Itsukushima Floating Shrine
Photo by DozoDomo

If you have any interest in Japan and its most popular sites, you’ve likely heard of the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture. After all, Miyajima is one of the top three scenic spots in Japan. But, there is much to learn about this hallowed site, and we’re here to give you the lowdown so you can be an expert when you visit.

A Site Steeped in History

Itsukushima
Photo by Thilo Hilberer

As a registered World Heritage Site, the Itsukushima Shrine is nestled amongst the Prussian blue sea and the lush green of the surrounding virgin forest. For as long as anyone can remember, the island of Miyajima has been revered for its spiritual sanctity. In fact, the island itself has been worshipped as a goddess since time immemorial.

The story goes that this mysterious and beautiful “floating shrine” was built over 1400 years ago by the first samurai to assume the role of the Daijo-Daijin, or head of the imperial government. From there, many other prominent revelers continued to add their own structures, culminating in the buoyant complex of grand corridors, shrines and stages that exist today. The shrine was constructed on pier-like structures over the bay so that it would appear to be floating on the water at high tide, separate from the sacred island, which could be approached by the devout.

Steeped in Spirituality

Floating Shrine Itsukushima
Photo by Joe deSousa

While Miyajima is venerated as a deity, the shrine is dedicated to Shinto gods of the Imperial Household: the 3 daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto, the god of seas and storms, and brother of the son goddess Amaterasu. Various other shrines within Itsukushima are dedicated to other deities and Buddhist purposes, such as spiritual purification, worshiping, chanting, offerings to divine beings, and seclusion.

Because the island itself is considered sacred, commoners were not allowed to set foot on it during much of its history to maintain its purity. The shrine was constructed to allow pilgrims to visit at a distance, with the water between them and the hallowed ground of Miyajima. The red entrance gate, O-Torii, was built so visitors had to steer their boats through it before approaching the shrine.

It is so important to retain the purity of Itsukushima that no deaths or births have been allowed near it since 1878. Still today, pregnant women are instructed to travel to the mainland as they near delivery, as are the very elderly or terminally ill who are approaching the end of life. Burials on the island are strictly forbidden.

Where to Stop

Inside Floating Shrine Itsukushima
Photo by Thilo Hilberer

Popular spots to visit at the shrine are, of course, the main shrine itself, the noh stage, and the O-Torii gate.

*The Main Shrine is dedicated to three female deities, who have long been worshipped as gods of the sea, transport, fortune and the arts. This area is the largest shrine (in fact, it is one of the biggest in Japan) and is said to have an ethereal, special atmosphere.

*The noh stage is the only one in Japan constructed over water. Noh theater is one of the oldest surviving theatrical forms in the world, relying heavily on subtle visual cues rather than a conventional narrative to express ideas and tell stories. Samurai have been watching noh theater at this stage for centuries.

*The O-Torii gate is a dramatic structure built so it appears to float at high tide and can be approached on foot at low tide. Indeed, the appearance of the entire shrine complex changes each time the tides rise and fall, which adds to the appeal of the site. The gate is 16 meters (nearly 52 ½ feet) tall, and weighs 60 tons. Rather than being buried in the seabed, the gate relies on the weight of the Camphor wood pillars themselves to remain standing.

Other things you don’t want to miss when visiting the shrine:

Floating Shrine at Night
Photo by Rosino

*The illuminations after dark are a sight to behold. After the sun sets, it’s easy to imagine the shrine glowing with the hundreds of burning torches of the nighttime worshipers of the ancient days. Whether you witness its beauty up-close or from afar, the shrine and O-Torii gate lit up and floating is a vision you won’t soon forget.

*The East and West Corridors are hailed as masterpieces of architecture and craftsmanship. Unique structures that were built to link the separate shrines of Itsukushima, they are a sight to behold themselves. Vibrant colors and creative, functional construction make these a fascinating piece of your visit.

*Mt. Misen, the highest mountain on Miyajima island, is said to be filled with wonders- 7, to be exact! These include the Kiezu-no-hi, or eternal flame, that has been burning since 806 and a legendary plum tree that took root around the same time. 7 wonders or no, the mountain is home to the Virgin Forest Misen, which has been selected as a Natural Monument of Japan. Mt. Misen has been worshipped as a hot-spot of spiritual energy for ages, and is included in the shrine’s title as a World Heritage Site.

Known for its serene beauty, rich history, and ethereal nature, the Itsukushima Shrine is a must-see on your journey through Japan. High tide or low, day or night, this spiritual hotspot should not be missed. Walk or float this hallowed ground and you’ll be sure to come away with a peaceful heart and a tranquil mind.