Friday, September 13

Life among the gods

Miyajima is one Japan's most sacred locations. Its name literally translates as "shrine island". It history is intimately tied that of the nation’s two dominant religions; Shintoism and Buddhism.

Buddhism reached Japan from China in the 6th Century, while Shintoism is a native religion whose origins stretch back as far as 500BC. Shintoism doesn’t have a founder or sacred scriptures like the sutras or the bible. Propaganda and preaching are not common either, because Shinto is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and traditions.

Shinto gods are called kami. They are sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. The Sun Goddess Amaterasu is considered Shinto's most important kami. Humans become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami.


In 806 AD, the monk Kōbō Daishi ascended the island’s highest peak, 500-metre high Mount Misen, and established the mountain as an ascetic site for the Shingon sect of Buddhism. This makes Shingon one of oldest forms Buddhism in Japan and Daishi one of its most revered religious figures. As a result, Miyajima was deemed so sacred that subsequent generations went to great lengths to maintain its ritual purity. Common folk were forbidden to step on to the island, as were women, burials were forbidden and elderly residents were sent away to die.

 These rituals gave rise to Itsukushima Shrine, one of Shintoism’s most famous shrines. The shrine is dedicated to the three daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto, Shinto god of seas and storms, and brother of Amaterasu. Given Miyajima’s sacred status, the shrine was built on piers sit away from the shore thus ensuring visitors never set foot on land. Three short bridges connected the shire to the shore, reserved for imperial visitors and monks.

In earlier times, it could only be reached by boat. Visitors passed through a “floating” red torii gate before docking at a pier in front of the shrine. This gate and its associated shrine have since become one of Japan’s most photographed landmarks.

Today, visitors are permitted to land. A steady stream of ferries carries people across the sheltered bay. The transfer takes less than 15 minutes, while the ferry terminal itself is reached easily by train or tram from downtown Hiroshima, 22kms away. Surprisingly, one of the ferries is operated by national railway company. This meant Mum and I could use our Japan Rail Passes on the day we visited.

Our visit to Miyajima was an emotional one. Regular readers will recall that our trip to Japan was prompted in part by my father’s travel ambitions. He’d always wanted to visit Japan. Sadly, he died before his wish could be fulfilled. Mum and I decided to symbolically fulfill his dream by booking a vacation to Japan and taking a small portion of his ashes with us.

Once we’d completed our tourist endeavours, Mum and I ventured out onto a nearby sand spit for a private ritual. In front of us stood Miyajima’s famous torii gate, behind us rose the green slopes of Mount Misen, to our left sat the dazzling white and red buildings of Itsukushima shrine and an elegant five-story pagoda. It was a serene, magical location.

We briefly said a few words of appreciation, before silently scattering the last of Dad’s ashes into the gently lapping sea.  In respect for local tradition we carefully ensured none touched the land. It was very poignant moment.  As Mum and I both admitted later, we'd each had a moment where we'd been reluctant to relinquish Dad's last physical remains.

In life John Douglas McGregor never made it to this beautiful place. However, in death, he’ll rest eternally in the shadow of the gods, while his kami lives on in the hearts and minds of future generations.  It's comforting to think that my father's story joins that of Japan’s most revered location.

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