Japan is home to thousands of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Many of this places have their own ceremonies and festivals. At the Daishoin temple at the island of Miyajima twice a year you can witness the fire walking festival.
Miyajima is a beautiful and must visit island in front of the coast of Hiroshima. A short train ride from this city, well known for being the target for the first atomic bomb ever used, brings you to the station of Miyajimaguchi. There it’s just a short walk to the ferry that brings you to the island in just about 10 minutes. On the boat you will see the banks where the famous oysters of Miyajima are being harvested and which you of course also can taste when on the island. Also from the boat, at the right side, you will see the majestic torii standing in the water. At least it will be standing in the water if it’s high tide when you arrive. This torii probably is the most famous torii of all Japan and photographs of it are used on uncountable brochures and other promotional materials. A torii is part of the traditional Shinto religion of Japan and marks the entrance to a religious and spiritual world.
Behind the torii and its temple you see a beautiful pagoda on a hill just towering above town. The pagoda can be seen as a treasure room for religious artifacts. After arriving at the pier most people directly head for the torii. And in fact, when it is high tide you just should do the same thing, because it will be the best time to make your first class shot of it. When it is low tide you will be able to walk all the way up to the torii. While standing underneath this holy gate you will experience the true massiveness of it.
One of the other must see places of the island is the Daishoin temple which you will reach by just passing the tori and the temple and following the signs there. This is one of the most impressive temples of the island. And this temple also is the home to the fire walking festival held here twice a year. Every year at the 15th of April and the 15th of November at 11:00 in the morning the festival starts reaching it’s high at 13:00.
The fire walking ceremony is held by the Shingon monks from the Daishoin temple. The official Japanese name for this ceremony is Hiwatari Shinji. The ceremony is held to obtest the wish granting powers of Acala, recognizable by his long straight sword in his right hand and a lariat, also called a salvation rope, in his lift. He has a very expressive, angry looking face and the teeth of the lower jaw are biting his upper lip. He sits down on a rock and behind him are flames which are supposed to be purple, resembling the robes of the Shingon monks leader. In Buddhism Acala belongs to the kings of wisdom. Although Acala looks fierce and the way he looks would make you confess he is merciful and will help out people who suffer. Down below some different statues representing Acala.
Though the ceremony begins at 11:00 in the morning the first two hours aren’t really of any interest for spectators. The priest move from one place to another in the temple and doing their purifying rituals and sutras. Meanwhile some of the monks blow there conch shells. Then eventually at 13:00 the ceremony goes outside to the central plaza. At the center of the altar area is wood piled in a square shape and covered with cedar branches. The leader, dressed in a purple robe will cut the cord before entering this area. Then he and the other monks will enter at the plaza also accompanied by the sound of the conch shells.
At the altar are many attributes that are used by the monks for religious rituals. At each corner of the altar area a monk will throw salt and meanwhile other monks are swinging swords. Then there will be some large axes swung symbolically at the wood. And finally one of the monks will shoot 6 arrows into the air and one at the wood stack. Then the head monk, dressed in purple, will read a scroll that give the blessings to all people.
After this the fire will get started. The branches of cedar first will produce a tremendous smoke while the monks start running around with a beaded rope until the fire is burning fiercely. Then it is time to burn all the wishes written down by all the visitors to the Daishoin temple in the last couple of months. Visitors to the temple can buy a wooden board, price varies in the size of the board, to write down their wishes. By burning these wooden boards they are offered to Acala so he can grant the wishes.
After all the boards are burned the big wooden logs that are burning are taken out of the fire and the only thing that is left are the coals that will be spread out by the monks. The sides will be covered by fresh cedar branches. Then the lead monk will give his blessing to the fire and he will be passing bare feet over the hot coals followed by the other monks. After this all spectators are invited to pass over the coals as well. The line of people wanting to pass over the coals is long as a few hundreds of people want to participate in the ritual. While people walk over the coals the mons chant out sutras. These sutras are meant for the blessing for health, luck and good fortune.
To witness the ceremony and to have a good spot you have to be there on time. Though the ceremony itself starts at 11:00 the most interesting part only starts at 13:00. So arrive close after 12:00 and pick a good spot. Beware that if you are standing up front the temperatures of the fire will can get hot and you might get some burnings from the ashes on your skin and clothes.
The real name of Miyajima is Itsukushima. The name of Miyajima in fact means the island of the shrines. A popular name that now is the most used. The island of Miyajima is together with Mount Fuji and Koyasan one of the most religious places of the country of Japan. The reason for this is that the monk Kobo Daishi in the year 806 created a spot on the island for the Shingon sect. Kobo Daishi, born as Kukai was the monk who brought Shingon Buddhism into Japan and is for this reason seen as the most important person in Buddhist history in Japan. It is in Koyasan where the remains of Kobo Daishi are kept. Though due beliefs he never died but went in an eternal meditation.
First it was prohibited to live on the island. But during the Kamakura period what was from 1185 to 1333 monks established on the island. Woman totally weren’t allowed to be on the island. Then a small village started to appear on the island which had the name Istukushima-cho what later changed into Miyajima-cho. During the 19th century more woman came to live on the island as well. Though there were strict rules. This was because of the fear of defiling the island with blood and death. For woman it was prohibit to be out while having their period. It was forbidden to give birth on the island. So when getting close to the date of birth they had to leave the island and stay of for a period of at least 100 days before they could return.
Another interesting fact is that it was forbidden to die on the island. So elderly people had to leave the island. People that in fact did die on the island where deported as quick as possible to Miyajimaguchi. Also when someone died it was forbidden to mourn. Mourning had to be done on the mainland. Just when all mourning was done someone could return to the island. Many of these customs where kept alive until around the 1940’s.
Now-a-days Miyajima is a very popular tourist destination with thousands of people visiting the island every single day.
Animals of Miyajima
Almost directly when leaving the ferry and walking towards the torii you will be welcomed by the local inhabitants of Miyajima. The curious deer’s. Well… maybe it is better to replace curious with always hungry because many of them will come to you to see if you have anything edible with you. And in fact they even consider the maps of the island that you can get for free at the tourist information as a delicacy and take it right out of your hands to eat it.
Though it is forbidden to feed the animals and also to pet them. The rules of the island says that the animals should be left in peace and not be fed. Also the males can hurt you pretty bad with their antlers so just enjoy them from a distance.
The deer’s can be found at the whole island. Even at the top of Mount Misen. Overthere it is possible to encounter other animals that can be very curious and attracted to your food. Japanese macaque. These monkey most of the times just leave you alone. Though don’t show them you have food with you or their laziness can disappear quickly.
What else to do at Miyajima
On the island there is an mountain called Mount Misen. So besides bringing a visit to the temples you could consider going up. The mountain has an altitude of 530 meters and can be hiked up by two routes. One route goes up on the left side and is more easy then the walk up at the right side. But sides you have to climb many stairs up. But the route at the right side is more steep and more difficult to walk. Both hikes are beautiful. You can choose to go up by one and get down with the other.
Or… if you want to go up Mount Misen but spare the climb you can choose to go up by ropeway. Walk back from up or take a two way ticket for the ropeway. But the view definitely is worth to go up the mountain. At the top there is a viewing point that gives you a 360 degrees view of the area. From the end of the ropeway to the viewing point is about 20 minutes walking and relatively easy. The ropeway will close at 5:30 pm.
The ropeway to go up the mountain can be found in Momijidani park. A beautiful park by itself that is worth to give some time. Just follow the signs to the park and the signs to the rope-way. The time to get there depends if you walk or run a little.
Japanese love aquariums. Also on the island of Miyajima an aquarium can be found. Though not as good as the famous aquarium from Osaka it still is a nice spot with an interesting diversity of animals. And surely a good spot when you are out of luck and visit the island on a rainy day.
What to eat
In the main street you can find many little restaurants and shops where you can get many kinds of food and snacks. The most popular on the island is the oyster. At many places you will see the fresh oysters being prepared on the grill. Availability of this delicacy will be depending on the season.
At several places you will see a machine producing a kind of cake. This cake is called Momiji manju. The cakes have a shape of the leave of a maple tree. They are filled with several kinds of flavors like chocolate, cheese, caramel. Though the most traditional one is with sweet beans. A must try if you are there. But the tradition of Momiji manju can be taken even a little further. On the island they also sell the Age momiji. This actually is nothing else than a fried version of the Momiji manju cake that has a interesting crispy skin.
Then on the way to Momijidani park there is a shop that sells warm bread with icecream in vanilla or great tea flavor. Also an interesting thing to taste. And of course when you get thirsty, why not try the local breweries pride, Miyajima beer. Easy recognizable by the beer cans with an imprint of a deer on it.
While walking through the shopping street you also will run into quite a big spoon. It actually is world’s biggest wooden rice spoon.
How to get to Miyajima
The island of Miyajima is easily reachable by train and ferry. From the central station of Hiroshima you take the train to Miyajimaguchi leaving like around every 20 minutes. When you get at Miyajimaguchi you just walk to the ferry terminal. There are two ferries going to Miyajima. They both are located next to each other. If you have the JR Rail-pass you just take the JR ferry because you can use the rail-pass also for this ferry. The ferry will take only about 10 minutes to cross the small strait.
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