Frozen moments from the infinity that is time


Miyajima Walks

The best way to explore small islands such as Miyajima is by walking around and in this post I would like to share a selection of photographs taken during my exploration of the island. Some shots were taken around the island’s small town, but most are shots from time spent walking on Mount Misen, an enjoyable and sometimes arduous activity.

The graceful flowing lines of Japanese temple roofs is a sight I never tire of and when the thatched roofing materials can be shown in front of a natural forest (as in pic 1), the blending of man-made and natural structures is quite sublime. Maintaining this natural theme is the island’s houses (pic 2), which typically portray traditional Japanese styles utilizing materials such as wood and stone to great effect. Of course, this is accompanied by modern additions such as satellite dishes.

It is not unusual in Japan to come across small businesses supplying temples and shrines and as shown by pic 3, Miyajima is no exception. I have long admired Japan’s ability to maintain old skills and traditions, often through businesses passed down through many generations and when one consistently finds businesses of this type close to temples and shrines, it suggests a preference to support the work of local artisans.

As a protected site, the island’s deer population (pic 4) can be found everywhere from the peak of Mount Misen to wading through the waters at low tide near the Itsukushima Shrine. Perhaps I was just lucky during my visits, but the Miyajima deer seem to be less mischievous than their Nara counterparts. (Those who have visited Nara will know what I mean.)

The deer certainly handle the slopes of Mount Misen with greater ease than humans and although there are extensive paths to follow, care is often required to safely negotiate one’s climb and descent. Nevertheless, as can be seen from pics 5 to 9, Mount Misen is well worth the effort. When walking in Japan, a frequent sight is that of stone arrangements like those shown at pic 10. I don’t know if there is any special significance to the arrangements, or perhaps people simply like the challenge of creating and/or adding to little ornamental stone arrangements. Whatever its significance, it is an engaging form of communal art and entertainment.

The stone arrangements are again seen at pic 11, where Kannondo Hall in the foreground is said to be where prospective parents can ask for a safe childbirth, despite no births being allowed on the island. The building visible in the background is Monjudo Hall, where one can ask to be endowed with the ability to be a good student.

Further up the mountain, one finds Sankido Hall (pics 12 and 13), where it is believed one’s prayers for household welfare and business prosperity will be answered. On a practical level, Sankido Hall also serves as a welcome rest stop where one can enjoy a relaxing and contemplative break from the comfort of the welcoming Tatami flooring.

On the descent I came across a hall I failed to identify (pics 14 to 16) guarded by a couple of impressive, but fierce looking guardians. If anyone can provide further information about this building, it would be appreciated. I also found the sign made by the guardian’s right hand in pic 16 quite amusing given the penchant of the Japanese for hand signs. Perhaps it is more deeply ingrained in their culture than I realised.

What better way to end a walk around Miyajima than the shot of two young boys waiting for the ferry, looking happy and well stocked from their trip to the island.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)



Nikko (Toshogu & Taiyuan Shrines)

Someone told me that Nikko is the place every Japanese person wants to visit at least once.  After visiting there twice in different seasons I came to understand why, but I had no idea how their words would resonate on my feeling that this post does not do justice to Nikko’s importance to the Japanese.

In Nikko, all roads lead to the complex including the Toshogu, Futarasan and Taiyuin shrines and it is from this complex that today’s images are drawn.  Words that may typically be used to describe Japanese temples and shrines such as subtle and understated do not apply here.  There is nothing understated about these shrines.  Quite the opposite, yet still their underlying message is that of reverence and respect for those honoured here.

Toshogu is the dominant shrine, as evidenced by the buildings of the Taiyuan Shrine being oriented to face Toshogu as a mark of respect for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa era.  As well as being the driving force behind the construction of Toshogu Shrine to honour his grandfather, Iemitsu (the third shogun) is perhaps better known as the shogun who closed Japan to foreign commerce and isolated it from the rest of the world for 200 years.

The tree-lined path to Toshogu Shrine is dominated by Ishidorii (pic 1), a granite torii gate that majestically draws one forward.  In my humble opinion, it must surely rank among Japan’s most significant torii.  To the left of Ishidorii is the five-storey pagoda (pic 2), where the storeys represent, in ascending order, the elements of earth, water, fire, wind and heaven.

Toshogu’s most famous attraction is perhaps the Sacred Stable (pics 3 and 4), or more specifically the story of stages in a monkey’s life told through a series of carvings on the walls of the building.  Since early times in Japan, monkeys have been regarded as guardians of horses, hence their significance to the stable building.  The most famous carving is, of course, that of the three wise monkeys, whose message of “hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil” has been an aspirational refrain of parents through the ages.

Other structures of interest include my favourite, the relatively subdued Rinzo or Holy Sutra Library (pic 5), which houses a collection of valuable Buddhist scriptures; the heavily decorated Yomeimon Gate (pic 6) flanked on each side by statues of the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose presence remains imposing (pic 7); and the designated national treasure – the Karamon Gate (pic 8).

The heavily wooded setting makes for pleasant walking and throughout the grounds one finds areas of interest such as small roadside shrines (pic 10) and many stone and metal lanterns (pic 9) donated by feudal lords.  To walk these grounds with someone steeped in Nikko history would be a pleasure, though the stories behind each building and object may require a lifetime of walks.

Although not as grand as the Toshogu Shrine, the Taiyuan Shrine is no less interesting.  Prior to climbing several sets of stairs and passing through a series of gates, one finds The Cistern for Holy Water (pic 11).  Water from a nearby stream is channeled down through a system of gutters into a solid granite basin so perfectly aligned that the water evenly overflows each edge.  Visitors stop here for purification before proceeding to the Nitenmon Gate, which can be seen in the background.

Taiyuan is built on a fairly steep slope, thus opening up vistas such as those shown (pics 12 and 13) at various points during the climb.  Reaching the upper level, one finds the largest building (pic 14), with this view showing the Ainomo or connecting chamber between the Haiden (sanctuary) and Honden (inner sanctuary).  Adjacent to the Honden is the Koukamon Gate (pic 15), the final gate behind which lies the Okunoin – the tomb of the third shogun Iemitsu.  Neither the Koukamon Gate nor Okunoin are open to the public.

Finally, walking back to central Nikko, one passes the Shinkyo Bridge (pic 16), regarded as one of the three most significant bridges in Japan.  The bridge across the Daikyo River was originally built in 1636 (rebuilt 1907) for the use of the Shogun and imperial messengers.

A visit to these sites is at first a visual assault on the senses, such is the splendour and grandeur one encounters.  However, the true value is felt by slowing down and allowing Nikko to seep into one’s senses.  One can then begin (only begin) to understand why it is so revered by the Japanese people.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)