Sunday, August 10, 2008

Itsukushima Shinto shrine

Miyajima is a mountainous island in Hiroshima Bay on Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, separated from the mainland by the 550-yard-wide (500-meter) Onoseto Strait. It has long been a sacred site of Shintoism, and renowned for the Itsukushima shrine, built on piles over the water and dedicated to three sea goddesses, Ichikishima-Hime-no-Mikoto, Tagori -Hime, and Tagitsu-Hime. The entire precinct comprises an inner shrine of thirty-seven axially disposed buildings and an outer shrine of nineteen more. The inner sanctuary, the intermediate sanctuary, the hall of worship, the spectacular O-Torii (Grand Gate), several secondary temples, and drama and dance stages are linked by wide covered corridors and galleries known as Kairo. All the timber is finished with vermilion lacquer. The Japanese government has named six of the buildings as National Treasures; the rest have been recognized as Important Cultural Assets. The shrine was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996, and it has been described as one of the great accomplishments of the Shinden-zukuri architectural style of the Heian period (a.d. 794–1184). With a backdrop of mountains and built on tidal land that at high tide gives it the appearance of serenely floating on the sea, the Itsukushima shrine is a magnificent achievement of harmonizing architecture and nature.
Itsukushima is thought to have been first constructed by Saeki Kuramoto in a.d. 593, but the earliest historical record dates from 881. It was enlarged in 1168, when Taira-no-Kiyomori was governor of Aki Province, and the Taira clan began to worship there. Fire caused damage early in the thirteenth century, and it is likely that the consecutive restorations included changes to the organization of the buildings. The shrine for the Guest Deity (Sessha Marodo-jinja) was constructed in 1241. The buildings were again restored after being damaged by a typhoon in 1325, since which time the layout has been little changed. By the late twelfth century, the influence of Itsukushima was waning, and by the mid-fourteenth century the buildings had fallen into disrepair. After the warlord Mori Motonari gained control of Hiroshima in 1555, the shrine was restored to its former glory. He commissioned many of the present buildings, including the main sanctuary, in 1571, remaining faithful to the Heian style. Although there are slight stylistic variations in the details—inevitable over so many centuries—the overall architecture of the Itsukushima shrine is remarkably homogeneous.

The approach from the east by boat first encounters the 52-foot-tall (16-meter), vermilion-colored O-Torii, standing in the sea some 220 yards (200 meters) in front of the hall of worship and built on its axis. The eighth since the Heian period, it dates from 1874 to 1875. The great weight of its massive camphor-wood pillars, approximately 44 feet (13.4 meters) tall, together with the 76-foot-long (23.3-meter) hollow cross piece, filled with stones, allows the O-Torii to stand upon the seafloor without being embedded in it.

The main sanctuary (Honden), measuring about 78 by 38 feet (23.8 by 11.6 meters) is crowned with a decorative tile and cypress-bark roof. An offering hall (heiden), a hall of worship (haiden), and a purification hall (haraiden) are linked by covered corridors. The main shrine (Honsha) has three parts: the inner sanctuary of the goddesses, the sanctuary for the priests, and a space for worshippers. It is faced with turquoise-lacquered folding doors. In front of it is the Broad Stage (Hirabutai), used during the annual midsummer musical festival, Kangensai; it has a long, narrow pier extending to the Front Lantern (Hitasaki), used for the departure and arrival of the sea goddess during those celebrations. The High Stage (Takabutai), standing at the center of the Broad Stage, is used for the performances of sacred shrine music and dancing known as Bugaku. The Noh Drama Stage (Noh Butai) stands at the end of the structure, and its floor is ingeniously constructed as a sounding board to improve acoustics. Some of tire flooring planks are 5 feet wide and 35 feet long (1.5 by 10 meters); they were transported from northern Japan. Their spacing is calculated so that the platforms resist the pressure of high seas. Maintenance of the shrine is continuous because of its exposure to wind and saltwater, and the piles supporting it need to be frequently replaced.

The Itsukushima shrine has graced the island of Miyajima with its elegant presence for 800 years. Its designers and builders, possessors of a grand vision and a deep understanding of the relationship between architecture and nature, remain unknown and unsung.

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