While Miyajima has a reputation as a tourist destination, it has a deep history with Japan and Shinto culture. It has also played a significant part in the development of religion in Japan with its influence from Kamakura during the Kamakura period as well as being visited by a Buddhist Saint.
The island had been worshipped since ancient times as its landscape gives the island a spiritual feel that unites the island, the mountains and sea. The island was made a sacred shrine in the year 593 by Saeki Kuramoto who founded the Itsukushima Shrine.
Holy Buddhist Monk Kukai (Kobodaishi) visited Miyajima on his return from China (806). Feeling the presence of spirituality, Kukai declared the island a sacred site and built a Hondo (main hall) on Mount Misen and took Gumonji training there. The fire used for the training has been kept alive in the Misen Reikado hall of “The Eternal Fire” (Kiezu-no-hi). The island is famous for the fire festivals held during holy days.
The island is heavily influenced by Kyoto culture brought there by Samurai warrior Taira no Kiyomori who built Itsukushima shrine with the style of architecture of Kyoto aristrocracy. Kiyomori also brought Kyoto culture to Miyajima with skilled artisans and craftsmen.
It was not until the end of the Kamakura period that the island was eventually settled, first with Shinto priests and their acolytes, then lay people.
It was during the civil war (Sengoku) period that a great battle took place. A chief retainer, Sue Harukata rebelled and Daimyo, Ouchi Yoshitaka committed seppuku (hara-kiri) as a result. Mori Motonari, a sworn ally of Yoshitaka, raised his force against Harutaka but Sue’s army was superior to numbers than Mori’s. Mori constructed a castle north of Miyajima to draw Sue’s army there.
20,000 soldiers of Sue’s force landed on Miyajima and took to the castle defenses. The castle defenses held against the assault. Then, on October 1st, Motonari took 3,500 soldiers to the opposite shore, during a storm at night and climbed the ridge behind Sue’s forces and defeated them in a single battle. This is the “Itsukushima Gassen (Battle of Miyajima). Sue was routed with a small number of his soldiers and committed seppuku or ritual suicide. This was in the year of 1555.
After Sue was defeated, Mori Motonari rebuilt the shrines and the big Torii and donated a No stage and contributed to the development of Itsukushima Shrine. Itsukushima Shrine is at the heart of Miyajima.
The Shrine has been active throughout history and like most Shrines in Japan, it is closely aligned with Buddhism. Itsukushima Shrine has been rebuilt and restored throughout its history and survived typhoons, lighting strikes, battles and the Shinbutsu burni policy of the Meiji period (forbidding the fusion of Shinto and Buddhism) of 1868.
Itsukushima Shrine is revered by fishermen, sailors, merchants and listed as a national treasure and important cultural properties.
O-torii Gate – Important Cultural Property
The Torii gate is said to be the gate between the spirit world and the human world. The four pillar style gate was originally built in 1168 and was located 200 meters off shore. During high tide, the gate appears to be floating on the water. During low tide, you can walk to the foot of the great Torii.
The great Torii is not buried but stands on its own weight. It stands on six pillars both the main pillars and small pillars make it secure. The box in the upper part of the Torii contains 7 tons of stones. Custom made wedges are driven into the intersections of where the roof meets the pillars absorbing movements and helping the balance of the structure.
The present great Torii was built in 1875 and is the eighth Torii in Miyajima history. The vermillion color of Itsukushima Shrine and the great Torii is considered to keep evil spirits away.
The plate on the great Torii was painted by Prince Arisugawa Taruhito from the Meiji era. He was a commander during the Boshin war and led the central government army against the forces of Saigō Takamori in the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. Saigō Takamori is known as the “Last Samurai” and is considered the most influential Samurai in Japanese history.