THE SACRED ISLAND OF MIYAJIMA



The ferry that leaves from a little port thirty minutes north of Hiroshima, Japan transports passengers to another dimension where the city’s memorials to the holocaust caused by the Atomic Bomb are left behind in spirit if not in physical distance. A first glimpse of what awaited us on Miyajima Island came in the form of origami paper cranes, symbolizing peace and memorializing the end of World War II. They were gracefully given out by smiling and bowing students at the ferry dock. We accepted the gifts with what was no doubt an ungraceful bow as we embarked on the short ride to a place where there are no births or deaths, no felling of trees, and tame deer – messengers from the gods – wander at will.


This vision of Shangri-La is home to the Itsukushima Shrine, dedicated to the three daughters of the god of sea and storms. Founded in AD 593, the current buildings date from the 16th century based on a 12th century design. The shrine’s most famous landmark, the great torii gate, appeared to float upon the hazy Inland Sea, a fitting mystical marker where the divine begins and mundane daily life ends.

My husband and I disembarked for a leisurely stroll to the shrine, ready to dissolve ourselves in the aura of peace and harmony the buildings generate despite the presence of other visitors sharing the experience. We walked along the waterside on a path lined with stone lanterns representing 108 earthly cares, passed through a granite torii gate firmly rooted to the land, rinsed our hands at the stone trough and entered an alternative universe. The brilliant vermillion lacquer of the buildings and passageways, matching that of the floating gate, was reflected in the blue sea. A sense of serenity enveloped us.   

In one pavilion a white-robed priest was conducting a ceremony while an elderly couple kneeled on a tatami mat. We wondered if the ritual was to memorialize an ancestor, Shinto shrines often being used for that purpose rather than Buddhist temples. Shinto is Japan’s oldest religion, in existence since time immemorial. Deities, called kami, preside over all the things, living, dead or inanimate. Their shrines, large and small, dot Japan.

As the tide slowly ebbed, the shrine’s feet were no longer in the water and the earthly concern of time passing returned. With never enough of it to experience everything, we reluctantly left the sacred precinct to see the ornate 9th Century Daisho-in Buddhist Temple set in a wooded area beyond the shrine before admiring the Goju-no-to five-story pagoda built in 1407. It is enticingly set in the modern village filled with shops, inns and restaurants a contrast to the otherworldly feelings generated by the temple.

We wandered along the narrow street to look at souvenirs like the typical remembrance Japanese visitors purchase – rice scoops of all sizes. Of course, Hello Kitty in every guise was waiting too. Better was the chance to sample the island’s specialty food, momiji,bite-sized cakes in the shape of a maple leaf and flavored with various unexpected ingredients such as eel. But the most attractive of delights tempting us were the tiny stalls selling grilled oysters fresh from the surrounding sea. Delicious!


For those lucky to have time enough to stay on the island, there are backpacker hostels and hotels including romantic and expensive ryokan. The prospect of staying to walk the trails or meditate by a stone lantern in a soft rain overlooking a mist-soaked sea made us add a return to the island to our never-fulfilled list of places we wanted experience for the first, second, or third time.


An overnight stay was not to be this trip. Body and soul temporarily nourished, we returned to the ferry landing to await the next boat back to reality. Two young women looked up from their bento box afternoon snack to smile and make the typical Japanese peace sign. The deer wandered over, not delivering messages from the gods, but to munch on any paper they could find including ferry tickets for the unwary (maybe used to take messages from us back to the gods).


A sleepy child accompanied us back to Hiroshima and reality.

All photos property of Judith Works

An earlier version of this story appeared in Travel Belles, www.travelbelles.com, http://www.travelbelles.com/2013/05/japan-island-miyajima/

    
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SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN NAHA

 

The kid was twanging what looked like a three-stringed banjo covered with snake skin. Behind him the windows of the music store were filled with taiko drums of various sizes. Definitely not Bluegrass Country or Bourbon Street even though the music had some similar sounds. Instead, it was Kokusai-dori on a Sunday afternoon in Naha, Okinawa, capital of the southernmost of Japan’s prefectures, the Ryukyu archipelago. The “banjo” is actually a sanshin and the music is called shima uta, an Okinawan roots-style now popular throughout Asia and on Youtube. Restaurants and bars advertised live music – tempting but first I wanted to look at Okinawan crafts and foods.  

 

Sunday is definitely not a day of rest in Naha. The main shopping street in the city center, turned into a mile-long pedestrian zone for the day, was hopping with shoppers from Taiwan, China, or from more northerly parts of Japan seeking a sub-tropical holiday.

 

The street was lined with fast food restaurants, liquor stores, ATMs, cheap jewelry and clothing; the usual commercial items found in other Japanese cities, although with a more warm-weather aspect in light of the climate that is more like Hawaii or Southern California.

 

My goal was off the main street: the Heiwa-dori Shopping Arcade and Makishi Public Market founded by war widows after the hideous Battle of Okinawa where after 82 days 13,000 American soldiers and 250,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the carnage.

 

The arcade was filled with shops, each one worthy of a long look: beautifully packaged tropical fruit, designer home styles, and clothing made from the wonderful textile designs unique to the island – rather like Hawaiian but with smaller repetitive patterns.

 
 

Should I buy some of the strong Awamori liquor made with long-grain rice and a black mold? Or have my palm read – it was cheap, only 300 yen? But I was too doubtful about the drink and can’t understand Japanese so I passed into the food market, a cornucopia of unfamiliar seafood and produce (except for the stacks of SPAM labeled in Japanese).

 

 

The fish displays looked like rainbows as they rested on ice near prawns ready for Sunday dinner. Different than the steel-gray fish from my familiar cold North Pacific waters, they were so beautiful they belonged in an aquarium rather than a pot on the stove or on a grill. Large tanks held bright-red lobster and crab; prawns rested on ice near the fish; containers of small dried fish along with other pickled and dried unknown items filled several stalls.  The meat counters were showing various cuts of pork, the most common meat eaten on the island. One whole shop was devoted to what looked like hard brown bananas. When I asked what they were the vendor held one up and grated flakes into a bowl. She said they were flakes of bonito tuna compressed into a size and shape easy to hold when preparing them as seasoning for a bowl of noodles and broth.

 

The produce section was full of bitter melon, cabbage, taro, onions, sweet potatoes, tofu, noodles, and dried seaweed along with pineapple, papayas, mangoes, passion fruit, guavas and citrus all waiting to become the local cuisine – a mix of Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian in keeping with Okinawa’s history of a cultural crossroads.

 

By this time it was clear that all this food made me hungry. It was time for a Sunday feast. Now where was that restaurant with the music? The one with Orion beer, bowls of soba noodles and champuru – bitter gourd stir-fried with pork and egg. Yes!

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AN AUSPICIOUS DAY: A Shinto Wedding in Osaka




When I heard that it was an auspicious day for baptisms and weddings it seemed a good time to head for Osaka’s Sumiyoshi Taisha Shinto shrine despite the grey clouds and spring showers. The shrine, which contains a temple designated as one of Japan’s national treasures, is dedicated to various interesting and helpful deities, called kami, who ensure safe travel, good fortune in marriage, safe childbirth, business prosperity, family welfare, military valor and beauty. Because of its association with marriage and family it is an especially favored spot for traditional weddings. 

 
 
 
 

To enter the complex the visitor or worshipper passes by stone lanterns, through a tori gate marking the boundary between the everyday world and the infinite, and crosses the steep vermilion-painted Taiko-bashi bridge arching over a pond. The first stop is at the temizuya to wash hands and face for purification using a bamboo dipper for water collected in a basin supplied by a stone rabbit. Just outside the second tori gate ancient cypress trees are hung with shimenwa,ropes made of rice straw decorated with white paper streamers marking sacred areas.

 I strolled the gravel-paved grounds peering into various shrines; inspected the colorful sake barrels donated to the temple for ceremonial use; watched youngsters practicing  drumming for an upcoming festival;  looked for pebbles within a fenced area to see if I could found one marked with “five,” “big,” or “power” for personal charms (I didn’t); and made a quick prayer to the symbols of business fortune – a row of cats.

 
The ancient couple guarding them pantomimed the correct prayer posture: Proceed to the altar, stand straight; bow deeply twice; put palms together; clap hands twice; pray for my wish to come true; lower hands and bow once more. (No results yet I’m sorry to say).
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Finished praying and making my donation I continued to walk among the small orange and vermilion shrines until I came to a temple where a group of women were standing in front of the open entrance watching a wedding. Many of the onlookers wore kimonos and held traditional umbrellas to ward off the intermittent showers. I joined the group.
 









I could hear the sound of a drum and flutes playing what sounded to me mournful and tuneless music while two priestesses with headresses of pine and what looked like cranes moved in a slow ritual dance accompanied by  musicians in green robes. The white-robed, black-hatted priest intoned words of a marriage rite. The bride and groom had their backs to us of course but through an open side door I could see a few family members sitting on the benches on each side watching the formalities. 
 

After the union was solemnized in what seemed to be a stately and timeless ceremony the couple and their family moved to the courtyard for photos and congratulations. The beautiful bride was swathed in a white satin kimono with a hood while the groom wore a tuxedo. Two of the other men were elegant in formal samurai dress complete with fans. It was a picturesque combination of ancient and modern.

 


I joined with the well-wishers to hope that it was indeed an auspicious day for the couple as it had been when I, too, was married at a spring ceremony in another time and place.     

Photos by author with the exception of the tori gate which is from Wikipedia Commons 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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The Samurai Legacy of Chiran

We were enveloped in a soft silky rain as if we were in a Japanese watercolor. The moisture lent a dull sheen to the blue tile roofs and the stone lanterns along the roadside leading to the Peace Museum.

We were out for a day in Chiran, about an hour away from Kagoshima a city located on a narrow bay of the same name on Japan’s southernmost major island, Kyushu. The countryside with small towns and farms was peaceful but our first stop, the interestingly named Peace Museum, was a shock. It was dedicated to peace in the form of a lesson about the period during World War II when the Japanese kamikaze planes relentlessly attacked American ships near Okinawa in a futile effort to stop the US advance into the Japanese Homeland.

The entrance path led us past restored war planes and a large bronze bell to be rung when making prayers for peace.

The museum was crowded with Japanese of all ages. We, a small group of Americans, were hosted by a historian who gave a background lecture and then led us around the display cases while describing the uniforms and the faded letters the pilots wrote to their mothers and sweethearts before they climbed into the cockpits of planes so small that they could only carry a bomb under one wing and a fuel tank under the other. The walls were lined with photos of these handsome young men who flew the planes knowing full well that they would never come home because even if they weren’t shot down they only had enough fuel for a one-way trip. Echoing through the hall was the sound of battle: a video showing an endless loop of planes diving into US ships, horrific explosions, and the planes that didn’t crash into ships in nose dives as they plumetted into the sea. A restored Mitsubishi Zero, dredged out of the sea, occupied a separate room. Rather than peace it seemed that desperation was the most descriptive word to describe the museum. What did the Japanese who filled the halls think? We couldn’t find out but wondered if the elderly wished they had won and if the younger generation cared at all.

As we departed we rang the bell in the faint hope for world peace. Our narrator told us that the stone lanterns we had admired on the drive were commemorations – one for each of the 1036 pilots from the nearby airfield who died.

Nearby was a lane with seven samurai homes and gardens – the view of Japan that enchants rather than provokes thoughts of the more recent past. The samurai, too, were warriors – upper class swords for hire who lived and fought for their feudal lords. But they had a timeless artistic vision expressing serenity. The tile-roofed houses, all about 250 years old, are set back from a lane and surrounded by clipped hedges and trees. Rock gardens invite contemplation. Some of the hedges are made of camellia bushes, pink flowers peeking through the foliage. Other visitors with their umbrellas strolled toward the last house where a small tea room awaited us. The hostesses in kimonos poured the bitter fragrant beverage into tiny porcelain cups. We rested on a stone bench outside the walls of shoji screens to look over the tiles and up the lane thinking of a Japan long ago and how bitter enemies can become friends.  

   

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