Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Pilgrimage to Itsukushima

-- Susan, every other Sunday

It is difficult to write anything with the world in flames. Every time I turn on my computer, I see fear, anger, prejudice and hate: toxins that poison the human soul.

With Japan re-opening into a "new normal" - with masks and distancing still in place - we venture forth into a world far different than the one we left a scant four months ago. In the United States, where most of my family (and many of you reading this) still reside, the unrest continues.

Instead of talking about those issues (which would require far more space and time than I have here to address properly, not to mention that this platform is not mine alone), today I'm going to fan a different kind of flame.

The island of Itsukushima, also known as Miyajima, sits an hour by train and another ten minutes by ferry south of Hiroshima. For centuries, the island has been considered sacred to the Shinto faith, as the home to the three divine daughters of Susanoō, the god of storms and the younger brother of Amaterasu Ō-mikami, the chief deity in the Shintō pantheon (and the goddess of the sun). Susanoō's daughters, Ichikishimahime, Tagorihime, and Tagitsuhime, are storm gods in their own right--and as if that wasn't enough divinity for one island, the land and mountains of Miyajima are considered sacred, and divine in their own right.

Sacred Mt. Misen rising behind Itsukushima Shrine

The first shrine on Itsukushima (unsurprisingly, called Itsukushima Shrine) was constructed during the 6th century. At that time, most people were not allowed to set foot on the island, so the shrine was constructed partially over the water, below the high tide line.

Today, the visitors come in tour boats, rather than rowboats. Many come to look, but many still come to pray.

Worshippers would approach in boats, at high tide, to pay their respects to the island and its deities.

The Otorii at low tide.

During the 9th century, a priest named Kōbō Daishi (then called Kūkai) came to the island to meditate. While there, he founded Daishō-in, one of the most important Shingon temples in Japan. (Before his entry into eternal meditation, Kūkai went on to found Kōyasan, which remains the center of Shingon worship in Japan to this day.)

One of many sacred guardian statues on Miyajima

In addition to founding the temple, Kōbō Daishi meditated atop Mt. Misen, the island's highest peak, and lit an eternal flame in a temple high on the mountainside. It burns there to this day.

In 1168, the Shintō shrine on the waterfront was rebuilt and expanded under the patronage of Taira no Kiyomori, a leading member of the Taira clan; around this time, the shrine acquired the first of its iconic Ōtorii (Great Torii).

The Ōtorii of Miyajima

The shrine, like the temple, remains fully functional to this day. People are no longer forbidden to set foot on the island (in fact, between the picturesque shrine, the iconic "floating Ōtorii" and the island's friendly deer - who are notably less aggressive than their sacred brethren in Nara -- Miyajima is one of Japan's largest tourist draws); however, Shintō taboos about death are still respected there. No one has died on the island since the 19th century (and then, it was an accident) and burials are not permitted there.

On a personal note, Miyajima was the place where I first realized I wanted to make Japan my home. It was also the site where I climbed my first Japanese mountain--Misen--in June of 2015, and where my dream of climbing 100 Japanese mountains first took hold.

The trailhead where it all began.

The sacred flame that Kōbō Daishi lit twelve centuries ago was also used to light the eternal flame at the memorial in Hiroshima Peace Park, connecting those prayers for peace across the centuries--in which, the human race had still failed to conquer the fear, anger, prejudice, and hate that continue to plague us.

And yet, that flame--and the hope it represents--still burns.

Koi in the rain, Miyajima, 2015

Later this month, I hope to take my first trip outside of Tokyo in half a year. I considered my destination carefully . . . but the decision did not take long. Almost five years to the day after my first ascent, I will once stand on Misen's slopes, on a pilgrimage to that sacred flame, to offer prayers for peace.

The Otorii at night.

I pray the world will see it in my lifetime, but if not, I trust that we, the human race, will keep on trying. Because even when the world appears to be ablaze with angry flames, on a little island off the coast of Hiroshima, a flame of hope still burns.


  1. I share your hope. Thanks for a lovely post.

  2. How often, dear Susan, you have brought me to places of peace and hope when I needed them most. From where I sit ow, I can see a photo of the two of us on Mt. Sengen that I keep beside my bed. What beautiful times. Thanks to you!

  3. I can see why a place of such serenity, piety, and longevity could lead you to the decision you made. A very wise one. Both the decision and you!