Gateway to heaven

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2008, 12:00am

Admirers of fine scenery and nature's glory, the Japanese held a beauty contest several centuries ago and came up with the top three views in their country. Only one of them - the 'floating' torii (gate to a shrine) of Miyajima - is familiar outside Japan. A visit is likely to put it into a few personal top 10s too.

Miyajima - 'Shrine Island' - is a mountainous, wooded isle 2km to 3km offshore from southwest Honshu, in the Seto Inland Sea. As the ferry draws near, there rises from the waters a mystical vision - a great curved-lintel torii, or gate, the colour of a red-hot poker. The formal entrance to the ancient Shinto shrine of Itsukushima and the symbolic gateway from the temporal to the spiritual realm, for the Japanese this torii is of supreme value. It is revered as the presage to one of the country's most holy places.

The island of Itsukushima, the formal name for Miyajima, has been a sacred place since time immemorial. It is dotted with shrines and is home to hundreds of tame deer, some of which greet visitors disembarking in the little dockside town with a sniff.

Deer are considered sacred in the Shinto religion because they are regarded as messengers of the gods, and so they roam freely on Miyajima. The human inhabitants of the sacred island number only 2,000, all living beside the jetty and the adjacent main shrine. No ordinary town, it is governed by two strict rules that respect the island's holiness: no births and no burials.

A shoreside path, flanked by stone lanterns and pine trees, leads visitors to a headland with fine views of the gate. Built of strong camphor wood with four stabilising legs, the 16-metre-tall torii is constantly subjected to the sea's assault and has been reconstructed 17 times in its long history, the last time being in 1875. The six-legged gate is not implanted in the seabed but simply rests its enormous weight on it. Majestic and mysterious, solid yet seeming to float, it's a sight that is hard to tear yourself away from - but tear yourself away you should because Shrine Island offers much more.

Sheltered in a cove is the Itsukushima Shrine, the focus of the island's spirituality for 14 centuries. A complex of wooden pavilions, walkways and piers painted in the same bright red as the torii, the shrine is raised on pillars and spreads over the foreshore. It was built to be in the water at high tide because nobody was supposed to live on the sacred island, not even priests. Residents would offend its goddess, Ichikishima-Hime-no-Mikoto - from whom comes the name Itsukushima. Originating in AD592 but built in its present form in 1168 by the powerful samurai general Taira no Kiyomori, the shrine was carefully reconstructed by local warlord Mori Motonari in 1571.

Up above it on the headland stand two majestic monuments. Senjokaku Shrine, the Hall of 1,000 Mats (in fact, the vast floor area can accommodate 857 tatami mats), is a huge wooden structure designed to shelter sutra-chanting Buddhist monks. Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the warlord who unified Japan in the era, began building Senjokaku in 1587 with the intention of honouring war casualties. Standing next to it, the vermilion Five-Storey Pagoda, built in 1407 to enshrine an important Buddha image, is a dramatic synthesis of Japanese and Chinese styles.

To the side of the Itsukushima Shrine stands Daiganji Temple, dedicated to Benzaiten, the goddess of eloquence, music, wisdom and wealth. Its gardens feature beautiful arrangements of fir trees and rock pools. Once the preserve of those responsible for the upkeep of the main shrine, this Shingon Buddhist monastery complex houses many cultural artefacts and scriptures.

Daishoin Temple is the most distinguished place of worship on the island; with 1,200-year-old origins, it was for a long time the centre of Miyajima's religious affairs. Reached by a steep lane leading up from the town, the cluster of buildings clings to the hillside and includes an imposing hall. A seated wooden figure of Binzurusonzya, 'the Buddha of curing pains' who is nicknamed Obinzuru, is a favourite feature for pilgrims.

Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion, includes a strong element of nature worship, and Miyajima is a celebrated location for that reason. The natural beauty that covers the island can be seen along its many paths. Especially notable is Momijidani Park, at the foot of Misen Primeval Forest, a designated natural monument.

An exhilarating attraction is the ascent to the island's highest point, the 530-metre-high Mount Misen. Near the summit stand many Buddhist temples among huge rocks covered with lichen. Climbing Misen along designated paths takes about two hours but those less energetic or in a hurry can take the cable car, which stops about 20 minutes' walk short of the summit.

As well as the ubiquitous deer, there are plenty of monkeys on the way up Misen, but they are less well behaved and are fond of snatching bags and picnic fare. Towards the top is an enormous pot, named Keizu-no-Reikado. It is claimed that this pot has been simmering since its fire was lit 1,200 years ago by Kobo Daishi (or Kukai), a celebrated Buddhist monk and scholar. Drinking tea made from its boiling water is said to cure all kinds of illness. From the summit, the views over the Seto Inland Sea and its myriad islands, Hiroshima harbour and the Honshu mainland are spectacular.

The sea recedes for hundreds of metres at low tide and the great torii becomes stranded in mudflats. Visitors walk out to place coins in the cracks of the gate's massive legs or throw pebbles on top of the crossbeams and make a wish. All around is a hive of activity, as hordes of cocklers sift the muddy beach and fill buckets with fresh shellfish.

A magical atmosphere reigns at dusk, when the shoreside stone lanterns are lit and flicker in the half-light. At night, powerful lights illuminate the gate, the Itsukushima Shrine and the multitiered pagoda on the bluff above.

Miyajima may be visited at any time of year but spring and autumn have special appeal. In springtime, the island is adorned with the pink blossoms of cherry trees. Miyajima's maple trees are renowned throughout Japan; their leaves paint the island with rich colour in autumn (late October and early November). Unsurprisingly, given its name, Momijidani Park is a captivating momiji (autumn leaves) viewing location. The town has traditional inns for overnight stays, which is fortunate because this is a place that's hard to leave; a true gem of Japanese sensibility.

Getting there: Osaka Kansai is the nearest airport for non-stop flights from Hong Kong, flown by ANA, Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific, with rapid train connections to Hiroshima and the ferry pier (about 90 minutes). The Miyajima hotel directory at gives all the accommodation options.