The Sea and the Mountain in a Sacred Dance: Itsukushima and Mount Misen, Japan

The Island of Itsukushima is located in the Seto Inland Sea (Setonaikai), in the Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan. It is one of about 3,000 islands that are part of the Setonaikai National Park (瀬戸内海国立公園), which was designated in 1934 (Setonaikai National Park, 2017). Miyajima (宮島町, Miyajima-chō) is the historic town located on the island of Itsukushima. Since 2005 Miyajima officially merged into the city of Hatsukaichi, but Miyajima continues to be the popular name used for the island of Itsukushima.

The island is most famous for its shrine and the ‘floating’ O-Torii gate. The first shrine at Itsukushima is believed to date back to the 6th century and is a sacred place of Shintosism. In 1996 the Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社, Itsukushima-jinja) was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, under the cultural criteria. The present shrine buildings were built in the 13th century. The UNESCO World Heritage area of the site includes 17 main buildings and structures, together with part of the sea in front of the of the Itukushima-jinja shrine, and also part of the woodland areas on the flanks of Mt. Misen (UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2017).

Most famous at Itsukushima-jinja is the dramatic O-Torii gate, also called the Grand Torii Gate, Great Torii or ‘Floating’ Torii. The view of the O-Torii against the backdrop of Mt. Misen is known as one of the Three Great Views of Japan. The first O-Torii was built in 1168 and has been replaced several times. The wood used is decay-resistant camphor wood, and stays in position due to the weight of the O-Torii itself. Its impressive height is about 16.80 metres and it is accessible during low tide.

Itukushima-jinja reflects the traditions of Japanese Shinto architecture, with the shrine being located at the foot of the mountain and the natural setting becoming part of the worshipped area (UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2017). Itukushima-jinja is an example of meticulous reconstruction and rebuilding of traditional architectural structures in Japan, a conservation approach that is a common and accepted method in Japan, and which was also recognised in the ICOMOS Nara Document on Authenticity (ICOMOS, 1994).

Most challenging for the conservation of the place are possibly the large visitor numbers to the island. Mass tourism has dramatic impacts on famous heritage sites, and managing such numbers on Itukushima is no easy effort. Tourist facilities and shops have taken over the town, and especially near the Itukushima-jinja and O-Torii the large crowds affect the experience of place.

The Itsukushima-jinja complex forms a sublime composition with the shrine appearing to float on the water during high tide; with its surrounding stone embankments, with aligned trees and Japanese stone lanterns; and the axial placement of the 0-Torii gate on the tidal sea bed. The vermilion-lacquered 0-Torii and shrine buildings form perfect complementary colours with the green backgrounds of the hillside forests. The constantly changing blue hues of the ocean, the tidal changes, and the light coloured beaches, further contribute to its enchanting appearance.

Mount Misen (弥山) is the highest peak on the island, and rises steeply from the surrounding sea to 535 meters altitude. The new Misen Observatory on the summit was designed by Hiroshima-based architect Hiroshi Sambuichi, and was completed in 2013. It offers splendid panoramic view over the islands of the Seto Inland Sea and Hiroshima city.

When looking over the present city of Hiroshima from the Misen Observatory it sparks some deep reflections about the atomic bomb, which exploded over Hiroshima at about 600 meters altitude, close to the altitude of the observatory. Shishiiwa Observatory is a second one on the mountains of the island, and the popular Miyajima Ropeway allows for an easier route to Mt. Misen. It still takes a short hike from the Ropeway to the Misen Observatory. The full hike up to Mt. Misen will take about 60 to 90 minutes climbing through its virgin forests and tranquil, rocky trails. One trail passes the hillside Momijidani Park that is located along one of the streams coming down the mountain and features several wooden and stone bridges along the stream. The forests on the mountain are known for its fir trees and sakuras.

On the summit of Mt. Misen, next to the Misen Observatory there is a beautiful group of Kisekikaiseki, which are rock formations in unusual shapes and sizes. On the mountain flanks several such can be found, together with some steep rock-faced ravines formed by the mountain streams. Descending down via the trails can be done in under 60 minutes, or up to two hours, depending on the trail. The various trails permit visiting many of the the historical monuments and sacred sites on Mt. Misen, such as Daishoin temple and Miyama shrine.

The island of Itukushima can easily be reached from downtown Hiroshima and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan. A train or tram will bring you in 20 to 40 minutes to the Miyajima-guchi station, where a short ferry ride takes you to the island. Japan Rail (JR) Passes include the JR train and JR ferry tickets. Overnight stays allow for wider exploration of the island and the traditional heritage, and to experience the Itsukushima-jinja and Torrii in low and high tide, and the charm of sunset and sunrise over the island.

Text and photography by Jan Haenraets.

 Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada, and a Professor in the Preservation Studies Program, at Boston University


Sources and information:

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Miyajima Official Website

Hiroshi Sambuichi, architect, on arcspace and on japan-architect

ICOMOS Nara Document on Authenticity

Seton Inland Sea, Setonaikai National Park

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