The Underwater Shrine – Miyajima, Japan

Site 776 – Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, Japan

I had a birthday the day before I went to Miyajima island, and I was planning on a celebratory day out. I’d been staying in nearby Hiroshima, not exactly known for its cheerful history, but the grimness of the weather and the subject matter had been redeemed by an elaborate sushi dinner. Another customer in the bar kept sending over plates of increasingly grotesque sushi. I think he was trying to gross out the gaijin, because after I ate every single morsel he stood up at the end of the bar, shouted “banzai!” Then he bowed deeply and left. Japan is weird.

I awoke somewhat unenthused about a ferry trip to the island. It wasn’t a hangover exactly, more a lethargy of the spirit. These are the kind of days that you just curl up with your pet dog or cat and watch the drizzle. I couldn’t do that, but little did I know that I was going to meet the monkey equivalent.

Miyajima is a colloquial name for what is formally known as Itsukushima Shrine. This Shinto shrine is an enormously popular tourist attraction within Japan, and is the kind of thing that shows up on guidebook covers as a “typical” Japanese monument. You will have seen it many times before but perhaps not been aware of what it is. Shinto is the indigenous animist religion of Japan which is associated with nature and ancestor worship. Buddhism and Shinto largely coexist happily and elements of one have flowed into the other over the centuries, which is easily visible at conjoined sacred sites such as Nikko.

Itsukushima shrine is best known for its “floating” torii (gate), an aquatic version of the orange gates found at Shinto shrines all over Japan. The floating torii is actually located a couple of hundred metres offshore in the mud, and is partially submerged at high tide, hence the visual effect of floating on the surface of the water. At low tide people can walk out to the foot of the gate and collect seafood, although I can’t vouch for how healthy this would be.  I visited somewhere between the tides, and the weather was so overcast that I couldn’t quite get a photo that showed the luminosity of the paint job.

Someone waded out into the bay to build this torii

The shrine proper is also built right up at the edge, which gives the impression of being a pontoon that is only loosely moored to the land. It expands across the shoreline in a most pleasing way and the integration with the sea means that the wooden walkways between the rooms are sometimes paths, sometimes bridges. Mossy slate roofs are highlighted by bright orange timbers underneath, leaving the impression of a building that is undoubtedly of human construction but deeply integrated with the natural environment around it. It was seriously cold the day I was there but I suspect that in warmer weather the breezes coming off the sea and wafting through the shrine would have been glorious. A Noh theatre is contained within the shrine grounds – I wish I’d been able to see a performance.

Glorious orange through the moss and cypress

In the grand tradition of Japanese architecture these buildings have been destroyed several times by fire, but that knowledge didn’t affect my enjoyment. Perhaps that was because the rebuilding process was itself ancient, dating back to the 16th century, or perhaps it was because it is obvious how much care and attention has been taken. Even the modern tourism economy doesn’t seem to have caused it to be tarted up appreciatively.

Deer resting before sexually harassing me

The place is swarming with deer. They give the place a rustic touch, and I suppose they’re in keeping with the animal-worship elements of the shrine. I kept expecting them to startle and make a break for the hills, but instead they came over and began nuzzling my crotch. This isn’t the first time an animal has attempted it, but few are as persistent.

Behind the shrine stands a series of mountains, with a cable car going halfway up. By the time I disembarked from the cable car I was well and truly in the clouds, the modern buildings below were lost in the fog. As so often in Japan, I felt like I was in another world. A rocky path led up the side of the mountain and every few steps sat a tiny shrine. I examined the first few but after fifty metres I realised that it I could be there all day. In typical Japanese style there is a little booth where one can buy log books to and collectable ephemera.

Near the summit (I think! The clouds were thick) is a colony of Japanese macaque monkeys, otherwise known as snow monkeys. Apparently their particular evolutionary niche is that they can cope with environments that are under snow for months at a time. This may be true, but the ones I saw looked distinctly cold – I guess coping is different from thriving.

They’re remarkable creatures though – it’s not difficult to see our common ancestry. They hang around together in family groups and seemed to be cuddling the winter away when I was there. The most surprising thing of all is their faces – startlingly human-like in expression but with protruding jaws and a bright pink colouring. Their nibbly little fingers seemed constantly in action picking out lice from one another.

On the trip down I stopped for a spot of geocaching  and ambled back to the ferry. According to my diary my legs were killing me by this point, but my memory tends to smooth out such hiccups.

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