The ferry that leaves from a little port thirty minutes north of Hiroshima, Japan, transports passengers to another dimension where the city’s memorials to World War II will be left far behind. A glimpse of what awaited us on Miyajima Island came in the form of origami paper cranes, symbolizing peace, given out by students at the dock.
We accepted the gifts with a bow as we embarked on the short ride to a place where there are no births or deaths, no felling of trees, and tame deer – messengers from the gods – wander at will.
This vision of Shangri-La is home to the Itsukushima Shrine. Founded in AD 593, the current buildings date from the 16th century based on a 12th century design. The shrine’s most famous landmark, the great torii gate, appears to float upon the Inland Sea, a fitting mystical marker where the divine begins and mundane daily life ends.
My husband and I disembarked for a leisurely stroll to the shrine, ready to dissolve ourselves in the aura of peace and harmony the buildings generate despite the presence of other visitors sharing the experience. We walked along the waterside on a path lined with stone lanterns representing 108 earthly cares, passed through a granite torii gate firmly rooted to the land, rinsed our hands at the stone trough and entered an alternative universe. The brilliant vermillion lacquer of the buildings and passageways, matching that of the floating gate, was reflected in the blue sea. A sense of serenity enveloped us.
In one pavilion a white-robed priest was conducting a ceremony while an elderly couple kneeled silently on a mat. We wondered if the ritual was to memorialize an ancestor, Shinto shrines often being used for that purpose rather than Buddhist temples. Shinto is Japan’s oldest religion, in existence since time immemorial. Deities, called kami, preside over all the things, living, dead or inanimate. Their shrines, large and small, dot Japan.
As the tide slowly ebbed, the shrine’s feet were no longer in the water and the earthly concern of time passing returned. With never enough of it to experience everything, we reluctantly left the sacred precinct to see the ornate 9th Century Daisho-in Buddhist Temple set in a wooded area beyond the shrine before admiring the Goju-no-to five-story pagoda. It was built in 1407 but enticingly set in the modern village filled with shops, inns and restaurants.
We wandered along the narrow street to look at souvenirs like the typical remembrance Japanese visitors purchase – rice scoops of all sizes. Of course, Hello Kitty in every guise was waiting too. Better was the chance to sample the island’s specialty food, momiji, bite-sized cakes in the shape of a maple leaf and flavored with various unexpected ingredients such as eel. But the most attractive of delights tempting us were the tiny stalls selling grilled oysters fresh from the surrounding sea. Delicious!
For those lucky to have time enough to stay on the island, there are backpacker hostels and hotels including romantic and expensive ryokan. The prospect of staying to walk the trails and meditate by a stone lantern overlooking the sea made us add a return to the island to our bucket list.
An overnight stay was not to be this trip. Body and soul nourished, we returned to the ferry landing to await the next boat back to reality. Two young women looked up from their bento box afternoon snack to smile and make the typical Japanese peace sign. The deer wandered over, not delivering messages from the gods, but to munch on any paper they could find including ferry tickets for the unwary (maybe used to take messages from us back to the gods).
A display case in the terminal contained a mockup of the island and that of the community’s sister “city,” Mont St-Michel off the northwest coast of France, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. French and Japanese flags decorate an official document written in both languages describing a relationship with the small tidal island set in the English Channel. Its abbey is steeped in a different style of ancient architecture and holiness dating from the 6th Century. There, too, a tourist village offers its own specialty foods: fluffy omelets and lamb from the salt marshes. No matter that one site is dedicated to the three daughters of the Shinto deity of seas and storms and the other to a single God in Heaven, the same feeling of serenity descends on both tourist and worshipper.
All photos property of and by Judith Works ©