Itsukushima Shrine is a Shinto shrine on the island of the same name, also known as Miyajima, located in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan. Traditionally founded in the 6th century CE, the present layout of buildings dates to the 12th century CE. With its iconic torii gate, buildings on stilts standing over the sea, and soaring five-story pagoda, the shrine is one of the most easily recognisable of Japan’s many ancient shrines. Itsukushima Shrine is an official National Treasure of Japan and has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage.
The Itsukushima Shrine is picturesquely located on an inlet of the island of Miyajima (also known as Itsukushima), hence the shrine’s other name of Aki no Miayajima. The island is located in the Hiroshima Bay of the Inland Sea in the Hiroshima Prefecture of southern Japan, considered sacred since antiquity, and a simple Shinto shrine was likely built there by local fisherman. Then, a more sophisticated complex was built on the island in 593 CE (traditional date but perhaps actually in 811 CE) and credited to one Saeki Kuramoto. It was first dedicated to the three daughters of Susanoo, the Shinto storm. The trio’s full names are Ichikishimahime no mikoto, Tagorihime no mikoto, and Tagitsuhime no mikoto.
In the Kamakura Period, the temple also began to honour Benzaiten (aka Benten), one of the Seven Lucky (Shichifukujin) of Japanese folklore. Benzaiten, of origin, is associated with love, fertility, reasoning, literature, music and, of course, good fortune. Here at Itsukushima, she was particularly appealed to for protection by sea travellers and general business success.
All of these being worshipped in the same place have given, Itsukushima, which derives from kami itsuki matsuru shima or ‘island dedicated.’ To maintain the island’s purity, no births, were permitted to take place there, a policy which still, at least in theory.
The shrine complex is made up of 56 wooden structures which are all built on pillars and so stand above the water. Many of the buildings are connected by walkways and corridors. This unusual positioning over water dates to 1168 CE and is credited to Taira no Kiyomori, a warlord who considered his victories on the battlefield were due to the support of benevolent or kami present on Miyajima. The general and former imperial advisor had already given a celebrated 33-scroll set of illustrated or texts, the Heike Nokyo, before he embarked on his rebuilding project. Itsukushima was then made the head shrine of the powerful Taira clan.
The shrine architecture is a mix and Shinto styles. The buildings, all oriented in line with the torii gate in front and the sacred Mount Misen behind, are largely in the shinden-zukuri style, the palace architectural style of the Heian period with lots of long wooden corridors connecting spacious rooms with wide views onto the sea. Some of these walkways have gaps to allow the sea through when the tide rises. There are, though, from Shinto architecture such as the red columns. A feature of the imperial-style architecture is the shingle roofs made from cypress bark instead of glazed tiles.
The complex is dominated by a five-story pagoda which was dedicated to Yakushi, The largest building in the area is the Senjokaku assembly hall, built in the 16th century CE by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the celebrated general and statesman. The building’s name in Japanese signifies that it measures 1,000 mats (the traditional method of floor space measurement in Japan), although it is really a little less at 857 mats, with one mat being about 18 square feet. It was built for congregations of monks to chant their way through sutras, but today it is used as a shrine to its founder. The other 15 buildings at the site contain shrines, sub-shrines, and three separate platforms for staging ceremonies, dances, and one for Noh theatre, the only such stage in Japan to be above water. Other structures of interest include a smaller second pagoda, the Soribashi arched bridge and the large front lantern, the Hitsaki.