Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Itsukushima Island & Shrine - Hiroshima

Itsukushima is an island in the western part of the Inland Sea of Japan, located in the northwest of Hiroshima Bay. It is popularly known as Miyajima, the Shrine Island. The island is one of Hayashi Razan's Three Views of Japan (,Nihon Sankei). Itsukushima is part of the city of Hatsukaichi in Hiroshima Prefecture. The island was the town of Miyajima prior to the 2005 merger with Hatsukaichi.
Itsukushima is famous for the Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to records, the shrine was established in the time of Empress Suiko. The warrior-courtier Taira no Kiyomori gave the shrine its present form. In 1555, Mōri Motonari defeated Sue Harukata at the Battle of Miyajima. Toyotomi Hideyoshi built a large building, the Senjō-kaku, on a hill above the shrine.
The island of Itsukushima, including the waters around it (part of Seto Inland Sea), and are within Setonaikai National Park. This sea is affected by strong tides. At low tide, the bottom of the sea is exposed past the island's Torii. At high tide, the sea covers all the previously-exposed mud and fills areas underneath the Shrine.
Itsukushima is mountainous and sparsely settled. It does have an elementary school and a middle school. There are no traffic signals.
Frequent ferry services, operated by JR West (JR Miyajima ferry) and by Miyajima Matsudai Tourist Ship, carry traffic between the island and the mainland. The trip takes about ten minutes. There is an hourly express passenger ferry to Hiroshima harbour.
Miyajima's maple trees are renowned throughout Japan, and blanket the island in crimson in the autumn. Momiji manju, pastries filled with azuki jam or custard, are popular souvenirs, and carry maple-leaf emblems. Many other varieties such as chocolate and cheese are also available. Because the island is seen as sacred, trees may not be cut for lumber. Deer and monkeys roam freely. Deer are thought of as sacred in the native Shinto religion because they are considered messengers of the gods.
A style of wooden spoon used to serve cooked rice, without impairing the taste, is said to have been invented by a monk who lived on the island. This style of spoon is a popular souvenir and there are some outsized examples around the shopping district.
The peak of Mount Misen, at 535 m, is the highest point on the island. Miyajima Ropeway carries visitors to within a 30-minute hike to the top. There are several sites related to the historical Buddhist priest and founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kōbō Daishi (774–835), near the top. The island also contains the Miyajima Natural Botanical Garden (,Miyajima Shizen Shokubutsu Jikkensho) on its north coast.
There are many shrines and temples on the island. It is rural and mountainous, only 12 sq. miles, and has a population of about 2000. There are no cities, only small towns with simple houses and privately-owned shops. The islanders work hard to preserve the forests and respect nature. People often take the ten-minute ferry ride from mainland Japan to pray at Miyajima’s shrines and to marvel at the beauty of its forests.
Itsukushima Shrine (Japanese: Itsukushima-jinja) is a Shinto shrine on the island of Itsukushima (popularly known as Miyajima) in the city of Hatsukaichi in Hiroshima Prefecture in Japan. The shrine complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Japanese government has designated several buildings and possessions as National Treasures.
The shrine is dedicated to the three daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto, Shinto deity of seas and storms and brother of the great sun deity, Amaterasu (tutelary deity of the Imperial Household). Because the island itself has been considered sacred, in order to maintain its purity commoners were not allowed to set foot on Miyajima through much of its history. In order to allow pilgrims to approach, the shrine was built like a pier over the water, so that it appeared to float, separate from the land, and therefore existed in a liminal state between the sacred and the profane. The shrine's signature red entrance gate, or torii, was built over the water for much the same reason. Commoners had to steer their boats through the torii before approaching the shrine.
Retaining the purity of the shrine is so important that since 1878, no deaths or births have been permitted near the shrine. To this day, pregnant women are supposed to retreat to the mainland as the day of delivery approaches, as are terminally ill or the very elderly whose passing has become imminent. Burials on the island are still forbidden.
The first shrine buildings were probably erected in the 6th century, and the shrine has been destroyed many times. The present shrine dates from the mid-16th century, and follows the earlier 12th century design. That design was established in 1168, when funds were provided by the warlord Taira no Kiyomori. The shrine was designed and built on pier-like structures over the bay so that it would appear to be floating on the water, separate from the sacred island, which could be approached by the devout. Near the main shrine is a noh stage, funded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century. Noh theater performances have long been used to pay honor to the gods, and ritually act out key events in the mythic history of Shinto belief.
The dramatic gate, or torii, of Itsukushima Shrine is one of Japan's most popular tourist attractions, and the most recognizable and celebrated feature of the Itsukushima shrine, and the view of the gate in front of the island's Mount Misen is classified as one of the Three Views of Japan (along with the sand bar Amanohashidate, and Matsushima Bay). Although a gate has been in place since 1168, the current gate dates back to 1875. The gate, built of decay-resistant camphor wood, is about 16 meters high and was built in a four-legged style to provide additional stability.
The torii only appears to be floating at high tide; when the tide is low, it is approachable by foot from the island. It is common practice for visitors to place coins in the cracks of the legs of the gate and make a wish. Gathering shellfish near the gate is also popular at low tide. Many locals add the shellfish they gather to their miso soup. At night, powerful lights on the shore illuminate the torii.
On September 5, 2004, the shrine was severely damaged by Typhoon Songda. The boardwalks and roof were partially destroyed, and the shrine was temporarily closed for repairs.

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