September 4, 2011


I left Hiroshima the morning after a typhoon passed and hopped on a train toward Miyajima. Hiroshima is incredibly clean and modern, with a delta that cuts the city into islands, surrounding the buildings with tidal channels that reflect the sky and skyline.

Each train line in Japan has its own distinct personalities, and the Shinkansen are no different. One sounded and felt like it had a transmission problem as it’d lurch between speeds (gears?), while another had a winding-up sci-fi whirr that would dissipate as the train approached higher velocities. Even so, travel by Shinkansen is smooth and generally quiet compared to the slower diesel and electric trains that ply the local rail lines of the Kansai and Chūgoku regions. Unlike the commuter trains of Tokyo, these rail cars lack video screens or announcements in English as to the next stops, and you can distinctly feel the clicks of the tracks as the train chugs along.

What’s the right soundtrack for riding trains in Japan? On the bright and brilliant morning I left Hiroshima, the only thing appropriate to listen to as the train pulled out of the station seemed to be Johnny Cash, lamenting about being stuck in Folsom Prison and hearing train whistles from his cell. Unlike Mr. Cash, I was mobile and free, but the lyrics about how “I hear the train a comin’ / It’s rollin’ ’round the bend” meshed well with the sleekness of the structures we went clickety-clack by along the rivers. Widely separated in time and space from the era and the land that inspired these songs, there’s something timeless about the theme of traveling by train, whether in modern Japan or 20th century California.

A few stops down the line, I got off at Miyajimaguchi, or the gateway to Miyajima (宮島, “shrine island”), where I met up with Anna and Mark. I’ve known Anna since preschool and we taught sailing together in 2001 at the Inverness Yacht Club. I don’t think I’d seen her since then; just occasional photos on Facebook and updates from her mother who teaches art classes with my mom. Anna teaches science at a US Department of Defense school at the Navy base in Sasebo; Mark substitute teaches there and chaperones school trips to surrounding countries. They’d driven up from Sasebo, braving both typhoon and horrendous Japanese road tolls to visit the World Heritage site of Itsukushima (厳島, “solemn island”), more popularly known as Miyajima.

We boarded the ferry at Miyajimaguchi (which accepted my JR rail pass!) to a view of the famous orange-red shrine set against a wooded island.  Built for the first time in the 500s, the shrine buildings had been destroyed by typhoons numerous times but had been rebuilt.

As we pulled away from the dock and out into the bay, we saw oyster farms peeking out above the low tide waters.

We puttered closer to the shrine, the base of the torii legs almost visible through the water at low tide. The shrine itself is built on piers above the water, in a liminal state between the common and the sacred worlds.

We paused for photos, the sand visible through the clear waters. The clouds occasionally obscured the sun, but the intensely bright sunlight made it occasionally difficult to smile. (Since when was I taller than Anna?!) The towel around my neck is something I picked up in Shiga-ken as a way to deal with existence in such a humid environment.

The sacredness of Itsukushima is such that no one near the beginning or end of life should approach the island: no births or deaths are permitted on its shores. Thus, women about to give birth and the very ill are encouraged to return to the mainland, and Itsukushima lacks cemeteries or places to bury the dead. Fortunately, Anna’s not due until January, so we proceeded to explore the island and shrines.

This being a Japanese shrine, there were plentiful omiyage shops, tourists, and sacred deer.

Sacred and brazen, these ones were nipping at a man’s back.

Being accosted by deer
One deer was bribed to stand still for a family or tour group photo.  The kanji on the sign was a fun exercise in translation and Kotoba! use: the first four read 日本三景, or “The Three Views of Japan“.  Itsukushima, along with a sandbar and an archipelago of pine-covered islands, compose three scenic locations in Japan that have been noted for their natural beauty since the mid-1600s.  The next two kanji read 安芸, Aki (literally, “inexpensive craft”), a name of a former district that’s now part of Hiroshima Prefecture, 広島県 (“wide island prefecture”). The last two kanji are 宮島, “shrine island”. Together, they all translate to something like, “The Three Views of Japan: Shrine Island in the Aki District”. Finally, the bottom line of kanji gives the date.

Growing up in West Marin, Anna and I consider deer on the same level as seagulls: nuisances rather than creatures worthy of excitement. Despite our consideration of these mammals as nuisances, the Japanese adore their sacred, spotted creatures, and feed them accordingly. Pat points out that this makes the deer rather hungry, and that one chased him there during college.

Low tide was the perfect opportunity to walk along the muddy flats near the torii.

Some clever person at Google took a Street View camera out to the torii at low tide, allowing you to remotely explore the area surrounding the shrine from the comfort of your own browser.

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The avian population took advantage of the low water levels to evaluate various breakfast options.

We encountered a rare flightless bird endemic to metropolitan Japan, Tokyous highheelus, awkwardly navigating the ankle-deep muck disguised under a thick layer of seaweed. While the male of the species tends to be elusive in the field, the female is quite brazen in public settings and has no qualms about getting her feet wet to ford a stream, despite whatever consequences her footwear will face.

The shrine proper requires an entry fee to walk through the brightly painted buildings, but it was worth it to see more views of the torii over the water and tourists exploring the seaweed-rimmed channels.

When the network of buildings and walkways was constructed, the idea was to separate this incredibly holy place from the land; thus, the shrine structures are built on piers over the water so that they touch neither this world, but seem to be floating in a sacred space.

Guarding the shrine entrance were bronze lions with multiple curving tails.

One shrine contained offerings of sake.

The shrine buildings were simple, with few ornate details, with nothing more complicated than a lantern adorning the buildings’ exterior boardwalk.

An arched bridge connected the shrine to the island.

A small open room was for Noh theater performances to honor the gods.

Inside one of the shrine buildings we watched a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony. Was it okay to take photographs? A group of Japanese tourists were, so Anna and Mark followed suit. The bride was wearing a thick kimono, so stiff she required an assistant to help her stand up from her chair.

Passing out of the shrine buildings, we continued up a hill overlooking the small bay containing Itsukushima’s orange walls and low roofs. A hollow tree greeted us on the trail.

Continuing up the hill, we passed by an assortment of smaller shrines and pagodas overlooking the main Itsukushima buildings.

The torii and ferries.

Several buildings to the south were dedicated to horses.

We passed by an aquarium with a whimsical sculpture of dolphins and a swimming woman.

I was quite surprised to see a pomegranate tree along a pathway.

Itsukushima, in addition to being famous for its shrine, is also known for its Japanese maple leaves, momiji. An array of machines at omiyage stores robotically created taiyaki, pancakes filled with azuki, red bean paste.  Complex hoses and tubes splat batter into molds, while a robotic arm deposited frozen wafers of bean paste into the batter.  Another machine squeezed a second dollop of batter on top of the bean paste.  The mold would then close, baking a pair of momiji cakes.  At the end of the conveyor belt, another robotic arm would grab the baked cakes out of the molds, either a machine or human would sweep the mold clean, and the process would begin again.

For lunch, I had a local oysters on top of a bowl of rice. Anna and Mark tried a rice pilaf in an iron pot cooked on top of a blazing fire at the table.

My favorite piece of omiyage was a fantastic play on words.  In Japanese, です, pronounced “des”, is a copula used to express the existence of something, roughly equivalent to the English “is” or “are”.  “Ai” means love, and “azi” is a type of fish, so if you combine these with “desu” you can get an excellent couple of visual puns based on the Adidas logo: “Aides” and “Azides”, or “Love Exists” and “Fish Exist”.

Itsukushima is also the birthplace of the rice paddle, the design of which apparently appeared to a monk in a dream.  A multi-ton paddle commemorates Itsukushima’s role in spreading this simple tool to the rest of the country and beyond.

At higher tide, a boat carrying passengers approached the torii. In the old days, it used to be required that commoners would approach the shrine by paddling a boat through the center of the orange gate.

We returned via ferry to Miyajimaguchi and encountered the last seconds of a motorboat race by the parking lot.

Straddling the sacred and profane worlds, our visit to Itsukushima was a splendid outing.  Yay Miyajima!

Low tide torii

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