Frozen moments from the infinity that is time


Floating Torii and Itsukushima Shrine (Miyajima)

A short train journey of approximately 20 kilometres from Hiroshima followed by a ferry ride brings one to Itsukushima Island or, as it is more popularly known, Miyajima.

Even those with little knowledge of, or interest in Japan are likely to have seen photographs of Miyajima’s famous Floating Torii (also known as Otorii or Great Torii), which is acclaimed as one of Japan’s three most scenic views and said to be the most photographed structure in Japan. Now it is my turn to humbly add a few more.

When viewed from Mount Misen (pic 1), the Floating Torii can be seen about 200 metres out to sea in a direct line with the Honden (main hall) of the Itsukushima Shrine, which is similarly built over the water. The decision to build the torii and shrine over the water is testament to the sanctity of the island, which, since ancient times has been revered and worshipped as a sacred place. It was believed that locating the buildings over the water would allow Shinto followers to worship without despoiling the sanctity of the island. Although such beliefs and the strict rules governing access to the island have been relaxed over time, even today no births or deaths are allowed on the island.

The first Floating Torii was built in the 12th Century and the current structure dates back to 1875. To refer to it as “floating” is somewhat misleading in that Otorii rests on the seabed, where its solid structure and weight of some 60 tons provides ample stability. Included in the overall weight are seven tons of (fist sized) stones filling the box shaped upper section of the torii.

Prior to visiting Miyajima I had seen many brilliant photographs of the Floating Torii, yet when on site I found myself more interested in the torii’s relationship to its environment as shown at pics 2 to 5. I recall the thrill on my first visit of seeing the Floating Torii in the distance from the ferry terminal and watching it grow in stature as the ferry approached the island – an experience shared by many over the centuries. Similarly, when viewed from the island, one is drawn to thinking of how the mainland has changed over Otorii’s lifetime. In turn, one wonders how it will change in the centuries to come and it is comforting to think that a nexus will continue to exist between the ever-changing world on the mainland and the traditional past represented on the island.

Itsukushima Shrine stands in a protected cove, with all the shrine’s wooden buildings rising out of the sea, as can be appreciated from pic 6. At high tide, the entire shrine complex appears to float and at low tide, visitors and the island’s resident deer population can stroll on the sand between the buildings.

The accompanying photographs give some idea of this unique place, which includes the only Noh stage in Japan (pics 7 and 8) that rests upon the sea. I particularly like the way the stage blends with the beach and the surrounding hills (pic 8) to create a contemplative scene, hopefully being enjoyed by the lone person on the shore.

As with all shrines, they are functional places and during my visit a ceremony (pic 9) was underway. Connecting the mainland to the shrine is Sori-bashi (arched bridge) shown at pic 10, an imposing structure that is believed to have served as access for imperial messengers on important festive occasions. The bridge was first built around 1240, with the current bridge dating back to 1557.

Adjoining Sori-bashi is the Tenjin Shrine (pics 11 and 12) dedicated to a deity of education and intelligence. This building was constructed in 1556 and served as a venue for monthly Renga poetry ceremonies through to the middle of the Meiji period. To distinguish its later build, this building and the Noh Stage are not coated in the vermillion lacquer used predominantly across the Itsukushima Shrine buildings, but have been left untreated. This has allowed the timber to age naturally, which I found quite in keeping with the shrine’s exposure to the elements.

Whilst I did not visit the five-storey pagoda (pic 13), it is a prominent landmark built on a bluff overlooking the Itsukushima Shrine, first constructed in 1407. Finally, I end with a couple of shots (pics 14 and 15) of Otorii at low tide where it has sat majestically for centuries.

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


Nikko – Part 2 (Toshogu and Taiyuan Shrines)

Today’s post is a continuation from my last post on Nikko’s Toshogu and Taiyuan Shrines.  Whilst the emphasis is to provide a more comprehensive coverage of significant buildings and their splendour, it is acknowledged that the surface has barely been scratched.

The Yomeimon Gate is arguably the most eye-catching structure within the Toshogu Shrine complex and as can be appreciated from pic 1, the approach up a flight of rather steep stairs certainly focuses visitors’ attention on what lies ahead.  Those who take the time to peruse the gate more closely are rewarded with an array of 508 sculptures, a selection of which is shown by pics 2 to 4.

The inner wall extending from each side of the Yomeimon Gate (pic 5) is also heavily decorated with sculptures of flora and fauna.  Another interesting sculpture is the Imaginary Elephant (pic 6), which can be seen on the gable of the Kamijinko – the upper of the three sacred warehouses where Samurai-style costumes and Yabusame (archery on horseback) equipment is stored.  Keen observers will notice that the Imaginary Elephant differs in appearance from that of real elephants.  This reflects the fact that the artisans responsible had never seen a real elephant, hence the description Imaginary Elephant.

The Kamijinko is also shown to the left of the Nakajinko (pic 7), or the middle warehouse of the three sacred warehouses.

In front and to the right of the Yomeimon Gate stands the Drum Tower (pic 8) and the Korean Bell (pic 9), which was dedicated by messengers from Korea to celebrate the birth of Iemitsu’s son, later to succeed his father as the fourth Shogun Ietsuna.

During my travels through Japan I was consistently impressed by the craftsmanship and attention to detail assigned to the roofs of old buildings, which have an inherent beauty independent of the buildings they protect.  The examples shown here include a corner section of the Kamijinko roof (pic 10); the Honden roof at the Toshogu Shrine (pic 11); and the Karamon Gate (pic 12).

I could not resist including the detail photo of the doors to the Holy Sutra Library (pic 13), through which is stored volumes of historically significant Buddhist sutra.

Albeit less ornate than the Toshogu Shrine, the Taiyuan Shrine is nevertheless impressive as can be seen from the photographs of the Yashomon Gate (pic 14) and the entry to the Haiden (pic 15).

Apart from being, in my opinion, visually appealing, the old memorial stone (pic 16) I came across within the grounds of the Taiyuan Shrine is somewhat of a mystery.  I have asked a number of native Japanese speakers for assistance in translating the inscription, but the old kanji characters are proving difficult to interpret.  If anyone can translate the characters into English, their help would be most appreciated.

The final shot is included by way of a segue to my next series of posts, where I will pursue the theme of cherry blossom in keeping with that most joyous of Japanese seasons fast approaching.  It is also an appropriate note on which to end this post, where the old structures of Nikko gracefully accommodate the seasonal rebirth of the cherry blossoms – a scene somewhat symbolic of Japan’s ability to accommodate and cherish the coexistence of the old with the new.

(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.)