Itsukushima Water Sanctuary in Japan


Itsukushima is an island in the Inner Sea of Japan, also known as Miyajima Island, Temple Island, Japan.

On the Japanese-owned island of Miyajima is the sanctuary of Itsukushima. This Shinto shrine, located in a cozy bay sheltered from storm winds, is one of the most revered in the country. The Itsukushima Shrine is a complex of structures recognized by the Japanese government as a national treasure.

The complex begins with a structure on the water, the Itsukushima Gate, called the torii, located parallel to the axis of the temple ensemble. This unusual construction was built in the second half of the 19th century, a few years after Shintoism was recognized as the state religion of Japan. The gate is made of precious wood and painted red.

The size of the gate is impressive: the height of the central columns is more than 16 meters, and their horizontal bar is about 24 meters.

In Shintoism, the religion of spirits, the gate-torii bears an important symbolic meaning. It is a kind of line between the worlds of people and spirits, being a certain connecting link. The wooden gate, red in color, sets believers in a certain frame of mind as they approach the temple, symbolizing the transition. It is believed that the sun sets in them and the spirit of the ancestors leaves. According to Japanese beliefs, birds perched on the torii gate carry away the souls of the dead as they fly away.

Itsukushima Sanctuary is represented by many structures that can be seen at the edge of the bay. The structures themselves are white with bright red hipped roofs. Built directly over the water on stilts. During the tide, the transparent water reflects in the mirror, as in a mirror, unusual for the Slavic man structures of bizarre forms. In most cases, these are halls for religious ceremonies, such as: purification, worship, sacrifice.

Most of them are not accessible to ordinary travelers or tourists. The rooms are for the use of the clergy, but by entering the few accessible halls, one can feel the atmosphere of the sanctuary and see the peculiarities of the interior decoration of the rooms.

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The buildings of the complex are connected to each other by covered galleries, supported also by piles, and a wooden bridge with all kinds of decorations, connects the buildings with the skeleton.

In the evening, thanks to the lighted chain of lanterns on the bridge and galleries, the Itsukushima Shrine takes on a mysterious and unforgettable appearance.

The shrine was erected in the 6th century in honor of the three daughters of the god Susanoo no Mikoto. However, the structures of the complex were repeatedly demolished in the following years. The current structure was erected in the 16th century and is based on a design dating back to 1168, when a major military commander Taira Kiyomori was in charge of restoring the shrine.

The main temple of the complex is located on the most picturesque hill covered with forest and is a five-tiered pagoda. It is dedicated to the goddesses of the three elements, daughters of the storm god Susanno, one of the most powerful deities in the Shinto pantheon.

Miyajima has a monastery and shrines to other deities with a special place in the state religion, a temple treasury, and many other structures.

The Japanese believe that by entering the gate-torii they enter the world of the divine spirits dwelling on the island and, therefore, are imbued with humility and reverence as they enter the sacred land. There are a number of indisputable rules, the basis of which are various aspects of Shinto doctrine. One of them is the rule that no one should die or be born on the island, so all arrivals were examined. If they saw a very old or sickly and exhausted person or a woman in labor, they were immediately sent back to the mainland.

There is not a single grave on the island. The rule of no burial is still strictly enforced today. There are other prohibitions as well. Dogs are not allowed on the sacred territory, as they might scare away the birds. This would destroy the trust that has been established between humans and birds. The birds on the island have absolutely no fear of humans. Previously, commoners were not allowed to enter the sanctuary, as they had no place in the abode of the gods.

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Now, many prohibitions are no longer valid, but some are still enforced because they correspond to the religious beliefs of the Japanese.

The tori gate, which leads to the mysterious world of divine spirits, is the main attraction of the Itsukushima Shrine, and the incredibly beautiful nature surrounding it makes a visit to this complex unforgettable.

Itsukushima Shrine

Itsukushima Shrine

Itsukushima Shrine is poetically referred to as temples floating on water. The Shinto shrine of Itsukushima-ma-jingu is rightly ranked among the 100 most impressive religious buildings on the planet, and the famous Torii Gate is considered one of the three most recognizable landscapes in Japan.

The temple complex is officially recognized as a national treasure of Japan, and in 1996 it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Legend of the shrine’s foundation

The Shinto shrine of Itsukushima is located in the Inner Sea of Japan on the island of the same name, which is better known as Miyajima – Temple Island. This island has been considered sacred since ancient times and was itself revered as a deity.

An ancient legend has it that the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami and her brother Susanoo-no-mikoto met on the Plain of High Heaven and produced gods and goddesses. Susanoo undid his sister’s necklace and five male gods were born, Ama terasu undid Susanoo’s sword and three divine girls were born.

Itsukushima Shrine. Torii Gate in the hours of the otodiva

The goddesses began to look for a place where they could settle in silence and unity with nature. Then Saeki-no-Kuramoto, ruler of the island, received a sign from above. Guided by a divine raven from the Plain of High Heaven, he and the goddesses set sail around the island. Together they chose a small bay and founded a temple there, and the three goddesses were worshipped as guardians of the imperial family, protectors of the Japanese nation, and patronesses of sailors. The event is believed to have taken place in 593, when Empress Suiko ascended the throne.

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History of the Itsukushima Shrine Complex

The first documentary evidence of the shrine dates back to 811, when Itsukushima was mentioned in the Nihon Koki Chronicle among other famous temples. The shrine acquired its splendor in the 12th century, when the military commander Taira-no-Kiyomori began to reconstruct the temple complex. In 1146, the shogun was made ruler of Aki Province, and the Taira clan began making generous donations to Itsukushima.

Itsukushima Shrine Complex

In 1168, Taira-no-Kiyomori laid the building of the main temple, which took several years to build. The power of the Taira clan grew, and with it the significance of the shrine he built. Itsukushima was visited by noble pilgrims, including members of the imperial family.

In 1207 and again in 1223 many of the temple buildings were destroyed by fires, and in 1325 – the strongest typhoon. During the civil wars, the fame of the holy place reached unprecedented proportions, even though there was a period when the temple lay in ruins after the Battle of Itsukushima in 1555. Subsequently, Mor Motonari, who won the battle, rebuilt the complex and gave it its former glory.

Today, the temple serves its purpose and still holds religious services, ceremonies and rituals, and preserves ancient manuscripts and works of art. In 1568 a theatrical stage was built here which is still used for performances of the Japanese noh theater, religious music and ritual dances.

It seems that Itsukushima is timeless. Despite the fact that the shrine is built almost entirely on the water and is constantly exposed to the environment – salt water, storms and typhoons, visitors can see the same temple, which was built 850 years ago, almost in its original form.

Itsukushima Shrine. Five-tier pagoda

Itsukushima Shrine is a unique example of Japanese architecture, unique in its kind. Destroyed and reborn from the ashes, revered by many people, having seen many powerful rulers, talented builders, great men, experienced various historical epochs, nowadays this shrine is not only a great example of Japanese art, but also symbolizes the spirit of Japanese people.

The architecture of the Itsukushima Shrine

Fortunately, despite numerous reconstructions and changes of rulers after 1168, all those involved in rebuilding the complex carefully preserved its original appearance. The complex’s appearance is thus a magnificent example of Japanese architecture from the Heian period (794-1185) to the present day. The shrine was built in the Shinden style, to which all the aristocratic buildings of the time belong, including the imperial palace in Kyoto. Even the main temple, built by Mori Motonari three centuries later, is in the same architectural style as the Taira-no-Kiyomori period structures.

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Itsukushima Shrine. Miyajima

The temple complex consists of two parts – an outer part comprising 37 buildings, and an inner part comprising 19 buildings. Some of the buildings are built on stilts directly over the water, making it appear to be floating on the water surface. Strengthens the impression of the calling card of Itsukushima – the gate torii, which stand directly in the water at some distance from the shore.

Torii Gate

The most famous part of the complex – the grand wooden torii gate, which brought international fame to Itsukushima.

Torii are ritual gates that are installed in front of Shinto shrines. Torii are U-shaped and consist of two pillars on each side, supported by two crossbars. Traditionally they are painted red and never have sashes.

Itsukushima Shrine. Sacred Torii of Itsukushima

Torii of Itsukushima are striking in their size – 16 meters in height and 12 meters in width, and the length of the crossbar reaches 23 meters. The modern torii were built in 1875 of camphor wood, but chronicles mention a gate that has stood here since the 12th century.

At low tide, the bottom of the sea is exposed and the gate can be reached on foot. Thousands of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world rush through the sacred gate and leave a coin on its pillars. It is believed that this will bring good luck and prosperity, and the wish will certainly come true.

Bridges and crossing galleries

  • Sori-bashi (Arch Bridge)

The arched bridge was built in the first half of the 13th century. In ancient times, the bridge was called the “Bridge of Imperial Envoys” because it was used by the emperor’s envoys to enter the Main Sanctuary on the occasion of major festivals.

In 1557 the bridge was reconstructed by father and son Mori Motonari and Mori Takamoto, as evidenced by an inscription on one of the posts of the fence. Since then the bridge has been restored several times.

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This small bridge got its name from the word “naishi. This was the name given to the female attendants of the Imperial Court during the Heian period. They walked across this bridge to make offerings to the gods.

Itsukushima Shrine. Naishi-Bashi

  • Naga-bashi (Long Bridge)

The Long Bridge connects Ushiro-zono (the back court) to Daikoku Shrine. In documents of the Heian and Kamakura eras such bridges are called fixed or flat bridges. In those days, the buildings of the complex, built on the water, were connected to the land by open bridges without overhangs. The Long Bridge is built in this traditional style.

Like the Arch Bridge, the Long Bridge was rebuilt in the “Warring Provinces period,” making it considerably shorter. The piers of the bridge are made of stone. During the Edo period, an offering room was built at the southern end of the Ushiro-zone, from where offerings were taken across the bridge to the shrines.

Itsukushima Shrine. Transitional Gallery

  • Eastern Corridor

The eastern corridor runs from the shrine entrance, passing through the Marodo and Asazaya temples to the purification hall of the main temple. The corridor has 109 columns on each side and is 4 meters wide. The floorboards are laid without a single nail and there is a small space between them for the outflow of water. To keep the floorboards from being swept up by water during high tides and heavy rains, the ancient stone lanterns from the Mikasa promenade were moved here.

Along the corridors hang bronze lanterns, which were made for the sanctuary in the early 20th century, modeled on the ancient lanterns of 1366. In the treasury one can see the original lanterns cast in iron, dedicated to Terumoto Mori, grandson of the famous Motonari Mori.

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