Japan’s Island of Inspiration
By Chris Millikan
Once so holy that commoners were forbidden to set foot on
the island, Miyajima has been revered since ancient times. The devout had to
approach Itsukushima-jinja shrine by boat, entering the hallowed sanctuary
through the enormous red torii gate still standing out in the bay. Today, sleek
blue and white ferries carry visitors to the charming island town.
Inquisitive little deer wander everywhere along the
waterfront where we begin our beautiful walk. Some of them rummage our pockets
for the ‘cookie’ snacks readily available from vendors for just a few yen.
Farther along, two huge stone Shinto ‘lion’ dogs safeguard a lofty wooden torii
gate; a groomed gravel path leads to the famed ancient shrine. Rounding a bend,
Itsukushima-jinja magically appears.
Despite several reconstructions, Itsukrishima-jinja
displays some remaining structures from 1185. Pier-like, they had been built out
over the water because of the island’s supreme holy status. Typical of Shinto
beliefs, building positions illustrate deep associations with nature, water and
mountain scenes visible from every angle. At high tide the main building and
long interconnected corridors shimmer and ‘float.’ Vermilion posts reflecting in
shallow waves create a mystic atmosphere. Strolling across sprawling wooden
planking, we marvel at the flowing design, vibrant orange-red accents,
monumental size, and meticulous preservation. The most photographed site in
Japan, the ‘floating shrine’ is easily the island’s most impressive masterpiece.
Up the hill we discover Senjo-Koku, fondly called pavilion
of 1000mats. This enormous one-story hall constructed with massive timbers in
1587 now catalogues early Buddhist sutras; all of its spacious floors covered
with tightly woven tatami-mats.
Continuing southward, we pass Daigan-ji (1201), a
prosperous temple dedicated to the goddess of music, eloquence, wisdom and
wealth. Taho-to, a pagoda from1407, is roofed with thickly layered cypress, and
rises 28 meters in five stories. Inside rest painted dragons, clouds, birds of
paradise all preserved in full vivid color. Glossy red lacquer coats the
pillars; gold decorations crown the top.
Just behind the lovely town sits Daisho-in, a visually
remarkable temple. Hundreds of plump little Buddhas line both sides of the steep
stone steps leading upward, all in different poses. Some are adorned with
strings of coloured beads, others with cloth head covers or bibs. Brilliant
scarlet blessing banners flutter and snap in the breeze; flower offerings are
strewn everywhere. No matter where we stood, we could see statuary of all sizes
and poses. My favorite, a gigantic long-nosed stone goblin surveys pretty ponds
filled with lazy golden koi. From the very top we gaze across the pretty tiled
roofs to distant Hiroshima. Spectacular flowering cherry trees line the pathway
down, spring’s sunlight filtering ethereally through delicate profusions of pink
and white blossoms.
Not to be over-looked, Misen-san provides a variety of
gorgeous mountain walks. Many native plants still thrive along shaded trails. If
short of time, a cable car takes you to within 15 minutes of the top, where deer
and monkeys freely roam. From the summit, superb views provide an opportunity to
quietly reflect. Several paths meander downward, often leading to other
viewpoints where many visitors discover a special peace.
On our way back to the jetty, we stroll the cobblestone
back streets past colorful specialty shops, coffee bars and restaurants fronted
by accurately detailed models of menu offerings. Boarding the ferry in the late
afternoon sun, we treat ourselves to one last look at this inspirational island,
its mystic shrine floating in the bay as it had for centuries. Walking wooded
pathways and historic sites, wandering Miyajima’s picturesque streets and
frequently encountering small tame deer all made for a wonderful day.
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