The origins of the shrine known as Itsukushima-jinja, situated on Miyajima not far from Hiroshima, are somewhat unclear, since it has been damaged and rebuilt so many times over the centuries. Most recently in 2004, Typhoon Songda tore away sections of the roof and boardwalks.
The current structure was built in the mid-1700s, but was modeled on the shrine that was originally built in 1168. Historical reserach suggests that there has been some manner of shrine on the island since the 6th century.
There is an easy, ten minute boat trip from the mainland.
The port on the mainland is a five minute walk from JR Miyajimaguchi Station and is very well sign-posted. From the port on Miyajima it's a further ten minute walk to the shrine.
The iconic gate stands at an impressive 16 meters tall
The gate is made from camphor wood, which has a natural resistance to rotting
The island itself has long been a sacred place. In order to keep the ground sacred, members of the public were not allowed to set foot on land. This is why the shrine is built on stilts. This means the shrine appears to be floating at high-tide and visitors can pray without upsetting the holy atmosphere.
To this day births and deaths are not permitted in the shrine’s vicinity. Women who are heavily pregnant and those who are terminally ill are ushered to the mainland.
Perhaps the most iconic section of the shrine is the huge red gate, or torii, that appears to float in the sea. In the past, visitors to the island used to pass through the gate by boat. The gate that stands today was built in 1875, but some form of gate has stood there since 1168.
Just getting to the island is an adventure in itself.
Ferries depart regularly throughout the day, and it is usually a serene sail. As you view the shrine from the boat, it seems to be floating apart from the island, with the gate acting as an entrance from the sea.
The ferry trip offers amazing views. The red of the shrine, the green of the lush forestry and the blue sky shimmer together like a mystical picture.
During high tide, the shrine and gate appear to float eerily on the water. The water dampens the sound which adds to the tranquility. When the sea retreats at low tide, the shrine's stilts become visible and you can admire the craftsmanship. You can walk across the sand and right up to the gate, to get an up close photograph of this quintessentially Japanese landmark.
Thanks to the island’s cultural and spiritual significance, along with its natural beauty, it was officially listed as a World Heritage Site in 1996. This all but guarantees that the island will be bustling, especially on weekends and national holidays, so be prepared to be jostled around in the shopping district. To escape the crowds, head inland and up Mount Misen.