A visit to Miyajima, the Island of Gods

Miyajima Torii in the water

Officially, the small island not far from Hiroshima in the Japanese Inland Sea is called Itsukushima Island, but it is better known as “Miyajima” (shrine island). People visit Miyajima because it is home to a very important and perhaps the most-photographed Shinto shrine. The Itsukushima Shrine is an old and important Shinto shrine. More importantly, its distinctive red gate stands in the waters of the bay. For its unique architecture it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.

Tourists arrive from nearby Hiroshima by tramway and need just a 10-minute hop on the ferry to get to Miyajima. For the following 500 m from the ferry terminal to the shrine, they need much longer because the small road is lined with souvenir shops on both sides and is always crowded with visitors.

Bright red shrine buildings of Itsukushima Jinja

Too holy even for pilgrims

Originating probably in the 6th century, the present shrine buildings are from the 12th century. For many centuries the island was considered so holy that 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. 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 staff the souvenirs hops and cater for the tourists and pilgrims.

Once you have passed the souvenir stalls, the famous torii (the red shrine gate) comes into view. When the tide is low it is possible to walk over to the gate, but normally (and much better for the picture) it is standing in the water marking the entrance to the holy area of the shrine. In former times, when access to the island itself was still restricted, pilgrims would come by boat and pass through the torii. That way they could enter the holy area without actually stepping on the forbidden island itself.

Buddhist statues at Miyajima Daishoin

Today, however, it is possible to enter the shrine buildings. They are also built partly over the water and very photogenic. Not surprisingly, the venue is also quite popular for wedding ceremonies which add extra colour. An extra bonus (for some) is that the weddings are economically priced because the main deities are three sisters who, some think, might be jealous of the bride. Those with more time and energy on their hands can then visit the surrounding buildings, such as Okunoin temple. Or you can explore the island and climb the 500 m high Mt Misen – which was originally worshiped as the god of this island.

Why visit Miyajima?

The large red torii in the blue sea water is a spectacular sight and one of Japan’s most famous vistas. Also, the island is still a very spiritual site. It is even possible to get away from the crowds on several hiking paths. If you come in spring there is the chance of seeing a No play (classical Japanese theatre) on a historic stage.

How to get to Miyajima

From Hiroshima by city tramway (1 hour) or local train (30 minutes), then 10 minutes on one of two frequent ferries.

A small sightseeing boat, Miyajima Sanpai Yuran, still passes through the red gate in the water. It departs 6 times daily in the evening from No 3 pier, Miyajima. 30 minutes, 1500 Yen.

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