Question: Where in the world was a shrine made to “float” on the sea to keep visitors from treading on the back of a god?
Answer: Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima, Japan
If you’re going to build a complex for a deity (or four), the last thing you want to do is disrespect the honoree. At Miyajima Island in Japan, the first iteration of Itsukushima Shrine was created in 593 with a complicated balance in mind: it needed to be a place where pilgrims could pay homage to the Shinto goddesses of storms (Ichikishimahime no mikoto, Tagorihime no mikoto, and Tagitsuhime no mikoto) but the island itself was a god. The interior peaks of Mount Misen were sacred, so not just anyone was allowed up its slopes. The solution: put the entry gate (the torii) in the sea, literally keeping people at bay.
The “floating” torii is, of course, an illusion. The pilings sink deep into the sand beneath the waves, so the gate seemingly bobs on the surface. As the shrine expanded in the eighth and 12th centuries, one thing remained consistent: all visitors had to approach through the torii, landing their boats on the shore, and limiting their excursions to the 19 structures of the complex. Even then, not just anyone was welcome: you had to be of noble birth or a religious figure. Beyond that, no one pregnant or terminally ill was allowed to pass through the torii and set foot on the island at all. (This is somewhat ironic as the gate became associated with the Buddhist notion of crossing over to the afterworld by boat.)
Today, commoners and those with no religious affiliation are equally welcome to explore the complex, and you’re even welcome to hike up the sacred mountain. One of the most-visited sites in Japan, the shrine is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the triple-peak main building was the first on the site to be declared a National Treasure. (See the others below.) But some limits still apply: Pregnant women are asked to leave the island if they are close to their due date, as are the very ill. Though it might seem unfair, it’s the shrine’s way of preserving a 1,400-year-old claim: no births or deaths have ever compromised its spiritual purity.
9 More National Treasures of Japan at Itsukushima
- Punctuated by 108 bays (known as ma) the East Corridor links the shrine’s entrance with its purification hall, with nail-free flooring designed to allow for shifts in the tide and to keep the corridor from being moved by waves.
- Around 600 feet long, the West Corridor is known for the expensive floorboards and gabled Chinese arch installed by famed warlord Mori Motonari in 1556.
- The great stand-alone Purification Hall was the scene of court dances, which wore the floor to a smooth sheen, and, since the Meiji era, the host of an annual event where prognosticators gather to forecast the market conditions for the year ahead.
- A smaller purification hall, the Haraiden, was the first stop for guests wanting to cleanse their souls before offering prayer in the Marodo Shrine, the second-biggest shrine on the island, distinguished by its face being open to the sea.
- Bugaku dances were popular court entertainment in the 1400s and took place on the elevated Taka-Butai stage, which was originally a temporary structure made permanent in the Edo era (which favored traditional dance over kabuki).
- In front of the main shrine, the hira-butai was an open-air stage used for Buddhist senbo-kuyo ceremonies; it is perched on stone pilings instead of wood, in order to hold the weight of the many performers and participants.
- The Sagaku-bo and Ugaku-bo dance halls were both declared national treasures. Sagaku-bo was used for Sa-n-mai, an Indian-derived dance from the Tang dynasty; Ugaku-bo was used for U-no-mai, a Chinese and Korean dance.
- The simple Naishi-bashi was an interior bridge (its lines and coloring reminiscent of the torii) that was used for centuries only by court women (naishi) bringing food to the gods for whom the shrine was first built.