Field Report: An autumn stroll in Miyajima, Japan (17 November 2016)

Hiroshima is probably best known for the various landmarks associated with the 1945 atomic bombing, but an island not far from the city offers some of the most rewarding sightseeing one can possibly hope for in this part of Japan. Join me as we take a peek at some of the historic architectural treasures found on the island of Miyajima, less than an hour away from the centre of the city.

Now then, a brief foreword. To keep this post from spiralling out of control (length-wise), I shall write about my short hike to the summit of Mount Misen – Miyajima’s tallest peak – in a separate entry. For the moment, let’s talk about what I saw and did in the lower part of the island, before and after the climb.

Note that the Miyajima excursion I’m about to describe in these two posts, when done out of nearby Hiroshima, can easily take the better part of a day. Travellers looking to pace themselves more slowly should consider an overnight stay on the island, which I plan to do myself on a future trip: all the better to appreciate this lovely corner of Japan from sunset to dawn and the evening in between.

All right, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled sightseeing. (^_^)

********************

After a short shinkansen hop from Yamaguchi to Hiroshima – and a momentary pause to abandon my luggage at the hotel – a roughly half-hour trip on the JR San’yō Main Line brought me to Miyajimaguchi Station. From here, I walked to the ferry terminal where I was due to catch one of the regular passenger services to the island of Itsukushima (厳島), which is perhaps better known by its other name: Miyajima (宮島).

The ferries aren’t particularly large – not that they’d need to be on such a short route – and despite the relatively frequent services, one should be prepared for a bit of crowding during peak seasons.

And away we go. It was a brief ride, 10 minutes give or take, but I really enjoyed the cool morning breeze and the splendid sea views from the ferry’s open deck.

Before long, we were within sight of Miyajima’s soaring forested peaks. And thanks to my camera’s zoom lens, I was able to pick out one of the island’s most famous landmarks even from this distance.

Not to worry, we’ll have a much closer look at that shortly.

From the dock, I followed a tree-lined pedestrian road that runs along the island’s sandy waterfront…

…where I found some of the locals enjoying the fresh air and bright autumn sunshine.

Well, some of the local fauna, anyway.

Deer are considered divine messengers in Shintō lore, so it’s not difficult to find them roaming around the streets of this sacred shrine island. In fact, avoiding these beasts altogether can be something of a challenge, especially when one is trying to get a clean shot of Miyajima’s most iconic attraction…

…the so-called “floating torii” of Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社, Itsukushima-jinja). The present torii dates from 1875, but it’s merely the eighth iteration in a long line of ritual gateways that stretches as far back as the 12th century A.D.

During low tide, it’s possible to walk right up to the “floating torii” – which isn’t really floating, of course (it’s quite firmly anchored to the seabed). On the other hand, the gateway is probably at its most picturesque when the tide is high and the waves are lapping up against its foundations.

Now let’s proceed towards the shrine itself.

Although its origins stretch back to the late 6th century A.D., Itsukushima Shrine gained real prominence during the late Heian Period (A.D. 794-1185), when it became a favoured place of worship for the powerful Taira clan. Through the centuries, the shrine buildings were repeatedly damaged or destroyed by fire and other causes, but each subsequent rebuilding (whilst introducing innovations appropriate to the period) is said to have more or less preserved at least the general form of the complex’s splendid Heian-era architecture. Indeed, even though much of what we see today dates from the second half of the 1500s, the elegant simplicity and bold vermilion paintwork of Itsukushima’s interlinked halls and corridors – reminiscent of the wings of Byōdō-in‘s 11th-century Phoenix Hall, for example – do appear to hearken back to an older time.

Having seen what might well be considered Miyajima’s star attraction, I left the compound by way of its eastern exit and reentered the town. As might be expected for the peak autumn travel season, scores of tourists were starting to flock into the narrow streets, including groups of uniformed students.

A little further away from the key landmarks, the streets were much quieter at this (relatively) early hour. I faced minimal competition for road space as I headed towards the starting point for my exploration of Mount Misen, the highest peak on the island.

As promised, I shall save that story for another time and another post.

After returning from Mount Misen, I descended into the town to see more of its key historic attractions. One of them you might have already spotted in a couple of the pictures of Itsukushima Shrine posted above – so let’s head over there for a closer look.

Nah, still too far. Up a long flight of steps to get even closer (and that’s quite a view I must say)…

…but that’s still not quite close enough. Just a wee bit more…

…and here we are.

Begun in 1587, this large wooden building is the main hall of Toyokuni-jinja (豊国神社), a satellite shrine of nearby Itsukushima-jinja. Because of its considerable size, the structure is also known (perhaps more widely so) by a different name: Senjōkaku (千畳閣), “pavilion of 1,000 tatami mats”. If we were to carry this name game a bit further, I might also point out that some sources refer to it as Hōkoku-jinja, which is really just another way of reading the same kanji employed in writing Toyokuni-jinja…

…but for goodness’ sake, let’s stop here. Matters of nomenclature don’t normally make for interesting reading, now do they?

Let’s flesh out the background a bit more. If the interiors and exteriors look a little rough around the edges, that’s because the building was never properly finished: construction ended in 1598 on the death of its principal patron, the powerful warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It had been originally conceived as a space for Buddhist ceremonies, and indeed it was used in this capacity – despite its incomplete state – for a very long time. That ended when the shinbutsu bunri concept (which demanded the separation of Buddhist and Shintō places of worship) took hold during the early Meiji period, as a result of which Senjōkaku was ultimately pressed into service as a Shintō shrine dedicated to Hideyoshi and his loyal retainer, Katō Kiyomasa.

Shoes off, and into the massive hall for a peek.

Now you might have observed a rather large photobomber in one of the images above. Well, it was autumn after all; one can hardly blame that large ginkgo tree just outside from looking so darned beautiful.

There’s quite a fair bit more to see on Miyajima, but for my part I was happy to call it a day. As always, leaving things undone and places unseen offers the perfect excuse for a return visit.

I turned away from Senjōkaku and proceeded further downhill into the town, passing through (without lingering at) its extensive shopping street…

…taking only a brief glance at what is supposedly the world’s largest wooden rice scoop (note that carved rice scoops, in more portable sizes of course, are a local handicraft of Miyajima)…

…and finally onto the ferry – after enduring a long peak-season queue – for the journey back to the mainland and thence to my waiting bed at Hiroshima.

Now as I wrote earlier, we’re not quite done with Miyajima yet! There remains the tale of my scenic walk to the summit of the island’s highest peak, Mount Misen, with some traditional autumn-leaf viewing along the way…

…all of which will be told in a future post.

Until then, cheerio.

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