The Grand Gate On The Sea

I spot the Otorii from across the expanse of the (Seto) Inland Sea, emerging from the waters like a giant Pi symbol against the dense green mantle of the hills beyond. More bleached terracotta than the vermilion of the postcards, this 52 feet high floating ‘grand gate‘ claims equal billing with Mount Fuji as the iconic symbol of Japan.

Shrine Gate, Miyajima

I expect our ferry to pass right under it, quite like pilgrims from a bygone era, when this was the main access to the holy shrine of Itsukushima. But we swerve left and disembark at a pier farther North, to be greeted by a band of resident sacred deer. Delight turns to dismay (and amusement) as we watch the brazen, aggressive creatures appropriate a couple of guidebooks from the unsuspecting hands of fellow passengers!

Deer, Miyajima

Itsukushima island or Miyajima (Shrine Island) as it is more commonly known – after the shrine that is its claim to fame – is utterly charming. It is rightly considered one of Japan’s “Three Scenic Views” and we all decide we want to stay longer than our allotted one hour.

Our guide reluctantly agrees to delay our return if she is able to procure tickets for the last bullet train ‘home’ to Kyoto. She does manage the tickets, and we happily spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the enchanting shrine and soaking in the atmosphere of the equally enchanting  island.

We realise as we approach the shrine, that it isn’t just the camphor pillars of the majestic gate that appear to hover over the sea. The entire shrine is engineered to give the illusion of floating. Of gently skimming the reverent ripples of the incoming tide that brings with it a myriad magical reflections of the vermilion balustraded corridors.

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Low tide dispels the illusion somewhat, we are told, and it is common for people to walk up to the Otorii with buckets in search of clams. A compelling reason to stay overnight, that I hope to do if when I return with R.

Believed to be constructed (in the 6th century) in the Shinden style, and styled after a mythical dragon palace, the Itsukushima shrine is dedicated to the three daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto, the Shinto deity of the sea and storms. The architectural details of the present structure – a relatively newer restoration from 1168 – are marvellous and I have elaborated on a few in some of the captions below.

Its design isn’t all aesthetic however. Commoners were not allowed on the island for the longest time, and were expected to pass through the Otorii to worship at the shrine. The floating structures ensured these people stepped through a transitional threshold – between land and sky – thus safeguarding the sanctity of the sacred island from ‘defilement’!

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Miyajima was always considered an abode of the Gods and of the spirits of the forest, and remained uninhabited for almost a thousand years out of fear of offending its divine occupants. People tending the shrine were expected to leave the island at sunset.

By the time they picked up enough courage to settle here, there were stringent codes in place for maintaining its sanctity. No birth, death or cremation was allowed on the island, nor was tilling of that hallowed ground. We are informed the edicts were relaxed a bit in the early 19th century, but hospitals and cemeteries are still conspicuously absent.

Arched bridge

My sister and I walk back through the quiet winding streets grappling with the enormity of the feudal systems that much of Asia has had to deal with, and still does at home. We stop at a family run cafe for the most fragrant filtered coffee we have tasted in all of Japan.

The attached garden is delightful, our hosts charming. We wish we could stay all evening. But we have a ferry to catch and we reluctantly make our way to the pier as the setting sun frames the Otorii in a blinding halo.

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Until next time………happy travels, no matter where life takes you.

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PS: Titles and descriptions of images in the main post can be viewed by hovering your cursor over them.