Thursday 16th August: Seeing Miyajima Anew Again

The tide is in at the Torii Gate, Miyajima.

Another summer in Hiroshima, another trip to Miyajima Island. Miyajima is just down the coast from where we live, an easy trundle down the old Hiroden tram line and a ten minute ferry ride across the water. I have been on this excursion numerous times, and I did it again on Thursday with the missus and daughter.

As a destination for a family outing there is much to be said for it; it is an easy trip, there is plenty for a four year old to look at, and at the end of the stroll past the shrine there is an aquarium.

On the stroll back to the ferry there is a variety of restaurants to choose from, mostly overpriced, but heck, Miyajima is a tourist hotspot so what do you expect?

By a stroke of good luck the tide happened to be in when we got to the old red torii gate, the symbolic entrance to the holy island. On almost every previous trip to Miyajima the tide had been out and people had been digging for clams on the mudflats beneath the gate. I began to doubt that the tide was ever in and came to suppose that all those photos of deep blue water lapping about the torii gate had been doctored for propaganda purposes. But lo! There, deep blue in hue, and lapping about the gate, and the palings of the shrine itself, was WATER!

We strolled past the steps that lead up to the five-storey pagoda. I must have photographed the pagoda a dozen times, but once more for the records will do no harm.

It was such a hot day that few seemed inclined to climb the steps that lead to the entrance of the pagoda and take a closer look.

We also declined to pay to go into the Itsukushima shrine complex and traipse through the wooden corridors.

It would have been cooler to walk along the covered ways of the shrine complex, but also more crowded.

So, instead, we followed the main path round the back of the shrine under the full glare of the sun.

It was here, out in the midday sun, that an Englishman met a mad dog… fortunately, it was a stone dog.

An afficionado of Japanese Shinto guardian spirits would doubtless pull me up and inform me that the stone statues that flank the entrances to shrines are not, in fact, dogs. I once made the unforgivable gaffe of referring to them as lions and was similarly corrected,

“No, my dear fellow, they are ‘shishi’.”

And what, my good sir, are “shishi”?

“‘Shishi’ meams Lion in Japanese.”

Aha! So they are lions, then, aren’t they?

“Oh no. You see, we Japanese also call them ‘koma-inu’. Now, ‘shisi’ is, as the honourable-foreigner knows well, is ‘lion’ in English. But ‘inu’ is ‘dog’ in English.”

Aha, so this mythical creature is some sort of combination of the two. It would not be a misrepresentation of the case to observe that your common or garden shishi is neither fish nor fowl.

Stone shishi are set up in pairs, flanking the entrance to a Shinto shrine (unless, of course, it is a Shinto shrine dedicated to agriculture, in which case the stone creatures are neither dogs nor lions nor fish nor fowl but foxes, but why that should be so is another story).

It will be noted that the creature I photographed is gaping at the camera. It is invariably the case that one of the creatures gapes and the other keeps its lips sealed. They represent, so it is said, the Alpha and Omega of Japanese script which begins with “ah” and ends with “-n”, the former requiring an open mouth and the latter requiring the trap to remain firmly shut.

Without further ado I bade the gaping stone creature farewell, passed on unmolested and arrived at the doorway of the shrine that I suppose those who worship stocks and stones would have us believe the statue was guarding.

The straw rope with paper lightning bolts depending from it in the photo above is called a Shimenawa and I am reliably informed that no evil can pass beyond a place where it is hung.

I passed by without going through the door and came up in short order to the missus and daughter who had come to a halt before the gateway to Daiganji temple that is located close to the east exit of the Itsukushima shrine complex.

No shishi guard this gate, you will note. Shisi are supposed to guard Shinto shrines. This fine gateway, being a temple gateway, is not guarded by shishi but by two fearsome looking wooden statues that lurk beneath its portals.

The guardians of a Buddhist temple gate are called Niou or “Benevolent Kings” although they don’t look particularly benevolent. Once again, one has his mouth agape and the other keeps his trap shut.

Just for the record, Daiganji Temple is dedicated to Benzaiten, the Goddess of eloquence, music, wisdom and wealth.

Beyond the temple, we strolled down some quiet back streets, declining to ascend the steps that lead up towards the heights of Mount Misen.

Flower pots had been attached to purple and yellow cloth and hung beneath the eaves of the houses.

The white banner outside this little cafe is advertising “kakiyaki”, or grilled oysters. Grilled oysters are one of the specialities of Miyajima. The sea around the island is dotted with bamboo oyster beds.

The other speciality of Miyajima is baked conger eel on rice. Personally, I much prefer conger eel on rice to oysters.

I suppose I ought also to mention the sickly-sweet momiji manju, or sweet bean sponge cakes. They are made in maple-leaf shaped moulds and the baking machines that churn them out can be seen in action through the windows of the souvenir shops.

“Momiji” = maple leaf. I suppose the cakes are intended to celebrate the maple trees of Miyajima, particularly in the autumn when their leaves turn red.

Since we were on the street that leads to the aquarium it seems appropriate that the residents had hung up some origami (actually, ori-plastic) fish outside their windows.

Left: A decorative corbel on a house not far from the aquarium.

We arrived at our destination, a nicely air-conditioned aquarium, and spent a couple of hours chilling out – quite literally.

David Hurley