A Speck of Japan.
Written and photographed by Sara Ahmed Abdel Aziz
Somewhere a little off Hiroshima Bay in the southern part of Japan's Honshu island, lies the island of Miyajima, one of several in the Seto Inland Sea. The blue waters contrast with the jade vegetation of the island, as you make your the way to Miyajima via the breezy ride on a ferry boat carrying the quiet elderly living in the suburbs and tender-aged high schoolers. The ride is short and sweet, only 10 minutes, leaving no time to lose oneself in a myriad of thoughts.
Arriving there, one cannot miss that the island is basking in a soothing sunlight, goldenrod and soft in April. There are barely any tourists around and only one or two taxis exist on the whole island. Snatching tiny leaves with their mouths, taupe deer trod nonchalantly among humans, accustomed to the mandatory pat followed by a touristic picture.
Miyajima is quaint and small. The privately owned shops are mostly for souvenirs: Women stand at the entrances, selling wooden spoons for serving rice on which good wishes are carved for families as well as silky handkerchiefs of rose, blue and peach hues.
Yukiko-san, an energetic 60-year old grandmother with short black hair and a high-spirited gait is our guide. She lets me take her to the side to answer all my questions. I point to the imperially orange Torii gate rising from the water and marvel at the simplistic yet traditional architecture of the houses.
"Ano-sa (You know),'' Yukiko-san says, gazing at me before landing her bister-brown orbs at the shore, "We believe that this island is a God. In Shintoism, everything has a spirit, this island too. The torii gate is an entrance for the spirits. This land is sacred."
As she explains, she traces her hands over an invisible surface in front of her, almost as if running her small palm on a map. Her smile includes me and I pause at the thought, pictures from Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke spirit animation flashing through my mind.
We make our way inside the Itsukushima Shrine, handing our 300 yen admission fee in silver coins to female priests adorned in white blouses and pink slacks. Near the entrance, stalls sell knickknacks such as good-luck amulets and paper cranes. More priests pass by us, all wearing the same white blouses but different-colored slacks, green and magenta, to represent the hierarchy at the shrine. None of them look at the others, not at the tourists, nor at the Japanese either. Their jet-black hair tied at the back, the priests keep their gaze steady on where they need to go; walking past the white flags of gods tied to columns, they physically emanate the mental state they're in. They look much like the pieces of petrified wood standing strong around the ridges of the shrine.
In the temple, I hear the sound of hands clapping before and after prayers. I can also hear the shaking of the fortune box, the din of metal encountering wood as more coins are tossed in the boxes, and even the all-too-often forgotten sound of water flowing beneath the shrine. The carvings of the temple pillars is so refined that the mahogany wood feels like satin covered by a fine layer of chalk.
Touching things was common in Miyajima, in contrast to other places I had visited in Japan. The locals twirled sprigs of maple leaves, the emblem of the island, and ran their fingers through the streams underneath the forest bridges. They hiked up Mount Misen, side by side, and shared their cheese, black sesame or green tea flavored ice-cream as they walked through the small town.
When we were done wandering, Yukiko-san took us to a tea salon where we were handed steaming porcelain cups of matcha green tea and miniature maple-leaf shaped Momiji manj pastries filled with sweet azuki (red bean) paste straight out of the oven. Although smelling very strong of earthiness, they're chewy and beautifully lack the overbearing sweetness found in Western desserts. Yukiko-san took me by the arm and sat me right next to a giggly group of elderly Japanese women to unwind in front of a zen-style garden where koiei fish twirled round and round in a bean-shaped pond.
Outside the tea salon, groups of teenage girls walked around, their black uniforms flowing at the knee. They bought delicious fried cuttle-fish on a stick, the smell of seafood interchanging delicately with the bamboo incense wafting from the shrines.
On our way back to the ferry boat, amidst the hundreds of girls and boys flocking the same way in the gleeful aftermath of a school trip, I see a pair of statues of dragons with fangs bared, flanking the entrance of the Itsukushima Shrine. They look elegant, terrifying and solid. I point them out to Yukiko-san, whose eyes light up at the question.
"Ah! Komainu! This dragon's mouth is open, in Sanskrit it is pronounced 'a'," she points at the first before focusing on the second, "but this one, with the closed mouth is pronounced 'um'. Together they represent the beginning of the world and the end, like, ato (umm).''
"A cycle? Yin and yang?'' I inquire.
"Hai (yes)! That is right, that is right. Completion."
"Togetherness," she nods.
We glance one last time at the shore. The tide has retreated leaving a residue of mud, glinting spatters of water and seaweed that locals in reed hats bend to collect to take home for dinner. Many of them do nothing but stand in front of the torii gate, gazing up at a spiritual sturdiness in prayer that, one day, they'll be one with. et
Upcoming Events in Miyajima
* Oct. 15: Kikkasai ceremony and Bugaku performance, Itsukushima Shrine (Tel: 0829-44-2020)
* Oct. 17: Tea Dedication Ceremony, Daishoin Temple (Tel: 0829-44-0111)
* Oct. 23: Sanno Shrine Festival, Itsukushima Shrine
* Nov. 3: Fudo Myo-o Festival (Walking over Fire ceremony), Daiganji Temple (Tel: 0829-44-0179)
* Nov. 5: Walking over Fire ceremony, Daishoin Temple
* Nov. 16-25: Maple Festival, Daishoin Temple
* Nov. 18: Tea Dedication Ceremony, Itsukushima Shrine
Time Zone: GMT +9, six hours ahead of Cairo.
Currency: $1 = 109 yen, LE 1 = 15.25 yen.
Narita International Airport (NRT), also known as Tokyo Narita Airport, is the main port of entry for international arrivals. EgyptAir currently does not fly direct to Japan.
From Tokyo, Hiroshima is a four-hour trip on the Sanyo Shinkansen (bullet train) line; tickets can be booked online at the West Japan Railway Company website at www.westjr.co.jp.
Ferries leave from Miyajimaguchi pier, an hour away from Hiroshima. For timetables and fares, visit JR West Miyajima Ferry (www.jr-miyajimaferry.co.jp) or Miyajima Matsudai Kisen Tourist Ship (miyajima-matsudai.co.jp).
Miyajima island houses the Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, the Otorii Gate, and several other shrines and temples important to the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Other tourism sites include the Treasure Hall, Traditional Crafts Center and the Historial and Folklore Materials House.
Miyajima Tourist Association: www.miyajima.or.jp. This website includes opening times and admission prices for the cultural and tourist sites.
Miyajima Public Aquarium: www.miyajima-aqua.jp
Miyajima Ropeway (a cable car up Mt Misen): miyajima-ropeway.info
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