Itsukushima Shrine and Its "Floating" Torii

A torii is a traditional Japanese gate that marks the entrance to a sacred space. In Japan, it is common for roads leading to a Shinto shrine to be marked with one or more torii gates. This is one of the easiest ways to distinguish a Shinto shrine from a Buddhist temple.

torii1If the entrance of a Shinto shrine has several torii gates, the outer ones are known as ichi no torii (first torii), followed by ni no torii (second torii) and san no torii (third torii) as it gets closer in proximity to the shrine.  Other torii gates found further in the shrine represent increasing levels of holiness as you approach the inner sanctuary, the center of the shrine.

Floating torii of Itsukushima Shrine.

Japanese Shinto beliefs include several gods or spirits known as “kami.” Many Japanese myths are based on ancient texts l the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki. Japanese deities are mainly from Shinto (indigenous spirituality of Japan) and Buddhism beliefs that were integrated into Japanese folk tales. Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun in popular Shinto belief, and the Emperor of Japan is considered her direct descendant. Because of this, a torii stands in front of the tombs of deceased members of the Japanese Imperial family.

Torii2One of Japan’s more prominent torii is the one on the entrance of Itsukushima Shrine. Standing solitary and majestic during high tide, it is known as the floating torii. The floating torii and Itsukushima Shrine are located in the island of Itsukushima, more popularly known as Miyajima, in the city of  Hatsukaichi in Hiroshima Prefecture.

Itsukushima Shrine’s torii during low tide. | Dariusz Jemielniak

Itsukushima Shrine is dedicated to the three daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto, the Shinto God of seas and storms, and Amaterasu, the sun goddess who is also the deity of the Imperial household. The island of Itsukushima was considered sacred: to preserve its purity, commoners were not allowed to set foot in it. A pier was built over the water to allow pilgrims to visit. During high tide, the pier also seemed lto be floating on water, giving Itsukushima Shrine an ethereal beauty.

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The first shrine building is said to have been erected as early as the 6th centurym and the present shrine dates back to the mid-16th century. There is a noh stage close to the main shrine from 1590. Noh theater performances were a means to pay homage to the gods through ritual acting based on notable events from Shinto myths. The shrine complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Japanese government has designated several buildings and possessions as National Treasures.

  The shrine’s Noh theater. | Nemo’s great uncle