Japan’s floating shrine in Itsukushima is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. With so many spectacular shrines in the country, what is it that makes Itsukushima Shrine so special?
For starters, the view of the torii gates on the outskirts of the shrine, the ocean, sacred peaks of Mount Misen and extensive forests. At high tide, the water comes in and covers the base of the torii gate, making it appear as if it’s floating in the water. No other shrine is built this way, thus giving it its nickname of Japan’s floating shrine.
As if you need more convincing on why you should visit Itsukushima Shrine. But just in case you do, here’s why you should book a trip to Itsukushima and see Japan’s floating shrine for yourself!
1. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Itsukushima Shrine is one of the “Three Views of Japan” along with Matsushima Island in Miyagi and Amanohashidate in Kyoto. The trinity composed of the man-made architecture, the sea in the foreground, and the mountains in the background, have not only become recognized as a Japanese standard of beauty, but also as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
2. Walk up to the shrine’s torii gate
A unique aspect of Itsukushima is that it is built on marshland. This means that during high tide, the sea water surrounds it and the shrine “floats” over it. At low tide, the sea goes out and you can have the unique experience of walking up to the base of the torii gate without getting wet. Sunrise and sunset are the most beautiful times to see the torii gate, but make sure to check the timing of the tides if you have a preference of how you want the view to be like.
3. Stroll alongside free-roaming deers
Nara isn’t the only place in Japan where you can pet and walk alongside deers! You will see deers everywhere in Itsukushima. In the daytime when the tourists are out and about, the deers all like to gather near the shrine. And if the tides are low, you might be able to take a photo with them near the torii gate too! However, unlike in Nara, you should avoid feeding them.
4. Enter the shrine by boat
In olden times, the tradition was to pass under the torii gate by boat and then enter Itsukushima Shrine. Today, you can still experience passing through the torii gate on a boat between March to November when the seas are calm. As you pass under the torii gate, the custom is to bow twice, clap twice, and then bow once more.
5. Marvel at the architectural wonders of the shrine
The history of Itsukushima Shrine dates back to the 6th century, but the present shrine is popularly attributed to Taira no Kiyomori, a military leader who contributed heavily to the building of the shrine in 1168.
As far as architecture goes, Itsukushima Shrine is built of wood and painted in the traditional Vermillion red seen across Japanese shrines. The harmoniously arranged structures combine manmade achievements and natural elements, revealing great artistic and technical skill. Even though the buildings of Itsukushima were reconstructed twice, it was done in a scrupulously accurate manner to preserve the styles from the late 12th century.
6. Pray to the deities
The main shrine of Itsukushima houses three goddesses – Ichikishima-hime-no-mikoto, Tagori-hime-no-mikoto and Tagitsu-hime-no-mikoto. They are the goddesses of the sea and grant safe passage on sea travels. Even if you’re not travelling by boat, there’s no harm giving a prayer of thanks!
7. Catch a Noh play
Noh is the oldest form of Japanese theatre that is still in practice today. Based on Japanese legends and histories, Noh plays involve masked actors, a chorus, along with flute and drums accompaniment. At 440 years old, the Noh stage at Itsukushima Shrine is one of the oldest in Japan and the only one sitting over water. Locals celebrate the Toka-sai Festival between April 16 to 18 every year, and Noh performances are staged consecutively.
8. See a Bugaku dance
Bugaku dance is a famous dance ritual at Itsukushima, handed down through the generations. Today, more than twenty pieces are played on rotation at festivals each month. As the performers move elegantly in front of you with the torii gate and the sea in the background, you may even feel like you are going back to the Heian period!