Where The Deer Roam Free: Japan's Miyajima Island

The sprightly deer, nosing their way around on Miyajima Island remind me of Sarnath, near Varanasi, India and close to my home town, Allahabad. We are in Miyajima, 10 miles from Hiroshima in the Seto Inland Sea and a sacred Shinto and Buddhist site. The closest resemblance between this verdant Island and Sarnath, in the hot, dusty River Ganges plains of North India, is the presence of deer. It was in Sarnath, referred to as ‘Mrigadava’ or deer park, that Buddha gave his first sermon after his ‘Enlightment’. The current name, Sarnath, is derived from the word ‘Saranganath’ meaning ‘Lord of Deer’ and must be a chnaged place now, but memories linger. The deer at Miyajima, believed to be messenger of gods, have been on the island since 6000 years.

We arrived by ferry from Miyajima-guchi ferry port to Miyajima Island enjoying the spectacular view of the island resplendent in autumn colors of reds, greens, yellows. In springtime it is the pastel peach blossoms that cover the mountains. As we speed closer to the island we can see the famous trademark, the vermillion O torii or gateway that was once the entrance to the Itsukushima Shrine and the adjoining buildings. The present O torii, constructed in 1875 and eighth in succession since the Heian period (794-1192), is 16 meters tall with a 28 meters long top. The pillars made of single camphor trees stand on their own support presenting a floating image during high tide. During low tide the O torii can be assessed by foot and visitors make use of this to place coins in cracks for good luck or gather shellfish. At night the O torii is illuminated and the lighted 100 stone lanterns placed along the path to the Itsukushima shrine add an empyrean aura to the surroundings.

A 10-minute walk from the ferry past the crowds strolling the 350-meter-long Ometesando shopping street with stalls selling pottery, wood craft, fresh seafood and oyster, a specialty of Miyajima, and we are at the land entrance to the Itsukushima shrine. From the sea the entrance appears pier shaped as the Shrine is constructed in layers to give it a floating appearance during high tide, similar to the O torii.The layered look helped maintain sanctity of the Island as commoners were not allowed on the island and had to steer their boats through the O torii.  With opening of island to setlers few rules were persisted with such as restrictions on farming, giving birth or dying on the island. There are supposedly no hospitals or cemeteries on the island. Birth one can control but not death and we wondered at the sagacity of the inhabitants.

The Itsuku-shima Shrine is dedicated to three Shinto goddesses of the sea, Ichikishima, Tagori, and Tagitsu, and we walk the circular, newly colored passage past temples, an original Noh stage constructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 16th century, bridges and walkways linking the various parts of the temple. According to our guide, the wooden boards were transported all the way from northern Japan and no metals nails were used in construction. The round Imperial Envoy’s Bridge or Soribashi, constructed in 1557 appears improbable to walk on, especially with the Geta (Japanese wooden clogs), and later learnt that stairs were temporarily installed when court nobles were sent to Itsukushima by the Emperor.

The abridged English translation of the Kamakura period epic, Tale of Heike * of the struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans for control of Japan, recounts the Heike war lord Taira no Kiyomori’s* visit to the shrine and on seeing ramshackle buildings tells the priest that he wants to change the face of the island. The original tale is part fictionalized but Kiyomori talks about building 'an archway like no other that has ever been seen, spanning the water as you approach Itsuku-shima from the sea, and those who come to worship here will enter by this gate. The main shrine and its adjoining buildings will be connected by wide galleries, suspended above the seas....at night a hundred stone lanterns will be lit....making this island even more enthralling'. At that time his words must have sounded improbable to the listeners but the Itsukushima Shrine and the towers increased the ‘beauty of the surroundings’ and Kiyomori’s predictions of people coming from far countries proved correct. The Itsukushina Shrine is an UNESCO World heritage site with visitors from Japan and abroad savoring the beauty and sanctity of the Island. There is a Kiyomori Shrine on a small island along the river and the Seto Sea. The Shrine was constructed in 1954 to laud the achievements of General Taira-no-kiyomori.

Close to the Itsukushima shrine is the Hokoku shrine, the inner portion known as the Senjokaku, and constructed by Japanese warrior Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Senjokaku is also referred to as ‘hall of thousand mats’ because of its size to house 857 tatami mats. The work on the shrine was halted due to Hideyoshi’s death and it still remains incomplete.

From here we come out in the square with streets flaunting old houses with white walls, shikado doors and latticed windows, creating an antiquated atmosphere highlighted by fiery red Japanese maples and the red Five-Story Pagoda. The 28-meter-high pagoda was constructed in 1407 and is a blend of Japanese and Chinese architecture of Tang dynasty. Visitors are not allowed inside the pagoda though there is a painted image of the Buddha. The Machiya Street or Honmachi Suji was once the main street and today is lined with hotels, galleries and stores.

Another old street, the Takikoji Alley, once housing the priests and Imperial messengers, leads to the Daishon temple, situated on foot of Mt. Misen. This is an ancient Shingon Buddhist temple and was in charge of the Itsukushima Shrine and religious ceremonies.

Mt.Misen, the highest peak on Miyajima Island, can be reached by ropeway or on foot for a panoramic view of the islands dotting Seto Inland Sea and the distant mountain ranges of Shikoku. Hiking trails, cable car rides, the Momiji-dan (Maple Leaf) Park, beaches, camping grounds and onsens (hot spring baths) lighten up the heavy religious and traditional dose. The Miyajima delicacy, fresh Hiroshima oyster, raw, cooked or grilled, washed down with cool drinks, ice creams and candies, adds to the picnic ambience.

Enjoy the cool fresh breeze and the setting sun in the company of deer before boarding the return ferry.


* Taira no Kiyomori (1118 – March 20, 1181), a general of the late Heian period of Japan, established the first samurai-dominated administrative government in the history of Japan.



Trip to Miyajima Island was courtesy JNTO

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