Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Itsukushima Shrine -Liz McElligott

The Itsukushima Shrine is a Shinto Shrine in the Hiroshima Prefecture in Japan, most known for its “floating” Torii gate. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and dates back to the 6th century. The shrine has been destroyed several times over the course of history, but its current design dates back to the mid-16th century. The Torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine is designated one of the Three Views of Japan and is an immensely popular tourist attraction.

During high tide, the shrine appears to float in the water. It was built on pier-like structures so that it would be separate from the sacred island, and only the truly devout would be able to cross to the shrine. Before the shrine was built, people on the mainland worshiped the great mountain on the island from afar, too much in awe to approach the island. However, eventually some ventured to the island to appreciate it religious significance. The only people allowed on the island used to be religious practitioners, but now it is open for other Japanese people to live, and for tourists to visit. At low tide, people can cross the sand to approach the gate. Many visitors place coins in the cracks of the legs of the gate and make wishes, or gather shellfish during low tide. Locals often use the shellfish they gathered to make miso soup for their evening meals.

The Itsukushima Shrine carries great religious significance to the people of Japan. It was dedicated to the three daughters of the Shinto deity of seas and storms. The island itself is also sacred, and over the course of history, commoners were not often allowed to set foot on the island. The Torii gate appears to float, which symbolizes the liminal space between the sacred world of the shrine and the profane world of the people on the island. In fact, to retain the purity of the shrine, no deaths or births have been allowed near the shrine since 1878. Pregnant women are required to leave the island for the mainland as delivery approaches, and the ill or elderly leave for hospitals on the mainland. There are also no burials allowed on the island.

The island itself, located in the Seto inland sea, has long been a holy place for the Shinto religion. The shrine today preserves the same ancient styles of traditional Shinto architecture, which features contrast in color and form between the mountains and the sea.


It was easy to understand why our guide called it the third most beautiful place in Japan. The shrine took up the main view of the front of the island, so we could see the floating gate from the ferry as we rode into the island.  We made it to the shrine in the middle of the day, so the tide was rising. Low tide was at 11:30am, and high tide would be at 6:00pm. Some of us had fun watching all the little crabs scurry around on the sand before the tide came in!

While walking around the shrine, we stumbled upon a dance ritual that was happening. We weren't allowed to take pictures, but it was really cool to watch. There was a dancer dressed up and a Gagaku Orchestra performing. It contained some traditional Japanese instruments, like a sho and a ryuteki, some flute instruments, and two different drums. The music was very different from Western style music but really interesting to listen to. It was really cool to see a ceremony being performed, even if we didn't understand what it was for. We've visited a lot of shrines but this is the first time I've seen groups there that weren't tourists. We had free time to look around, so lots of us took pictures in front of the torii gate with the beautiful sea in the background. I loved Miyajima Island and the Itsukushima Shrine, and I would definitely go back in a heartbeat if I ever have another opportunity!


Liz McElligott

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