Hiroshima and Miyajima

My spring break trip to China is just a few days away. On the 26th, I’ll fly to Hong Kong and then visit Guilin, Xi’an, Beijing, and Shanghai, returning to Japan on April 6th. I imagine that I’ll come back with enough material to keep me writing for quite a while, so before that has me occupied, I want to talk about one of my previous excursions that deserves mention.

Back in the beginning of October, I spent a weekend in Hiroshima.

View Map

Hiroshima is of course the first city to have been struck with a nuclear bomb. This building was at the hypocenter of the explosion – the spot directly below the blast point.

Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome

At the nearby memorial museum, a set of pictures taken at the hypocenter not long after the bombing shows a panorama of nothing but miles of scorched rubble.

Hiroshima has recovered impressively from its devastation. The surroundings are beautiful and the city is both vibrant and laid-back. And though as a loyal resident of the Kansai region it pains me to admit it, Hiroshima style okonomiyaki wins over Osaka style.

I spent Saturday night and most of Sunday in Hiroshima, but before that I visited the nearby island of Miyajima.

Miyajima Ferry View

Miyajima (“shrine island”) is properly named Itsukushima, and it’s famous for Itsukushima Shrine’s Shinto gate.

Miyajima Torii

Both the gate and the shrine are at their best when the tide is in.

Miyajima Itsukushima Jinja

If the tide had been in, the shrine would seem like it’s floating on water. Oh well.

Itsukushima Shrine is about 1,400 years old, although its current form dates from 1168. As for the famous gate, it’s not just there to look cool; its position offshore indicates that the entire island is sacred. I’ve heard that to that end, no burials are allowed on the island, even though there are enough residents that it has an elementary school and a junior high.

Like Nara, Miyajima has sacred deer.

Miyajima Deer

They’re a bit less well-behaved than their cousins, though. Whereas the deer in Nara will only bug you if you have food, Miyajima’s love to eat paper, and you have to watch that any maps, tickets, bags, and the like aren’t devoured in an unguarded moment.

Miyajima’s fame resides with the shrine and its gate, without a doubt, but it also has a significant temple.

Miyajima Daishou-in Map

Daishō-in was founded in 806 by Kōbō-Daishi, an important figure in the history of Buddhism in Japan. I’ll write a post about him someday. The Dalai Lama visited the temple on its 1,200th anniversary.

Daishō-in doesn’t feature anything I’d rate as must-see, but a lot of little things made it worth the time.

Like this carving.

Miyajima Daishou-in Medashi-Daruma

Or this one, of a tanuki dressed as a monk.

Miyajima Daishou-in Tanuki

I love his expression.

And there’s always good old Jizō.

Miyajima Daishou-in Jizou

The buildings, meanwhile, were a mix of old and new, although I’m pretty sure that none of the originals remain. The newest construction was the highest main building, which had to be rebuilt after a nasty typhoon in 2004. This is the top floor, looking very new indeed.

Miyajima Daishou-in New

Finally, this is from the basement of another building.

Miyajima Daishou-in Lanterns


I remembered that Daishō-in actually does have a big draw. On the top of the mountain, a good hike from the main temple, is a building that houses a fire that has been kept burning since the temple’s foundation. Unfortunately, the path up the mountain had been washed out and was closed, so I wasn’t able to take a look.


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7 Responses to “Hiroshima and Miyajima”

  1. Doug Says:

    I’m glad you made time for this post. The proximity of Hiroshima and Miyajima have me thinking about the human capacity to surive cruelty and war and the potential for sacred things to persist. While the U.S. is of course a much younger country, it’s hard to picture many sacred places or things. We also lack our own mystical icons like tanukis to remind us of spiritual realms. Travel safely in China and have a great time. We’ll be eager to hear about your adventures.

  2. Nicole Says:

    what a fun post! the link to the recipe was cool; those pictures walking one through each step is quite impressive. I trust you didn’t get any tickets or other important scraps of paper munched on? what is the first carving (the round red little guy)? the basement picture gives a whole new meaning to overhead lighting!!

  3. kevinjames Says:

    Quickly, before I brush my teeth and head off for China . . .

    The red guy is Daruma, aka Boddhidarma, an Indian monk who founded Zen Buddhism (CH: Chan) in China. When I come back, I’ll see if I can zoom in enough to make out the sign next to the sculpture. All I know is that it calls it Medashi Daruma, or “Bulging-Eyes Daruma.” And I think it said that that’s a pun for “me” as in “sprout,” instead of “eyes,” but I don’t know what that means. The language was too tricky without a dictionary.

    Anyway, despite the Daruma carving, Daishō-in isn’t a Zen temple, it’s Shingon, which is an esoteric sect, like Tibetan Buddhism.

    Okay, gotta go.

  4. johan Says:

    Your are right KevinJames, Daisho-in is a Shingon temple. Actually one of head temples of the Shingon sect in Japan.
    The red Daruma is an Okiagari Koboshi: Daruma “tipping doll”
    It is one of the most popular talismans of good luck in modern Japan. It is armless, legless, and eyeless.
    Daruma (sanskrit: Bodhidharma), is as you mentioned is indeed considered to be the undisputed father of Zen Buddhism in both China and Japan.
    There are countless legends, some conflicting, about this sage who originated from India. The best-known legends say he attained enlightenment after meditating in a cave for seven years (some say nine years) without blinking or moving his eyes. In most legends, this occured while Bodhidharma was facing a cave wall at the Shorinji Temple on Mt Song in China. During those years of meditation, his arms and legs atrophied, shriveled up, and fell off. Legend also credits Bodhidharma with cutting off his eyelids. Apparently he dozed off during meditation, and in anger, he cut off his eyelids, which fell to the ground and sprouted into China’s first green tea plants. All this helps explain the shape and form of this “tipping doll”.
    Also, the Japanese associate Daruma not with piety, but with roundness.

    I was in Miyajima in July this year and really enjoyed it. I liked it so much I decided to spend my limited time there instead of a planned visit to Hiroshima. There are many wondeful temples to visit on Miyajima. I spent a lot of time at Daisho-In temple not only because of its beauty and all the wonderful things to see such as those photographed here above, but also because it is very much “alive” meaning there’s a lot of energy there (those who are sensitive or who practice meditation should feel it). Anyone planning to go to Miyajima would be missing a gem if they did not visit this temple, not least because of the large sand mandala which is displayed in the main Kannon hall if I recall correctly. Stunning!

  5. kevinjames Says:

    Actually, medashi Daruma, okiagari Daruma, and engi Daruma are three different types of doll or carving. See here and here.

    I agree, the sand mandala was very cool. The Kannon Hall had a no-photos policy, but fortunately, the temple’s website has pictures. (From the menu on the left, click on 砂マンダラ, two boxes above the reddish one.)

  6. Siobhan Says:

    Hello, I’m studying radiation in my environmental science class and the bell tower in Hiroshima was mentioned, so thought I’d do some research. Was just wondering if there was anything else alarming about it? If not, well I personally thought that Hiroshima would still be radioactive, would that not be true? Many thanks :)

  7. kevinjames Says:

    The residual radiation from the bomb has subsided to the point that Hiroshima has the same level of background radiation as anywhere else on Earth (any “ordinary” place, that is).

    Some links:
    Wikipedia – Hiroshima Peace Memorial
    Wikipedia – Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
    Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

    Good luck with your studies.

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