You know the most famous aspect of this shrine, even if you might not recognize the name. On Monday last, we were fortunate enough to visit the famous Istukushima Shrine, as the start of a week-long field trip with Don’s class (hence the lack of posts in ages – we celebrated Don’s birthday week before we left, and then I didn’t bring my laptop on the trip).
Anyway, even if you’ve never been to Japan, even if you don’t know much about Japan (beyond what you’ve read in this fascinating and informative blog, of course), you have probably seen an image of the main Torii gate for this Shinto Shrine, perhaps on a wall calendar or inspirational poster or just somewhere…
See, you know it, right?
And yet, despite having seen loads of images of this torii gate in the past, and despite being super-excited to visit it (and thus having high expectations), and despite the visit coming at the end of a day that started with waking up at 5 am to be on the road (literally, walking with our luggage to the train station) and taking two different Shinkansen, Japan’s famous high speed trains, and then some slower trains, and then a ferry to get here, it was well worth it. It totally exceeded my expectations for beauty and wonder (and I feel like it’s rare that something so photographed and anticipated actually does that!). My only regret is that we only had a few hours to spend on the island before we had to catch the ferry back to our hotel.
(At least our hotel, right on the water, had a view across the inland sea to the gate!
Torii gates mark the entrances to Shinto (Japan’s indigenous religion, really an umbrella term for a wide variety of beliefs and practices that predate the nation of Japan itself, so there were of course regional variations, etc., among the different peoples who would become the Japanese – similar to Hinduism as an umbrella term for multiple, varied religious practices and beliefs) shrines. Crossing through a Torii gate symbolizes the transition from the profane (secular, material) world to the sacred, as famous religious studies scholar Mircea Eliade might describe it. Pretty much every Shinto shrine has one, no matter how small (the gate or the shrine itself. We even saw one this week just a few inches tall, tied to a lamp post on the streets of Kyoto). Many shrines have multiple torii gates, Itsukushima included, marking multiple entrances, or adding extra layers in the transition from the sacred to the profane – Fushima Inari-taisha has perhaps the most, with literally thousands of torii gates leading to different sacred spots on the mountain shrine. (More on that in another post!)
Itsukushima Shrine’s famous torii gate is located in the water leading up to the shrine because the entire island of Itsukushima is considered sacred. In the past, commoners were not allowed on the island, to help maintain its purity, and pilgrims visiting had to steer their boats through the torii gate to enter.
(It is perhaps too bad that is not still the case, even if it would mean my not being able to visit. Don has visited many times, the last of which was with his students in 2009, and the rate of tourists has increased significantly since then – as it has all over Japan in the last five years, apparently, since the yen has decreased in value and traveling has become more affordable for many tourists. It also means that the shores of the island were, sadly, awash in plastic bags and bottles.)
We took a ferry right outside our hotel in Miyajima across the inland sea to the island. Aardvark, who’d seen the ferries so knew we would be taking a big boat, asked as we walked over to the ferry why it was called that: “Is it a boat full of fairies?” She was disappointed to learn it was not. Come to think of it, that would have been a lot more fun.
Once on the island, there is a bit of a walk through a covered market (obviously, Don was thrilled) full of stalls selling local specialties, from the famous Miyajima/Istukushima maple leaf-shaped pancakes full of chocolate, red bean paste, or custard, to wooden kitchen ware (chopsticks and rice paddles, especially) and this:
the largest rice paddle in the world. Who knew?!
(It is huge. Don has some photos on his camera with Aardvark for scale – I’ll try to post them later.)
Also, the island is absolutely full of little deer.(By little, I mean the full grown ones heads came up to my shoulder or so. When I heard miniature deer, I thought they’d be a lot smaller. But they are comparatively smaller, for instance, than the deer in NJ). And the deer just walk down the street with you, coming up to humans to seek food and maybe steal your tourist map. Aardvark was terrified at first, but she was petting the deer as they walked by before long.
Aardvark and the penguin do an impersonation of the deer.
(I thought the amount of deer was crazy. And they we went to Nara. Now that was crazy with deer! So I deleted my crummy pics from Itsukushima and you’ll see some slightly better ones in the Nara post.)
But really, you want pictures of the stunning shrine, right?! So here you go:
The approach to the Shrine. You can even see our hotel, one of those tall buildings off to the right near the ferry, from here!
Despite having visited many times before, Don had actually never been here when the tide was in enough that the torii gate was in water – he’s always been able to walk out to it in the past. I kind of liked it like this, because you could at least get photos – if you were patient – with no one else in them. Too bad about the scaffolding, of course.
The shrine itself, dedicated to three daughters of the god of, fittingly, seas and storms, is beautiful as well. Although as you can see, the water is a little iffy in between tides…
The pagoda in the back is not part of the shrine. But Aardvark was thrilled to see it, pointing excitedly and crying, “A pagoda! Just like in my book!”
A stage for kagura and the gabled roof of the shrine.
Waiting for Daddy to stop chatting with the students and take a more formal picture with us, Aardvark opted to pose for some silly photos (and insisted on taking some herself).
Wishes, prayers and fortunes tied to the shrine.
At high tide, the sea stretched even as far as this area, in the back of the shrine. When we walked past again a few hours later, we could see the tide starting to reach back here.
Pretty much, every angle of this shrine was stunning.