Itsukushima, aka Miyajima – Japan’s Sacred Shrine Island

Itsukushima is a sacred island located off the coast of Hiroshima. It is commonly known as Miyajima, meaning ‘Shrine Island’ and 14% of the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island, and its prominent Mount Misen, is famously known as one of Japan’s Three Most Scenic Spots.

Itsukushima was ascended upon by buddhist monk Kobo Daishi (Kukai) in 806AD and established as an ascetic site for the Shingon sect of Buddhism.

In 1643, a Confucian scholar, Shunsai Hayashi, wrote a book based on his experiences as he traveled throughout Japan on foot. In his book, “Nihon Kokujiskikou” (Observations About the Remains of Japan’s Civil Affairs), he bestowed his unqualified praise on three locations, Matsushima, Amanohashidate and Miyajima, as “Three Most Scenic Spots in Japan”. Today, a great number of visitors from Japan and overseas visit the island each year to enjoy its historical sports, scenic beauty and tradition.

The island is symbolised by Itsukushima Shinto Shrine’s prominent vermillion o-Torii (Grand Gate) which rises from the sea at high tide and can be seen from the ferry when approaching the island. The gate, which can be reached on foot at low tide, is one of Japan’s most visited tourist spots.

In December 1996, the World Heritage Committee officially inscribed Itsukushima Shrine as a World Cultural Heritage. The area designated comprises of 431.2 hectares, including the building of Itsukushima Shrine, the sea to the front, and the Mt. Misen primeval forest (Natural Treasure) to the rear.

Today, the town has retained it’s Edo-era look, thanks to the government’s strict measures to preserve its local culture. Felling trees is forbidden on the island and so Miyajima has also maintained its virgin forest, which provides a home to a variety of flora and fauna, including wild deer and a colony of monkeys.

Wild deer wander freely through the streets and along the seafront promenade, which is lit up in the evening.

The main shopping street, Omotesando, is a block back from the waterfront and is packed with souvenir outlets and restaurants. Behind Omotesando is Machiya Street, which provides a glimpse into Miyajima’s local life with a neat row of centuries-old stores and houses. Bengara latticed merchants’ town houses (machiya) and other buildings, which present an aesthetic combination of the historical architecture and the modern style, take visitors back to the ‘good old days’.

Takinokoji Alley, which stretches from Itsukushima Shrine to Daishon Temple, used to be lined with the residences of the priests and Imperial messengers of which latticed and ‘shikado’ doors show a feature.

Miyajima is famous for rice scoops – the spatula-like wooden spoons that are used to serve cooked rice. Legend has it that a monk invented the scoop a long time ago, and the wooden device is uniquely able to serve rice without affecting its flavour. They can be purchased on Omotesando, where the World’s Largest Rice Scoop can also be seen.

The island is well known for its popular dish of anago-meshi, broiled conger eel on top of rice, and it is as well as momiji-manju, a sweet waffle in the shape of a maple leaf.

Itsukushima can be visited as a day trip from Hiroshima or it is possible to stay overnight and enjoy the evening quiet once the crowds have left. Itsukushima Shrine and its o-Torii are best appreciated at sunset and when they are lit up after dark.

Miyajima can be reached from the City of Hiroshima via the Electric Railway (Miyajima Line) to Miyajima guchi station and the Car Ferry (either Miyajima Matsudai or JR Miyajima), which runs regularly throughout the day. The ferry takes around 10 minutes.

There is a feeding ban on the deer however these bold creatures will root around bags and backpacks, looking for food. They are also known to steal maps and chew on clothes.

SOURCES:

  • Wanderlust Pocket Guides – Best of: Japan
  • DK Eyewitness Travel – Japan
  • Lonely Planet – Japan
  • Miyajima Tourist Association information leaflet
  • Miyajima Guide Map

 

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Itsukushima, aka Miyajima – Japan’s Sacred Shrine Island

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