from one side of the boat to the other,” the captain warns. “This might be dangerous and can lead to capsizing!” The boat is turning slowly, and on the left side the bright orange torii, the wooden gate of the Itsukushima Shrine, can be seen. Conveniently, it is lit up at night and glittering magnificently over the water. People with huge cameras storm the windows on the left side of the boat. Then, we turn about and head directly towards the torii.

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Holy island, no walk!

Most of the passengers are Japanese tourists. For the handful of Western tourists who don’t understand the commentary about the history of the island and shrine, and the legends of goddesses visible in the shape of the mountains, the captain has prepared a picture of the Australian Uluru. “Holy mountain”, he says, “all holy, no walk! Miyajima holy island, no walk!”

The island itself was considered so holy that for many centuries only Shinto priests were allowed to set foot on it. Only from the 12th century onwards were select pilgrims able to visit the shrine there, and until the 19th century there were severe restrictions regarding taboo and unclean activities (such as death, birth and hunting). Even now, Miyajima does not have a cemetery although a considerable village has sprung up to cater for tourists and pilgrims.

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The ferries bringing visitors from the mainland today arrive well to the left of the shrine. In former times, however, pilgrims would come by boat and pass through the torii, the gate officially demarcating the holy area. As the gate was cleverly set up in the water, it was possible to enter the holy area without actually stepping on the – forbidden –
island.

The 8th gate

Our boat is now moving through the narrow orange gate, just as the pilgrims used to do. The photographers jump from one side to the other, busily trying to get a sufficiently impressive, and not too blurred, shot of the torii. Meanwhile the captain hands us a block of very heavy and hard wood: To withstand the seawater, the torii is built from camphor wood. Nevertheless, it is already the 8th gate guarding the shrine since the first one was erected in the 12th
century.

After hovering in front of the shrine for a moment (this would be the appropriate time for a prayer), the boat heads back through the gate and to the jetty. And although we are back on the holy island itself, the pilgrim’s passage through the torii seemed a heavier spiritual experience than walking the planks of the shrine the next day.

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