The Sacred Island Of Miyajima

For years, ordinary folks were not allowed near Miyajima, the Japanese shrine. Today it’s one of Japan’s most beautiful places.

A few miles over the water from Hiroshima lies the sacred island of Miyajima. We recognised it easily from Orion II as the first thing you see is the island’s world famous Torii, a red shrine gate rising dramatically out of the calm waters of Japan’s Inland Sea.

Most of the ports we visited on this ten-day cruise welcomed us with brass bands or taiko drummers. At Uwajima we even had a red ceremonial bull dancing on the quayside, but at Miyajima we were moored offshore and transferred by small inflatable Zodiacs.

On the way in, the island’s dramatic skyline became apparent. Like most of Japan, Miyajima was once a volcano. Steep tree-lined slopes rise to peaks on which nothing is built. Shintoism has eight million gods and many of them live on the tops of mountains. For this reason the Japanese tend not to build on hilltops just in case they upset the local deities.

No-one is allowed to land in front of the sacred Torii and so we proceeded to the next bay. The Torii was featured in Three Views of Japan, the first list of Japan’s most celebrated scenic sights, published in 1643 by the scholar Hayashi Gah. The real name of this island is Itsukushima, but the shrine and its gate are so important in the Japanese psyche that it’s become known over the years as Miya(shrine) jima (island).

It was hot and humid when we waded ashore with a din of cicadas in the maple trees. Round the headland we found a small town that stands in front of the shrine. There were small Sika deer everywhere. They walked between the cyclists and the cars and took a lot of interest in anyone carrying an ice cream. We’d been warned that what they really like is the mulberry paper on which the 1,000 yen note is printed. Some people with money stuffed in their back pockets have found a visit to Miyajima very expensive!

The shrine is a series of wide low corridors that zigzag across the shoreline. The pillars supporting the roof are painted the same scarlet as the Torii. While anyone can enter the shrine, we were warned that this colour is sacred and so we must not sit or even lean on anything painted red. At every turn there seemed to be vistas crying out to be photographed: a pagoda, another view of the Torii, or the beautiful calligraphic covers over the drums of sake donated to the shrine. Many people made for the boxes where a coin will unlock the fortune printed within. We needed an interpreter for these, however, as they are written in only in Japanese.

The Itsukushima shrine was built in the twelfth century with money donated by the warlord Taira no Kiyomori. For many years this island was considered so special that ordinary people were not allowed near. Later, visitors were required to pass under the Torii as an act of purification before setting foot on shore. Even today no births or deaths are allowed on Miyajima, which means that pregnant women and the terminally ill are required to cross to the mainland.

Our visit over, we walked back to the Zodiacs on the hills above the shrine, past pools of koi carp and gentle clusters of grazing deer. It’s not difficult to understand why this island has always been considered sacred in a country that is so busy and so densely populated. I was only sorry that we couldn’t stay overnight in one of its ryokan, or traditional guesthouses. Our ship awaited, as did much more of the Japanese coastline.