Friday, August 13, 2010

Miyajima's Meaning

In the course of one day in the Hiroshima Headlands I was to discover a lot more than unfortunate military history. I had wrapped up touring Hiroshima itself and had the rest of the afternoon to explore the waters around this infamous Japanese city. Starting off from the local pier under blue azure skies, the mountains rose green and forested from the deep blue waters themselves. It amazed me to see how the water still remained blue in tone despite the hive of industrial activity all around the area.

Kure, Japan was not too far away, where much Japanese commercial and military shipping was and still is built and maintained. Mazda was and remains headquartered in the area while the Japanese Naval Academy, Etajima, still operates from the storied island at the center of the bay.

Car carriers floated benignly in the deep waters as my ferry carried us away from Hiroshima Harbour, instantly and easily evoking the thoughts of what the full might of the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers that once sailed these waters must have looked like to locals and tourists alike, imposing, towering above the waves, bristling with firepower, majestic and intimidating to one and all alike. Maybe 20 minutes later our little boat pulled in to the harbor of Miyajima Island, my last and final destination of the day.

The first thing to greet tourists alighting from the mainland is a herd of miniature deer. Sort of domesticated ambassadors to the island, they come up placidly looking for hand outs and patiently enduring children on their backs as adoring parents angle for cute pictures to take back home. If the deer had any ticks no one seemed overly concerned. When they saw there was no hand out action from me the moved on and I made my way towards the UNESCO World Heritage site that is the Itsukushima Shrine.

At first I didn't even know this classic Japanese landmark was in the same area. After finishing my tour of Hiroshima I stumbled across a brochure of tours around the harbor that included Miyajima and the shrine. Sold. And when I got there, breathtaking.

The shrine itself is not the draw, as important as it is to the Shinto faithful. The complex is a cluster of traditional Japanese wooden architecture with pathways and bridges connecting buildings and meditative gardens filled with lilies and ponds of Japanese carp to each other, blending beautifully and aesthetically in to the mountain finery behind it. All standard issue minimalist beauty but the catch in the throat, "Oh my God" moment comes in seeing the Torii Gate standing to the west in the waters just off shore.

Other than Mt. Fuji itself very few landmarks, natural or manmade are as instantly identifiable with Japan as the "Torii" gate marking the presence of a Shinto shrine and symbolizing the transition between sacred and common ground. This massive example has existed in various forms since 1168 with the current iteration being built in 1875. It is made of wood from the evergreen camphor tree, painted an orange-red honoring the rising sun and standing about 200 meters off shore. With the entire complex built in an island alcove the only approach to the shrine was by sea, making the location of the gate at the mouth of the small bay perfectly logical as well as characteristically stunning in aesthetic beauty and setting.

When the tide is low it can be walked to where locals insert coins in the cracks of the trunks for good luck. Otherwise it seems merely to float upon the active waters squeezed between Miyajima and the nearby "mainland" of Honshu. Sailors to this day pray as their ships passed for good fortune while the faithful come to the island offering devotions to the three daughters of Susano-O, the Japanese God of Storms and the Sea. Makes sense to a nation still dependent upon good weather and calm seas for much of its livelihood.

Outlanders like me come to meekly attempt a feeling of the very essence of a proud and deeply spiritual culture while trying to capture that one quintessential picture image before the day is done. Standing over 50 feet high from its base, this gate, the blue sea and the high green mountains all around combine in a singular way to say that this is the heart, the soul of the real Japan. Shinto or not in individual faith, few ever leave this shrine without feeling the spirit buoyed and uplifted as serenely as the upward curve of the gate itself.

I have yet to feel more in tune with the core meaning of Japan.

Gotta go.

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