Horyuji & Itsukushima Miyajima

Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Temple Area and Itsukushima Shinto Shrine

Mark Brazil

Japan's sixteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites (WHS) are divided unequally into Cultural and Natural WHS, with four designated as Natural and twelve as Cultural.

Since signing up to the UNESCO convention on 30 June 1992, Japan has proposed, and had accepted as WHS, five sites that relate directly to the country's religious/cultural background focussing on Buddhism and home-grown Shintoism and bear testimony to that in their titles: Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area (1993), Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (1996), Shrines and Temples of Nikko (1999), Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004), Hiraizumi - Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land (2011).

However, two more, although also covering traditional Japanese architecture and arts, include primarily Buddhist structures, these are Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (1994), and Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (1998). Their addition brings the total, in this general category related to religion, to seven. Although, the casual visitor may not experience Japanese people as being particularly religious in their lifestyles, the number of religious WHS serves to indicate the significance of Buddhism and Shintoism in the past.

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, Miyajima, Hiroshima
At high tide, the waters of the Seto Inland Sea flood beneath the low-roofed buildings of Itsukushima and leave the great Torii standing deep in water.

The remaining five sites are broadly historical in nature, and include historic monuments, castles, villages, farmland, a peace memorial, and silver mine.

When contemplating a visit to Japan, few visitors will miss out entirely on the country's WHS. Perhaps most will skip its far-flung Natural sites in Hokkaido, northern Honshu, Yakushima, and the Ogasawara Islands based simply on the distances involved and the time required to reach them.

Few though will entirely miss the prime quartet of Nikko, Kyoto, Nara and Miya-jima, and many will take in visits to all four areas, including their respective WHS. There are great attractions beyond that prime quartet, but they are a good place to begin a tour of Japan's cultural heritage. In addition to those four, the city of Kamakura, so far overlooked in the listings, surely warrants a visit, as perhaps does the historical merchants' quarter of Kurashiki.

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, Hiroshima.
The great Torii of Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, Hiroshima.

Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area (1993)

In Nara Prefecture, the Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area WHS encompasses not only the earliest Buddhist monuments in Japan, dating back to the late 7th or early 8th century, but also some of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world.

Buddhism's journey to Japan during the middle of the 6th century AD, following its transformation in China, was by way of the Korean Peninsula. This site was constructed during the period immediately after the arrival of Buddhism into Japan, and the architecture of the site, along with its works of art, illustrates so well how Chinese Buddhist architecture became incorporated into Japanese culture, creating a distinctive indigenous synthesis.

The religious significance of Horyu-ji began with its founding in the 7th century, and despite it being largely destroyed by fire in 670 AD, reconstruction began again soon afterwards. This, after all was the temple considered to guard and protect the Japanese Empire.

Horyu-ji's significance attracted considerable numbers of pilgrims and hence it was immaculately maintained and conserved for centuries. However, one consequence of the Meiji Restoration in 1868 was that Shintoism received greater recognition and with its ascendancy, Buddhist sites, such as Horyu-ji, fell into decline for some time.

By astonishing good fortune a new and pioneering law of 1897 (Law for the Preservation of Ancient Shrines and Temples) brought it back centre stage for recognition and major restoration. The temples, monasteries, pagodas and other buildings of the current WHS were first recognized to be of exceptional national value and many of them were designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Of the WHS 48 buildings, no fewer than 28 date back to the 8th century, making a stroll through this complex of structures truly a walk down memory lane.

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine.
Seen from the water the low structures of the shrine are graceful and appear to float on the water.

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (1996)

The island of Miya-jima, in Hiroshima Prefecture, also goes by the name Itsukushima, and it is the Shinto shrine of that name that is the focus of this site. In terms of its inspiring location, on the shore of the Seto Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku, its dramatic construction out over the inter-tidal zone of Itsukushima so that at high tide it appears to be floating, and its historical and cultural significance as an ancient centre of Shintoism, Itsukushima Shinto Shrine not surprisingly ranks in Japan's top three scenic sites.

Sublime is not too strong an epithet to apply to this gorgeously harmonious structure, which dates back to the 12th century and combines superbly elements of the natural beauty of its dramatic surroundings and human artistic ingenuity in a quintessentially Japanese format. In this ancient and inspiring Shinto holy place, the first shrine was constructed in the 6th century, and the backdrop of mountains with their seasonally colourful forests and the foreground of the Inland Sea provide the site with an extended view upwards and outwards. It is ideally suited for the human reverence of the natural world.

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture.
Backed by mountains, Itsukushima Shinto Shrine is a sublime example of religious architecture.
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine.
Ancient traditions are maintained at the shrine, here in the style of the old Chinese court, a dancer performs on an a waterside dais.

Today, Itsukushima ranks as one of the busiest sightseeing spots in Japan, yet despite the crowds of visitors it still, somehow, retains aspects of solemnity, serenity and scenic beauty. Approaching from the water one sees the enormous vermillion Torii gate standing in water with, beyond it a projecting ceremonial platform and low structure.

Beyond that, and parallel to the shoreline, are the elegant, low vermillion main buildings, the worship hall and the Hei Hall, and finally beyond them all one sees the dark-green summer foliage of the mountains. The composition of form, and the contrasts of colour emphasize the mountains beyond (including Mt Misen), which themselves are the true attention of this form of nature worship.

Mt Misen is, at 530m, the highest mountain in the region and has been a sacred Shinto site since before records began, and in the tradition of sacred awe, devotees, with the exception of shamanistic-style priests, were not allowed to set foot on the mountain; it was worshipped from afar, from the foot of the mountain, beside the sea.

Water and Fire are the twin threats to Japan's ancient monuments, and in its location beside the Inland Sea the site has repeatedly suffered damage by wind and tidal flooding, and has been destroyed by fire too on several occasions. After each inundation or conflagration, the shrine was restored; it rose repeatedly like a phoenix from the ashes of the previous incarnation. The shrine buildings surviving to this day mostly date back to the reconstruction of 1241, and are revered not only for their religious significance but as providing one of the most beautiful and inspiring views in Japan.

Miyajima, Hiroshima.
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine Ritual; The dragon-topped mask of the dancer.

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Text + images by Mark Brazil


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