The gods may be in hiding this week.
It’s a brief train and ferry ride from downtown Hiroshima to the small island of Itsukushima, more popularly known as Miyajima or, perhaps, Miyashima. And popular it is. The ten-minute ferry ride is jam-packed with tourists, Westerners like us but primarily Japanese nationals. As we pour off the ferry, there is a sudden realization that this will be far from a tranquil visit. The scene is carnivalesque. Children and adults run about madly. Tame deer follow, hoping for a handout. Unknowingly, we have arrived at Japan’s top tourist site on the first day of Japan’s most popular vacation period, Golden Week.
It starts on April 29, with no fewer than four consecutive holidays: an emperor’s birthday (Tenchō Setsu), another emperor’s birthday (Tennō Tanjōbi), Greenery Day and Shōwa Day. That’s followed by Constitution Memorial Day on May 3, Citizen’s Holiday on May 4 and Children’s Day on May 5. All of which means that the average Japanese citizen is likely to take the entire week off as a holiday – some companies even shut down for the week – and travel to their favourite vacation spots. Miyajima, for example.
The island is certainly worthy of over-attention. The crowds cannot diminish the cultural significance of the place. Nor is it all that hard to escape the throngs.
Our first order of business is to check into our ryokan. Once we cross the busy tourist street and pass through a narrow tunnel, we are in a much quieter, traditional neighbourhood. Indeed, Guest House Kikugawa is a handsome, wood residence and our suite is a large, well-appointed tatami room, complete with a loft and our own, private Japanese bath. We are here for but one night and it is hard to tear us from our comfortable digs. But Miyajima has much to explore.
Our first cultural destination is Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After an entertaining promenade down a passageway lined with shops selling all sorts of enticing street food and sweets, the shrine gently reveals itself. Standing out in the bay is the famous “floating” orange-red torii. Behind it, the low-slung shrine clings to the shoreline, part on land and part on wood stilts projecting into the bay. At this time, though, the tide is well out and there is just a broad expanse of mud. The flood of water has been replaced by tourists like us who stream out from our bayside path and onto the mud flats. Some are armed with selfie sticks. Others are on their knees, digging into the muck in search of a mollusk dinner. For most, it is an opportunity to walk on the sea floor, to touch the base of the torii. In several hours’ time, those sea-weathered logs will again be submerged, leaving the just the pristine red structure visible from the shoreline, appearing to float above the sea water, as advertised.
Beyond the shrine, a walk up the island’s slopes takes us through quieter residential streets and parks before arriving at the base of the Miyajima Ropeway. A gondola speeds us far away from the coastal hoardes, 525 metres up to the the island’s highest point, Mount Misen. It’s late afternoon and we are in relative solitude. A trail takes us back down to sea level. Rocky crags and distant views give way to dense forests as we descend. Scattered along the path are shrines and temples. There’s Reikaodo Hall, “Lover’s Sanctuary” and its eternal flame, lit by none other than Kōbō Daishi 1200 years ago. Near the base of the mountain, we pass by Daisho-in Temple, with its silvery roofs curling up through the trees. We make a promise to return tomorrow.
But it’s late. The sun has set by the time we pass the not-yet-floating torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine. It is imperative that we get back to our ryokan for dinner at seven.
And fabulous it is. A multi-course, Kaiseki-style meal. Small plated jewels of fish and beans are followed with a large earthenware pot of local clams and a platter of whole fish tempura. It’s an occasion that calls for a good white French wine. To finish, a bottle of fine junmai daiginjo sake follows us back to our luxurious tatami suite for the evening.
The tide has come in by the time we pass Itsukushima Shrine the next morning. The torii is now floating and the shrine hovers delicately over the water-filled bay. It is a remarkable visual transformation concocted by tides and the moon. A good argument for overnighting on the island. The offer of a fine evening meal does not hurt either.
But we are on our way back up the low slopes of Mount Misen to visit Daisho-in Temple. Founded in 806 by Kōbō Daishi, this is one of the most important Shingon temples in Western Japan. To be sure, the temple buildings are beautifully set out on the mountain slopes. But, for Gail and me, it is a particularly meaningful place. Off to the side, carved out of the mountain slopes, is Henjokutsu Cave. The dark stone chamber is illuminated by a ceiling of shimmering brass lanterns. Below are rows of statuary. 88 to be exact. Each one represents a temple along the Henro path that we have been following in Shikoku.
Worshippers slide along from icon to icon, whispering a sutra at each, leaving a token as they pass. We begin at Temple 1, where we started our own Shikoku pilgrimage in 2015. We stop at the grey statue of Temple 24. This is where that first pilgrimage ended abruptly, where I left a prayer slip for my ailing mother who passed away days later, just after our return to Winnipeg. And this would be our starting point this spring, on March 31. It’s where we set out to complete another third of our pilgrimage. We pause in front of Temple 43’s icon, the last temple we visited this spring. We arrived there just five days ago, on April 23.
It is also where we plan to return this year, in late October, to continue our pilgrimage. We slip all too easily from statue to statue and arrive at the final carved icon, Temple 88. This is where we plan to be in late November. And then it’s back to that first stone figurine, Temple 1. Our final destination this fall. The completion of our Henro pilgrimage. A 1200 kilometre journey for body and spirit.
Here, in this small, unassuming cave, under the orange glow of a thousand lights, is the embodiment of Kōbō Daishi’s vision and the summation of our own trek across that microcosm of Japan.