First built in 593, Itsukushima-jinja (Itsukushima Shrine) was remodelled into the present structure by Taira-no-Kiyomori, head of the doomed Heike clan, in 1168. Standing in the sea, it is widely known for its grand and unique construction.
Approximately 200 metres in front of the main shrine, standing in the sea, is the floating O-Torii (Grand Gate) – the island’s most famous symbol. The O-Torii leads the way to the shrine and can be seen from the ferry. Depending on the tide, the vermillion coloured gate is either ‘floating’ or rising out of the sandy beach.
Itsukushima Shrine is dedicated to the three Munaka goddesses, Ichikishima-hime, Tagitsu-hime and Tagori-hime. These three goddesses are worshipped as the dieties of the sea, traffic safety, fortune and accomplishment. The vermillion colour of the shrine and of the O-Torii is considered to keep evil spirits away and the bright-red lacquer is also effective as protection from corrosion.
The shrine itself is a harmoniously arranged complex of halls and over 300 metres of pathways built on stilts above the water and beautifully framed by Mt. Misen in the background, illustrating the Japanese concept of scenic beauty. It is known for its unique construction, which displays the artistic beauty of the Shinden style of architecture. The pier-like building was designed to respect the island’s sacred status. When the temple was founded, commoners were not allowed to set foot on the island. Instead they had to approach the temple by boat, through the torii in the bay, and would step directly onto the temple’s wooden structure without defiling the sacred ground with their footprints.
Isukushima-jinja is composed of a main shrine, a music room and several other shrines arranged around it. On a deck facing the Seto inland sea, is a floating Nō (Noh) stage, built by local lord Asano Tsunanaga in 1680 and still used for Nō performances every year from the 16th to the 18th of April.
Nō is the oldest surviving form of Japanese theatre. It combines music, dance and acting to communicate Buddhist themes. Often the plot of a Nō play recreates famous scenes from well-known works of Japanese literature – the typical Nō play is not a dramatic enactment of an event but its retelling.
In the Heian Period, Taira no Kiyomori (1118-1181) worshipped at Itsukushima Shrine. It is said that ancient court dances called bugaku began to be performed at Istukushima Shrine when Kiyomori introduced them from Shitennóji Temple in Osaka. In later years the Óuchi, Móri and Asano clans worshipped at the shrine and the bugaku dances have been passed down to the present day.
Bugaku is an an ancient musical court-dance, which has been handed down through generations. The elegant Bugaku is performed to the accompaniment of Gagaku music, reminiscent of the cultural glory of the Heian Period.
The twenty buildings that make up complex are designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. The entire area of 431.2 hectares, in which the buildings are set, the forest surrounding them and the sea in front is designated as a Special Historic Site, a Special Place of Scenic Beauty or Natural Monument. The shrine was registered on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list in December 1996.
The best time to visit the shrine is at dusk, as the sun sets behind the torii, and at night when the torii and the buildings are lit up. It is also possible to take a night cruise to see the torii and temple from the water.
Visitors can find out the time of the high tide from the tourist information centre.
- Wanderlust Pocket Guides – Best of: Japan
- DK Eyewitness Travel – Japan
- Lonely Planet – Japan
- Miyajima Tourist Association information leaflet
- Miyajima Guide Map